Hip-hop in Northern Nevada comes of age
Artie Richmond grips the microphone almost like the professionals do. Wearing a white T-shirt and baggy shorts, the pale-skinned amateur MC moves awkwardly as he raps, arms overextended and waving wildly as he leans forward, emphasizing each lyric. Behind his thick black beard, the 25-year-old is beaming with an innocent look of joy and excitement. It’s obvious Richmond loves hip-hop as much as anyone else in the room.
The instrumental version of legendary New York MC Nas’ song “Made You Look” plays. It’s a rugged, hard-hitting beat, but Richmond’s words blend well with the music. Richmond isn’t rapping about anything specific. He’s freestyling—improvising lyrics as he performs them. Joining him on stage are some of the most talented and established freestyle MCs in Reno—Emic, Guilty One, GoodWord. These are the kind of guys who can catch a beat and change a skeptic’s perspective of Reno’s hip-hop culture in one freestyle session.
Richmond’s happy-go-lucky attitude has made him a favorite with local hip-hop veterans. Not so much for his rap style—he doesn’t consider himself a great rapper, and by most criteria, he’s not—but for his perspective on music. For Richmond, everything is positive. He isn’t plagued by the politics of the local hip-hop scene. He’s untouched by all the personal quibbles that have arguably kept Reno from gaining national recognition in hip-hop.
Richmond serves as a reminder to older MCs in the room of why they got into hip-hop in the first place.
The atmosphere of the evening is nostalgic. Vixens in Sparks is filled with many of the people responsible for building Reno’s hip-hop scene—DJs like Buddha, Dotkom and Ecto; MCs like Rameses, Apprentice and Tree Woodz.
Other local hip-hop powerhouses—namely Metaphysical and his crew, Element—are not present.
“I was surprised Meta and them aren’t here tonight,” says Dotkom.
Also absent is Ernie Upton, MC of the Sacramento-born, Reno-based rap group Who Cares. Element and Who Cares may be the two most respected and accomplished rap groups in Reno.
Their absence is especially notable this evening. It’s a Tuesday night, and many people in the room still remember the Hip-Hop Tuesdays franchise that DJs Buddha and Dotkom built over a decade.
This warm night in the middle of July is an attempt by the two DJs to restart the tradition of open mics in Reno. A few years ago, their Hip-Hop Tuesdays open mic at the Green Room on West Street was the focal point of local hip-hop.
Open mics have long served as a gauge of the local hip-hop scene. Since the late 1990s, Reno’s various open mics have bred talent and formed the meeting place for MCs and hip-hop enthusiasts looking to network. But, as often happens when too many competing and talented people are in a room together, open mics have led to egos colliding, occasionally fragmenting the local hip-hop scene.
The most successful open mics in Reno have been hosted by DJs Dotkom and Buddha, brothers born Todd, now 36, and Scott Lee, 33, respectively. Since 1999, the brothers have also been running a popular independent hip-hop radio show called The Bombshelter that airs on Wild 102.9 FM on Sundays from 10 p.m.-1 a.m.
Open mics, however, are just one way to measure the local hip-hop scene. Also important to consider are the number of national acts that come to town, the number of shows performed by local artists, and, the most important factor of all, the quality of music that Reno’s hip-hop artists produce.Sewing the seeds
Since hip-hop’s birth in the mid-1970s, there has always been competition among artists. The goal has always been to be the best—the best MC, the best DJ, the best breakdancer, or the best graffiti artist (the four elements of hip-hop).
Hip-hop started in the Bronx. DJ Kool Herc, who was known for throwing block parties, coined the term. By the early 1980s, graffiti, DJing and break dancing were at the peak of their fame in urban culture. MCing, or rapping, was still growing. Within a few years, rapping would become the most exposed and influential element of hip-hop.
By 1993, Reno’s live hip-hop scene had germinated. The first sprout of the scene was manifested in Demond Dowdy, a 16-year-old scrawny, light-skinned black kid who had just moved to Reno from Detroit. To other hip-hoppers, he was known as Dialect.
