Monday, Feb. 26, 2007 | For Escondido hip hop artist Pain, the three digits at the front of his phone number are much more than a telecommunications logistic.

When he shouts out “7-6-0” from the stage, he shadows a hip-hop practice perpetuated by such popular artists as Ludacris and Snoop Dogg — the career of the latter launched from his spot in a rap crew named “213” after the Long Beach area code. The logic of hip-hop culture dictates that people who share a telephone prefix likely have much more in common, too.

And so Pain, the alter ego of 21-year-old Roman Velasco, started a project with his girlfriend, Lady Pain — Elizabeth Salazar — to feature more than 20 other North County hip-hop artists on two compilation albums titled “760 Connection.”

But that kind of identity association with the 760 area code could change soon. The area code is set to run out of assignable numbers by fall 2009 and will either be split geographically or be assigned a new prefix, 442, for any new lines or cell phones under an option called an overlay. Thursday marked the last of six public meetings run by the state Public Utilities Commission in Apple Valley, El Centro, Palm Springs and Carlsbad, and a PUC representative said the commission plans to make a decision by the end of 2007.

The region served by 760 is vast, reaching North San Diego County and chunks of Imperial, Inyo, Riverside, Mono and San Bernardino counties. It touches the Mexican border in the south, sprawls beyond the Mojave National Preserve in the east, stretches up past Mammoth in the north and arcs to the Pacific Ocean to grab a cluster of North County cities and unincorporated areas.

Pain wouldn’t be the only one whose identity would be interrupted by the area code change. The potential costs of the facelift associated with such a transformation are dreaded by everyone from repairmen with painted phone numbers on their trucks to corporate executives with reams of letterheads and business cards that would need amending.

Painted signs and decals and etched glass paperweights and hundreds and hundreds of business-directory, Yellow-Pages-like listings — in an instant, they would be outdated. And so a contest has begun between 760-coded chambers of commerce, each competing to prove why their community deserves to keep the old 760 and why the other communities should have to switch to 442.

Pain didn’t know about the proposed change until a reporter asked him Thursday what it might mean for the 760 Connection artists, many of whom performed at San Marcos’ The Jumping Turtle venue Friday night. He sounded dejected as he mused aloud on the ramifications of the change.

“Oh, no,” he said. “If we were 442? It would change big time.”

Despite the abruptness of a possible area code change, the region as a whole is familiar with this type of split. Until 1997, when 760 arrived, the whole area was served by area code 619. And in 1999, it split again, adding area code 858 to a portion of the county reaching Del Mar in the west and Poway in the east.

This time, the three options being weighed by the PUC are an overlay zone, where new phone lines are the only ones to get the new number, or one of two different geographic splits. Both would sever the North County area from the rest of the Southern Californian swath, though one would lump some Imperial Valley cities like El Centro and Calexico with the North County area. In the event of a split, the PUC hasn’t decided which area would keep which number.

Every time an area code changes, affected businesses have to spend hundreds of dollars changing paraphernalia like business cards and brochures and truck decals. Speed dials and cell phones everywhere have to be reprogrammed. And so, many chambers of commerce throughout the affected region have urged their members to send letters or call the PUC to lobby for specific plans — and all hope they’re the lucky ones who get to keep the 760 code.

“I understand it’s not a popularity contest — you know, who can send the most letters,” said Cathy Kennerson, CEO of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce. “But I feel we have some compelling arguments.”

Her chamber — and the joint chamber for all businesses in the Imperial Valley — back one split plan that would cut off the North County cities from the rest of the region. And under that plan, Kennerson hopes the swath where El Centro is could keep the 760. Kennerson claims El Centro’s proximity to the Mexican border and the Imperial Valley’s weaker economy compared to North County as reasons why her region shouldn’t have to change codes.

“In Imperial County, everyone knows what our demographics are,” she said. “It would just add an additional burden to our businesses.”

Kennerson said a change in contact information for Imperial Valley could cost the area substantial business if the change gets lost among the customers across the border.

But every community seems to have a reason to clutch its current code. Jim Baumann, CEO of the Vista Chamber of Commerce, said that because the North County area is more urbanized and the population is more concentrated than the rest of the region, it should get to keep the 760 code.

“This is the more urbanized area, and that’s just plain that’s the way it is,” Baumann said. “But obviously we’re being selfish. We don’t want to change and we want the whole world to change around us.”

None of the business representatives interviewed preferred the overlay plan, which would require all residents, whether with 760 or 442 codes, to dial 11 digits every time they placed a call from a landline — they’d have to dial 1, plus the area code, plus the number.

But John Manning, director of the North American Numbering Plan Administration, said area code exhaustion hasn’t led to a geographic split in a long time — the overlay option has proven more popular. As codes started splitting to deal with population, the geographic area each prefix represented shrunk — and not just in size, he said.

“In terms of geographic significance, an area code has becomes less and less,” Manning said.

Murray Forman is a professor at Boston’s Northeastern University and has written a book called “The ‘Hood: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop.” It’s true, he said, that area code is used often as a locator of what he termed the “extreme local” — the last derivative of a hip-hop artist’s location after coastal (east or west), regional and local identifiers.

“There’s a term called ‘topophilia,’ which means ‘love of place,’” Forman said. “Hip-hop artists really express that topophilia that gives a common sense of place — a sense of shared aesthetics or lifestyle affinities.”

But he doubted this Southern California area code split would wreak much havoc among North County hip-hop artists’ identities. “It’s a point of pride, but it’s just a hook to hang their identity on,” he said. “And it’s not even their own hook; it’s a telephone administration hook.”

Pain concluded that the geographic roots of the 760 Connection are what’s most important in the artistic allegiance, and those won’t change, he said.

“It’s not like a gang where you can’t talk with somebody else because of something like this,” he said. “It’s so that local people can work together and put our place on the map.”

And Forman said if hip hop has proven anything in its three decades of existence, it’s that the genre is “massively inventive.”

“I don’t think I would worry too much about these cats having a momentary existential crisis,” he said. “They’ll find something else to hang their identity on.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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