As venues showcasing live hip-hop dry up, rappers find new ways to become discovered.
It’s midnight at Second and Olney. With entourage in tow, two tough-looking contenders enter the ring, but only one will walk away a champion. The main event, Joey Jihad versus Murda Mook, is a battle the streets will be buzzing about for months. But this isn’t a boxing match where you can throw in the towel if it gets too brutal. It’s a rap battle DVD from two of Philly’s hottest underground MC’s. And it may be the future of the rap industry.
But this is Philadelphia; a city surrounded by urban landscapes and neighborhood music venues of every stripe. So why are our best rappers giving their talents away on the streets and in the subways?
The answer is a definitive shrug from both promoters and MCs across the city who have watched hip-hop clubs like La Taza and the Five Spot collapse. Rappers are now confined to the occasional hip-hop night or disparate special event. And even these are disappearing all the time.
“The live show is where you separate the men from the boys,” Veteran Philly MC Reef the Lost Cauze says. “But if you go anywhere now—New York, L.A., Chicago—people will tell you the same thing. The proving ground is just gone. The game has changed so much that people are scrambling to figure out what to do.”
In response, Philly’s most talented underground MCs have focused on trying to catch the attention of labels by creating a different kind of buzz.
As word-of-mouth travels from the block to the blog, careers are made through freestyle battles. But without battle events or performance spaces, YouTube, mixtapes and other DIY productions have filled the void, helping young rappers get their rhymes into the right ears. After spending the last several years flooding YouTube, street sensations Tone Trump and Gillie Da Kid both put out full-length albums this year and Meek Mill was featured on the soundtrack for the film Next Day Air .
“When guys growing up in the different hoods—North Philly, West Philly—are not exposed to the more traditional routes to success, they become a product of their environment,” says former Burndown Allstar Kuf Knotz. “And that’s where you get guys battling, rapping on the street for money or respect or whatever. And some of them get deals from that.”
For some MCs, like Knotz, getting on stage has never been a problem. His current band the Hustle just sold out the World Cafe lounge January 8. But Knotz believes his hybrid style of hip-hop, which features a full band and female singer, makes the Hustle and bands like them an easier sell.
“There is a disconnect, it seems, between the traditional DJ/MC hip-hop and the live band hip-hop where there is not a lot of crossover,” says Knotz. “Which is a shame because we all kinda dig each others stuff.”
As a more traditional MC, Reef believes there is more to it than a lack of creative billing.
“There is a misconception that if there is a drum and a bass and guitar, the crowd that will come for that will be less abrasive and hostile as a typical hip-hop crowd,” he says. “Thirty years [after the birth of hip-hop] and they are still looking for a safer, more accessible look to attract a safer crowd.”
Still, the want for local hip-hop music is out there. Laura Wilson is the talent booker for World Cafe Live. She says when they do hip-hop events, they are always very well attended. But, while she has never had a problem with a hip-hop crowd, she admits that hip-hop is not at the top of their list.
“We try to book things that are more emerging, blending genres,” Wilson says. “Oftentimes, I will have promoters ask me where they should try and book a more traditional hip-hop act and I don’t know what to tell them.”
Ten years ago, Wilson says, a similar problem struck punk fans in Philadelphia. All the punk venues were 21 and over, leaving many young fans out in the cold. Promoters like Sean Agnew of R5 Productions began finding new venues like the First Unitarian Church and creating bills for these fans. Now, a new set of hip-hop entrepreneurs are doing the same, bringing the beat back to the bars.
Hip-hop showcases have begun again at the Fire, which reopened last week. Journalist Traycee Lynn, formerly of Writers Block, launched PhillyCypher.com last spring to make lyricists across the city aware of open mics. And South Jersey-based promoter Jay Grady’s Lyrically Fit performs at the Trocadero Balcony every six to eight weeks.
“A lot of hip-hop that is out right now is just catchy jingles and chants,” Grady says. “But guys that have actual lyrics need a place to do it. If guys catch a buzz, most of their money early on will come from shows.”
As eyes, ears, music sales and record labels move online, so too will talented artists looking to ride the wave to the top. So for the time being, if you wanna learn how to rhyme, get ready for a street fight. ■