With the San Diego Music Awards abuzz this week with inevitable arguments (or at least whining on Facebook) over winners and losers, I caught up with a group who has been there and done that. The Icons were a revered, local hip-hop group consisting of MCs Etch-A-Sketch and Frosty along with DJ Demon. In 2001, the group's album Capture the Flag won an SDMA for Best Hip-Hop Album. According to the group, they were also the first hip-hop act to ever perform at the awards show and they killed. I spoke with Etch-A-Sketch and DJ Demon about the group's formation at a legendary open-mic night and how they helped bridge the gap between hip-hop and rock audiences.
Quan Vu: When did the Icons form?
DJ Demon: I came to the group later. These guys started -- what year was it?
Etch-A-Sketch: I think it was '94, '95.
Demon: '94, '95. The original members was Etch-A-Sketch, Frosty.
Sketch: We came from a group called the Glass House. I came up with the name Icons and he was like, "Let's run with it."
Demon: Glass House was a group of MCs. Sketch and Frosty were the cats that stood out from that so they formed a group called the Icons.
Sketch: Around that time, there was the Improv. The Improv is where Orko [Eloheim] and [Tony Da] Skitzo and Black Mikey -- you know, famous MCs was there.
Demon: The Improv was an open mic, almost like an auditorium setting where they had a stage and the seats were like an auditorium. So it was really on some improv s---, like a talent show almost. It wasn't a performance. It was like you were really showcasing to...
Sketch: It was really the whole city's own showcase. Orko would just let random groups that are already in it...there's a lot of cats that went to that. Everybody showed up religiously. It was like a club.
QV: Where was it?
Demon: It was in the hood off of Imperial.
Sketch: It's like your testing ground. If everybody there didn't like you, you'd get shut down.
QV: So it was all MCs and producers?
Sketch: It was all the super MCs that you hear now.
Demon: All rappers that are doing s--- now, that was the beginning of it all. It was just a bunch of MC homies hanging out, just showing skills onstage.
Sketch: It was ran by Masters of the Universe. Orko was the host. Swollen Members was the DJ. Even H and Psycho were spinning at that time. It was everybody. It was our little battleground.
QV: Is that how you met everyone in the Icons?
Sketch: No, we were like one of the groups trying to battle for attention or airplay. We'd take our little group up there to get involved with everyone else.
Demon: It's like a hub, an artistic hub for cats to show and prove onstage in front of an audience.
QV: Tell me more about the Icons.
Demon: Sure. So Sketch and Frosty formed the Icons. Psycho was the original DJ. Psycho brought on H.O.P. after that. Then after that, they brought me on.
QV: So you guys had already formed prior to the Improv, right?
Sketch: Actually, how we formed -- that's why I mentioned the Improv -- it was an accident. I was in a crew with Frosty. Orko was hosting that night. Orko was like, "I got a bunch of MCs. Sketch and your crew and this crew. Put your names in a hat. We're just gonna have you guys flow at the end of the session." He always did that. So Frost was like, "What do we do?" He pulled names out of the hat. He called us. Orko was like, "These are San Diego's icons!" That was it! I told I'm gonna make a group called Icons, laughing at Orko. I was gonna get Skitzo and a couple MCs with me. But he happened to say that at that moment. I was just like, whoa. It stuck.
So it's kinda like Orko's fault in a way. And we had beef with Orko. Or some of us did.
Demon: It wasn't really like...San Diego beef is not real beef. It's almost like an ego thing. Motherf---ers just don't wanna come together. Even me. I was an a--hole s--- back in the day. It was just competitive tension. I'm kinda sorry a lot of groups didn't do more collaborations and get together more. There's a lot of tension in San Diego. Motherf---ers are like, "They keep over there. We're over here." Everybody does their separate s---. The Improv was a hub for everybody to come together.
Sketch: And there was tension all the time. You have to have some kind of battleground to claim your marks to say you did anything. So it was all kinds of disasters happening.
Demon: It was rough and raw.
Sketch: But people learned after that. I see Frankie [Odessa Kane] and the Masters [of the Universe] now and they're like my best friends from back then. But back then, we were like, "We're tighter than them. Gimme the mic!"
