My Life in the Sunshine: Sampling the Soundscape of Black Los Angeles

My Life in the Sunshine: Sampling the Soundscape of Black Los Angeles. Artistic portraits of Egyptian Lover, Bette Cox, William Grant Still, Jewel Thais Williams, Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague, and Gwendolyn Lightner with a sunshine yellow background.

“My Life in the Sunshine: Sampling the Soundscape of Black Los Angeles" celebrates the innovation and diversity of L.A.'s Black musical communities. This UCLA Music Library exhibition highlights Black L.A.'s musical landscape in all its limitless forms, from Gospel to G-Funk, music educators to DJs, roller rinks to night clubs—all bringing into tune the various contributions of Black Angelenos. This exhibit focuses on some of the varied ways Black musicians have influenced music and the music industry through a diversity of topics, figures, genres and time periods. 

The exhibition was researched and curated by UCLA graduate students Blair Black and Sabrina Langois and organized by Callie Holmes and Matthew Vest. It was produced with support from a UCLA Chancellor's Arts Initiative grant written by Callie Holmes, Yuri Shimoda and Matthew Vest, with additional support from the UCLA Library. The physical exhibition spaces in Schoenberg Hall are managed by the UCLA Music Library and the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. Art design by Matthew Vest.

The exhibition title and visual style draws from Roy Ayers Ubiquity's hit, "Everybody Loves the Sunshine." 

Album cover for Roy Ayers Ubiquity's "Everybody Loves the Sunshine." 

Portrait of Gwendolyn Lightner

Portrait of Gwendolyn Lightner.

Gospel

The history of Los Angeles gospel begins with Bridget "Biddy" Mason, a philanthropist and businesswoman who was born enslaved. Brought to San Bernardino by her slave owner in 1851, she successfully sued for her freedom in 1856. Utilizing the skills she developed as an enslaved laborer in the South, Mason created job opportunities and served Black Angelenos (Hayden 1989), implanting herself in the civic landscape as a philanthropist. She co-founded the First African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church alongside her son-in-law Charles Owens and other Black Angelenos in 1872. Other denominations of Black Christian churches followed, with the establishment of many Black churches throughout the turn of the century.

During the 1920s and 30s, gospel evolved across the country. Although only a few established gospel artists traveled to Los Angeles, musicians in Los Angeles participated in the annual National Baptist Conventions, where they learned new songs and trends in gospel musicianship. Important Black gospel musicians like Thomas Dorsey and Dorsey Gospel Singers, Sallie Martin and Harvey Marshall introduced their regional styles of singing to pulpits across Los Angeles, when visiting ministers, evangelists, preachers and pastors from the Midwest and South traveling with their talent would conduct revivals in and around Los Angeles.

Once firmly established within Los Angeles's soundscape, other well-known gospel performers such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Samuel Houston College Singers and the Prairie View Singers began traveling to the city for performances. After the Great Depression, Black religious leaders in Los Angeles, including Arthur Atlas Peters, Gwendolyn Lightner and Thurston Frazier, took advantage of the city’s widely accessible forms of media to market gospel music by television and radio.

By the 1960s, many home-grown gospel groups had emerged. Notable examples include the Luvenia Nash Singers; the eclectic Reverend Lonnie Farris, who merged gospel with an electric slide guitar; and The Disciples, founded by L.A. native Andraé Crouch. Well-known gospel artists around the country relocated to Los Angeles to join them. One such man was Rev. James Cleveland, who bridged the gap between traditional and contemporary gospel by developing “the big choir sound” for his own Southern California Community Choir, which fused gospel with soul, jazz and pop in compositions, inspiring other mass choirs to do the same.

In 1968, Cleveland established the annual Gospel Music Workshop of America to teach contemporary forms and preserve the legacy of gospel music. Four years later, he brought Motown’s Aretha Franklin to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts to perform the Grammy Award-winning live album, “Amazing Grace.”

Los Angeles continued to attract Christian recording artists who envisioned the city as a melting pot of talent and opportunity, and by the 1980s gospel’s influence crossed over into secular popular music. Andraé Crouch arranged and performed music for pop artists such as Michael Jackson and Madonna, and R&B artists who had grown up singing in church, like Whitney Houston, also found inspiration in gospel. 

During the 1990s, L.A.'s contemporary gospel music spread into film, with Andraé Crouch arranging scores for critically acclaimed films such as “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King”. Toward the end of the decade, gospel’s influence could be heard in hip-hop. Gospel artist Kirk Franklin signed to L.A.’s Gospo Centric label and topped the charts with “Stomp,” a hip-hop gospel hybrid, while Los Angeles hip-hop artist Ahmad had a mainstream hit single “Back in the Day." At the turn of the new millennium, Inglewood gospel duo Mary Mary released their best-selling debut album, “Thankful.”

