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.
8:00 The rest of the night is all happy comedown. Fiction reprises his catchiest song (something about "Fuck that, nigga, I'll take your shit"), Doomtree gets over on group moxie, and I Self Devine offers our best regional anthem yet, "Ice Cold." The momentum carries over into the DUNation after-party, held on the top of the building that houses Roberts Shoes on Lake and Chicago. Producer Dtekh, poet Desdamona, blogger Saucy Dame, Slug of Atmosphere, artist Earnest Bryant III, and many others mingle against a skyline of moon, downtown buildings, and the lit-up Sears tower. Muja Messiah mans the bar, charging white people extra for drinks.
Sunday, August 21, 5:20 p.m. During a panel discussion on "indulgence," Brother Ali takes issue with the notion that hip hop and rap are different entities with different motivations. "If I could sound like Ludacris, I would," he says.
One reporter's opinion: There's nothing wrong with rap music that isn't wrong with the American dream, a two-faced beast that tells people to work hard, then glorifies those who've skipped the square job and gone straight to riches. (Later this evening, AD, whose initials stand for American Dream, performs his own local anthem, "North Side Stomp.")
6:15On the sidewalk outside, Afro-ed rapper Young Pluky is stopping passing SUVs to hawk his $3 CD, D.T.R. Dodging the Rico. "Yo, we're trying to get off the block here," he hollers. "I don't want to sell drugs no more."
10:10"How many of you here were born in the '70s?" says Zach Combs onstage, by way of buying some time for festival headliner Slick Rick. A "yeah" comes roaring back in reply. "How about the '80s?" says Combs. The "yeah" doubles in volume, and Combs pantomimes being blown over by a fierce wind. One new resident of Golden Valley wonders why people born in the '60s are so often slighted at hip-hop shows.
Today was a good day: Gangster-esque females Heat were hot. Local hip-hop godfather Travis Lee (better known as Travitron) got an award for starting all this. "Northern Exposure (Tease Me)," the new song by the C.O.R.E. (featuring festival organizer Toki Wright), is the best hip-hop ho-down since Crucial Conflict's "Hay." And Enfinity Dance Group did some krumping during what was essentially a paid performance for their $200 prize money when nobody else showed to compete.
But everyone is here for "the Ruler."
"I'm going to play two records, one old-school, one new-school," says Slick Rick once he's taken the stage, cueing his DJ. "And you tell me which one moves you in your soul."
He plays a series of new tracks and old ones, setting Mike Jones against House of Pain, the Ying Yang Twins against the Mary Jane Girls. He introduces his wife, who suits him up in '80s-style gold chains before he raps "Children's Story." ("This was how we dressed when I was your age," he says.) Trim and animated, he nonetheless has the ironic glint of a man who knows he's an oldies act. "Try to stay within your Ten Commandments," he says by way of goodnight. "And let's try to keep this racial melting pot going."
11:30 Clad in a white tank top with a Puerto Rican flag, St. Paul rapper Maria Isa is salsa dancing outside First Avenue with a guy in a Che Guevara T-shirt. Friends are banging on drums, and others are singing call-and-response in Spanish. Soon b-boy Daylight is a blur on the sidewalk. Dick Mammen, a guy in a white beard who founded the organization behind this weekend's event, Yo! the Movement, has known festival honchos Toki Wright and Larry Lucio since they were kids.
"It's a spontaneous youth gathering," he says, smiling at the spectacle. "Shouldn't somebody call the cops?"
For more photos from the 4th Annual Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop, visit Complicatedfun.com.