Thursday, September 01, 2005
scirbble jam 2005 - a hip hop frenzy
“There’s seven main hills that surround Cincinnati,” my taxi driver informed me on the way from the airport to the Days Inn. Looking out my window, I was taken aback by the hilly terrain in this part of Ohio. The scenery reminded me of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, minus the red clay.
This would be my first vacation in the Eastern Time zone, and the farthest I’d ever been without family members or a single friend. I was flying solo.
When I checked in and got the keys to my hotel room, I felt exhausted and frustrated that I couldn’t trust anyone around me, namely the taxi drivers and even the hotel clerks.
I dropped everything in my room and crashed on the bed until six o’clock that evening. I showered and changed clothes, only then realizing what a dump I would be staying in. I went downstairs and asked the clerk if she knew of any contacts to taxi services in the city.
“This is the best one,” she said with a thick accent as she handed me a business card.
Within a minute, a man on the other line explained, “Our rate is two dollars a mile.” I wanted to sound out an explicative, but just replied, “Thanks,” and hung up.
A taxi arrived in front of the lobby twenty minutes later. “Where to?” a man asked from the drivers seat with a seemingly Caribbean accent.
“Contemporary Arts Center, downtown.” The first night of Scribble Jam was to start out as a meet-n-greet on this Thursday night.
Patrick “Pase” Johnson, “Fat Nick” Accurso, MC Glue, DJ Mr. Dibbs and G Fresh are among the Godfathers of Scribble Jam. Ten years ago, Scribble started as a small gathering of b-boys, MC’s, DJ’s and most importantly graffiti artists in the Cincinnati area. In 1996, Scribble’s claim to fame came about when the then unknown and unsigned Eminem competed in the MC battle…and lost.
A couple of years later, Scribble Jam was mentioned among the “thank you’s” in the liner notes of his first album under Dr. Dre. Scribble grew into the conglomerate of all independent hip hop festivals, fostering the true elements and unity of hip hop lost to anyone getting their rap essentials from MTV. Rumors had been swirling recently that this year’s Jam was to be bigger than ever. Many countries would be in representation on stage and in the audience. I was anxious because I knew I’d be in the company of like-minded individuals from August 11-14 in Cincinnati, OH.
As my taxi approached the urbanized center of the city, downtown Cincy didn’t look all that much different from downtown KCMO.
“How many people live in the Cincinnati city limits?” I blurted from the back seat.
“The metropolitan area is about a million strong, but there’s probably about six hundred thousand within the city,” the driver assumed.
I stepped out of the taxi in front of the arts center, where young people were hanging around on the sidewalk. A huge mural on the outside wall depicted a beautiful black and white photo taken from what I guessed was the original Scribble Jam.
My fare for the ride was forty dollars. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep taxiing around the city at that kind of pace. I stepped out onto the sidewalk and took a moment to look around.
“Are you going to the Mockbee later tonight for the Diplo show?” I’d ask indiscriminately.
“Yea,” most of them said.
“Well, I’ve got a strange question. Do you think I could hitch a ride with you or whoever’s driving you?” I explained my situation to each prospect, and most of them said they’d like to help me, but simply came up with an excuse. I couldn’t blame them. A couple hours later, I met a girl named Carmen who had drove up from Louisville, Kentucky with some friends. At 9:30, the four of us walked a few blocks to their car, and from there we took off to The Mockbee. The streets of downtown Cincinnati were definitely livelier than KC, and swarmed with bums and beggars.
“Do you feel brave for riding with random strangers?” Carmen asked me on the way.
The Mockbee was a run down, three story warehouse. The stairways leading to the above floors were only wide enough for one person. Two-dollar beers were swerved from behind a rag tag bar out of bar-b-que style ice coolers.
I set up a chair facing the dance floor, admiring the b-boys and b-girls. Jah Sonic cut up old Common and Ghostface records among others. He delivered a very fast-paced set, letting most records play for maybe two minutes each before mixing in something new.
