Conversations: Noah Haytin | Varyer

Suspended in Time: Noah Haytin

In conversation with the artist, educator, and key player in 90's hip-hop culture

When Noah Haytin recounts the first time he met Master P, he does so matter-of-factly. It’s the way someone would talk about a friend from college, or a neighbor, not a rap mogul who got millions of people to groan “make ‘em say uuuhhhh” out loud, repeatedly, in 1998. “I was handing out business cards in Vallejo and a record shop owner was like, ‘Wait, before you leave, I want you to meet someone,’” Haytin recalls in a laid-back fashion and without boasting, as if he’s casually talking to someone at a backyard barbecue. “He comes back out with this rapper, I want to say probably in his mid, later 20s, and he said, ‘This is Percy, he calls himself Master P. He's rapping out of Richmond.’”

They exchanged pager numbers and Master P told Haytin he’d call him. “A lot of people say that, so I don't hold my breath too much about it. But he did. We formed a friendship at the time. I was with his family, we'd go eat, we’d hang out.”

Haytin has tons of stories like these, but he’s modest about his role in them. He speaks carefully, typically after a few seconds of silent contemplation, in long, fluid sentences that go off on tangents and then come full circle to his original point, whether he’s talking about his love of teaching or the one time he ever interacted with 2Pac (outside of a Denny’s in Emeryville). Rap is known for braggadocio, ego inflation, and undercutting your competitors, but Haytin’s most apparent character trait is his humility. Aside from a Mitchell & Ness LA Raiders hat, nothing about Haytin’s demeanor would place him as a key figure in West Coast rap.

He wasn’t a rapper, a producer, an A&R, or a DJ. Haytin is a lifelong visual artist, and his drawings and designs can be seen in some of the most iconic imagery of 90s Bay Area rap. He helped Yukmouth refine the Luniz condom logo, transforming it into one of the dirtiest hip-hop images of the decade. He was responsible for one iteration of the No Limit tank. And he created the “Mac Dre All Damn Day” emblem. Its origins can be traced to a day when Haytin was sitting in class at Berkeley High School and got a page from Mac Dre’s manager. Haytin cut school and met him at “the copy spot,” where he drew Mac Dre’s name with clock hands coming out of it and “ALL DAMN DAY” written underneath it. The sketch soon became ubiquitous in the Bay.

The Mac Dre story appears in the debut issue of Suspended in Time, a zine about “music and life” by New Yorker writer and Bard College professor Hua Hsu. Each installment focuses on a specific scene at a particular time, and “Young No” is entirely centered on Haytin, telling his story through a collage of his artwork, collected memorabilia, and transcribed spoken text. When Hsu first approached Haytin about collaborating on a zine, the latter assumed it would be about Bay Area rap more broadly; he was surprised to learn it would be entirely about him.

“I'm honored,” Haytin says. “He lit a fire under me to go through these files, pull the best gems, and scan them at [high resolution], which is great, because I had never really done that.” Serendipitously, Haytin scanned all his archival materials before a flood in his home, in his words, “altered and damaged” some of what ended up in Suspended in Time.

“I'm honored,” Haytin says. “He lit a fire under me to go through these files, pull the best gems, and scan them at [high resolution], which is great, because I had never really done that.”

Haytin has been drawing since he “could hold a pen or pencil,” but as much as “Young No” reflects his skills as an illustrator and designer, the zine also exhibits his talent as an archivist, including everything from one-sheet press releases to photos to stickers. He went the extra mile by not just promoting, visualizing, and participating in Bay Area hip-hop culture, but keeping and filing away its ephemera and artifacts out of a sense of responsibility to its artists. Haytin stresses that his practice is in mixed media, and Suspended in Time showcases a holistic artistic vision, one where nostalgia for an era is subsumed by the hard work of piecing together collective memory. Even the format of a zine, a relic of 90s culture, is a material extension of this methodology. To accompany Suspended in Time, Haytin created a five-hour playlist that plays as an alternative history of 90s rap, one that prizes Bay Area rappers in a fresh and individualized canon.

The most immediate appeal of “Young No” is 90s Bay Area rap as its subject. The narrative of hip-hop history, especially when it concerns the “golden age” of the 90s, often repeats a few hoary plot points — the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan and Bad Boy Records in New York, Death Row in LA, Rap-a-Lot in Houston, and OutKast and Goodie Mob in Atlanta — but the Bay Area tends to be excluded from this arc, even though its influence on present-day rap might be the most profound. Specifically, Bay Area rappers like Too $hort, Mac Dre, and E-40 rhymed slightly off beat without sacrificing a track’s rhythmic drive or approachability, emphasizing personality and musicality instead of conventional rapping technique.

