Art Dogs & Grace Open Mic
“It’s in the blood of hip-hop,” Marc Mercado says of hip-hop freestyle sessions. And he’s right. Countless subgenres have been spawned from rap music—hyphy, gangster rap, conscious rap—but all of them have one thing in common: the freestyle cipher.
A cipher is a group of rappers standing in a circle and taking turns freestyling—making up rhymes as you go. Mercado, standing inside a circle of about 20 rappers, is right in the middle of the only hip-hop open mic in Reno that admits people over 18 but under 21. The event takes place every Tuesday night at Art Dogs & Grace Hookah Lounge on Vassar.
“Regardless if you’re in a hookah lounge or not, there’s ciphers everywhere,” says Mercado, 19, a member of the Legion crew who goes by Concept on the mic.
Past attempts at hip-hop open mics at now-defunct venues like The Green Room and The Blue Lamp were only open to those old enough to drink.
Now the younger emcees are getting a chance to breathe.
“I actually was quite surprised by it, dude,” says Jon Marchant, 25. “I actually dig it. It’s a positive scene.” Marchant, who goes by Jah One, of the Dumbfounded crew, came to Art Dogs on a recent Tuesday night just to see what all the hype was about.
“It’s open to everyone,” he says of the open-mic. “That’s what’s beautiful about hip-hop.”
That isn’t always true about hip-hop in Reno, though. People in the local hip-hop scene tend to complain about various local rappers. One may be too gangsta. Another may be too conscious. (Conscious rap is the complete opposite of gangster rap.) Art Dogs is one of the few places to see rappers of all races and musical styles share a microphone without hostility. That’s probably because regardless of what subgenre rappers prefer, they’ve gotta have the skills to back it. Freestyling is the ultimate test of a rapper’s skills.
When Art Dogs first started hosting the open-mic about a month ago, many were skeptical. When it began, it was mostly gangster rappers. But after a bit of warming up to each other and sharing the mic, it’s turned into a fun weekly tradition.
“It’s the melting pot,” says Michael Russell, also known as Metaphysical of the Element crew, the host of the event and one of the few local rappers to ride the fine line between gangsta and conscious rap. “Everybody’s learning from each other.”
And if anything is important to a music scene of any genre, it’s teaching the younger generation how to carry on tradition. That’s why freestyle ciphers aren’t much different now than they were 30 years ago.
Looking in at the cipher inside Art Dogs is almost comical. Rappers wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops stand next to rappers who look like the bad guys on Cops. But at the end of the night, everyone is shaking hands and giving one another props for going up and freestyling at all.
That’s what hip-hop is all about.