I was twisted off Miller Lite before long, and the crowd continued to mount in the main room. I shouted at Vertigone (of the Kansas City act know as The Guild), and ran into Sike Steez. It was nice to see some familiar faces.
Before long, I retreated into the art gallery where numerous kids were trying to hustle their CD’s and merch.
I cocked my head when I heard vocals suddenly spill from the speakers, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle…” Fittingly, a jungle beat backed it up. What the hell, I thought. I went back into the dance room and the floor was not hogged by breakers anymore, but by a horde of people just bouncing against each other like atoms with nowhere to go.
I knew Diplo’s reign had cast over the party. As expected, he played some strange music, but I had no idea the crowd would react with vigor as they did. Patrons were scurrying about in a sweat-drenched frenzy, as the outrageous degree of body heat and blazing beats created an unmistakable rave-like atmosphere.
Kids had probably been playing out his material on their computers and car stereo’s for months, but came to The Mockbee on this night to get a small taste of the steamy favela dance scene adored in Rio de Janeiro. When he mixed in some 80’s rock and Miami bass, it was flatly awesome. I’ve never seen a party like that before. I danced my butt off for the last hour that Diplo played.
“You wanna watch out when you go out there. There’s some drama,” a kid selling t-shirts advised me before I walked out of the building. An ambulance and squad car were idling with lights flashing right outside the front doors. One person had a towel covering his forehead, with friends consoling him, while another drunk was being hauled off in handcuffs.
I had lost Carmen and her friends, and began asking more people if they’d give me a ride to my hotel, about a half an hour away. No one was heading that far out of the city.
Before I knew it, I was in a cab speeding through one of Cincy’s rockier parts. Lost souls, dope boys and scantily-clad women were posted up on every single corner for several blocks. I went to bed hungry that night, without eating anything all day long.
The next morning I hooked up with two guys who’d come in town for Scribble Jam from Virginia and Maryland respectively. They had just checked into the same hotel, and we decided to split the cost of a cab ride up to Annie’s, an outdoor pavilion and dance club on the outskirts of Cincinnati.
I walked into the spacious club where breaking and freestyling were popping off in every corner. There was a bar at the doors leading outside, which you could attain from inside the club or out in the pavilion area. Outside was a crowd of about 60 people facing a large stage where a female MC was performing.
I walked by every tent, checking out any merchandise I might want. “These are hot right here,“ a guy at one tent suggested to me. I picked up the t-shirt and read it: “WHERE MY KILLA TAPE AT GOD?“
I eventually ran into Sike and told him that his tent blew all the others away (no joke). He had all kinds of stuff for sale, paintings, buttons, music, shirts, hats, everything.
It was hot and humid outside, which was too bad because there were no performances going on inside the club. The outdoor area was huge, and hundreds of kids were drinking, eating at benches, chatting, and walking around. I talked with people from St. Louis, Boston and California. Grayskull was performing on stage, but I didn’t care for their style at all and paid them little mind.
I ran into some people I know that frequent The Peanut and other hip hop shows in Kansas City. Some of the people in their group I’d never talked to before, but we had the KC connection going so it was all good. In later reflection at my hotel, I thought it was strange that I would finally meet some of these people only after traveling 15 hours from our own city.
“You’re taking taxis?!” AJ asked. “I’m not letting you do that. Take my phone number.” The rest of his comrades made me feel just as welcome, to which I was very thankful. One person even said, “That’s dedication,” after I told him I had come to Cincinnati alone.
The heat combined with the beer wasn’t doing much to help the side effects of some new medication I had begun. I stretched out with my back against the bar for a while, then moved inside the club and lay down on the cold, concrete floor. I wasn’t feeling good, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the day.
“Hey,” a voice called out. I opened my eyes from my little power nap to see an attractive waitress standing over me. “Are you okay?”
“Yea, I’m alright.”
“We’re worried about you,” she said.
