For three days, in what was surely a first, you could buy taquitos, cups of Italian ice, and plates of African jerk chicken outside First Avenue. Upstairs in the Minneapolis club, you could register to vote, get tested for STDs, or manufacture a dub plate of your own recordings on the spot (thus enabling DJs to scratch your records). Between these small favors and big dreams were about 200 performers giving their all onstage and outdoors at the 4th Annual Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop. Here's a rundown of the highlights, or at least what I saw when I wasn't registering to vote from my new address in Golden Valley, hence destroying my street cred for eternity.
Friday, August 19, 7:50 p.m. "Hey, everybody, this is me in the eighth grade." Zach Combs has his arm around a younger opponent in the MC battle, Righteous Bliss. Combs is performing under the name "White Jesus," and he looks the part. Bliss looks like the scrappy stepson of Slim Shady.
For Bliss to beat reigning champion Combs, he'll need to improvise, riffing on whatever stimuli come his way. This is what Combs did in an earlier round, when another rapper made the fateful error of questioning White Jesus' south Minneapolis heritage. "I'm not from the South Side? I'm from Riverside and Cedar!" Combs balked, gesturing to a man on the floor cheering the other guy. "I'll serve you up and your little cheerleader."
Bliss seems up to this challenge. "Yo, it's groovy, dude," he raps, looking Combs up and down. "This guy looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo."
In the end, Combs just comes back with more confidence--the often unanticipated and deciding factor in rap bouts. (Bliss appears injured by the quip, "The closest he comes to sex is when his cell phone vibrates.")
When it's over, Bliss tells me this is the first battle he's ever lost.
9:50 Detroit's Slum Village have the first wheels-of-steel dude I actually notice. Outside of Sunday's turntable battle, most of the DJs in the fest stand behind the decks, mostly trying hard to look busy. But even a cosmetic DJ is better than no DJ at all. Trama Sutra's set the following day is all energy, but there's something dispiriting about an MC who comes onstage and presses "play."
10:30 Outside the club, First Avenue employee and DUNation.com founder Lars Larson is apologetically explaining to patrons that there's a new dress code, First Avenue's first-ever, for tonight's Energy Lab hip-hop dance night. "The way people dress here, this is part of their culture," complains Hugo Wong-Cardona, whose name reflects his broad American heritage, and whose ball cap (bearing the Colombian flag) disqualifies him from reentering the building. "Put a dress code on a 50 Cent show."
Saturday, August 20, 5:00 p.m.The mirrored skyscrapers of downtown have a new soundtrack: The JBs' "The Grunt (Parts 1 & 2)." During the preliminary rounds of the b-boy battles, a series of crews breakdance under a clear blue sky. You Got Served by a Slice of Asian Between Two Pieces of White Toast and the all-female PMS both go on to the finals. The Crew That Just Got Together, perhaps under-rehearsed, does not.
5:30 Here's something you don't see every day inside the 7th St. Entry: 20 people sitting in a circle of folding chairs, holding an impassioned group discussion about "street credibility." This is the first festival event I've seen with only a couple of white faces. One is the square-jawed mayoral candidate Peter McLaughlin, who looks like a character from a '40s noir movie. Community leaders discuss how hip hop, once a phenomenon rooted in neighborhood parties, has been transformed into a "white supremacist fantasy" of African American life.
Rapper I Self Devine, whose new album is playing next door, isn't so sure.
"We live in a gangster society," he says.
6:15 Human beatboxer AB has traveled all the way from Montana to be defeated in the first round of the beatbox battle by last year's champion, DJ Snuggles. AB wears a "Bush + Dick = America Screwed" T-shirt and hums a version of "Hail to the Chief." DJ Snuggles repeats the tune, then pretends to cough, and begins coughing a funky rhythm.
In the final round, Snuggles faces Dialek, of the St. Paul group Purest Form, who puts the microphone to his neck and voices a beat through the surface of his skin. But nobody believes this is a serious contest: When Snuggles begins scratching his own voice, it's all over. (Dialek later impresses with a song using each letter of the alphabet for one line. For "X" he manages to avoid the word "xylophone.")
7:15B-boys aren't just dancers: They're actors. Though they stare each other down like boxers in a ring, turns out that the camo-clad b-girl Monarch (of PMS) and the security guard-outfitted b-boy Sequel (of Sample Text) are actually dating. When Sequel throws down, dancing threateningly around Monarch, nobody notices when he plants a momentary kiss on her cheek before spinning horizontally on the floor.