Portrait of William Grant Still

Portrait of William Grant Still.

William Grant Still

William Grant Still, the so-called “Dean” of African American composers, broke many barriers for Black musicians. Still was born and raised in the South, but moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where found himself “perfectly well satisfied” (DjeDje 2011). Before relocating, Still thought, as many musicians of the time did, that he ought to settle on the East Coast. But after arriving, California “did something” to him, he found Los Angeles to be an “atmosphere conducive in creative effort” (DjeDje 2011).

is career took off in L.A. and he began working on his first opera when he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934. Still eventually composed ten operas, including “Troubled Island,” which tells the story of Haiti’s rebellion. The first opera by an African-American composer to be produced in a major opera house, “Troubled Island” was one of many firsts for this prolific composer. In 1936, he became the first African American to conduct and have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic,.  

While focusing on his own creative work, Still remained active in his community. He often fulfilled commissions and frequented local schools including the influential Jefferson High School (see Venues section). One of his legacies is The William Grant Still Arts Center (https://wgsac.wordpress.com/), located in the West Adams neighborhood he lived in for so many years. Founded in 1977, the center still strives to create an environment to foster artistic talent.

Portrait of Bette Cox

Portrait of Bette Cox.

Educators

The overwhelming popularity of Jazz in the 1940s, along with the resulting racial mixing, disturbed conservative white government officials. Los Angeles Mayor Bowron and music bureaucrats pushed public music programs to stimulate interest in the “proper” musical arts. Consequently, high schools, including Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and Jordan High School in Watts, provided music education and workshops at little or no cost.

At Central Avenue’s Jefferson High School, visionary music teacher Samuel Browne taught classes in reading, arranging, composing, theory, harmony, counterpoint, classical, and opera, encouraging his African American and Mexican American students to find private teachers for intensive study. Browne conducted the school orchestra, organized student jam sessions, scheduled concerts for his school swing band at predominantly white schools like Fairfax, and conducted field trips to the Hollywood rehearsals of jazz stars. He frequently had the prominent African American musicians William Grant Still, Nat King Cole, and Lionel Hampton perform and offer masterclasses. Browne created what  at the time was the best music program in the city, and one of the best in the nation.

Sam Browne’s embrace of the “ole devil music” would have a lasting impact on Central Avenue. Between 1936 and 1961, Browne mentored numerous musicians, who would help define a sound that not only filled clubs on Central but all across the world. Among the many talented jazz artists that sat in Browne’s classroom were Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, Chico Hamilton, Sonny Criss, Ginger Smock and Horace Tapscott. Many of these former students remember Jefferson fondly and credit Browne for their success. The “Jeff Sound” that these students created on campus under Browne’s mentorship influenced the development of “Cool Jazz” (184).

Black Angelenos’ interest in art music led to the establishment of several music studios with interracial staff that provided conservatory-type musical training for young African Americans and other ethnic groups (Cox 1993, 46). Among the most noted was the William T. Wilkins Piano Academy (established in 1912), the John Gray Conservatory of Music (1931), and the Hightower School for the Performing Arts (1935). In support of these efforts, composer William Grant Still donated fifty scores and books on music to the Gray Conservatory. Private instructor Lloyd Reese ran a one-man conservatory out of his home, teaching musical mechanics, harmonics, and philosophy. Reese also organized a weeknight swing band rehearsal at a South Central recreation center playground, where young Black and brown Angelenos from throughout the city would come to practice, and a Sunday rehearsal at the black musicians' local, where his students and other musicians would work out their experimental ideas.

Portrait of Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague

Portrait of Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague.

Radio

In the mid-20th century, Black music was primarily presented in national syndication by white disc jockeys (DJs) through the performance of what Mel Watkins (1999) terms “racial ventriloquy, "a “mimicry of black speech patterns by white radio entertainers.” Although Black DJs and shows existed during this time, they were few and (ironically) burdened with whitewashing their voices and speech. 

Notable early African American L.A. radio hosts include civil rights activist and newspaper founder Charlotta Bass with The California Eagle Hour on KGFJ; poet, musician, and playwright Alice C. Bilbrew of The Golden Hour on KGFJ, which introduced Negro Spirituals to Los Angeles; and Joe Adams, the first Black DJ at KOWL in Santa Monica, who had the top-rated radio show in Los Angeles at the time.

The Civil Rights era saw more Black DJs hired who were no longer required to whitewash themselves to appeal to white audiences. Radio stations also began to actively target African American communities, with radio stations like KGFJ-AM and KTYM-FM including gospel, R&B, soul, doo wop and the blues in their programming. 

