While Southern California car culture is all about looking good, take a trip up north to East Oakland and you might see a Sideshow—a gathering of hundreds of youths there to witness smoky, loud, beefed-up beasts, where the audience is as much a part of the show as the cars. Now, a handful of DIY DVDs are putting you front and center for the show. What it doooooo?
By Maclean Jackson
The reality television boom has encouraged it, but technology has made it a little too easy for anyone to put out DVDs these days. Look in the back of any urban magazine and find ads selling the runt step-nephew of “Cops” and Court TV—cold cash! These films are often loosely strewn together fights, interviews with rappers or glorified bios of drug kingpins. Of course, the quality is a bit rough, but the essence of the subject is faint, while the impression that, what’s being depicted is happening solely for the camera’s sake, is way too strong. But hey, good things can rise out of unbearable genres (although we still have to wait and see with Reggaeton). Nature will find a way, and so will ’hood DVDs—a few strong sperms have plowed through and blessed us with treasures of the truth, most notably a slew of street-wise documentaries from the streets of the Bay Area. That rare DVD, when done right, seems almost like tangible, court admissible evidence of what really took place, and the people are having too much fun to notice the damn camera.
A handful of independent filmmakers from East Oakland, California have been churning out self-produced “Sideshow” DVDs for the past few years. The Sideshow itself is authentically Oakland, changing with generations, but maintaining the same spirit. “It’s like after the club, ‘Damn, what we gonna do now?’” explains East Oakland rapper Keak da Sneak. “All the cars will meet up at a certain location and everybody will park. And mu’fuckas be up outta they cars, conversating, still having drinks, smoking weed and shit.” That’s something any high school junior can relate to. But where Taylor in Toledo is content with the sweet Calvin sticker on his spoiler, Oakland youth have made their own statement of independence while keeping with the tradition. “We into performance, but we want a live performance—It’s dangerous, mu’fuckas in the street dancing and shit, mu’fuckas pullin’ up slappin’ four 15s [speakers]. Somebody will be like, ‘What that muthafucka do? Swang it!’ They’ll be like, ‘What?’ Psssh, Psssh, Errrrrr, Errrrrr!” explains Keak, mimicking the distinct engine sounds and tire screeching a car makes when you’re doing what the Bay calls “servin’ it,” or burning out. It’s an everyday event, but if a major network got a hold of the Sideshow, it would be portrayed as a ridiculous circus or an unfortunate fear-inducing “Dateline” exposé.
Oakland has a long history of independent entrepreneurs—from Felix Mitchell’s heroin hold over West Oakland in the ’70s, to East Oakland in the ’80s, where Too $hort was selling tapes out the trunk. Drop Knock, a life-long East Oakland resident, points out that, “In the ’80s, you had a lot of money in Oakland, a lot of money in the streets, a lot of people out here doin’ it real big, havin’ nice cars and nice thangs.” Decades earlier, during World War II, East and West Oakland prospered by servicing the Naval shipyards. Though it has been rough since then, it’s one of the only places in the country where you can find enormous Victorian houses in the ’hood. With this foundation and the space California offers, it remains a place where it’s actually possible to get money and stay in the ’hood.
This is where rapper and filmmaker, Drop Knock, along with his boy Ram, independently film and produce the High Side’n and Go Dumb USA series of sideshow DVDs, arguably the best of the genre on many fronts. “My first encounters were as a little kid, walking to the store, going get some fast food, down to the Eastmont Mall,” Drop Knock reminisces. “I get down there and I see just the streets packed with people and all these nice cars on vogues, just playing they music and everybody’s just chillin’. I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And then somebody started swingin’ they car and I’m just shocked. I’m like, ‘What’s this and why is it going on? And why didn’t anybody tell me about it?’ Ever since then I’ve been so infatuated with it.”
Now in his self-described “dummy twenties,” Drop grew up and moved from the background to the front row of the Sideshow audience. “When I was like, in my early ’20s, it would be more about riding around and seeing who’s out there and seeing who got the tightest car and seeing who could swing the most doughnuts and who could do it with the most skill. It’s like vehicular acrobatics. It’s like, being artistic with your car,” Drop illustrates. “The beautiful thing about it was that it was controlled chaos. You’d expect it to be a lot of just craziness going on, but everybody knew why they was there—they was all trying to have a good time. It wasn’t nobody tripping.”
As the ’90s rolled in, more and more local kids who witnessed the Sideshows wanted in on the act. “I used to steal cars—IROCs, IROC-Z, 5.7 liters and they came with posi! So the first sideshow I was at, I was in one,” recalls Keak. The participants became much younger and though they probably lacked some experience behind the wheel, they immersed themselves into the technical auto aspects as much as previous generations. Keak explains, “Mu’fuckas puttin’ motors in they cars—high performance parts, dual exhaust, flow masters, 4-barrel carburetors, 455, 454, 350 [engines], yadamean? It’s all about what it do! It look good, it’s nice, it sound good, but what it do? It’s provin’ my shit is runnin’, my shit is hot.”