Many will note that break dancing and graffiti were present in Reno since the mid-1980s, and some people were experimenting with rap music. But Dowdy’s efforts influenced others who would also go on to become pillars in Reno’s hip-hop scene.
Starting a hip-hop scene from scratch—keep in mind, pre-internet—was tough.
“All we had was what was given to us—which was nothing,” said Dialect, now 31, standing in the kitchen of his comfortable suburban house in south Reno. “Cats out here think they’re starting this scene or they run shit. It’s easy for you now, but imagine how it was when we were doing it.”
While attending Wooster High School, Dialect met Kyle Eastern, who goes by Hot Steez on the mic. When Michael Russell, who dubbed himself Metaphysical, moved from the Bay Area to Reno and enrolled at Wooster, he was drawn to the duo.
“I met Demond, he had Timberland boots and shorts,” recalled Metaphysical, now 32. “I was like, ‘I bet he’s a hip-hop guy.”
He was, and Element, the longest-standing hip-hop crew in Reno, was born.
“Demond didn’t even have a bed in his house,” says Metaphysical. “He had turntables.”
In classic hip-hop tradition, Element began hosting house parties, often in Metaphysical’s mobile home. It was there that they would develop their skills as MCs.
Around this same time nationally, hip-hop was on the brink of going mainstream. Countless records that are now considered classics were being released: Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers); Digable Planets’ debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space); Souls of Mischief’s debut 93 ’Til Infinity. Some of hip-hop’s best music was being made, and Reno’s teenagers were eager to absorb as much of the culture as possible.
“We had a lot of staples, I guess you could say, in the game,” Opio of Souls of Mischief said after a recent performance in Sparks.
During that same time, some other kids at Wooster High School experimented with hip-hop.
“Late ’92, just getting into ’93, Demond and I started making mix tapes together,” said Matt Reyes, a producer known as Reydub. “We would do a house party, and him and I would DJ. I would bring over a crate of records, hip-hop records. He would have a crate of records, hip-hop records, of course.”
Back then, finding hip-hop on vinyl in Reno wasn’t easy, and having a healthy collection of hip-hop records was a source of pride. In many hip-hop circles, it still is.
Over the next few years, Dialect and Reydub taught themselves to make beats—instrumental backings based on samples and drum patters. Dialect was quickly becoming the go-to guy for hip-hop technical know-how—a reputation he still holds today.
“That dude’s like the Wizard of Oz,” says Apprentice, now 33. “He knows everything.”
About the same time, in 1994, DJs Dotkom and Buddha moved from a small town in California to attend the University of Nevada, Reno.
“We were white kids from the suburbs, but we knew we loved rap,” said Dotkom, sitting at a booth in the Beach Hut Deli, which he and his brother own.
Also in ’94, Buddha met another white kid from the suburbs who loved rap: Richie Panelli, who would later come to be known as Apprentice.
“Freshman year at UNR, I met Buddha because he was in my math class … and he gave me a mix tape that had Pharcyde [of Los Angeles] and a lot of those crews on it,” said Apprentice.
This same year, Dotkom spent a few weeks in the Bay Area and submerged himself in the hip-hop scene. He returned to Reno with a few thousand dollars worth of DJing equipment and hip-hop records—all purchased with college financial aid money.
Two years later, in 1996, the two brothers started their Tuesday night hip-hop event at the now defunct Blue Lamp on Sierra Street.Tuesday night at the battles
The Blue Lamp open mic quickly became the watering hole for hip-hoppers.
“That first Blue Lamp would fill all the way with 25 people outside,” says Buddha.
That’s when Element first took notice of the two college student DJs.
“This was their scene, and we didn’t even know we were infringing on their scene,” says Dotkom. “We were in college. We were on another path.”
In 1996, hip-hop culture wasn’t as open as it was today. Suburban white kids didn’t embrace the culture on the scale that they do now, and hip-hop wasn’t as accepting of the ones who did.
Reno’s hip-hop scene was still small, but since there was a central meeting place, MCs and DJs started to come out of the woodwork.
