Underground Rap, Playa Sh*t, Political Joints: Equipto has Bars

View the full episode transcript.

Equipto (born Ilyich Sato) is a hip-hop cultural cornerstone and well-known activist who reps San Francisco to the fullest.

He’s been making music since the 90s, when he came in the game laying down tracks with the underground group, Bored Stiff.  Equipto has rocked shows with the late Mac Dre and was good friends with the late Baba Zumbi of Zion-I. Legendary rapper San Quinn even credits Equipto for teaching him how to properly count rap bars.

His activism is also well-documented. In 2015, he confronted former San Francisco Mayor, the late Ed Lee, about his role in gentrification. The next year, Equipto was part of the Frisco 5, a group that led a hunger strike in order to bring further attention to the issues within the San Francisco Police Department and hold them accountable for their actions.

Nowadays he’s still making music and he’s just as outspoken about politics, locally and around world, but a few things have changed. For starters: he’s a father.

A side profile photo of San Francisco hip-hop artist and activist, Equipto.
A side profile photo of San Francisco hip-hop artist and activist, Equipto. (Doggtown Dro)

Since the birth of his daughter, Equipto has relocated to New Mexico. He says he’s doing his best to build a new community, while still keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in San Francisco.

His work in the city shows he’s tapped in with the next generation of artists. He’s worked with  BagheadProfessa Gabel, Rich Iyala and Monk HTS, as well as other artists under the label Solidarity Records.

On the cusp of his 50th birthday (which he’s set to celebrate on March 22nd with a live show at San Francisco’s Neck of The Woods), we discuss his various roles. He’s a mentor, father,  artist, and activist who is trying to make sense of all the changes happening to his hometown, while simultaneously developing a new community in a new state.

Episode Transcript

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Welcome to Rightnowish, I’m your host Pendarvis Harshaw. 

On today’s show, we’re talking to someone who is a pillar of San Francisco’s hip-hop community and equally well-known for his political activism in the city, Equipto.

Famously of the rap group Bored Stiff, Equipto has recorded music for over 30 years. He was good friends with the late Mac Dre, and rocked stages with the late Baba Zumbi of Zion-I. 

Nowadays, Equipto still makes music and he tours. He also plays a big role in mentoring the next generation of artists from the Bay. 

When Equipto’s not making music, he’s making movements. Over the years his passion for change has been put on full display. Most notably in 2015 when he confronted the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee about his role in gentrification. 

Equipto was also part of the Frisco Five, who in the spring of 2016 held a 17-day hunger strike against police brutality. The protest played a big part in the eventual firing of former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.

I recently talked to Equipto via video chat from his current home in New Mexico. He talked about being a proud Frisco representative, of Colombian and Japanese descent, who juggles the roles of musician, activist, mentor, and one he’s growing into– maybe his best role yet– that of being a father.

That’s right after this.

Pendarvis Harshaw: What are some of your favorite things about fatherhood? 

Equipto, guest: It’s a trip, the responsibility, I guess. I love it. You know, like life is so precious. Being a father helped me realize that life is so much more than what I’ve been through in a sense. 

And I think like just being able to understand like, wow, cause she’s like my twin. So I look at her and it’s like looking at myself and my baby pictures… and she’s about to be one year old and for me it’s just… it’s a whole new awakening of life. I never thought I would have a child, you know, until I fell in love and thought about having a child.

[Music]

Equipto: I love, you know, taking her to the park. I love getting her diapers. I love doing the dishes while she sleeps. I love you know, I love the whole scheduling and everything with being a father. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Being responsible to others. That does bring out the best in us. 

You’ve relocated as a part of parenthood. You’re now living in New Mexico, you’re co-parenting. You’re in a new community. I have relocated. I’m in Sacramento. Co-parenting. A lot of parallels. I’m wondering for you, what’s the hardest part of learning a new community, especially somebody who’s so ingrained in San Francisco?

Equipto: I’m such a city boy, man, you know. And I love nature. I love nature. I love the mountains, I love getting away. But living here [laughs] it’s… that’s another story. 

The mother of my child. She’s a muralist, she does jewelry. She’s an emcee. So she has a community of folks that I’ve been able to somewhat, you know, build with in certain areas and whatnot. But to me, it’s like a hermit life. 