In the last few years, which are documented on film, the Sideshow has evolved to include some unlikely attractions. Keak remembers,” I done seen mufuckas swangin’ it so hard, the wheel just came off—Bowwwww. Call the tow truck to come tow it ’cause the car is worth $20,000.” He notes that, “Cutlasses, Camaros, Cougars—old school classics”, remain the stars of the show. But maybe you’re the kind of dude who likes to root for the underdog. In that case, there’s the “Scraper,”—basically your grandmother’s ’90s Buick Regal with 20-inch rims crammed under the wheel wells and a sound system—a common guest at the Sideshow. “You’ll catch cars that ain’t even runnin’, mu’fuckas just swingin’ doughnuts, finding ways to do it—puttin’ crates on the back of the front-wheel-drives,” explains Keak. It’s this type of independence in the spirit of tradition that makes the Sideshow authentically East Oakland. Down the coast, in the LA area, lo-lo 64s with hydraulics rule the streets—the current state of East Oakland Sideshows might not have that “diamond in the back” elegance, but corralling a 2000 pound beast while opening and closing your doors in a wall of smoke and yelling out your block is a skill seldom seen outside a NASCAR victory lap.
Experiencing the different cycles of the Sideshow and now documenting the newest wave, Drop observes, “The newer generation, they’re more concerned with being just hyphy, just being seen. Just kinda bein’ out there, drivin’ crazy. Not so much about the actual doughnuts and the swingin’ any more. It’s just kind of more, ‘Hey, see me stunt!’ It’s kind of like a cry for help almost, like the young people are like, ‘I wanna be seen…I wanna be heard! Otherwise, I get no chance to really be noticed.’”
Lt. Dave Kozicki doesn’t want to hear it. As Commander of the Oakland Police Department’s traffic division for the last five years, one of his main objectives has been shutting down the Sideshow for good. “You’re talking about a handful of people who want to go out and, for a lack of a better term, act like an ass on Friday and Saturday night to the detriment of everybody else’s quality of life. And then, somehow that’s a right of passage?” questions Lt. Kozicki. To combat the Sideshows, he has authored specific laws that can fine and jail anyone within 100 feet of a Sideshow. Drastic measures like this have recently been taken, due in part to the increase of auto-related injuries and deaths. But Kozicki asserts that violent altercations at the Sideshow is also becoming a problem. “I think in part it’s being driven by ecstasy,” asserts Lt. Kozicki. “By it’s nature, when it’s in the rave scene they call it the ‘Hug Drug.’ I think when you put it out in East Oakland, at the Sideshow, it becomes the ‘Thug Drug’. And everybody, they run into somebody that at some point in time crossed their path in a negative way and it’s time to settle the score.”
But the media has also played a role in creating community outrage over the Sideshows. Drop Knock feels that, “Just recently, because of political agendas or the fact that some crazy things have been happening that have been dubbed ‘Sideshow related,’ now it’s a big issue. Now it’s on ‘Dateline’, now it’s in the news.” The same gripping video that makes these videos successful is prime beef for the news media. Lt. Kozicki insists that the Sideshow DVDs encourage future participation. “All I gotta do is run down to the record store, buy a video, show it to the city council and say look, this is what’s going on,” says Lt. Kozicki. “I think once people see that, they go, ‘Ugh, we can’t allow this. This is craziness.’”
Both Lt. Kozicki and Drop Knock point out that in recent years, the Sideshow has become an attraction for the greater Bay Area, bringing in people from as far as 30 miles away. But Lt. Kozicki believes that the attention from new sources, coupled with the DVDs, will be the downfall of the Sideshow. “I think it’s going to be pushed off our streets. I think just like crack, people are going to realize that it doesn’t paint their community in a very positive light, it doesn’t paint young people in a positive light,” he cleverly points out. On the other hand, Drop recalls that, “When I was like 22 or something, there was a lot of media attention on the things that happened at the Sideshows, then they calmed down for maybe about 12 months. And then all of a sudden I went out one weekend and I started seeing people come out again. So, it happens in cycles.” East Oakland’s youth, Keak says, will keep the Sideshows alive, “forever, because my kids, my little nieces, little nephews, they seein’ it and they like, ‘Ooooohhhh’. Man, it might be worse, ‘cause they starting off with remote control cars.”
According to Drop Knock, he and Ram started filming the Sideshow for personal use, “to document what’s going on right now. So, if my kids ask me, ‘What did you guys used to do, besides just the regular going to clubs, going to events? How did you guys used to have fun?’ I wanna be able to put it on and show ‘em, Hey, we was going dumb out here just acting a fool. But you know, it was all in good fun.” A few years later, in 2001, they came out with High Side’n Vol. 1 and distributed it locally as well as striking up a relationship with online retail store rapbay.com. But even without the internet to aid the spread of the culture, the Sideshows would continue rolling. Yet, from its origins, Sideshows would not happen with no audience on hand, because there’s no one to propose, “What it do?” Its documentation on film, however, doesn’t taint the realness. The camera is just another set of eyes in the audience, encouraging that perfect burnout in a cloud of smoke. It’s the liberties taken after that makes the Go Dumb USA series the trillest Sideshow DVDs out there.
And then the Pete Rose paradigm arises, where you ask, Can one be involved in their passion, profit from it and still keep it pure? My vote is…yes. Aside from the bets, Rose would bitch-slap an umpire for his players and Drop Knock has taken shots from the authorities for his efforts. But he has managed to get around it by not filming robberies and shootings that might occur at the Sideshow. “There is a limit,” he feels. “That’s the thing about people in the streets—when something’s going on, they know we’re not outsiders. They just know, we street like that.” With this insider perspective, Drop avoids the traditional documentary distance and naïve, pretentious awe. Keeping with Sideshow tradition, he narrates the DVDs with the wit of a vet, watching from his front porch: “You put it in, you feel like you are sittin’ right there at the sideshow.”