Blazin' on $20 a Day

A DJ for every club, a mic for every stage: Five days in our own hip hopolis

You could be rapping for $1,500 in an MC championship, or shaking your ass for $250 in a "Minnesota hottie contest." You could be backspinning in sneakers at an off-campus bar, or bouncing in heels at a suburban dance palace. Wherever you're stepping these days, the soundtrack is likely to be hip hop. And the crowds who enjoy it in the Twin Cities have never been more spread out and less likely to know one another.

Saying hip hop has gone mainstream isn't enough: The phenomenal proliferation of dance nights and MC battles is more like 10 subcultures exploding at once. Still, if I learned anything over the first week of September, going out each night with a $20 bill and a notepad, it's that the hip-hop scene is no place for modesty--or clothing, as the case may be.

 

WEDNESDAY

An Asian guy with a giant Afro is hunched over onstage, screaming into a record needle. It's the rare hip-hop show at the 400 Bar, but the New York trio Dalek is rock enough to fit the place. The DJ, Hsi-Chang Lin, does everything but spray his turntables with lighter fluid and smash them on the amplifier.

Sitting on the floor against the wall of the West Bank club is a lanky, sleepy-looking white dude with a thin beard. His rap name is New MC, but Zach Combs has been doing it for years as a member of the Minneapolis crews Interlock and Kanser. Combs has become a fixture of every MC battle night in town, an expert at the improvisatory art of the rhymed insult. He's cocky, and he's earned the right to be. But he's worried about the big "Showdown" in four days at First Avenue, a contest with a $1,500 prize.

"My game is off because I lost that battle," he says, referring to a recent competition at Intermedia Arts' Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop, where he took second place behind a guy from Oklahoma called Duo the Sick Prophet. "He was good. He definitely beat me. But I haven't lost a battle since the 12th grade--and I was on acid then."

Combs later heads over to the Cabooze, where respected local rapper Musab is performing. Atmosphere's Slug and Mr. Dibbs make the trip over, too. Four years ago, having two hip-hop shows on the same night in the same neighborhood would have been rare. Now it's rare not to have three or four events on a given evening. "It's been that way for about the last year," says Slug as he walks in. Despite his VIP status in the scene, Slug pays his admission like everyone else.

"Hip hop has always been profitable, but nowadays you can do it without having a fight every night," adds the guy who booked the Cabooze show, Jamie Laurie.

He's talking about real fights, not the metaphorical rap ones that have grown so popular in the last year. "The battles at the Loring Pasta Bar were doing really well, so everybody wanted a piece."

Now former rave promoters are doing competitions at the Quest, he says. The underground is getting lucrative.

 

THURSDAY

Onstage at Urban Wildlife, a rapper named Knonam ("no name") is wearing a T-shirt that says "Rap Sucks." He's kicking off a weekly live hip-hop night at the downtown Minneapolis club, presented by hip-hop writer Kandis Knight and the indispensable local website D.U. Nation (www.dunation.com).

One of the DJ's turntables seems to be shorting out. So he lets the other record play, as Knonam exhorts the audience: "Come on, sing that shit!" The song is "Eye of the Tiger," the musical equivalent of an old Tom Wopat poster, but amazingly, the mostly female audience complies. Never mind hands in the air--plenty of local hip-hop fans would do handstands if asked.

Half an hour later, there are three times as many women packed into the Star Bar in Columbia Heights, a biker hangout launching its own weekly hip-hop night.

"This place was dead two weeks ago," says a woman at the bar. "Now it's like this. They held a 'hottest girl in Minnesota' contest earlier. Two girls kissed each other. They'll have another one later, so stick around."

"Are you going to participate?" I ask.

"Hell no!"

Soon northeast Minneapolis hip hoppers Unknown Prophets finish a bouncing set of reality rap, and give over the stage to a dozen gyrating contestants, all competing for a $250 prize. Half the room empties out before the contest is over.

The mood is more carnal at Daddy Rocks in downtown Minneapolis, hosted by B96 midday personality Anjali "the Queen B." "Mommy, forget English, talk body language," raps Jay-Z on the speakers, as dancers on the floor grind slow and close, their concentration broken only by the occasional rush of security jettisoning somebody out the front door.

At one point, the guards swoop by and bump a woman wearing a pattern dress into my arms. She doesn't miss a beat: "Hello there." She throws her leg around my side and holds it there, dancehall style, and we dance "the security guard dance."

Nearby, a woman grabs the shirt of her partner behind her to steady herself, then bends over so far, her chin is bobbing an inch from the floor.

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