The adjustment is kind of like, I’m not really that social, you know, when it comes to meeting too many people out here. Like, I stick to the family. You know, I miss home, obviously, sometimes you have to cross certain paths in order to get to where you’re going, know what I mean? And I think I believe this is just an area I’m in for the time being. Everything will be beautiful as long as my daughter knows her roots and knows her family. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Time away, I know that it can cause you to look at home differently. And I’m wondering how often do you come back home? And when you do come back to the city, do you look at it differently? 

Equipto: Oh, my God. Like they say, ‘You’ve got to. You’ve got to love it to hate it.’ Because I love it, but I hate that mother fucka!

The traffic, the changes, it’s like, oh my God. Valencia changes every goddamn month or something, you know, bike lane, this lane, you can’t turn down there, you know, new businesses that are just like not community-based. It’s tough man. The disparity you know, I mean, you see houseless folks, and then you see the Lamborghini rolling right next to it. You know what I mean? And with San Francisco particular, you know everything, Oakland and San Jose, they’re all becoming the same thing. 

But San Francisco in particular just has this, you know, main vein of capitalism where it’s a metropolitan city so it always attracts and it gives this new life. And in order for that to happen, like they just had the president and everything, in order for that to happen it has to be a clean sweep, right. They got to make the city look pretty. 

[Music]

Equipto: There’s a lot of identity politics. You know, as we deal with in the Bay Area, period. And seeing that take effect is hard. But then you see the resistance still there. You see the murals on the wall. You see the protests, you see the people uprising. And that shit touches my heart when I see that online and I’m not home. Seeing my folks, you know, going to jail, seeing folks shut down the bridge, shut down the ships, you know, all that is beautiful. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: That’s similar, man! Where I see the changes. It does mess my head up where I’m like, ‘This block wasn’t a one way back in the day, like when did they change that?’ You know? But then it’s the people, right? It’s the folks that you’ve known. You’ve seen them grow. You’ve seen them invest in their craft and flourish. And you’re like, Yes, this is why I come back home. This is why home is home, right? And you specifically, You’ve been working with younger musicians, folks from Family Not A Group, The Watershed. I’m like, what is your goal in working with this next generation of artists from the Bay? 

Equipto: Just being consistent, like being involved in things and sometimes I don’t want to say people fall off, but you know, some people of your age, you know, people 49 aint still rapping that I was rappin’ with. So you kind of do it with who’s doing it, sometimes. I like cross-generational music. I like being learning from the old folks, diggin’ on what they doin.

Like and for them to have like. Any like, you know, reverence or looking at me a certain way, like ‘ey man, wassup? You’re Equipto!’ I take advantage of that in a good way. Okay, let me show you where I’ve been through. My experience maybe can prevent you from what I went through.

And it’s always kind of been like. I mean, like, I known Quinn since he was 11. I was probably like 15 or 16 or something, 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Quinn, San Quinn. Yeah. On a recent podcast, he mentioned that you taught him how to write bars, like how to structure his raps. 

Equipto: Quinn is a born rapper, there’s not too many of those, you know, like a born rapper, like in that scene. I met him at 11 years old, you know, I mean, like and I knew it even me being like 15, like, he was so dope just naturally. But some take years and years and years to accumulate the skills. It’s just like a natural instinct impulse for some people. 

So it’s been always been an honor to, like, see the younger generation flourish and just be a part of that in a sense. All them folks doing their thing in San Francisco is incredible, you know what I mean, I love it. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: This idea of mentorship and looking out for the next generation or even people who are younger than you just by a couple of years. Who were the mentors who taught you? And what are the important things that they taught you? 

[Music]

Equipto:  My father is very musical. My father was just a jazz promoter, radio disc jockey for KPFA. You know, early eighties type of thing. And I would be with him backstage, incredible artists. You know, Billy Harper, Sun Ra, Tito Puente. So it was like I grew up under this culture that he introduced me to, Black culture, and always taught me kind of like to understand that and to respect that.

My mother always would teach me to follow my dreams and to always consider other people and what they’re going through. I’d be a little kid walking by a houseless folks on the street. And she said she was always like, “never look down on folks like that. You never know what they going through. They have dreams, too.” And it always stuck with me about… that they had dreams too. 

