On the Scene: Lionel ‘The Black Hawaiian’ Wright reflects on Hawaii’s early rap scene
Lionel Wright is celebrating his upcoming 50th birthday with a “Black Hawaiian Birthday Bash,” Saturday at the Artistry Nightclub on Cooke Street.
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Born and raised in Papakolea, Lionel Wright was a sixth-grader when one of his uncles introduced him to rap music with gifts of cassette tapes of the new genre’s rising stars. Wright (aka the Black Hawaiian, a nickname he’s had for years) embraced hip-hop culture. After becoming one of the top guns in his own neighborhood, he started going to other parts of town to “battle” the top talents there. Out of those encounters Hawaii’s first notable rap music recording group — Club Rox Rock — was formed. The quartet released its first album, “Hyped, Dope, Def & Direct,” on Lester Gantan’s Flyin’ Hawaiian Productions label in 1991.
Almost three decades later, Wright, 49, is celebrating his upcoming 50th birthday with a “Black Hawaiian Birthday Bash,” Saturday at the Artistry Nightclub on Cooke Street. (For ticket information, visit 808ne.ws/birthday-bash.)
Let’s start with the basics. What day is your birthday, and how are you celebrating?
My birthday is the 28th. At the bash on Saturday, the 27th, three members of Club Rox Rock — Dwayne Oyama, Lance Motogawa and myself — will be performing with Lester Gantan. Some guys and girls who used to dance with me will be popping through, and I’ve invited some of my old friends like Kutmaster Spaz and TMT, the Samoan rap group from Kalihi.
What is the origin of Club Rox Rock?
I heard about this kid named Dwayne Oyama from Pauoa Valley and I walked down the hill from Papakolea to Pauoa to battle him. He was really good — and he was cool — and instead of challenging him we became friends. Then there was this guy in Manoa, and then a guy in Kalihi. We started off as a dance group — Dwayne Oyama, Lance Motogawa, Chris Traya and myself — and then we started doing rap.
Looking back at the early days, is there something that stands out?
We competed in Brown Bags to Stardom in 1986 as a “nonaudio dance group” and came in third place. In 1987 we competed in the audio category as rap artists and didn’t even place. I remember being talked to by Loyal Garner after the contest quote/unquote: “That type of music will never make it in Hawaii.” Then about a year or so later she recorded a song, “Shave Ice,” where she had a rap in it.
When did you feel that Club Rox Rock could do something memorable?
The year that we didn’t place (in Brown Bags) we met Dr. Dre and Eazy-E for the first time. We met them backstage and after we performed they asked us, “Where are you guys from?” and meant it as a compliment. They didn’t have to say anything at all to us and that meant a lot.
In another time in your life you were a promoter of mixed martial arts matches. Where did that interest come from?
When I was in elementary school my mother put me into karate. As I got older I trained in boxing in the neighborhood and eventually kickboxing and Brazilian-style jiujitsu. That created my love for mixed martial arts and I became a promoter. When mixed martial arts was banned in Hawaii, I worked with the state to bring it back and develop a mixed martial arts program for the state.
What is something about you that might surprise people who know you as an “old skool” recording artist or mixed martial arts promoter or businessman?
I am the current president of the Papakolea Community Association. For me, life at this point is all about paying it forward and trying to take care of the next generation.