Tampa's DJ Sandman reflects on two decades of Tampa hip-hop

Photo courtesy of DJ Sandman.
Photo courtesy of DJ Sandman.
Published Jan. 23, 2014

A good DJ is a musical gatekeeper, with an ear constantly out for new songs, albums or artists their audience would appreciate. This is the case in every genre, from jazz and blues to hip-hop or electronic dance music. The task of staying on the cutting edge is even greater when a DJ attempts to balance various demographics and keep the party rocking for the young, old and everyone in between.

For longtime Tampa hip-hop presence DJ Sandman, the challenge is part of the business.

"It's tough, it's a lot of research," Sandman said. "I used to read all the magazines. Now I go on all the blogs and websites. I am also on everyone's mailing list. It's definitely challenging to move through all the genres of hip-hop. That's why I go out to the clubs to see what all the DJs are playing. I know I can kill an old-school set, but to stay relevant, I gotta stay on top of all the new stuff as well."

Known as the "Godfather of Tampa Hip Hop," Sandman has been a mainstay in the Tampa scene for more than 20 years. This weekend, the longtime of 95.7 The Beat DJ is hosting his second birthday bash, a show aptly titled "I Am Hip Hop," featuring Talib Queli, Tampa rappers Dynasty and Jinx and host Cotton El Murkot.

According to Sandman, the "I Am Hip Hop" theme is an acknowledgement to old-school rapper KRS-One, who popularized the phrase.

"I have always been a KRS-One fan and I like that slogan," Sandman said. "Everything I do is hip-hop related. Whether it is underground or commercial."

Inspired by national DJs Ron G and Doo Wop; local DJs such as Kenny K; and the sounds and mixes of the tapes he traded with friends, Sandman began his own journey into music in junior high. Before long, he was putting on shows, creating music blends and promoting the music he loved. After getting a job with WBUL at the University of South Florida, Sandman was able to network with rappers and performers he had been listening to as a fan years earlier.

"I used to spend so much money at record stores," Sandman said. "My friends and I would go to Vinyl Fever and spend all of our money. Then when I was in radio, the artists were all calling me and sending me their records wanting me to play them."

As college radio was extremely important in spreading hip-hop in the early 1990s, Sandman said he was in the right place at the right time.

"They (the artists) were on big labels," Sandman said. "But the major radio stations weren't playing them at the time. In New York, they would play them. But you couldn't hear Mobb Deep on the commercial stations, so they were all hitting up college stations."

These days, Sandman balances his concert promotions, radio gigs, and appearances with working with local artists such as Dynasty, whom he is planning to accompany on her a European tour next month.

"We will be in London, Paris, Denmark, Poland and back in Germany," Sandman said. "There are a lot of fans overseas and there is a demand for it. They are like Tampa was in the '90s. They love it."

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Sandman is also known to appear at local hip-hop events such as Ol' Dirty Sundays at Crowbar in Ybor City and lend a hand where needed.

"Ol' Dirty Sundays is a great party," Sandman said. "I think it's getting better. What those guys do is bring music lovers together. I've helped them bring in a few guest DJs."

While still recognizing those who came before him, Sandman has grown to appreciate the nickname "Godfather of Tampa Hip Hop".

"At first it was kinda funny to me," Sandman said. "One or two people used to say it, then it was printed. Then people like T.I. and Busta Rhymes said it on the radio. But I make sure I pay homage to everyone who came before me. They were all my influences."

Looking back, Sandman is happy with the work he has done, but knows he isn't finished promoting hip-hop in the Tampa Bay area.

"In my eyes, I still haven't made it," Sandman said. "I still have that passion for the music and the culture. I still have the first records I bought. I am still living the dream."