It brought me to being kind of like a caring person, I guess. You know what I mean? Like, and it’s not like, “Oh, I’m an angel” or anything like that. Never, ever, ever get that twisted, but as far as like, when it comes to the arts and craft, if you’re in position to do something, you do it. Like my mother always taught me, if you have a sandwich and you give the other half of the sandwich to someone if they’re hungry, always. 

I’m not too much of a social person, but when I have homies over, you know what I’m saying, and folks, I love the atmosphere, I love the environment, I love being around ‘em, you know, and I get a lot of energy from that, you know. So I think that’s part of it as well. I love being, ya know, around a lot of folks that are similar minded, you know, and when it comes to the craft. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Love is at the heart of a lot of what you’re saying and a lot of the work that you do… The love, the demands for justice, working with your mother on the frontlines. Nearly a decade ago, you two were part of the Frisco Five, a hunger strike to hold police accountable, in the most succinct way to say it… 

Equipto: A lot of people see me and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, he’s so angry all the time. He’s protesting, he’s yelling.’ We fight for love at the end of the day. That’s something that we get misconstrued and people don’t understand when, you know, you’re deprived of something it becomes a demand. And that’s language, you hear “demands” like, why are they demanding? Because we’re deprived of something, you know, to me, like and when you’re deprived of something, you’re not going to be the most, you know, peaceful person, quote unquote. And but when you look where the root comes from is because you’re separating people from their love, from their community, from their family, you know what I mean, like, and so at the end of the day, all we’re fighting for, when you see protests and demonstrations and folks organizing for a better society, yeah, it’s all for the love.

Pendarvis Harshaw: There was a lot of things that came from that. But one of the things that stood out to me was a conversation that I then had with an artist by the name of Baghead and Jules and talking to them about how seeing your work impacted them. And I’m just seeing this like trickle down, you know, it’s passing of the baton. And so I’m like, from your perspective, what’s it like for you to see your mentorship show up in the arts and politics? 

[Music]

Equipto: Man, that’s everything I ask for when it comes to this, you know, I’m saying the music, the craft. If… if people could mobilize from this, you know, get inspired from not just my music, my actions, you know, and understand like, wow, you actually can make a difference. People-power can make a difference. Organizing is actually cool! You don’t just have to perform at a rally, you could actually help organize a rally!

Those types of things, like selflessness in a sense. You know, like the individualism is also very attached to, you know, performance and entertainment and, you know, hip-hop and what not.

[Music]

Equipto: You have a broken heart, you listen to music that helps heal you. And so for me to be an artist, you want to create that feeling, to create that healing. You want someone to feel healed from it or motivated, inspired. And I think I never truly felt that until I really got active with the community, like started organizing and doing things in the front lines with folks and having comrades. And I think that’s what happened, students saw that like,  ‘Oh, that’s Equipto that did “Jungle” with Nickatina and 4AM Bay Bridge Music and he knew Mac Dre’, you know how they think, you feel me?  And you use that, you use that just like the Panthers used you know, the leather jackets and the woop-wah you got to use that. I was like, “Yes, come on, fuck with this.” And it’s beautiful, it’s like the most fulfilling feeling that I feel like, you know what I’m saying, it’s like, was like, okay, damn, it does work. People are motivated, people are inspired. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: I saw you recently performing in Santa Rosa with Monk, with Professor Gable, with Rich Ayala and the thing that I took in was that you all were having fun! It was a joyous occasion, you know, like people, there was bars. It was, you know, real rap and you know, like, it was high energy and people were having fun. And from your perspective, going on that tour with that group of young folks, what do you think that tour did for them? 

Equipto: I think it just taught them like responsibility, you know, that type of thing. Because when you’re on tour, you know, you got to check in hotel, got to, you know, you got to be on time to the band, you got to make the next venue, you got to soundcheck, you got to have merch booth set up. 

It’s not like we have a machine in the sense of people that are not involved, right? We’re hands on ourselves. I’m there at my merch booth, you know, I’m gonna take my box to the woop-wah. I’ma talk to the sound manager, shake hands, I’m gonna talk to the venue owner, make sure I have a relationship so I could come back if everything goes good. You know what I mean? Like teaching them those type of, you know, steps, I guess. 

