Hip-hop’s bad rap

Local hip-hop artists show the positive underbelly of the much maligned genre

DJ Idol Hands and rapper Omega perform at a recent hip-hop concert at The Holland Project.

DJ Idol Hands and rapper Omega perform at a recent hip-hop concert at The Holland Project.

Photo By David Robert

Rameses, of the group Dorm Room, takes long strides in dark blue jeans across the stage. His large hands grip a microphone, and he smiles as his wife—roughly half of his 6-foot-plus size—joins him onstage. They strike up a love song. He raps low and steady, and she sings a jazzy, soulful backup. Their 3-year-old son, Luca, doesn’t want to be left out. He appears between them, staring blankly at the crowd in front of him but with the creepings of a bashful smile as he tugs on his Dad’s pant leg to hold—just hold—a mic.

This is hip hop—at least one element of it. There’s no bling, no Cristal. It’s local, peaceful and positive, and it’s a scene in stark contrast to the sexier hip-hop news stories of the day. Like these:

• The Don Imus incident raised questions of misogyny in rap and hip-hop, as well as what’s considered acceptable and unacceptable when popular culture crosses into the public sphere.

• The Chicago Tribune covered a community forum called “Does Hip-Hop Hate Women?”

• Rap star Cam’ron (Cameron Giles) was shot in both arms in 2005. Earlier this year, he told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes that he hasn’t cooperated with police on the matter because it would “definitely hurt my business. … I was raised differently, not to tell.” His remarks brought up similar “no snitching” instances involving other rappers, including Busta Rhymes, who wouldn’t talk to investigators after his bodyguard, Israel Ramirez, was shot to death outside a Brooklyn soundstage in February 2006.

Poor man’s CNN
But buried beneath the reports of crime and scandal are positive hip-hop artists, who celebrate the genre’s expression. Their words are poetic affirmations of music, love and existence or thoughtful criticisms of war, politics and commercialism. It’s all layered over a collage of self-created, often jazz-inspired, beats.

Local groups, including Dorm Room, performing at a recent hip-hop show at the Holland Project, speak of hip-hop as therapy. Reno hip-hopper McGimmick, in a song called “Hip Hop You Complete Me,” raps, “I picked up on your frequency, and I want to freak it frequently.”

That theme extends to national groups, such as underground hip-hop artists Atmosphere, who, in “Guns and Cigarettes” raps of the power of hip-hop to overtake the appeal of crime, drugs and violence for young people: “I wanna be bigger than Jesus, and bigger than wrestling. Bigger than the Beatles, and bigger than breast implants. Gonna be the biggest thing to hit these little kids. Bigger than guns, bigger than cigarettes.”

Another McGimmick song, about a trip to a suburban mall, becomes a diatribe on consumerism and fashionistas. This aversion to advertising and mind manipulation also extends to national groups. The Sol.illaquists of Sound, in their song “Mark It Place,” sing: “This is the mark it place, from field of dreams, growing goodness it would seem, but solely strictly fortified to control your mind.”

The messages of groups like these have little to do with mainstream rap. But, as Rameses points out, “The mainstream has a tendency to dictate what the whole culture is.”

A blogger on Allhiphopnews.com commented: “Eminem, Proof and 50 Cent bring to rap/hip-hop the opposite artistic messages that groups like De La Soul and the Fugees started. The same comparisons could be made between Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin versus Judas Priest and Mötley Crüe.”

Calling one sort of hip-hop “good” and the other “bad” is dangerous ground to those who value freedom of expression. Rock ‘n’ roll, many remember, was once (and still is, in some groups) considered “evil.”

Hip hop, Rameses says, “is what it is. It’s reflective.”

Gangsta rap has been called the “poor man’s CNN"—bringing news of urban warfare to an audience that isn’t hearing it from major media sources. For many gangsta rappers, rapping about drugs and crime is rapping about the realities of their lives.

But violence during rap shows has been a fact—weapons have been drawn and sometimes shot. The safety of venue employees and patrons are called into question. Occasionally, business decisions are made to not hold hip-hop shows.

One of the first things Brandon Deriso did when he became the new manager of Club Underground about a year ago was get rid of the club’s Late Nite Hip-Hop events. He says that, in the past year, there has been one fight at an arena motocross show, and a punk rock band broke some windows.

“But in the four to five months we were doing Late Nite Hip-Hop, we had maybe 10 major incidences occur.” Incidents involving fights and weapons. He says Reno’s 24-hour status was partly to blame.

“In the Bay Area, they can’t do that,” he says. “So when you start doing Late Nite Hip-Hop from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., you have all those hip-hop people coming over from California to party in Reno for the weekend. It was bringing negativity from major cities into a small town.”

Deriso is quick to point out that not all hip-hop acts create such an atmosphere. “When you get into underground, positive spin, college stuff, no problem,” he says. “Anytime you get into the Bay Area, hyphy hip-hop, we’ve had major problems.”

The issue became so heated after Las Vegas police officer Henry Prendes was murdered by a gangsta rapper that, in early 2006, Nevada regent Stavros Anthony proposed that rap and hip-hop performances be prohibited from university campuses. The Board of Regents rejected Stavros’ proposal in March 2006, choosing to favor freedom of speech after a university lawyer said such a ban would likely be unconstitutional.

Negative into positive
Still, hip-hop’s bad reputation has disturbed some fans. With help from teachers Sam Epstein and Joe Ferguson, Rainshadow Community Charter High School students Cole Campbell and Desiree Vickery decided to organize a hip hop concert at Holland that would showcase local bands who represent the positive side of the music.

“We were talking about how we don’t like where hip hop is going,” says Campbell, a 17-year-old with a blonde buzz cut, who is setting up a space for graffiti artists to paint during the show. “It’s all guns, thugs, bitches and crack. This is about turning the negative into the positive.”

Vickery, 17, cites musicians Brother Ali, Aesop Rock and Tribe Called Quest among her favorites. For those artists, “It’s not about going to a club and partying,” she says. “It’s about real life experiences. … We have to state that there’s something more to hip-hop.”

Meanwhile, Rajbot, with ‘70s-era lambchops and a moustache, is giving a demonstration to a cluster of primarily lanky teenage boys on how to sample and mix beats.

Later, Emic takes the stage. He’s dressed like a frat boy in a white polo shirt, khaki shorts, baseball cap and black rimmed glasses, but his voice is strong and passionate as he raps self-deprecatingly about his bad luck in love.

Then the three-man Dorm Room (minus wife and son)—Rameses, Apprentice and DJ Idle Hands—comes on. Apprentice, an audiologist by day, has traded his quiet demeanor for the confidence of a rapper—one asking political questions and confronting the disparity between the rich and the poor in a song called “Hey, Mr. Me.”

Tree Woods, in a floppy hat and white T-shirt, closes the show rapping about the victims of Katrina, his fellow African Americans and what that catastrophe means for all people. The lovely Lacey sweetly sings at his side in a white jumpsuit. The crowd is thrown into a call-and-response: “We can win!” they yell out to him. He smiles on stage, legs bouncing at the knee and responds, “As long as we keep our heads to the sky.”