Rap it up
The local hip-hop community comes together for an awards show
Nobody who watched the Super Bowl watched it because they were excited to see some unity between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Nobody who thought that Inception was the best movie of 2010 was happy when The King’s Speech won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Viewers and fans usually think of awards ceremonies in the same way they think of sporting events: as competitions. But when the first Academy Awards took place, back in 1929, the event was a way of giving some legitimacy and credibility to what was then a new artform, and considered by many to be crude, lowbrow entertainment. Likewise, in 1967, the first Super Bowl was a merger between two rival leagues. Football was not yet the dominant sport it is today, and the event was not yet the annual viewership record-smasher it would become. On a grander scale, the first modern Olympic Games, in 1896, was a symbolic, peaceful gathering of 14 countries from across the world.
Some nominal competitions are actually symbols of unity, events that signal to the world, “What we’re doing is important enough that we’re giving out awards for it.”
On Saturday, March 5, at The Underground in downtown Reno, dozens of rappers, producers, musicians, visual artists, promoters, video directors, radio DJs, fans, groupies, random guests and wannabes will come together for the Reno Hip-Hop Awards (RHAA).
“The scene has been flourishing,” says Daniel Hubbard, the promoter whose company, Speak Your Mind, organized the event. “It’s not about winners and losers. You might leave mad if you go in like that. It’s more about unity and promotion. It’s long overdue, but we might not have had the talent there before.”
The RHAA will award prizes in two dozen categories, including Song of 2010, Album of 2010, and Video of 2010—each of which will be awarded in both solo and group categories. Additionally, there will be “Throwback” prizes awarded to artists, songs, videos and albums from the previous five years or so. Hubbard says there will also be a special lifetime achievement award given to an individual who has contributed immeasurably to the scene. Hubbard and others involved hope this event will become an annual occurrence.
There was an open submission process for the awards late last year and then, in January, a month of online public voting that helped narrow down the submissions. Then, Hubbard invited 35 judges to vote on the awards. The judging panel was like a voting community, like The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Hubbard says he wanted three kinds of judges: People who knew the local hip-hop scene; people who know hip-hop but didn’t know the local scene; and people who knew Reno music but might not be involved with hip-hop. The first group included a number of high-profile locals, like Scott “Buddha” Lee and Todd “Dotkom” Lee, hosts of Reno’s long-running “Bombshelter” radio show, and rappers like Tony “Locus” Walker, Iain “Emic” Watson and Richie “Apprentice” Panelli. The second group included some nationally known hip-hop artists, like Sage Francis. The third group included Underground club manager Remi Jourdan and Oliver Ex, a music promoter and publisher of the magazine Reno Tahoe Tonight. Many of the judges were also nominees, but weren’t allowed to vote in categories where they themselves were nominated.
“It symbolizes how far Reno has come,” says Jamar “Lefty Rose” Walker, a judge in the competition and a recording artist nominated for solo awards, including Song of the Year and Album of the Year, as well as a part of the nominated group Yours Truly. “It’s also a chance to give back to some of the artists who helped pave the way for the community, because there’s a handful or artists who did that, and without them and their support, we wouldn’t even be here right now to have a hip-hop awards show. So I think it’s a good thing to help pay respect to the people who helped lay the foundation and will continue to lay the foundation.”
The nominees include some of the trailblazers of Reno hip-hop, like Bamboo, Dialect and Metaphysical.
“It’s respect, I think, more than anything,” says Yanda “Yan Doe” Dowdell, a rapper and producer, also up for a number of awards, including Song of the Year, and a judge in the contest. “Respect for the people that’s putting the work in, grinding to make it happen.”
And while many of the nominated artists say that the event is more of a celebration of the Reno scene than a fierce contest, they also acknowledge that the competition is serious business.
“It’s nice to know that your peers respect your work and that people see the effort that you put in and the quality in it,” says Lefty Rose. “It’s nice to be recognized for the work that you do. Especially in a place that I consider my hometown, where I started, to have that kind of nomination and that respect is very nice. And it keeps you going, because sometimes, being an artist, there’s a lot of things that get in your way, and to have something positive happen reinforces you and keeps you going. … But I think everybody who’s nominated does want to win. The nomination itself is almost like a win, you know, just to be nominated in a category with some of these other artists—it is a blessing, but I think any artist would be lying if they said they didn’t want to win. It isn’t the most important thing, but of course, you do want to be recognized, and you do want to win.”
So there will be some awards night tension, some fingers crossed, losers trying to act gracious about it, and maybe even some interrupted acceptance speeches in the great tradition of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Kanye West. But probably not—most of the onstage drama will be the dozens of scheduled performances by acts like Wordplay, Apprentice, Shorty T, Young Duse, Reno True Emcees and others. Other local artists will be presenters, and respected local rapper Michael “Mic-Rob” Robinson will host of the whole event.
Mic-Rob is also up for a few awards, including Music Video of 2010. (Hosting the event and nominated for awards—he’s like the James Franco of Reno hip-hop.) He believes the competition is a good thing: It helps local MCs, DJs and producers hone their skills and prepare for other levels of performance.
“Hip-hop is starting to blossom, but I don’t think we’re to our potential, by any means,” says Mic-Rob. “I think the award show fits as far as people being able to reach for something now. It’s not just a situation where you’re just putting your music out and hoping that people are hearing you … it puts some competition back onto it now. You want to make sure that your bars are set to a higher standard, or your music is set to a higher standard than it was before. … Competition is a great thing. … If you want to compete, you have to have higher standards. I play football, so I thrive on competition.”
