Straight outta Reno

The Biggest Little City’s spin on hip-hop

Yeahhhhh, boy! Rapper Metaphysical shows what time it is off a clock given to him by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav.

Yeahhhhh, boy! Rapper Metaphysical shows what time it is off a clock given to him by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav.

Photo By David Robert

Shh! Do you hear that faint beat? No? That’s OK. Not many people do. But between all the grit and grime of the Biggest Little City’s casinos, the rumble and ruckus from the all-night diners and uncountable watering holes, something has been developing. It’s Reno’s hip-hop scene. It’s been here for well over a decade, but with the loss of a crucial local hip-hop ritual—a weekly open-mic night—local hip-hop supporters, DJs and rappers have some serious work to do to keep Reno hip-hop from dying in the street.

Ready to live
“Tuesday, chillin’ with international blood,” raps Reno-based Michael Russell on the track “Auras.”

“A thin line of hate, a thinner line of love.”

Russell, who goes by Metaphysical on stage, is one of the many local rappers who used to frequent the open-mics that took place every Tuesday at the Green Room downtown.

As with every music genre, the local hip-hop scene has had its ups and downs. Since the Green Room open-mic ended a couple months ago, many people fear hip-hop in Reno has died. Others say it’s just in a slump.

“We know that we’ll do it again when the next venue comes up,” says Todd Lee, who co-founded the open-mic with his brother Scott. “The Green Room was starting to burn out anyways.”

Todd and Scott, DJs Dotkom and Buddha, respectively, have founded various hip-hop open mics in Reno at different venues. They also run a popular underground hip-hop show, The Bombshelter (102.9 FM, Sundays 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.), which plays local hip-hop.

An open debate in the local hip-hop scene is whether or not an open-mic is crucial to the development of the rappers and of a fan base in Reno.

For those not familiar with the concept in its rap iteration: an open-mic is where rappers take turns freestyling over instrumentals. Traditionally, freestyling is considered a rite of passage for rappers who want to move on to recording music, doing shows, etc.

Open-mic venues, like the Green Room, served as a place for rappers and fans to meet and network.

“I don’t think that was the glue,” says Todd Lee of the Green Room. “People getting together is more the glue.”

The end of the open-mic may actually be helping local productivity. “It’s giving some breathing room for those emcees who were rapping, to start putting out albums,” adds Scott.

Brothers Todd and Scott Lee are responsible for starting several hip-hop open-mics around the city.

Photo By David Robert

And Reno hip-hop musicians have been doing just that.

Local hip-hop grows anytime “prominent groups get together and make their albums and take it outside of Reno,” says Richie Panelli, who goes by Apprentice on the mic.

Panelli and Pharoah Davis, who raps under the alias Rameses, are Dorm Room Muzik, a local outfit that records solo and group albums.

Panelli plans on releasing his second full-length album, The Red Balloon in early 2008. Dorm Room Muzik will release an album titled The Invisible Band next summer.

When asked if hip-hop is alive in Reno, Panelli said, “Rather than trying to come up with some great answer, I’d rather hand them Pharoah’s album or Element’s album.”

Element, a local rap group formed in 1993, has released multiple albums, as a group and as individual members of the band. Rapper Metaphysical is a founding member of the group.

Davis and Panelli stress that local hip-hop grows more by musicians recording albums and creating music than it does by the number of shows or open-mics taking place in the city.

“As long as me and this dude keep living, keep writing, (local hip-hop) has no other choice but to grow,” said Davis, pointing at Panelli.

“Everyone in Reno hip-hop is connected,” says Panelli. “From gangster rap to conscious hip hop. … We all hope and pray we all succeed.”

Same ol’ shiZZLE
There is a lot of politics in the local hip-hop scene. And there can be a lot of drama between club owners and rappers—the same kind of drama involved in the local rock scene.

One thing every rapper seems to agree on is that “the talent in this city is amazing.”

“The first emcee in Reno that really blew me away was Rameses (Davis),” said Iain Watson, who goes by Emic. He remembers The Color of Soul EP that Davis released on cassette nearly seven years ago as a large influence on him and one of the factors compelling him to pursue the rap game.

Watson and fellow rapper Tony Walker, who raps under the name Locus, recently formed a hip-hop/jazz fusion band with members of the Reno Jazz Syndicate. After performing at the Green Room for a welcoming crowd, both rappers are excited about the potential of the band.

“At least for me, having a band has always been a goal,” says Watson.

Keeping it alive in the 775: the local hip-hop scene represents.

Photo By David Robert

Both rappers were regulars at the local open-mics.

The band, Rock Tatarelli, plans on playing various local venues.

“Reno, being so small, has a really big following in hip-hop,” said Walker, who’s originally from a housing project in Oklahoma City.

When asked about supporting future attempts at an open-mic at the Green Room, Walker responded: “I’m kind of in the middle there. The owner there didn’t do anything to me personally.”

Metaphysical, or Meta for short, said he has talked with the Green Room about starting another weekly open-mic, but nothing has been finalized as of yet. Whether resentment against the Green Room will prevent another attempt to be successful is anyone’s guess.

“I feel like hip-hop really got that whole part of downtown just jumping,” says Russell. And it’s base was the Green Room.

“If you’re a straight up hip-hop type person … you really don’t got no place to go,” says Russell. “And if you want live stuff … it was like the Green Room was the thing. And really, before the Green Room it was the Blue Lamp. And Dotkom and Buddha, I give those guys respect.”

The Blue Lamp was an open-mic venue going on before the Green Room, also founded by Todd and Scott Lee (DJs Dotkom and Buddha).

Can’t stop, won’t stop…
Russell and fellow rapper Darren Toomer, who goes by Dove on the mic, expressed confidence at the amount of hip-hop talent in Reno during an interview together. Toomer often records and performs with Russell.

“I’ve met the illest motherfuckers in this city,” says Toomer. “Emcees … and I wish I could just grab ahold of them,” he says, grabbing an imagniary arm to illustrate his point.

Various rappers in Reno have cited Toomer as one of their favorite performers.

“Mind you, I knew about 775 music” before moving to Reno, says Dove. “No bullshit … when I was in Cleveland … [ I read about it] on a Digital Underground website.”

Digital Underground, a California rap group credited with discovering the late Tupac Shakur, helped Element establish their career over a decade ago.

The local hip-hop scene may be in turmoil right now. But that seems to be unavoidable. Dozens of local rappers are working on their own albums and putting on shows in Reno. Some rappers have even suggested hip-hop is on the eve of reaching a new height in Reno.

“When they say hip-hop was dead,” says Russell, “I say it’s dead to them.”