QV: Back to the Icons. What was your first album?
Sketch: We got five albums.
Demon:What Legends Are Made Of was the first album. That's just a CD cover with our logo on it. Our logo I think is a big part of what caught people's attention because a lot of cats that I knew that became Icon fans after, they're like, "Yo, I saw the CD in the store and I saw the four elements of hip-hop logo. I just copped it on the strength of that." They liked it a lot and that's how we got a lot of fans.
So What Legends Are Made Of was the first one. We revamped Legends. We basically added a few songs and took a few songs off. Then after that was Capture The Flag. That was the album that we won a San Diego Music Award for [in 2001]. We were actually the first hip-hop group to perform at the San Diego Music Awards and win an award for an album.
QV: Was that the first year the SDMAs had a hip-hop category?
Demon: No, it was R&B. It was like they mixed it together. They kinda threw everything in one pot. But after that, I think they started doing just solely hip-hop s---. But I remember that performance was crazy because we brought out -- what are those dudes? The Squids? The breakdancing dudes? The Squids of Fury! They came out and killed the s---. We also had a graffiti artist out there. We had the DJ, the MC, the breakers, the graffiti. All in one shot in five minutes. We put on this crazy show. Before all that, it was all rock. People's jaws were on the ground. They couldn't believe this kid just came out, posted up canvas and started spray painting. Motherf---ers spinning on their heads. It was a full taste of hip-hop for rock motherf---ers at SDMAs who had never seen that s--- before. It was just a lot going on. We wanted to make a huge impact because we wanted them to start taking [hip-hop] seriously, involving it more. So we went out and killed it. I think we did a great job.
A big thing that helped us out in establishing our name in San Diego was we didn't care what venue we rocked. I'd say 75% of our shows when we first initially started doing a lot of shows were rock shows.
Sketch: Remember the Casbah? The owner got mad because one of our fans tagged the [restroom] stall. And we ended up going to dinner with this dude and getting a show set up. But we went there the first time and it was kind of a disaster. They put us in the Reader as a group that tears stuff up.
Demon: Which was good for us. Any bad or good press was good for us.
QV: That sounds tight to me. I wanna go to that show. If you're tearing stuff up, I'm trying to go to that show.
Sketch: But I mean it was tight where we went in there and cats that aren't really into this style of hip-hop, we rocked it.
QV: So you think you guys were one of the first groups pushing hip-hop onto the scene?
Demon: I think so. I don't wanna big us up too much. But I think we did like punk-metal bands -- like crazy s--- that you would never think to see on the same stage. What about the one we did in North Park where one side was rock and the other side was hip-hop?
Sketch: We were battling!
Demon: Yeah, like they do three songs, we do three songs, they do three songs, we do three songs.
Sketch: We got hella respect for that.
Demon: That definitely helped establish our name to a broader audience in San Diego. It wasn't just backpack motherf---ers. Everybody started listening to us.
QV: Were you also playing a lot of rock venues because there weren't that many hip-hop venues? Were there that many hip-hop venues?
Demon: Few and far between. And we can only rock those so much. During our peak, we wanted to just do as many shows as possible. I think if we didn't do that rock stuff, we obviously wouldn't have played nearly as much. Or maybe doing rock shows put us in a position to be in the SDMAs.
Sketch: We touched a lot of new ground that the people that we come from aren't hardcore members. They're in shock because of that. Around that time, that was all you could go to. Nobody was trying to cross the venues. Purists turn up their noses.
Demon: Hip-hop motherf---ers think you can just drink 40's in the parking lot, starting fights. A lot of venues don't wanna f--- with hip-hop because of the ignorance that comes with some motherf---ers that come. But the rock shows was not that.
Sketch: I thought it was a cool-ass trip.
Quan Vu Quan Vu is the founder and editor of local music blog SD Raps.com. He has also written about local and national hip-hop acts for San Diego CityBeat and the San Diego Reader. You can nerd out on rap trivia by becoming BFF's on Facebook or e-mailing him directly.