By Samya Brohmi
In the early 2000s, Bay Area hip hop and the inseparable hyphy movement began to garner national attention when radio hits like E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go” and Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle” made it on Billboard’s charts.
Yet there was a clear absence of San Francisco representation, with the city’s MCs preferring to “knock underground.”
One of the city’s greatest rap lyricists, Ilyich Yasushi Sato — better known as Equipto — has been a mainstay in the scene since the late ‘90s. In 1999, he dropped his first solo album, “Vintage Volume Won,” which became one of the most coveted collector’s items for underground hip hop fans from the Bay Area to Japan. Today, he balances running Solidarity Records, creating his own music, and serving his community through political action.
The ‘90s was a formative time for hip hop nationwide. One of the premier groups to come out of San Francisco was Bored Stiff in 1992. The group’s roots lie between the Fillmore and Lower Haight neighborhoods and consisted of 12 members, including Equipto. Bored Stiff came from different parts of the city and became friends over their shared love for hip-hop music.
“There’s a lot more to it, but it would take forever to explain how the connections happened,” Equipto explained. “I think what sets us apart from other Bay Area MCs or whatnot is that we’re from San Francisco. One of the main metropolitan cities and tourist attractions in the U.S. I think it gives us Frisco artists that are still around surviving, a bit of a chip on our shoulder, and that can go many places creatively.”
Equipto’s artistry is a balancing act between pen wielder and advocate for the people. He doesn’t shy away from calling out local politicians or addressing evident social problems in his music.
“I would say it probably gives a homegrown feel to the music I create. Being in touch with what’s happening in your own community is integral. Not just being informed, being active,” he said.
However, Equipto admitted that artists should be mindful of how they approach tackling social problems in the studio and on the frontlines. “I do think we need more political education offered to the people before we speak or sing on some of these issues. Passion is good, but I believe being educated on the issues we are fighting will make the art that much more significant.”
In addition to honing his craft, Equipto runs Solidarity Records, a San Francisco-based independent label focused on releasing underground hip hop cuts. Under his direction, Solidarity does things a little differently than other labels.
“I’ve always considered Solidarity Records more like a platform for younger and older artists to feel free to do what they wanted. Bridging the generations but in tradition of what the culture embodies,” Equipto said. “No artist is signed to Solidarity. We release projects that we feel fit the criteria of what Solidarity reflects. It could be old or new. It’s important for artists to feel the freedom to create, and being able to assist with that is beautiful.”
Equipto’s 1999 album “Vintage Volume Won” has built a strong reputation as a collector’s item in underground hip hop listening circles. Finding the prized 12” vinyl LP is near impossible, sold out on online records stores as far as in Japan and Germany.
When asked about the demand for his first solo project, he was genuinely surprised. “Collector’s item?” he asked. “Wow. That’s humbling.”
However, the event that led to the fruition of the project holds an emotional heaviness. Equipto’s good friend from Bored Stiff was murdered in 1996, inspiring him to finish the solo project.
“I remember talking with Jo Jo and he told me I should do some solo music and release it. Then he got killed,” Equipto said. “It changed all our lives. I think I hid and just pushed through creatively during that time. The result was ‘Vintage Volume Won.’”