When asked what made Bay Area rap so unique in the 90s, Haytin points out a few key factors, but foremost was the region’s diversity. “The Bay Area is a very multicultural place,” Haytin says. “Because it's so diverse, you have all these different cultural influences. In my case, I'm going to school with a lot of different socioeconomic backgrounds, and everyone's bringing their own flavor.” Geographically, the Bay Area is fairly remote, which means its residents had to work harder to get the word out. “It was about independent hustle,” Haytin explains. “Independent labels weren’t as much of a thing in New York or L.A. or anywhere else.” And compilations were critical to exposing as many acts as possible. “Suddenly you're hearing all your favorite artists and ones you haven't heard of all together on one album. That would make consumers feel more like, ‘Wow, I can get more bang for my buck.’”

So how did Haytin get involved in this scene? It all started in 1986, when he was first exposed to two of the most groundbreaking albums in rap history. “When I first got Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, I was like the mind-blown emoji. I'd never heard anything like it, it was so catchy and fun and different. And for me, being someone who loved to draw, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, with the plane crushed like a cigarette butt in an ashtray. The cover was outside the box, it was more counterculture-ish. I was coming into being a teenager and starting to want to rebel more.”

For a teenager in the late 1980s, newly obsessed with hip-hop, in possession of a remarkable talent for drawing, the natural assumption would be that said teenager would pursue graffiti writing. “At King Junior High in Berkeley, there were walls where writers would come and write,” Haytin remembers. “Just turning text writing into this art form, to make something two-dimensional look three-dimensional and be interlocked and twisted, I found that engaging.” But he never went that route, or at least didn’t for long. “I washed one bathroom wall and that was enough. I was like, I'm going to keep it in the book and find a way to be more legit with it.”

By the time Haytin arrived at Berkeley High School, hip-hop was blowing up in the Bay. “Everyone knows someone who's trying to start up an independent label or be a rapper or be a dancer for a rapper or be a graffiti artist,” he says. Putting out a record is a complex operation with many moving parts; forming a visual identity is critical. “People were getting at me like, ‘My cousin is starting a label, my cousin's a rapper, they want a logo, they want an album cover.’”

Entrepreneurship had never been on Haytin’s mind, but he started to see a viable way to make money as an artist. “They’d ask, ‘Can you do it for $10, $20, $25?’ I was a kid. That felt like $100.’”

One thing Haytin laments about contemporary culture is how much things cost, which limits the ability for young adults to pursue artistic endeavors. “Going back to the early 90s, literally, $20 filled my gas tank and I might even get a dollar or two back and change,” he says. “If Master P gave me $20, I filled my tank and I'm good for like a week or so.”

Haytin became an in-demand illustrator and designer, hired by the famous design firm Phunky Phat Graph-X, but it wasn’t all through word-of-mouth. Being a prominent figure in a scene requires effort and hustle. “You have to be there,” he says. “I’d read some advertisements, like ‘DJ Quik and 2nd II None are coming up to Leopold's Records at Berkeley'. I’m writing it down on my calendar. I'm getting my business cards ready. I'm driving my dad's old ‘84 Volvo to Leopold's. I'm pulling up early. I see DJ Quik and I'm pulling up, ‘Hi, my name is Noah, I do drawings. Do you ever need them? You can call me.’”

And persistence was key. “There were many times that it didn't work out,” Haytin continues. “In fact, probably more than it did. But we're talking about what did, because I kept doing it until I racked up enough numbers. I just kept taking those shots.”

While he never got rich off of his work, Haytin nonetheless considers himself a success. “The first time that I saw my name in the liner notes, on the back of What's Really Going On? by Mac Dre, I was geeked up,” he says. “That was priceless. Forget money. Just to be associated with that, that's such a classic album. Dre was such a cool cat and he’s an influential hip-hop artist to this day.” What Suspended in Time insinuates, and Haytin’s accomplishments demonstrate, is that being a behind-the-scenes creator is as cool and noteworthy as being the marquee name. “Young No” is one of many recent projects that champion the communal backstory to a creative milestone above an auteurist, egocentric framing.

After Bay Area rap’s heyday in the 90s, Haytin has continued to work in capacities where he’s given back to communities. He got his MFA in the early 2000s, then obtained a Fulbright fellowship to teach art in Morocco. After three years there, he returned and became an educator in the public school system while still making mixed-media art. “Art has always been my savior,” he says. ”What kept me in school were art classes. And that's why I've been so passionate about pushing for art to be fundamentally included in public education. We're always one of the first things to get cut when there's budget cuts.”

Suspended in Time has a limited run of issues, but the debut issue augurs a bright future for people who were integral to cultural movements but never got proper recognition for their contribution. “I was the nerd who read the liner notes,” Haytin says. "I'm looking at who did the photography, who did that drawing. I was reading all that stuff. And I admit wondering, How can I be one of those people? And it's funny because I was a nerd for it, and then I became part of it. I'm in the liner notes!”