The Neighborhood Watch
A healthy dose of organized confusion
It’s packed on a Wednesday night at the Press Club. Inside, Neighborhood Watch affiliate Young Aundee is tweaking around the stage doing the solo, post-hip-hop, mind-bending Portishead-meets-T.S. Eliot performance that he’s becoming famous for. The crowd is obviously in awe, watching the kid—like a skilled actor—use every part of the stage, manipulating the beat with a mixer while singing like if Jamiroquai grew a set of testicles.
Oddly enough, emcee Rick Tognotti of P.S. Fuck You (now that’s a band name) wanders around the stage furiously waving a “Ron Paul for President” sign over his head. It’s like a musical freak show, or a children’s book (that kids aren’t actually allowed to read) set to LSD-tinged music and come to life in a dimly lit club. Perfect, really.
But it’s not over. State Cap. takes the stage. Among other things, the ultra-hyperactive C-Plus (a cross between a prizefighter and a Chihuahua) freestyles about Dr. Seuss, then swiftly changes topic and viciously turns on his own bandmate, A.V. Yes, he goes for the man-boobs. Not one to be out-rhymed and ridiculed, A.V. adeptly retorts, and points out C-Plus’ racial ambiguity. Between men with breasts and black dudes who look Middle Eastern, nothing is sacred in the rap game—which really is how it should be.
Finally, with the lyrical skill of Nas and the righteousness of Malcolm X, Random Abiladeze puts all jokes aside, gets serious and rounds out the night with politically charged raps that make even the too-cool bar-leaners bob their heads in approval. All the while, local rap star and hip-hop super-advocate Mahtie Bush (of the Alumni crew) stands in the crowd, smiling, fixated on the action—inhaling the evening like a menthol cigarette.
And, of course, he should be smiling. It’s shows like this that leave audiences feeling lost in a sort of musical camaraderie—if you close your eyes, you feel like you’re actually a part of something. And if you open them, you’ll see chaos ensuing, rappers jumping around the stage as if in a Broadway show gone horribly wrong. It’s dizzying, the prospect of a Wednesday night show in Sacramento with multifaceted hip-hop music that leaves the crowd slapping their kneecaps with hilarity one minute, then pondering international politics the next. It seems the Neighborhood Watch has tapped into a hip-hop formula of sorts—intelligence, comedy, seriousness, righteousness and a healthy dose of not-giving-a-flying-fuck—that fans find both mesmerizing and endearing.
But things haven’t always been so breezy for this crew. Last May, Neighborhood Watch member Dahlak and his band, the Hi-Lifes, were slated to perform a free show at UC Davis. Some fans were frisked before entering the auditorium (and some weren’t, causing accusations of racism on the part of UCD hosts), and some were even turned away at the door (the room wasn’t even near full capacity). In protest, Dahlak canceled the show altogether. “That just goes against everything we stand for. … It just resonated so hard to me,” Dahlak later said, reflecting on the show-gone-wrong.
A couple months later, State Cap. was set to perform at Old Sacramento’s Willemina’s when the owners were forced to cut the electricity because of underage performers—which, in the end, didn’t turn out to be much of an obstacle. “We got on stage and I just started stompin’,” recalled A.V., who was determined to put on a show with or without actual wattage. The result was an electricity-less performance—and a crowd captivated by State Cap.’s ability to improvise with just foot stomps and lyrical dexterity. It couldn’t have worked out any better.
And really, the lemonade-from-lemons effect is what hip-hop is all about. Remember Kool Herc, the Jamaican deejay who moved to New York in the ’70s and quickly found out the hard way that American crowds weren’t so much into hearing reggae at the time? Instead of packing his bags, he took the best instrumental sections from his records, looped them using his turntables and invented the hip-hop break beat; some say Herc invented what is now known as modern-day hip-hop. Well, it’s in this DIY spirit, passed down from generations of performers, that the Neighborhood Watch, time after time, has proven its adaptability.
It’s a warm autumn night in Midtown. Outside the Solomon Dubnick Gallery on 20th Street, a rarely documented event is taking place: Almost all of the Neighborhood Watch has convened in one spot. And none of them are rapping. But the conversation flows freely, jumping recklessly from topic to topic—from dance clubs to friendships, gender to jazz. It’s all the energy from a live show barely harnessed into a conversation.
Dahlak talks about the significance of the Neighborhood Watch moniker. “We’ve been seeing Neighborhood Watch signs all our life, but we ain’t never got called to a meeting—ain’t nobody telling me how I could become a member; it’s always been this phantom organization.” He pauses, then continues, “Until now, it’s like the Neighborhood Watch is something living; you’re going to hear us when we have our meetings.”
Perhaps it’s unintentional, but Dahlak speaks for the group, like an elder would. He’s only 22, but his natural authority could stem from being the Watch’s most well-known figure—for his spoken word crew iLL-Literacy and his numerous appearances on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. Dahlak’s wide reach isn’t a point of contention between other, less experienced Neighborhood Watchers, though. If anything, they’re proud of him.
“[Dahlak has] been around the world and touched places that I haven’t even seen yet, so I’m happy to be affiliated with him,” says Mainetain.
With so many different voices in one crew, you’d think they’d disagree about everything. At times, they do. Yet, what the Watch seems to see is a unified vision of hip-hop music now.
“The mainstream is wack,” says Hanlin, who appears as if out of thin air with a skateboard and a whole lot to say.
A.V. picks up where Hanlin leaves off. “Hip-hop is lacking right now because everyone is in the mogul game. The music is going by the wayside.”
What A.V. refers to as “the mogul game” is one reason you can turn on the television and catch Martha Stewart in the same Macy’s commercial as the freakishly well-coifed P Diddy. Or why you can go to the movies and watch Mos Def play the dumb-but-loveable black guy to Bruce Willis’ criminally insane but efficient cop. For moguls like 50 Cent, the bastardization of the culture is a welcome change, but for regular people, it’s just weird.
“A lot of people are getting ready to say, ‘Fuck all the mainstream bullshit,’ and accept some real music,” says Plush Lush.
Question is: Why now?
Comparing today’s hip-hop to the evolution of jazz, Billy Hi-Life notices a trend: “In the ’20s and ’30s, everything was all dance music, but in the ’40s, people started making be-bop because they were tired [of it]. They wanted something intellectually stimulating.”
Nikki Hi-Life, the only female in the Watch, adds, “It also helps when you have underground crews who are doing big things and making people aware of the music.”
The conversation’s taking shape now, and finally gels—when these artists, all with vastly different world views, find in their passion for making music a simple common ground. OK, sure, every group probably has a passion for making music, whether good at it or not. So will these locals’ chaotic enthusiasm be enough to widen their influence from a ripple into a real movement? Or, is it even productive to mention the word “movement” at all? After all, everybody’s obviously busy having fun just where they are.
“Wait, we never claimed to be a movement,” says A.V.
“Uh, yeah we did,” 5th Ave. shoots back.
“Oh,” says A.V., looking skyward. “Did we?”