In addition to the musical action of the evening, a trio of local visual artists, Hayden Lyle, Pat Ortiz and Mike Lucido, will create acrylic-on-canvas paintings live onstage over the course of the night. The artists’ works are often stylized, street art-inspired depictions of animals. Their presence at the show helps signify hip-hop’s historic connections to street art. Hip-hop, after all, is an entire culture, and rap music is only one part of that. And though works of art are often viewed only as finished products, there can be a performance aspect to the creation of a painting.
“It’s really cool painting onstage, and the music’s right there,” says Lucido. “I get lost dancing sometimes.”
“You have all these people behind you, so you’re not only painting, you’re kind of performing, because when the musicians get offstage you’re still up there for most of the night,” says Ortiz. “Everybody’s eyes are on you most of the time, but then again, it is kind of like painting at home, because when you paint at home, you paint with music. … It does inspire you. We mostly do street art type stuff—that’s what we evolved from—and most of the music is hip-hop, so it does inspire us a little bit more because that’s where we’re rooted in.”
The judges were excited about the diversity of talent on display throughout the competition. “Some of the cats I hadn’t heard, and to get a chance to hear artists that are doing stuff out here—it was cool for me,” says Yan Doe.
“It was a pretty hard competition to judge because there’s about eight songs per [category], and when you’re judging it, you got to judge it on the quality of the recording, the whole production,” says judge Jason Millick, of local music production company J-Bird Productionz. “Some of them had good music, and the singing was awesome, but bad levels on the recording. It just varied. … It took me probably a month of just re-listening to them. Sometimes I thought it was good, then I’d have to go back and reevaluate my picks.”
In addition to providing some exposure for local artists, many of the people involved with the RHHA hope that the event will help raise Reno’s national hip-hop profile.
“People are taking it a little more seriously,” says judge Larry “LDZ” Harris, a producer and recording engineer who’s been involved in the local scene for more than 20 years. “They see that there’s an opportunity to actually make something of yourself doing hip-hop, whether it be rapping, DJing, producing, whatever you do. I think people see that there’s actually an opportunity for Reno to come up. Because the West Coast scene died off when Tupac died, and it’s slowly been building itself back up, and I think, personally, Reno’s going to be the next hot spot on the West Coast. … We’ve been in the dark so long. We haven’t been getting the respect that we deserve. There’s a lot of good people in Reno, a lot of good beatmakers, a lot of good rappers, decent DJs. Everybody’s pretty decent, so we’re all coming together now, instead of doing it separately, everybody doing their own thing. We’ve come together, and this movement is really taking off.”
“Reno needs it, too,” says Millick. “We’re a crucial hub between the Midwest and the West. There’s a big market here for it, and there’s a lot of unheard talent, too.”
Lefty Rose went to high school in Reno, graduated in ’97, and moved away to pursue his music career. He moved back last year. “I came back for music,” he says. “I came back to be with my friends and my family and make the music that I want to make.”
For Lefty Rose 14 years ago, Reno was the kind of town you left if you were serious about music. Now, you move here for it.
“I think people are more accepting of hip-hop music now,” says Lefty Rose. “When I first moved here, there wasn’t too many artists making the music, or even appreciating the music. I’ve come to see over the years that there’s a lot more appreciation for hip-hop— like a lot of the people that I went to school with, their little brothers and sisters are fans of the music now. They were kids that were like 8, 9 years old when I lived here, and now they’re adults, and they support it. It’s changed the outlook of hip-hop music in the city.”
“I’m from down South, and I still go back there,” says Yan Doe, who’s originally from Opelika, Ala. “The biggest thing about the South is the way they work. Their networking is on point. They have to help push each others’ music to get it heard and get it out there. And that’s what they do. There ain’t no ego-tripping, none of that. You’re starting to see that with Reno, with people putting their egos on the backburner, and trying to help everybody. Because if one person succeeds, we all succeed.”
“Even five years ago, if you would have brought this idea up, it wouldn’t have made any sense,” says Lefty Rose. “There’s just more people who genuinely care about the art and genuinely care about the music. They want to make a positive impact. In other places that I’ve been, and other places that I’ve traveled to and performed in, it’s more about the act of being an artist. It’s like they want to be seen more than be heard. Out here, artists are trying to put their work out there and be known for their music. To me, that’s the main thing about being an artist, you want to be known for your work, not known because you are an artist but because of what you do as an artist. I’m starting to see that here.”
Many in the local hip-hop scene see the RHAA as a signal to the larger hip-hop community that Reno can be a mecca for the music. The awards give the winners something impressive for their resumes, but it also creates a brand for the city.
“San Diego has their awards,” says Mic-Rob. “L.A. has their awards, Miami has their awards, and here we don’t really care about it unless you’re in that city, but when you’re champion of the city, now you’re representing that city.”
The Packers had to defeat their regional NFC North rivals, the Chicago Bears, before they could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Barack Obama had to defeat Hillary Clinton in the primaries before he could take on John McCain in the general.
“This hip-hop awards is finally going to let everybody know that the Reno game is serious business,” says LDZ. “This isn’t hobbies. …We’re in this to put Reno on the map in the history book of hip-hop. This hip-hop awards thing is probably the best thing that’s happened to the hip-hop game in Reno, period.”