Within a half an hour I called a taxi to bail me out and I went back to the hotel and fell asleep. I woke up around eight o’clock that night and called home to a few people, then made some organized notes from my experience up to that point while lying in bed. I finally got some grub, too. Guilt swept over me for missing performances by Lyrics Born, One B Lo and Masta Ace that night, however.
The next morning I loaded up on some cheerio’s, frosted flakes, donuts and juice in the breakfast room in the lobby of the hotel. I practically cleared out everything they had.
I went straight to Sike’s tent, what I accepted as “home base.” Johnny Quest sold me his new album “Just John,” and I let him know everyone had his back from KC, and wished him good luck for the $10,000 prize which would be awarded to the winner of the main MC battle late that night. He told me an awkward story about running into the cat that he beat for the regional Scribble Jam MC title in Lawrence weeks earlier…who was staying on the same floor of the same hotel as he.
A large crowd was drawn to the preliminary B-Boy battle at 5:00, followed by the beat-boxing battle which was equally as entertaining. Then the bottom dropped out of the heavens, drenching everything uncovered. I made a dash to the front of the crowd, where people crammed as close as they could to the railing, modestly shielded from the downpour by the roof covering the stage. Some people just stood right out in the open.
The beat-boxers kept battling to the amusement of the crowd. “It’s the - Pillsbury - doughboy,” one contestant clowned at his overweight opponent, regurgitating bass, kicks and synths into the mic between breaths.
“To make sure nobody gets electrocuted out here, we’re moving the beat-boxing battle inside!” said the host after one battle. Everyone immediately stampeded to the doors, hopping over puddles of rain.
Kansas City’s own Mac Lethal took the stage and went through a new set of ironic rhymes and new material to be released on Rhymesayers Entertainment. Mac joins one of (if not the) the leading independent hip hop labels to which Atmosphere, Blueprint, Brother Ali and MF DOOM call home. His new album to be released on Rhymesayers sometime in the winter or spring is tentatively titled “11:11.”
Characteristically, he said some odd things on stage between songs, such as “Jesus Christ was mad homo,” and, “I wanna f--- Mr. Dibbs in the ear.” In one of his rhymes, he shouted out Overland Park and Raytown, which prompted me to raise my rain-soaked Royals cap to the air. Being the MC battle victor from 2002, he commanded respect amongst the Scribble Jam audience despite his fun and almost child-like acts.
Glue went on after Mac, and said in the middle of his performance, “Nerd rap? Whoever came up with that term is a bunch of b------!”
The Vicious Germz and The Brickheads were the two nicest b-boy crews in the final leg of the break dancing contest. I’d seen b-boy competitions before, but I came to truly appreciate just how raw and pure they are in the essence of competition. Out of the MC, DJ and b-boy battles, the breaking was by far the least controlled (no MC on stage to call out “time!”).
The two crews would stand on opposite sides of the stage, facing each other. One guy from the Vicious Germz for example, would start uprocking in the middle of the stage and then break down into windmills, flares, 1990’s, airswipes, spins, freezes, or whatever it is they chose to show the judges. Then a dancer from the other team would jump into the middle of the stage, basically kicking his opponent off the floor.
They governed their own battle, and sometimes that led to heated situations in which crew members would start shoving each other or talking trash nose-to-nose. A judge would always step in and diffuse the beefs before they came to blows, thankfully.
A screen on stage allowed people from all over the pavilion to see what moves each battler was throwing down, which was great because they spent a lot of time on their elbows, knees, heads and shoulders, out of sight to a few audience members. The competition was fierce and ran at an intense pace with old funk and breaks offering a platform. The crowd reaction was never dull, always bonkers after the most ridiculous moves.
At one point, one breaker from each team was going off at the same time. In the middle of this, a contestant from one side must’ve decided, nah forget that. He nonchalantly carried a folding chair to the front of the stage for all to see. What ensued drew the most ecstatic crowd feedback of the entire damn weekend. The guy put one leg through the back of the folding chair and dived toward the floor headfirst, landing on his hands and twirled around upside down with his legs basically holding on to the chair the whole time.