“Tree [Woodz] came out to the old Blue Lamp,” says Dotkom.
During the next few years, Dotkom and Buddha became two of the most influential people in the local hip-hop scene.
Element’s star was rising as well, landing gigs opening for various national acts that came to town.
Meanwhile, Reydub perfected his skills as a producer. In 1996, he moved to study audio recording at the Art Institute of Seattle.
Panelli, who wouldn’t come to be known as Apprentice until years later, found inspiration in the work of Dialect and Reydub, even though he hadn’t met them.
Fights outside of the Blue Lamp led to the end of the open mic there.Can’t stop, won’t stop
By 1996, Apprentice, who had been doing some amateur DJing for a few years, decided he was interested in making beats.
“We’re just going into college and wondering what that’s gonna be like,” said Apprentice. “We didn’t go out and start making these beats because we thought we were gonna go out and try to get a deal. We just thought it sounded like fun. There really wasn’t a huge scene.”
Around this time, Apprentice transferred to Utah State after being offered a full-tuition track scholarship.
During his first summer back in Reno, he purchased an ASR-10 (Advanced Sampling Recorder). He had no idea how to use it.
“Demond came over one night at like 10 o’clock and showed us how to use it,” recalls Apprentice. “He refused to let us pay him. We had the check written out and everything. He just said, ‘Nah, now go teach someone else.’”
This was the first time the two met.
“I take that ASR, and I go back to Utah State. So now it’s 1997. And that’s when I meet Pharoah,” says Apprentice.
Pharoah Davis, who goes by Rameses on the mic, had moved from California to play basketball at Utah State. He heard that Apprentice made beats. He wanted beats. The two soon became best friends. Apprentice hadn’t even considered becoming an MC at that point.
In 1999, with Apprentice on the beats and Rameses on the mic, the duo created a cassette with four tracks called The Color of Soul. It soon expanded into a full-length album. Apprentice is featured rapping on one track; it was Rameses’ idea.
Rameses, who works as a firefighter, then moved to Reno. The Color of Soul changed the local hip-hop landscape.
“Cats like Pharoah—Pharoah was more the MC like, ‘How the fuck is this guy in Reno that is as good as everyone else out there?’” recalls Emic, now 27.
Emic, born Iain Watson, recalls the Color of Soul as demonstrating that living in Reno and making music was possible.
The Reno hip-hop scene started to find its feet. Buddha and Dotkom were hosting the open mic at a new bar called the Blue Lamp. Their credibility was high, and Wild 102.9 approached them about doing a radio show.
“They begged us to do it,” says Dotkom.
Element had been picked up by Los Angeles group Digital Underground—responsible for the discovery of the late Tupac Shakur, not to mention “The Humpty Dance”—and toured with them internationally.
Younger MCs like Emic were inspired by the ever-growing local hip-hop culture.
“In the midst of all that, that’s also when the Hideout [open mic] started,” recalls Emic. “I remember going to the Hideout underage.”Yes yes y’all
“Everybody used to come to the Hideout to watch us rock,” recalls Tree Woodz, 33, who hosted the open mic. “And then they’d rock out.”
The Hideout open mic lasted from 2001-2004. Tree, born William Woods, released his full-length debut, Reverse the Curse, in 2001.
Locally, in 2003, Element released a full-length CD called Elementmusic.com.
Around 2003, a now-defunct website called www.renohiphop.com appeared. The message board quickly turned into a free-for-all for gossip and nay-saying. Everyone from gangster rapper Guilty One, born Jorge Chacon, to Metaphysical to Emic posted to the message board.
Metaphysical posted a music video for a song from Element’s album.
“Emic’s stupid ass gets on and is like, ‘Why’d you guys film it at Boomtown and shit?’” recalled Metaphysical. “So I get on there, and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, Emic.’”
Years later, the two MCs talk highly of each other.
By 2004, Reno hip-hop was snowballing. The national independent hip-hop circuit was getting big, and acts like Living Legends and Atmosphere came to Reno, developing a sizable hip-hop fan base. The Green Room began to gain a reputation as the downtown spot for hip-hop shows.
