Pioneering SF Rap Curator / Street Activist Herm Lewis's Impactful & Influential Career

Posted by Billyjam, August 20, 2020 06:16pm | Post a Comment

Back in August of 1993 an unknown individual in the NorCal rap/hip-hop scene named Herm Lewis quietly began his game changing journey. This the Hunters Point resident, not long released from incarceration, did with the release of the pioneering San Francisco rap compilation Herm: Trying to Survive In The Ghetto. Herm may have had a limited budget and zero experience in the music business but the former inmate-turned-street-activist was fueled by an unstoppable inner determination to see his vision through. That vision was to put together a compilation of hardcore street rap artists from different neighborhoods of San Francisco (traditionally at odds with one another) and to also include  recordings of himself giving his now trademark uplifting heartfelt speeches encouraging peace and unity. As a sort of test-run Herm originally appeared with a positive spoken-word message on the intro track to RBL Posse's late 1992 released debut album, A Lesson To be Learned.

Then later with help in the studio from RBL producer TC, Herm laid down his various artists album tracks which were bookended by Lewis' positive powerful spoken word messages. Meanwhile the compilation featured such hometown artists / associates of Herm's as RBL Posse, I.M.P., JT Tha Bigga Figga, Rappin' 4-Tay, Cold World Hustlers, G.R.P., Young Cellski (aka 2Took), and Fly Nate  Next step he pressed up 3000 copies of the then unique compilation that, throughout the rest of 1993 and into the following year, would slowly but steadily build momentum and blow up sales-wise.

First the compilation became an underground San Francisco Bay Area hit with rap fans learning about it through word of mouth (what promotion budget?!). Then thanks to national distribution via the San Rafael based City Hall Records independent distribution company the album took on a life of its own and began selling exponentially across the country in faraway places like Detroit, Kansas and Atlanta. In so doing it would make new converts of the distinctive San Francisco street rap sound and go on to rack up over
100,000 units in sales! 

Herm: Trying to Survive In The Ghetto is an important historic release for two key reasons. Firstly it acted as the perfect introduction to the then virtually unknown, albeit vibrant underground, San Francisco street rap scene. Note that this music was routinely dismissed by the elitist hip-hop culture gatekeepers of the Bay at the time who generally favored East Coast derived "hip-hop" over this "gangsta/mobb" street rap sub-genre. Even though this music got support in the street it got virtually no love on the radio or in clubs at the time. But Herm's compilation would be responsible for helping change that and for introducing new audiences way beyond the Bay to this largely overlooked regional rap sub-genre.

Secondly and equally as important Trying To Survive was highly influential as it would become a virtual blueprint for the Bay Area rap compilation movement that thrived throughout the rest of 90's; one that Herm Lewis can be personally credited with kickstarting. While five years earlier Too $hort's excellent 1988 six song Dangerous Crew release was technically a Bay Area rap compilation, it did not command the influence that Herm's compilation would. After the success of Trying To Survive others took note and followed suit; most notably Master P's 1994 *West Coast Bad Boyz: Anotha Level of The Game, D-Shot's 1995 Boss Ballin and Anonymous Records 1995 compilation Bay Area Playaz. *Note that Herm even made a spoken word guest appearance on Master P's 1994 compilation. 

In addition to helping catapult underground Bay Area artists onto a national level Herm's compilation also helped propel his own career as community activist and inspiration speaker. He got invited to give speeches at countless community events, was specifically chosen to talk to at-risk youth and young inmates locked up in juvenile hall, and invited onto KMEL radio by the producers of Street Soldiers.

People listened closely to what Herm had to say because he spoke from the heart and from experience having served time behind bars himself. Not long before beginning drafting plans for  his compilation Herm had been released from a 13-month incarceration stretch for a drug charge. In fact it was during that period behind bars that he took a serious look inward and decided to turn his life around for good, and do so by putting together his compilation. "When I got out, I decided to go legit…[and] rap seemed like an option, and it was also a way for me to pass on a little knowledge to kids coming up…My goal is to do something positive from a ghetto perspective. Brothers really need to hear a positive message," he told me in a published mid-90s interview with BAM magazine; one of our many interviews over the years. 

In another interview we did around the time of the release of his second compilation, 1995's Herm Still Trying To Survive In The Ghetto, Herm said about his message tracks, “The message is straight from the streets because I’m straight from the streets…..And I’m not going to speak about something that I have no knowledge of.” As for the breakout success of his 1993 compilation Herm admitted that, "I never thought the record would do as well as it did."  But it did and continued to sell steadily for quite sometime, with demand leading to that aforementioned sequel Bay Area compilation release two years later that included such rap artists as Dre Dog, 3-Deep, N.O.H., Female Fonk, and U.D.I.

Four years later he would release another in the series entitled Herm Trying to Survive in the Ghetto 2000. That 1999 release was followed by the guest-heavy, compilation-like Back In Stride Again (2001) and We Made It Happen (2002).  These were all among the releases on Herm's own Black Power Productions record label, which stopped releasing in the mid 2000's. Other Black Power releases included solo albums by such artists as T-LowePrimo, Marquise and Herm himself (Herm's Solo Album 1998) and such mixtape releases as Herm Presents B.P.G. Squad Up!! Mixtape Vol. 1

These days Herm, while busy with family and running a janitorial cleaning business, routinely gets invited by artists to make cameos on their albums as well as invited to public speaking engagements. He also regularly records self-empowering speeches that he posts to social media. In looking back over his illustrious career as rap impresario and street activist  what are among his greatest achievements and memories? "Bringing unity to the community. Stopping a riot at an Ice Cube show in Sacramento between the Crips and Bloods.  And then performing on stage with Ice Cube and Mack 10 along with RBL Posse," he replied as he recalled the memories, adding that. "The impact I had was powerful [because] it made others jump into the music business and establish artists and labels, plus inspire many other compilations." 


Relevant Tags

Herm Lewis (4), Tc (3), Too $hort (46), Dangerous Crew (1), Master P (8), D-shot (4), Ice Cube (30), Mack 10 (2), Trying To Survive In The Ghetto (1), Rbl Posse (8), I.m.p. (3), Jt Tha Bigga Figga (2), Rappin' 4-tay (4), Cold World Hustlers (1), G.r.p. (1), Young Cellski (2), 2took (1), Fly Nate. (1)