Neighborhood Watch

Fireball Espresso Café Keeps an Eye on Local Hip Hop

I've always thought that the Mr. Rogers theme song would make a good hip-hop sample. Who cares that he's giving a shout-out to his neighbors instead of his peeps. The man knows the hip-hop golden rule: You've gotta respect your 'hood. And since most of us in the Twin Cities can't boast a coast like Dr. Dre and can't turn bling bling into cha-ching like Jay-Z, we've come to rely upon hometown pride.

Which leads me to wonder: Is it ever not cool to represent? If you're like me, you'll wave your hands in the air whenever an artist name-checks the south side, or Minneapolis, or Minnesota, or even (if I'm desperate for affirmation and/or looking to flag down a friend in the back of the club) the Midwest. But are you still legit if you give props to, say, Falcon Heights? If you grew up freestyling on a block full of strip malls instead of strip clubs? If you got your start performing right next door to your mama's sewing shop?

Judging by my recent visit to the Fireball Espresso Café's all-ages hip-hop showcase, the answer to all three questions is yes. Even though it is located in a St. Paul suburb alongside a store stacked with Seammaster machines, the café doesn't have too contrived a vibe. The place feels like a true neighborhood joint. Everyone here appears to know one another already. Local MCs Musab and Jacques Ku'Sto, who will both freestyle later this night, laugh with friends in the audience. (Musab even carries his kids along with him, bringing new meaning to the term all-ages crowd.) Kanser's Zach Combs--who helps to organize these Sunday-night Fireball outings--hangs out by the stage, talking to the other MCs. And Sean McPherson and Martin Devaney from Heiruspecs greet me warmly as soon as I arrive.

Perhaps warmly is an understatement. Without ceiling fans or open doors we're all sweating in here. Heiruspecs' Felix calls out from the Fireball's small stage, "Is it hot in here?" Everyone cheers. Felix looks confused. He's asking if the room temperature is too high. But everyone's too excited to understand that he's speaking literally.

Maybe that's the effect that this kind of show has on this kind of crowd: After all, many of the people in this audience have been waiting anxiously to find another great all-ages hip-hop venue since Bon Appétit's music scene disappeared. Now those b-boys wearing knit caps and b-girls dangling big hoop earrings have migrated to the Fireball--which may be the ideal recipient of Bon Appétit's passed torch, as the space itself has a history of all-ages performance. Before it opened last July, the venue used to house Christian rock bands who played in the room when it was called Coffee Shock and the Living Room Music Cafe. (See Sound Check, September 8, 1999.)

Today, the Fireball hosts all different genres of music (I'm told by Fireball co-owner John Wambach that Wednesday is acoustic, Thursday is jazz, Friday is indie rock or punk, Saturday is metal or hardcore, and Sunday is hip hop) but the hip-hop showcase still seems most in tune with the club's previous religious affiliations. Tonight, I hear more than one MC give a shout-out to the ultimate playa himself: God. But when Kanser takes the mic, Combs still finds no problem with telling the crowd a dirty joke about a nun, a priest, and a camel.

We cheer when Combs talks smut, but he already had our attention before he got to the punch line. This is Kanser's CD-release party for their latest, Quintessential (Interlock), and Combs is reciting poetry, sharing the lurid details about a girl he screwed over, rapping with equal skills over sped-up records and slow, let's-get-it-on beats, and generally giving a dynamic performance that has the vibe of a Brooklyn basement party. And let me remind you, he's doing it in a Midwestern strip mall. "We got the b-girls and b-boys from the Cities, but I want to reach out to the suburb kids, too," Combs later tells me.

Which is why he's out here performing "Three Kats" while baristas steam cappuccino foam to his right. As the song starts with an odd combination of what sounds like classical guitar samples pumped up with old-school beats, Combs raps, "I tell you where I'm from/Where's that?" and the audience shouts back, "Minneap!" There goes the neighborhood.

 
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