Hip hop culture has been a part of Omaha for almost 40 years, and while we may not be a nationally recognized hub like New York, Compton, Atlanta, Houston or Chicago, what we do have is a colorful collage of countless stories and passionate people who have helped it thrive in its own way.
You could say that our scene is our story. And it’s important to reflect on and share our story so it doesn’t fade away with time.
While the pages of Omaha’s story start to fill in the 1980s, hip hop started in the ’70s in the Bronx as an escape from gangs and was birthed from poverty.
Lifelong hip hop activist Michael Dunham Jr., who was born and raised in Omaha, remembers this period.
“You had poor people who had nothing, but what they did have in their house was their parents playing music.”
And that’s essentially how the DJ was born. By kids who created their own sounds by experimenting, scratching their parents’ records, and jamming in the park.
Hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash figured out how to use records on a turntable in different ways to produce new sounds.
Dunham, also known as DJ Rip, happens to be Flash’s tour manager.
“What Grandmaster Flash did was figure out how to make the turntable an instrument. So now the turntable becomes the instrument and the DJ becomes the band.”
He added, “In New York, there was a time when it was just DJs and no rap, but by the time we all got it, it was always rap.”
Dunham recalls how early rap music was just rapping over your mother’s records.
“That’s why the old people hated it; they felt like we were ruining their music.”
Omaha got its first taste of this a decade later, once songs like “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang hit the airwaves and films like Wild Style, Beat Street, Krush Groove, and Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2 debuted.
After that, as Dunham puts it, “Omaha, Nebraska, was no different than any other city with an urban population or ghetto in America.”
We were full-blown hip hop, with youth trying to imitate what they saw and the scene started flourishing. All the elements of hip hop hit the streets. There was breakdancing, beatboxing, rapping, DJing, graffiti.
“We would all wear parachute pants, hoodies,” said Dunham. “Adidas and Puma sweatsuits, Kangol hats, Gazelle glasses and parkers. That’s what we’d see in these films.”
Everything that was happening in New York was happening in Omaha. There were concerts, talent shows, b-boy battles, and rivals from each project putting out mixtapes.
Zachariah Hennings, stage name Surreal the MC, remembers experiencing hip hop for the first time in 1983. He was in the third grade.
“I was in the Old Market and the b-boys and b-girls used to put the cardboard out and breakdance,” Hennings said.
“I was walking with my dad, and this was when dads who played softball would wear these really tight bike shorts. This guy was freestyling, making fun of the shorts my dad was wearing, and I just fell in love with it right then. I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
Buzzing with hungry youth who wanted to be a part of this new wave, hip hop was alive and well in Omaha throughout the ’80s, but by the time the movie Colors came out in ’88, drugs and gang life heated up and hip hop culture started diminishing around the country because it wasn’t “cool” to dance anymore. When crack came into play, it was like time stopped. Even old-school emcees and b-boys got hooked.
And with the drugs and the gangs came the violence. “Stop the Violence” and “Crack Is Whack” campaigns started sprouting up because it was killing the community and the scene.
“I have vivid memories of gang shootouts at incredible events,” said Dunham.
“There were bars and lounges that would have to shut down. The same environment that birthed hip hop birthed the violence and drugs and problems. It was the same community. It’s the good and the bad that have to coexist, but hip hop was always the answer and way out.”
DJ Houston Alexander was side by side with Dunham in the thick of it all. At the time, he was a member of the graffiti group known as the Scribble Crew.
“I was with Scribble Crew when President (George H.W.) Bush came to North Omaha on 30th and Bedford and gave the Points of Light Award to the Mad Dads,” said Alexander.
The award was given for Mad Dads’ anti-violence work. The organization was founded in Omaha by African American men and fathers who were fed up with the gang violence and drugs. Alexander had the opportunity to speak at the event.
Although the hip hop scene saw a short dip, it persevered, and at the heart of it were the people and businesses that helped it flourish.
Too young at the time to get into the clubs, hip hop youth would frequent places like Signals, the Power Landing, The Warehouse, and the Boys & Girls Club. There were even big talent shows at high schools.
One of the big places to party and battle was the Civic Auditorium on the weekends in a space called the music hall.
“I remember going there and hearing about a rap group called The Young Rebels,” said Dunham. They were the biggest and best rap group in Omaha’s history. They were like the Run DMC of Omaha.”
KNOS and KBWH would play rap, and local TV show Video Diversity would air videos before MTV started playing them. Go-Ahead magazine used to do big rap shows and contests and people could win studio time, trophies, and money. The Omaha Star would cover the scene.
In the ’90s, the Omaha World-Herald and The Reader would cover what was happening, and Planet O on The River would have talent shows.
Then there are the small pockets of celebrity that Omaha has seen with rap.
While 311, which rose to prominence in the ’90s, isn’t a rap group, Doug “SA” Martinez’s rap verses allowed the band to enter rap-rock territory.
Rapper Big Bear’s Doin Thangs was released in ’98 and its album art was included on Complex’s list of the 25 Most Ridiculous Pen & Pixel Album Covers of All Time.
King ISO grew up in Omaha, was initially signed to Twisted Insane’s Brainsick Muzik, and now is a frequent collaborator with Tech N9ne.
In 2017, The Source magazine published a list honoring how Omaha-born Malcolm X influenced hip hop.
Recognition aside, what makes Omaha’s hip hop roots truly special are the people who helped cultivate a vibrant culture.
Early leaders Full Clip, DJ Mario Scratch, Brian B and DJ Suicide helped pave the way.
Flow EZ, who owns Get N Go on 24th and used to be called “The Corn Hustler,” would sell mixtapes and a hodgepodge of other items and was a prominent figure in the scene.
Hennings recalls where his local influence began.