Local Black-owned record stores and record distribution businesses embedded themselves in radio programming to push local and national Black talent, like former prominent bandleader and the owner of the first Black Los Angeles record distributor Floyd Ray, who hosted a show on KRCD. 

In 1965, John Lamar Hill II founded the first Black-owned radio station in Los Angeles, after he purchased and moved the station to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall in the Crenshaw neighborhood. Named after Hill's initials, KJLH's format consisted of jazz, soul and R&B. James “Jammin Jai Rich” Richardson, a prominent KJLH DJ, and others at the station frequently promoted young and emerging artists like the Blossoms, Lou Rawls, Les McCann, the Jazz Crusaders and Gerald Wilson’s Big Band.

Black ownership of radio stations continued with the purchase of KUTE-FM by Inner City Broadcasting Corporation in 1979, which introduced the racially-integrated disco format before shifting to urban contemporary. Black DJs found even more outlets at not-for-profit radio stations, including Pacifica Foundation’s KPFK, where the notable DJ Nawana Davis worked for many years.

In 1976 former Capitol Records executive Sidney Miller established one of the first Black music trade publications, Black Radio Exclusive magazine, to address inequalities and discrimination in the music industry, The magazine created networking and educational opportunities, further propelling the importance of Black radio and music into popular culture.

During the heyday of the disco scene emerged a vibrant mobile DJ network of teenage entrepreneurs known for throwing parties around the city. Hoping to cash in, L.A. radio stations hired these young DJs to reach new Black and Latino youth audiences. Radio stations KJLH and KACE promoted local L.A.. rappers through the shows of DJs Michael “Mixxin” Moor and Tony “T” Joseph. 

Seeking to revitalize the KDAY-FM format, in 1983 the radio station hired Houston-native Greg Mack as music director. Mack implemented the first hip-hop format on the air, with the help of aspiring rappers Yella Boy and Dr. Dre.

Black DJs in Los Angeles have a well-documented history of political activism, using their reach and influence to address issues of the local African American community. KGFJ’s Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague coined the phrases “Burn, baby! Burn!” and “Learn baby! Learn!” in reaction to the 1965 Watts Riots.

During the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising KJLH's general manager Karen Slade and DJ Eric “Rico” Reed temporarily altered programming, allowing audiences to call in and describe events around them. Around the same time Moor established his “Militant Mix” program on KCRW, mixing Black liberationist sound clips with songs from musicians like Miles Davis, the Last Poets, and Public Enemy.  Even today, Black radio personalities continue to address issues in L.A.’s Black community.,  for example Dominique DiPrima's “The Front Page” on Radio Free 102.3 KJLH.

Portrait of Jewel Thais Williams

Portrait of Jewel Thais Williams.

Venues

Central Avenue was the storied mecca of Black popular music during the Jazz Era from the 1920s to the 1950s. Various factors created this district, including the First and Second Great Migrations, as well as redlining and racial covenants that restricted Black Angelenos to neighborhoods north of Vernon and east of Vermont.  Central Avenue’s population was primarily Black Angelenos and comprised an area from the northern neighborhoods of Downtown to Carson. 

The blocks between 8th and 20th Streets in Downtown Los Angeles became known as “Brick Block,”   and included churches, Black-owned businesses and newspapers—including the California Eagle— clubs and record stores. Venues in the area like Club Alabam, The Brothers, Lincoln Center, and even the local Thomas Jefferson High School gave rise to some of jazz’s most influential names, including Dexter Gordon, Etta James and Chico Hamilton.

The landmark Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer ruling in 1948 made racially restrictive covenants illegal.This ruling allowed affluent African Americans to relocate from Central Avenue and the neighborhoods surrounding historic South Los Angeles to nearby areas like Compton, West Adams and Leimert Park. 

The movement also impacted L.A.’s Black music scene, with nightclubs, restaurants, lounges, Black-owned record stores, record labels and even skating rinks opening throughout the city. Skateland in Compton and World on Wheels in Mid-City became a popular entertainment destination where Black Angelenos would skate to the newest music selection that the local and national music industries had to offer. Talent throughout the Black music world —from Al Green to N.W.A. — would promote their music to skating enthusiasts.

Black-owned labels SOLAR and Motown records established themselves in Los Angeles through the help of Black-owned venues in and surrounding the Crenshaw district. Motown's artists regularly graced the stage of Maverick Flat's, owned by actor and singer John Daniels. Even L.A.'s Black queer community established a home through Jewel Thais William's Catch One, one of the first Black gay-owned discos. There, one could see the likes of Sylvester, Evelyn "Champagne" King, Donna Summers and others.

