By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
In October, the Uptown hip-hop record store owned and operated by Rhymesayers Entertainment, Fifth Element, re-launched its open-mic night event after several years on hiatus, and the monthly forum for local rappers has been steadily increasing in attendance ever since. The event is free, a testament to Rhymesayers' devotion to the local scene. Peering into the famed shop's picture windows on the first Thursday of the month will give a glimpse into the burgeoning generation of up-and-coming MCs, those who're steadily making their names rubbing elbows with those who've yet to perform for an audience. Anyone who has something to spit is welcome; the night functions as a place to network, improve your skills, or simply hear a range of excellent rap.
"It's a low-pressure, supportive environment for new artists, and I would say that it's still a respected venue with a lot of history for artists who are a little bit more established," says Chantz of Tru Ruts Records, who has attended the event alongside many other rising figures in the local scene, including I.B.E., Mike Dreams, TruthBeTold of the Tribe, Mally, and many others. "It's impressive to me that the second people step in there, a community is instantly formed with almost no effort."
Though still in its early stages, the open mic is building on a storied past. Even before Rhymesayers had solidified itself as the independent hip-hop contender it is today, many of the artists who are now well known around town were cutting their teeth at the first incarnation of Fifth's events. The early years are the stuff of legend, with not-yet-big names Brother Ali and Toki Wright manning hosting duties from the night's inception in May 2002. In a space half the size of the current store, regulars like Big Quarters, Mazta I, Sector 7G, Carnage, and St. Paul Kings would stop in to hone their craft for a packed house each week. "Ice Rod was the star, man," recalls rapper Franz Diego of Illuminous 3. "He really put a different taste to this open mic because he would come in and say the most outlandish shit that had nothin' to do with rap, but he rhymed everything on beat! It was just ridiculous, and he did not give a fuck how people perceived him." It was clear from the crowd reaction to Ice Rod's (a.k.a. Michael Gaughan's) unexpected appearance at February's event that his reputation preceded him.
In the beginning, the crowds that were drawn would see styles of all kinds come through, and the vibe was generally accepting—but you had to have skill. Those who thought they could get away with bringing anything less than their best would quickly get told otherwise. The atmosphere was receptive but critical, one that nurtured talent by providing more than simply the chance to perform. "There was definitely an emphasis to try to hand down what we have been taught to some of the kids coming through," says Felipe of Los Nativos, an original member of the pioneering Headshots crew and occasional open-mic host.
The interaction with seasoned veterans helped fledgling MCs sharpen their skills and fully develop their vocal instruments. Diego, a high schooler at the time of the first open mic who has since gone on to host the current version, cites the event as an important factor in his maturation as an artist. "A lot of the people who are talented and successful are willing to genuinely give you feedback and are willing to genuinely advise you on how to improve, which I don't think happens in other cities," he says. "They don't have to give this space for us, [but] they're invested and they're interested."
Many of those involved feel the current open mic has the potential to grow to the level of its glory days, but hip-hop culture has changed since then, and so has the event. Freestyling, once the cornerstone of the event, is far less present. An open cypher still takes place during the first hour—the DJ throws instrumentals on shuffle as the MCs pass the mic and trade improvised lines—but more often rappers showcase their written material over beats they've brought in. For some of the older heads, the paradigm shift is an unfortunate one, a sign that the younger crowd is uninterested in truly refining their craft. Others see it as a natural progression toward songwriting and more personal material, stemming from what has proven popular in local rap. Either way, Fifth Element intends to let the open mic grow organically, in hopes the new era will continue to foster the strong Minnesota hip-hop scene that Fifth Element once helped bring about.