“I started going to house parties and DJ Pace (Mark Ware) was actually the first DJ I stood next to that scratched records. I remember him scratching The D.O.C.’s single.”
And DJs have always been the backbone of hip hop.
“You can tell who enjoys DJing,” said Alexander. “Mista Soull DJs like it’s his last day on Earth!”
Of course, the impact made by Dunham and Alexander is undeniable.
In addition to being tour manager for Grandmaster Flash, Dunham was recently listed as a consultant on the 40th anniversary release of a Sugarhill Gang LP set featuring the iconic “Rapper’s Delight.”
A member of the Scribble Crew graffiti group in the ’80s, Alexander is a well-known DJ — on and off the air — and had a show on Power 106.9 that promoted local rap. More recently he received a Lifetime Achievement honor from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, and today serves as chairman of the Houston Alexander Foundation, which teaches hip hop to kids in schools.
Businesses were eager to be involved in the culture as well. There were retail stores like New World Gear. Hennings partnered with Jimmy Hooligan, another local rapper, to open a studio and shop called Things on Maple. The skate shops and head shops played their roles. Record stores were big. There was Hip Stop and Leola’s Records on Ames. Homer’s would let hip hop acts consign music. People would go to Kanesville Kollectibles to dig through the crates for beats to sample.
“That’s where I met a lot of touring hip hop artists and that’s where I first met E Babbs, who introduced me to Jamazz and Mars Black,” Hennings said. Black is signed to Conor Oberst’s Team Love label.
Then there were venues that came and went. Some were iconic and some are still standing. There were hip hop clubs like Cleopatra’s. Rappers could freestyle at places like the Cog Factory on Leavenworth.
Of course, there was the Ranch Bowl, where Hennings saw his first show in ’92. It was Ice T’s Body Count, during the rise of bands like Rage Against the Machine, Korn, The Deftones, Public Enemy, and Anthrax. There was a fusion of punk rock, metal, industrial and hip hop.
During this era, Hennings saved money and got his first mixer and turntable, a little Gemini, and started DJing. “I would skateboard and give people mixtapes and we’d freestyle.”
His popular rap group Noizewave formed in ’97, when ska and groups like Grasshopper Takeover were big, so it was a whole party vibe. Some of Hennings’ best memories are going to the studio during this time and recording.
“We’d be listening to our music being professionally mastered and going back to trying it in the car with the subs and actually hearing your own beats,” he said. “Metro Audio would have these competitions and tested one of my brother’s beats, and they hit lower than Too $hort’s and that was so cool at the time. Putting your art out there is the coolest thing to me. And sharing ideas.”
“We truly loved it,” he said. “We had to dub tapes on boomboxes and had to burn our CDs in real time and it took an hour. We really loved making flyers and doing shows and taking somebody’s instrumental and freestyling over it at a basement party. We just loved it.”
Noizewave was selling out venues like the Ranch Bowl when it released the anti-cop track “Say Hi to Jimmy” in 2000, becoming national news for referencing fallen Omaha police officer Jimmy Wilson Jr.
“Obviously years later I regret it. It kind of snowballed. We were banned from all these venues.”
Fast-forward to the next year when the group released “Lunchbox Benny,” a song named for a Ranch Bowl icon that paid homage to the local scene and a lot of the popular bands at the time. When 89.7 The River picked it up, all was forgiven, and the group was accepted back into the circuit.
“So the single’s being played on the radio and we’re selling thousands and thousands of CDs. We’re selling out the Ranch Bowl with 400 to 600 people at shows.”
That’s when producers from Queen Latifah’s show found Hennings via the Associated Press and flew him to New York to take part in an episode about white rappers.
“I sat next to Fat Joe and Slick Rick and the cast of Whiteboyz, which is a movie about a white rapper from the Midwest. The tie in is they wanted to see if they could find a white rapper from there. So they flew me out.”
Later, Hennings would book shows at the Ranch Bowl until its closing in 2005.
“I would reach out to the other hip hop acts and have shows. We would do a lot of mixed-genre shows like Breathless and Buck Bowen. Houston had Fresh Fest.”
Fresh Fest took place at the turn of the millennium, co-produced by Alexander and Dunham, that had it all: DJs, rappers, breakdancers, graffiti artists … everyone in the hip hop community congregated in one place to celebrate the culture. The duo would also put on freestyle battles.
These events played a pivotal role because that’s when people could get together and be hip hop.
“I love hip hop because of the togetherness,” said Hennings. “Everybody has a voice.”
And over the past four decades, there have been countless voices that have contributed to Omaha’s hip hop roots.
“To me it’s kind of like looking at a tree where you see the roots and the branches,” Hennings said. “The world sees just the top of the tree, but the roots are just the same length. I see the people and the businesses and the culture all working together.”
Alexander says the important part now is preserving and educating about the history, because we’re here today enjoying the culture because of the history.
“All the people that paved the way … you’re enjoying the fruits of these people’s labor,” he said.
Dunham and Alexander have curated a list of people and places that have contributed to the scene and hope to create an archive so history doesn’t get lost with time.
And with time, the hope is that Omaha will find its own voice among the other hip hop meccas while still honoring its past.
Alexander says Omaha has strong potential. “We have people trying and putting out quality music, but we need the radio stations to help promote them and DJs to play them. We need that push.”
Dunham agrees and thinks it’s time for more hip hop clubs and community centers to open their doors to foster togetherness and help the scene prosper.
Being in the middle of America, Omaha’s scene has always been a melting pot of influence. Not just because we receive it from all directions, but also because from within we had the support of organizations, businesses, political leaders, community activists, and even the president of the United States.
And what’s the most important thing to know about hip hop culture in Omaha? Dunham sums it up well.
“Making the world know it ever even existed.”