Blazin' on $20 a Day

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

Who needs a cash prize?

 

FRIDAY

Chuck Chizzle on KMOJ-FM (89.9) is giving local hip hop his love. "Oh, baby, we got some more hometown talent. We've got my man Muja Messiah. It's called 'Give It Up.' This is one of the hottest joints out right now. He always sets fire to the mic. Twin Cities, don't forget to hit us up for your comments and suggestions about the hometown talent. Let us know if you're feeling it or if you're not."

Minneapolis hip hoppers might be able to identify the stretch of pavement in St. Paul where they lose the signal for KMOJ. (Someday they'll get www.kmoj.net over satellite radio.) For me it's somewhere west of Rice and Larpenteur, the intersection in suburban St. Paul where I plan to take in some step dancing and thong photography this evening.

The Queen B hosts Fridays at Club Cristal, a venue in a strip mall that is apparently upscale enough to require a velvet rope. My date and I walk up and are greeted by a tall, suited bouncer, who gestures for us to wait. We look around the parking lot. There are two pawnshops on this block, and some other stores, all closed. There's nobody else waiting to get in, nobody is coming out.

The guard looks around, not glancing at anyone in particular. After a few minutes, he unhooks the rope, and lets us in.

 

SATURDAY

Zach Combs takes a break from his early-evening shift at a pizza joint near Kenwood long enough to walk down to the Fifth Element record store and distribute flyers for an upcoming show. But he doesn't participate in the open mic night inside. Local turntablist K-Salaam is spinning records, stepping down from the tiny stage once or twice to grab more off the racks. (Later tonight, on KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7), Vibe columnist Bobbito Garcia will tell K-Salaam that the DJ's mix CD made him cry.)

Toki Wright of the C.O.R.E. is freestyling in front of the small crowd, acknowledging the presence of one of the more popular battle MCs. "Ice-Rod's in the place! His legs are furry like Keith Murray."

With his mullet and mustache, Ice-Rod makes an easy target. (As Wisconsin's Jack Cracker raps the following night at First Avenue, "I came to Minneapolis to battle Joe Dirt?") He got his start at this weekly open mic, now held Saturdays at 6:00 p.m. This is where wannabe MCs have come to prove themselves over the past year, often in battles. So after Slug joins Toki to help warm up the room, they give the stage over to a series of newcomers and out-of-towners.

Two ex-Chicagoans, one from the north side, another from the south side, battle it out, one spitting "faggot," the other calling him on his "homophobic shit." They shake hands and pat backs when it's over.

Later, Toki is approached by a performer so young, his voice hasn't dropped yet. "Can I rap?" the boy asks.

"Sure, what's your name?"

"Josh."

"Let's hear it for Josh!"

On the microphone, the kid is incomprehensible. But he gets over on guts alone.

That's the thing out-of-towners say they notice about hip hop in Minneapolis and St. Paul: We're not famous enough to be cutthroat. A couple of hours later at the Dinkytowner, Los Nativos have fans rapping along in Spanish (and, amazingly, on a song they haven't officially released yet).

When their set is done, breakdancers take over the floor as DJ Stage One throws on some Elephant Man. One b-girl, Seoul, takes off her white tennies, puts them on her hands, and stands on them as her torso spins to a stop. She's egging on Daylight, the more experienced and resourceful b-boy, who gamely takes up the challenge.

Knocking back one last drink, the mustachioed, sweating DJ Francisco heads out of the club to the Red Sea on the West Bank, where Dan Speak is spinning at his own weekly hip-hop dance night. Francisco himself used to host First Avenue's phenomenally popular hip-hop events in the VIP Lounge. "I got 86ed," he explains.

On the floor at the Red Sea, the crowd forgoes popping and locking in favor of the simple things in dance: slow, funky moves and close coupling. Sade would approve.

 

SUNDAY

"How many of y'all went to a battle before 8 Mile," shouts Kevin Beacham, onstage at First Avenue. The crowd roars for its cred. "That's what I wanted to hear."

Hosted by Beacham, DJ'd by Aaron Money, and organized by Adam Garcia and Abijit (who promote Monday nights at the Loring Pasta Bar), tonight's "Showdown" rap championship has drawn 16 MCs from all over the Midwest and half a dozen judges (including Felipe Cuauhtli from Los Nativos, and Toki Wright). The live instrumental hip-hop group Heiruspecs headline. But it's basically the Fifth Element scene with more pressure.

Ice-Rod is clearly the local favorite, his name yelled the moment he hits the stage. He doesn't win over this audience with rhyme skills, exactly. His high-pitched shout and uncanny bluntness are just stone funny. When one of his opponents dusts off a cliché like "You don't know how to compete with me," Ice-Rod answers, "I don't know how to compete with you/I'll just get on stage and fucking defeat you."

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