As Grant Hart once remarked, a "scene" may just be a tired synonym for "me"--as in, "our state's boom-time optimism trickled down to the scene this year, especially on August 11." Which it did, in every sense. But saying Twin Cities hip hop took a promising left turn risks sounding as subjective as reporting that it was a good year for dental visits.
Let's be fair, though: I, personally, had been feeling hip hop's pain for years. About 13 months before the date in question, it fell to this particular "scene" scribe/fan to recount Rakim's no-show at First Avenue. The dis was a dull but reverberating knock on local hip hop's collective ego (indeed, numerous Twin Cities openers had performed before the last-second cancellation).
Since then, it's been increasingly difficult for this critic to trace Minnesota's pop lifeline without giving undue weight to its hip-hop contingent. Why? Because local rap is as close to a canary in the local music coal mine as we have--the most embattled, belittled, talent-rich, dollar-poor export the Twin Cities has to offer. When hip hop thrives, goes this reasoning, everything else should hum. It's only this year, really, that we've been able to put this theory to the test.
Walking through the crowds at First Avenue on the night of August 11, when Chicago's Common blurred underground and mainstream for a local crowd, you could feel an air of determined hopefulness. Opening were locals from heretofore vying camps: the North Side's Raw Villa, St. Paul's Abstract Pack, and the South Side's Atmosphere (MCs Slug and Eyedea) of the Rhyme Sayers collective. Local hardcore party-rocking (the Sure Shot Brothers) shared the marquee with home-grown Southern-fried flavoring (Dead End) and message-minded musing (Jon Doe). In the crowded club mezzanine, every performer on the bill--and many not--hawked his new demo CD, new cassette, new studio album. The entrepreneurial hunger was palpable and new--it was the "other boot dropping," as one young producer put it. After years of woodshedding and recording unreleased product, the deluge had arrived. It felt like some sort of Egyptian bazaar--like a community discovering itself.
"That was a really positive night," says Anika Lee Robbins, proprietor of Java Noire and former DJ at KMOJ-FM (89.9). Robbins recalls that Common was so impressed with the giddy crowd that he flouted rap's convention of keeping a minimum (contract-enforced) set length, even sticking around for an after-party at Robbins's café. When police dropped by early in the morning, she says, they looked bewildered.
"I think the cops kind of didn't know what to expect," says Robbins. "I think it was the stereotypical, like, 'Okay, there's too many black faces here at this time of night, what's going on?' You could tell when they came in that they kind of were thrown off, 'cause it wasn't rowdy or anything like that."
In the months following the show, the feeling that something had changed was difficult to shake for the "scene." Hot Schemes' unreleased demo "Lost in the Land of the Lakes" seemed to catch the Minnesota-specific vibe, and it entered rotation on KMOJ's hip-hop shows. Programmed alongside it was a hilarious local contribution to the nationally acclaimed Anticon compilation, a farm boy's tale called "Nothing But Sunshine" that found Slug killing cows in northern Minnesota. Fellow Rhyme Sayer Musab released a bracing cassette under his Beyond moniker, with a psychogeographical ode to Lake Street, East and West.
By November the Rhyme Sayers had opened the Fifth Element record shop on Hennepin Avenue. Dinkytown's Bon Appétit had begun hosting gigs again after a six-month break. Jon Jon Scott, who had helped organize the Common concert, set about completing a multiregional hip-hop compilation featuring Raw Villa. Up-and-comer Lil' Buddy posed for Vibe photographers and completed a slick video for his hit "Wo Wo." And seemingly everyone began releasing full-length CDs: Interlock, Stereotype Click, Empire, and many more. When Common returned to First Avenue weeks later for an appearance with the Roots, it nourished hopes that Minnesota might no longer be regarded as the fly-over country of rap.
A year earlier, gunfire had sent clubgoers (including two members of R&B sensation Next) scrambling to the floor inside South Beach. The shooting (which killed one bystander) was inevitably linked in the local media to the club's hip-hop playlist and clientele. Yet this summer's worst rap-related violence was comparatively contained, and in retrospect, preventable. Part of the crowd spilling out of an August Ja Rule concert at the Quest got into a confrontation with police in the parking lot across the street, pelting officers with rocks and bottles. (Club owner Gilbert Davison swore off rap shows--"I won't do another one," he told the Star Tribune.)
There were also record numbers of shows without serious incident, culminating in a packed December 3 OutKast show (with Abstract Pack and others opening) at Northrop Auditorium.
The question remains, did our local music, poetry, performance art, and electronic nodes, undergo a similar wattage boost? Well, take the burgeoning poetry readings at Java Noire, or Red Lights and Poetry nights at the nearby Penumbra Theatre, or Truth Maze's jazz-hip-hop-funk-spoken-word events at the Red Sea, or Sistah Mimi's Initiation showcases in the 7th Street Entry. Mimi, a Zairean native, has lived in London and Paris before, and observed thriving communities that supported African culture while reaching a wide audience. "I've learned that you have to go to the people and learn from the people," she says. "I wanted to show people that we can come together."
This might sound hopelessly idealistic. Aren't we more fragmented than ever? Yet First Avenue appears to be in resurgence; the all-ages Foxfire is going steady (though the all-ages Coffee Shock closed). Everyone with a disk burner seemed to put out an album in 1999--many of them good (see "God Gave Rock 'n' Roll to You," right).
"Everyone's been taking this to the next level," says Glorius L. of the Abstract Pack. "In the media in general, Minnesota is the spot. On PlayStation you can even go to a nuclear plant in Minnesota. In movies. The same thing happened to Atlanta--you never heard of Atlanta [before]. That's what's happening here."