They’re all going to, like, go further, like, you know bigger venues in the sense. They’re going to go, you know, to more organized promoters. I’ve become, in a sense, this bridge to get, you know, to the next level.

Pendarvis Harshaw: You’ve worked with people clear across the board. I’m just wondering, how do you navigate working with people of so many different backgrounds? 

Equipto: Think just being a student of the game and being a student in hip hop, you know. I love it. I love it. Like, I’m just one of those dudes that came up loving Mac Dre, loving Tribe Called Quest, loving E40, loving Black Sheep, you know, loving Too-Short, loving De La Soul. And growing up in the bay, it’s kind of like it’s inevitable to like, not be overwhelmed by this, you know, mob sound or overwhelmed like we came up Backpack Era.

So we were like, you know, kind of like, oh, who are these kids rapping, you know, and cyphers, like, you know what I mean? Like, we were cyphering before it was cool to cypher. So it was like my rap fit in with a… with a… you know, a Keak verse or something. You know, my rap could fit in with a C-Bo verse here and there, you know what I mean? 

Like, I was honored to be a part of that type of ya know diversity in a sense. You know what I mean? Like to where I could do it because I know a lot of people can’t… It’s just part of, I think delivery, cadence, and life experience

Pendarvis Harshaw: Exactly, life experience and being a full human and knowing that at- sometimes I relate to C-Bo and other times I relate to this artist, you know? I love it that you don’t, there’s no separation, backpack, gangsta, political, playa, whatever. It’s Bay Area culture all in one. 

Equipto: Definitely. It’s Definitely Bay Area [laughs]

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: What’s the difference for you between fatherhood and mentorship, aside from the obvious blood relation? 

Equipto: Fatherhood, I’ll never, I don’t care how old she is, whatever. I’ll never leave her side. Other folks like, hey, things might happen, friendships, relationships, whatever it is, you know,like. Yeah you know, to me, it’s like I can never turn my back on my child, my daughter.I don’t turn back on regular folks, you know what I’m saying Some things might cross the line, like, she might grow up. I know how it is. I’m a son. I, you know, crossed the line many times with my parents, you know, many times where I would’ve been like, God damn how did you do that? 

Pendarvis Harshaw: You’re juggling a lot, clearly, but still finding time to work. I’ve heard that you’re working on a film coming out, so can you tell me a little bit about that? 

Equipto: The film is a documentary of Bored Stiff. Bored Stiff is a hip hop group out of San Francisco. Early 90s that we, you know, kind of that I’m a part of; a community of folks, 12 members. 

[Music]

Equipto: We did a lot you know what I mean like on the underground scene during the you know the like Living Legends era, Mystik Journeymen, uh, Hieroglyphics, Mixed Practice, Homeliss Derilex, so many dope underground groups of that era. 

We just… we thought we have so much dope footage from the nineties that people were like tripping off of, like. Shout out to Spie and other folks that that came with the footage that we have to come with a documentary and there’s a story to it. It’s a deep story. You know, it’s not just about the group. It’s kinda like about San Francisco as well during a certain era and growing up in that era and kind of products of that. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Looking forward to that. Shout out to Spie. 

Alright, my guy. Appreciate it, enjoy the time with the little one. Peace.

Big thank you to Equipto for chopping it up with me. This conversation was long overdue, looking forward to seeing and hearing more of your work.  

[Music – Keep it Street, The Jacka and Berner with Equipto]

Yeah, I’m on the grind daily

Trafficking through I-80

I’m just a playa, these hoes don’t try to drive crazy

Pay me no attention unless you gotta choose a fee

But keep in mind there’s only so much you can do for me

And listeners, to keep up with Equipto, check him out on Twitter at his name– (E-Q-U-I-P-T-O) and on Instagram @Equipto_415. And you can find his music on all streaming platforms.  

This episode was hosted by me, Pendarvis Harshaw.

It was produced by Marisol Medina-Cadena 

It was edited by Chris Hambrick and Xorje Olivares.

Sheree Bishop is our production intern. 

Christopher Beale is our engineer.

Additional support provided by Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, Ugur Dursun and Holly Kernan.

If you enjoyed this episode, pass it to a friend. It goes a long way to help our show land in new ears. Thanks! 

Rightnowish is a KQED Production.

Peace.

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