Ernie Upton, also a well-known graffiti artist, met local trombone player and music guru Jammal Tarkington, also of Keyser Soze, who booked the music at the Green Room. Along with (now ex-member) Maxwell McMaster, they released Who Cares’ first full-length album, The LP.
The album exposed Who Cares’ brand of hip-hop to Reno’s youth. Teenagers who weren’t aware of the local hip-hop scene bought the album and merchandise and showed up to Who Cares shows.
Reno’s hip-hop culture was at full force in 2006. Tensions among various groups were high, but Reno’s downtown crowd eagerly attended local hip-hop shows—and local MCs were eager to oblige.
DJs Dotkom and Buddha began hosting an open-mic on Tuesday nights at the Green Room. A good night would see 100 people—a dozen of whom would be MCs. Everyone took the mic from Tree Woodz to Emic, Metaphysical to Ernie Upton, to MCs who were new to the scene.
DJs Buddha and Dotkom’s Bombshelter had gained a significant audience by then. And they were playing local music from Apprentice, Tree Woodz, Emic and, weekly, Who Cares. Element’s songs rarely made the program.
By the summer of 2007, hip-hop in Reno had peaked. Good local shows brought in a few hundred people. Who Cares was booked to do a show at Green Room on Saturday night with Rameses. Rameses had to cancel, and Element took the spot. Rumors spread that Who Cares didn’t want to be on the bill with Element, though groups’ members had not spoken.
What resulted was arguably the best local show in Reno’s hip-hop history.
“That show was epic—even to this day,” said Dialect.
Shortly after, tensions started to diffuse between the various groups.
Tarkington left the club, as did Dotkom and Buddha. Shortly after, in the fall of 2007, the DJs told the Reno News & Review that they believed losing the Green Room would not slow the momentum of local hip-hop.
The next two years saw various open mic attempts, notably Hip-Hop Tuesdays at Satellite Lounge (now the Biggest Little City Bar), hosted by Buddha and Dotkom. Metaphysical started hosting various Tuesday night open mics, finally settling on one at Amendment 21.Looking forward
Since 2007, Reno’s hip-hop culture has made giant strides. Element’s 2008 album Variety Pak is arguably their best work to date. Who Cares has been touring and gaining exposure, and has a new album planned by the end of the year. So do Rameses and Tree Woodz. Apprentice’s 2009 album The Red Balloon may be the best hip-hop album to come out of Reno. A hip-hop musical called 6:01 a.m. was made based on Apprentice’s music. It sold 1,200 tickets for a showing at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in May. Emic played a lead role. Reydub plans to release a documentary about independent musicians, Silence is Sound, this year, featuring many local MCs. And The Bombshelter may be on the verge of national syndication.
There is a theory that in order to make it nationally, an artist has to win over his or her town first. In phone interviews with the RN&R, two successful rappers had divergent views. Sage Francis of Rhode Island disagreed, saying his city’s scene disregarded him before he became famous.
“I removed myself from it,” said Sage. “I didn’t want to be stuck in the local thing.”
Slug of Atmosphere from Minneapolis, however, agreed with the theory: “In regards to Reno … if you’re gonna take the independent path, then I think it’s very important that you build a foundation in your city. At the end of the day, you don’t want people to be able to poke holes in your shit.”
Slug emphasized that the first generation of rappers from a city—Element, for example—rarely become successful. Rather, they inspire the MCs who do become successful.
“Third generation in Minneapolis was where it really got great,” says Slug. “I was in the fourth generation.”
Artie Richmond doesn’t remember too much about any of the past. He just finished rapping, and now he’s passing the second mic to Guilty One, who has become an established MC in the West Coast gangster rap scene. Guilty freestyles for a while, then pauses. Richmond jumps in, speaking into the microphone.
“Damn! That was tight, dog! What’s your name?”
Guilty shows his right foreman, exposing a tattoo of his rap moniker.
“I’m Guilty One, dog.”
“Oh shit,” Richmond responds. “I’ve heard of you.”