Madd Joker is a veteran in the San Diego hip-hop scene going back to the early '90s. He makes a unique hybrid of hip-hop that features the traditional patois-inflected reggae singing with boom bap beats. His most recently released project, Collabs of Napalm Vol. 1, is available on his Bandcamp page. He will be performing Sunday at Hip Hop Independents Day with Anti-Citizens, Scatter Brain, Piff PCH, Parker & the Numberman and many others (join the Facebook event here). I spoke to Madd Joker at the Writerz Blok graffiti yard a couple months ago. He talked about his history, reggae and local music history as well.
Quan Vu: When did you start making music of your own?
Madd Joker: I'd say 1990. That was my first attempt at recording in a studio.
QV: So you had just gotten out of high school?
MJ: Yep, and I got accepted to six schools, scholarships for my grades and things. I didn't go to any of them. I just wanted to party, man. I wanted to get out from under my dad's rule. My dad ruled with an iron fist. And it was so strict. I figured I could get into music right now. I'm on my own. I can go to junior college, two years, work on some of this music. It was really an exciting thing. I didn't know you can become an MC. I was a big fan of the music all my life, but I never thought I could become an MC, never dreamed I could become an MC. I wanted to become an MC. It just happened. And when it happened, around 1990 when I just got out of school, I wanted to roll with it and see.
Music. Community. Culture.
I started recording with King Jahzzy. We founded Kulcha Records. First, before that, I was in a [reggae] sound system called Revelation Hi-Fi. Revelation International. That's where I got into reggae music as well as hip-hop. What happened with that was when you heard hip-hop back in the day ... everyone used to throw in a reggae thing here and there. Just-Ice, Heavy D, Grand Puba from Brand Nubian -- all them cats used to add reggae flavor. MC Lyte.
And we started listening to reggae. We started really heavily, deeply listening to reggae to the point where when hip-hop had its little "dry spell" when they were doing, "Riding!" and people had Z's in their fro, we bailed out. We let that dance s--- that Heavy D, all that fast-rapping s--- from the late '80s, early '90s -- we left all that s--- and listened to strictly reggae music.
Then I became a member of a sound system, Revelation International, which were about four dudes. We'd go around with our speakers and play dances. From that I met King Jahzzy, who is our soundman in that sound system. King Jahzzy bought a bunch of equipment with my college money and said, "Here, you be the MC, I'll be the producer." Because he wanted to produce music. And boom! He started producing me. From that moment on, I've been doing music since.
QV: Are there a lot of artists with a similar reggae/hip-hop style like you? All I could think of is Mad Lion.
MJ: Mad Lion, that's a trip. There really aren't many. Mad Lion came through here in 1992, '93. He was working with Makeda Dread a lot. So I met Mad Lion before. A lot of people even say that or an old Busta Rhymes. There's not a lot, not in this city. But as far as hip-hop is concerned, I really don't know, all these cybergenic MC's out there nowadays. But I don't think so because I don't think people have a full grasp and understanding of the fact that without reggae music, you can't have hip-hop.
QV: Did Revelation International throw a bunch of block parties like Kurtis Blow or something?
Joker: Exactly. And dances, and halls. And it'll be till 5 or 6 in the morning. And that was early '90s up until '94, '95, '96. And now I don't know what the f-- happened. There's reggae in bars everywhere. Everyone's in a band. And it's all slow. I don't know what happened, man. The Jamaican population that was here moved on. And now, these youth are growing up without the knowledge of hip-hop and reggae. The Banish, the Aims, the people of that generation, they heard of reggae music coming up. But they never rated it be a part of what they actually were doing. It's sad. I'm not saying that everyone needs to be a reggae DJ. I'm just saying if you don't know the foundation of what you're doing and you're just taking bits and parts and pieces, you're only gonna be a "bits and parts and pieces" MC. A "bits and parts and pieces" graffiti artist. You're not gonna be the full deal.
QV: When you were with Revelation Hi-Power, were you already calling yourself Madd Joker?
MJ: First, I was Poppa Jam. That was my first name. Then I was Joker Ranking. Because if you're a Jamaican MC and climb up a ladder. Ranking to them is like boxing when you rank high. It was an endearment title that you put before your name. Then Joker Ranking became Madd Joker from King Jahzzy, my producer. He named me. He said, "You can keep that. Madd Joker would be a sick name." I just stuck with it and took it from there.
QV: Where did the Joker part come from? Aren't there a lot of Latino MC's going by Joker? Hah, I actually thought you would be, like, half-Latino at least.
MJ: [laughs] No, when you really think about it, Madd Joker is unique. It's not like Loco Joker, Joker Loco. You're right about that. But Joker [from Batman] is one of my favorite characters of all time. Two: I'm a bit of a nut. People have known me to be animated and very passionate behind the s--- I do. And so it becomes something like, "Joker's a little bit crazy." Plus, me being funny. Our sense of humor in the little crews we came up with, I was the funny guy. I make jokes and s---.
QV: You're triple OG in the San Diego scene, so you must know plenty about local music history. Did you ever go to the Improv?
MJ: Hell, yeah! If you didn't go to the Improv, you got your head chopped off! If you didn't go to the Improv, you couldn't walk around on the streets. And then people would go to the Improv. If you had any beef with anybody, people would hash it out there.
Everything was the Improv. And before the Improv, there was KCR [Radio]. That's where everybody really met. KCR, San Diego State [University]. Taylor Tosh! He was a lot like what you do but had the school connection, had the DJ connections to where he'd open up the mic for all MC's in San Diego. Back then, we were like, "Word up! Somebody's opening up a mic! Let's go and wreck shop!" We met everyone there. We didn't really battle but we held on for position. That's where I met Tony Da Skitzo. That's where I met LPSD. That's where we met everybody. Believe it! If you didn't go there and perform or rock the mic in the open mic cipher, you were scared. We wrote you off. You ain't real about it. But that's where all the s--- went down.
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.