Pass the mic
“Hip-hop has been good to me,” says Ruben’s Cantina owner Ruben Renteria, as he works from behind the bar of his namesake watering hole on Fourth Street, which he runs with his wife Sonja. “It’s been two years already, it started out slow but it’s really picked-up.” The two years he’s referring to is his bar’s weekly Wednesday night 775 Hip Hop open mic night, which just celebrated its two year anniversary about a month ago.
Hip-hop open mics aren’t a traditional open mic platform. There’s no sign-up list, no announcers calling out names in an orderly fashion, and there’s no time frame—meaning each performer’s moment in the limelight isn’t measured by a song or two before they’re politely booted off for the next eager guitar strummer. Hip-hop open mics are all about the competition, dating back to the genre’s roots, according to local hip-hop promoter Dan Hubbard, who loosely claims the title of host for the Wednesday night shenanigans at Ruben’s.
“It’s not a standard open mic format,” Hubbard agrees. “But for hip-hop, it’s conventional. They play beats, and the mics are sitting there open, it’ll progress to a battle at times, but it’s always respectful and switches off—if you’re a really good rapper you’ll control the mic for a little bit. Hip-hop started with competition. That’s how [performers] get better. But it’s positive, we’ve never had a fight in here.”
In fact, for a night based around competition, the vibe is surprisingly playful. The mic rotates from hand to hand, occasionally with rappers finishing each other’s verses in a back-and-forth fashion, filling the room with a sense of camaraderie. That sense is fueled not only by a crowd of regulars who come back week to week to take their turn at the verse, but also by Renteria’s efforts to make his bar feel like a home away from home for his patrons.
“This is a place where I give them an open opportunity,” Renteria says of his Wednesday night crowd, which he approximates averages in age from 21 to early 30s. “We make it very easy, all the equipment is provided, you just come in and free style.”
Renteria’s good hosting efforts don’t go unnoticed by his crowd. Local producer Joey Quayle, who plays beats on Wednesday nights for the Ruben’s Cantina open mic-ers to rap over, cites Renteria as a driving force behind the night’s success.
“Ruben takes care of us,” Quayle says. “The drinks are cheap, his hand is heavy, and it’s a great environment.”
Quayle is also quick to mention Hubbard’s own dedication to the night. The host who says he continues to organize the night out of love for the local hip-hop community more than anything else—“there’s no money in it,” Hubbard says—provides all of his own equipment for the stage.
“Dan invests his own money into this,” Quayle says.
The investment is well received, as it’s not the first hip-hop open mic in town, but it is the longest running—thanks to the help of regulars like George Vargas who make it a point to come out every Wednesday primarily for the sense of belonging the night breeds.
“You gotta come prepared,” Vargas says, in reference to getting on the mic. “But everyone’s got a positive attitude, and nobody judges you.”
A supportive environment is the best place to grow, and encouraged by a little healthy competition, the young rappers of Ruben’s hip-hop open mic have a set stage to flourish.
“They all start somewhere, and I love seeing people mature out of it,” says Hubbard. “Open mic is the planting of the seed.”