The Total Experience, another club owned by record producer and songwriter Lonnie Simmons, hosted concerts by funk, soul and disco artists. Simmons also established a record production label of the same name where he signed the GAP Band in 1978. 

Dick Griffey, music industry titan and founder of SOLAR records, helped curate the 1980s electronic soundscape of Black music in Los Angeles. Griffey signed the acts Midnight Star, The Deele, and Klymaxx to SOLAR. As a result of their success, Los Angeles-based labels Tabu Records and Total Experience Records similarly incorporated bass synthesizer lines, analogue and digital keyboard chords and steady drum machine beats into music production. This electronic instrumentation in the local music scene influenced later generations and iterations of Black musicians through electro-rap and G-Funk artists.

Portrait of Egyptian Lover

Portrait of Egyptian Lover.

Car Culture

In the early 1940s, Black Angelenos joined Southern California's  rising car club scene as a response to the increasing presence and need for cars across Southern California. In turn, Black and Latino car clubs of East and South Los Angeles played records by local rhythm & blues Black musicians. This steady rise of youth interest in Black popular music led to R&B and rock 'n' roll spreading to wider (and whiter) audiences. 

In the 1950s, the rise of white teenagers buying these types of records caused a national moral panic, with certain radio stations banning the sale and broadcasting of R&B music. 

Black and Latino youths took to informal gatherings and “cruising” along the streets of Los Angeles in response to the hyper-surveillance of mixed-ethnicity gatherings. Cruising, the act of driving aimlessly as a form of social and recreational activity, was the perfect time to listen to music. Chuck Higgins, Etta James, Richard Berry, Brenton Wood, and War – all Black musicians based on the West Coast– were some of the artists integral to the city's lowriding soundtrack. War even wrote songs specifically catered to the lowrider community, “syncretizing the rhythms and beats of jazz, swing, blues, rhythm & blues, mambo, and rock 'n' roll to create [a] seminal West Coast Sound” (Denise Sandoval).

Car culture continued to shape Southern California's regional sound in the 1980s with the introduction of the booming bass and closed-kick (short delay in sound) bass drum of hip hop.  Local DJs specifically mixed soundtracks with a booming bass quality for automobile sound systems, giving rise to the term "jeep beats" (Keyes 1996), further linking LA.’s car culture with the region's rap music. In an interview, hip hop producer Dr. Dre explained his mixing technique is informed by the fact that most of his Southern California audience listens to music through their car stereo systems, due to the region’s reliance on personal vehicles in lieu of accessible public transit.  

L.A. DJ and producer Egyptian Lover, created his 1984 electro-rap song "Egypt, Egypt" to see if car woofers could handle the boom of the Roland TR-808 bass. The centrality and ubiquity of the car lifestyle can be seen in a number of Los Angeles artists' album covers, liner notes, advertising, music videos and trade publications.

During the 1990s, Crenshaw Boulevard became the epicenter of car culture where lowrider parades would occur every Sunday evening and continued for almost two decades. The music remains integral to newer iterations of car subcultures today, including the takeover subculture. An offshoot of Oakland's sideshow subculture, takeovers are where drifting enthusiasts temporarily seize intersections throughout South and East L.A.

Gangsta Rap

“Rap serves as the communication that they don’t get for themselves to make them feel good about themselves. Rap is black America’s TV station. It gives a whole perspective of what exists and what black life is about. And black life doesn’t get the total spectrum of information through anything else. They don’t get it through print because kids won’t pick up no magazines or no books, really, unless it got pictures of rap stars. They don’t see themselves on TV.” 

Chuck D’s observation regarding media in a 1988 Spin interview foreshadows the genre’s role in Los Angeles during the 1990s. As injustice ravaged the California county, rap served as more than just  entertainment: it provided insight into the difficulties and injustices that the black community faced, as well as reflecting the racial tensions of the city. Police brutality and abuse were common themes explored in rap prior to and following the 1992 uprisings. Toddy Tee, one of the first MCs to introduce street and drug chronicles to hip-hop, spoke about these themes in his 1985 “Batterram.”

Later, mainstream rappers of the 1990’s directly addressed these issues on major albums and singles. Artists and groups like Ice-T, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg popularized these themes within the genre, which would later be coined as “Gangsta Rap.” These subjects persist in rap today, as the black community continues to face these issues.

“The conditions in the South Los Angeles ghettos of the post-Watts Riots era that gave rise to the gangsta genre continue to underpin much of modern hip-hop; without N.W.A., and most importantly Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, there would be no Tupac Shakur, no Snoop Dogg, no Notorious B.I.G., no Outkast, no Eminem, no Jay Z, no Lil Wayne, no Kanye West, no 2 Chainz, and no Kendrick Lamar. These connections are reflected in the critical reception of their work (Viator 118)."