He wasn’t messing around either; he carried on with that deal for a good twenty seconds. The longer and longer he went, the higher the crowd decibel rose, and I’ll never forget it. By all accounts from experienced Scribblers, this year’s b-boy battle was one of, if not the best. The Brickheadz from Chicago rode the thrill of victory.
My favorite routine in the DJ battle came from Spare Change, who started out scratching old soul records. For the finale of his set, he let a record play that was just a man spelling out the alphabet, “A…B…C…” and so on. Then he spun the record back and forth to form, “U…R…A…B…I…T…C…H.“ Then instantaneously, he flipped the fader to the right and I heard Tupac call out, “You wonder why they call you b----, you wonder why they call you b----.” And with that, he sealed the deal and won.
I ran into Miles Bonny and politicked quite constructively with him about artists on his label, and how he manages his beats. “This place really makes me appreciate The Peanut, where you have all the elements gelling together at once every Sunday night,“ I commented. By then it was past midnight, and the rhyming bout for a grand prize of $10,000 was starting up.
The beginning matches were fun to watch, and I could hear every word, but the real battling didn’t start until the later rounds. The MC’s were saving their best lines for when it mattered most, playing “not to lose” in the beginning. The MC’s who came out very strong at first, quickly fluttered out when they met better and more experienced competition.
Out of sixteen MC’s competing, a few were actually booed heavily by the crowd, exposing their pre-written (memorized) raps or recycled punches from previous battles.
Midway through the first round, Johnny Quest hit the stage face to face with his adversary. I’m sure everyone from KC in the crowd would admit to having butterflies as Quest stared down his opponent. He held his ground with class, refraining from sexual innuendos and other played out battle material. The man just treated it like he was freestyling and having fun. John Quest didn’t receive any “Oooh’s” and “Aahh’s,” but he didn’t get booed either. He didn’t hop around on stage like he was on a pogo stick as some competitors did. He was “Just John,” like the title of his new album.
The only girl in the competition won in the first round with lines like, “Let’s get this straight/ I’m the girl, he’s the p----.” But she totally froze up in her second go round, completely speechless with the mic in her hand. Her opponent responded, “I’ve got the better flow, and when we’re done I’m gonna turn you back to hetero.”
Some of the more memorable raps were directed towards greasy-dreaded opponents: “I never lost a battle to Whoopi Goldberg/ I’ll beat you til’ you turn the color purple.”
Once again, overweight contestants were feasted on like large prey: “I would say he’s celibate/ But he can’t be/ He’s pregnant…with an elephant.” This line came from Justice, who along with Thesaurus and Iron Solomon eventually proved to the wailing, screaming crowd that this was survival of the illest.
Solomon added, “You need to vacate/ In your time zone, you’re a day late,” and the crowd went buck freakin’ wild.
“We got a battle ya’ll!” the host pronounced.
Justice paced around in circles when his opponent was trying to get up in his face while rapping. It seemed as though Justice was merely trying to think of lines for his next turn, and he was fighting distraction.
“Time!” the host announced.
Without hesitation, Justice put the mic to his mouth and rapped off such things like, “I’ll be dropping metaphors til’ you’re knockin’ on heaven’s door.” He appeared to have been training himself for years just for this one final battle with Solomon. He knew exactly how to get the crowd (and the judges) on his side.
Iron Solomon went out like a prize-fighter, but Justice simply came to win. Justice stood triumphantly with a gaudy check raised above his head and expressed his thanks to everyone in a quick speech. He even said he was going to split the prize money with Iron Solomon.
“He got me with that ‘day late’ s---,” Justice admitted.
Suddenly and to the dismay of the audience, the host announced “We are seriously considering not doing Scribble Jam anymore,” Some boo’s and aww’s muffled throughout the audience. “You know, kinda go out on the tenth anniversary.” It was clear that this idea had not been leaked yet.
“Make some noise if you want us to do Scribble Jam again next year!”
The congregation of young people including myself who had come to behold hip hop in its absolutely purest form that weekend bellowed and screamed for what may have been the last time.