Hip-Hop Is Homeless

As venues showcasing live hip-hop dry up, rappers find new ways to become discovered.

By John Steele
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Jan. 19, 2010

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Reef the Lost Cauze

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. ■

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 13 of 13
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1. PompOne said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 12:20AM

“The establishment can huff and puff and blow the spots down..But Hip-Hop was born in the ghetto streets so being "homeless" is nothing new! Hip-Hop will never die!!”

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2. JayGet$ said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 12:45PM

“Get up on my man B.Kane from NP.. Nasty wit it”

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3. Monica said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 02:14PM

“PS.photo is by Michael Scott Whitson.”

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4. tone trump said... on Jan 20, 2010 at 03:56PM

“there def was no reserch put into this article & that bugs me out because p.w most of the time gets it right there was so many errors in this. if u are not goin to do ya homework dont write a story”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jan 21, 2010 at 01:07PM

“I would have loved to include Tone's input. In fact, he was the first person I called. But he didn't respond to numerous messages left on his MySpace page, his facebook, his cell, etc. The club promoters and MC's I spoke with are as frustrated as I am that local hip hop doesn't get the shine that it should. But if I missed something, please let me know where all the local hip hop can be found.”

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6. SUP said... on Feb 8, 2010 at 01:32PM

“i think a lot of what we see in philly hip hop is what we see in hip hop period.
you have prepared individuals who seized a moment or opportunity and made the best of it. right place at the right time if you will. here's the problem. everybody raps. as with anything...start mass producing it...it loses its quality factor. so now...the talented as well as the untalented are seizing these opportunities. nothing to mad about. the hip hop we all feel in love with has been made into business. as for venues. i say make your own if you dont like whats going on out here. things can change, go back, or whatever....but...the truth is...shyt different yall. you got skills...take off the backpack and get fresh and showem what you got. grunge is out. fashion is in. girls are more sexier. technology is everywhere...bling is in. yall see what it is about when you out in the world. i dont think what we rap about is the problem either...not at all........”

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7. SUP said... on Feb 8, 2010 at 01:41PM

“i think it is has alot to do with most rappers not being able to communicate what they see and feel properly. lack of vocabulary so to speak. there have been patterns and roads laid out for rappers seeking 15 mins....and who doesnt want to get paid.”

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8. Paul Mick said... on Feb 23, 2010 at 03:24PM

“Make better music, get better gigs, sell more product, live-the-dream, no?”

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9. Underground Uncle Scam said... on Jul 9, 2010 at 05:59PM

“I like this post. It shows that hip hop is an underground movement and the dopest artists are usually always associated with the underground scene. I recently saw a similar article on another hip hop blog http://www.badhabitatmusic.com/”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2010 at 05:01PM

“Everybody talking like they know real Philly underground shit, but they never call out the emcees that be all over killing mics like aphlo, the grease monkeys, agent moe (rip), or burke tha jerk...

I saw those cats at soooo many events murdering it on just the freestyle tip.
What, real emcees don't get shine no more? Leave the bullshit alone and support real local artists!”

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11. iBronson said... on Jan 10, 2012 at 10:09PM

“As a rapper, every time you wanna make a song that can at least cross over, get the party moving (and we sometimes want to), you make it a lot simpler writing it than, say, you writing to a hot ass beat that you just feel, the base is right , the sample matches the snare and kick, hi hats is right, so we seek that shine even if it's for a moment. You take that feeling and that multiply it by 30 and you get the state of the game now. There's nothing wrong with creating a song that would get u some money and p@$$3, but too much can kill creativity.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jun 28, 2012 at 08:44AM

“JAY GRADYS SHOWS ARE SO LAME. BEEN TO QUITE A FEW NOW AND THERE IS NEVER A CROWD, AND HE IS USUALY LATE. TAKE LAST NIGHT AT THE TROC FOR EXAMPLE SHOW WAS SUPPOSED TO START AT 9:30 JAY DIDNT GET THERE TILL AFTER 11. AND THERE WAS ONLY ABOUT 5 PEOPLE THERE. PLEASE SAVE UR MONEY AND DONT BOOK A SHOW WITH JAY GRADY.
PS. IF HE IS OFFERING A CONTEST WITH A CASH PRIZE, YOU WILL NOT GET THE MONEY IN FULL BUT ONLY PART OF THE MONEY AND HE WILL THROW IN A FREE SHOW OF SOME BS LIKE THAT.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Apr 21, 2013 at 04:32AM

“Wow shocking to hear someone hate on Jay Grady. He seems like a stand up dude. I've been to several of his shows and always a nice size crowd there. None of the shows are contest driven or have prizes as a attraction to be in the shows. Out of all the shows over the years that I've attended not once from in front of the stage did the host say anything about a winner or prizes. It's just talented Mc's performing sets and showcasing their talents. I would recommend any upcoming artist to work with Jay Grady if they want to gain some exposure in the Philadelphia Hip Hop scene.”

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