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Building hip-hop from the ground up

CHRIS CODUTO/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Shandale Tory of New York City raps during an open mic session at Club Congress. Every Tuesday, the club holds underground hip hop nights.
By Kevin Smith
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday April 24, 2003

Hip-hop as a form of expression started in a localized community. Its first visible presence surfaced from DJs playing and scratching records in New York City parks back in the mid to late '70s. A buzz began and people started huddling around to listen. Eventually, it is said a man would speak with a microphone over the DJ's music to announce when the next gathering would be. Soon enough, the man would start rhyming words over the DJ's beat. As message spread, it quickly became common practice for a DJ to spin a beat while an MC spoke rhymes over it.

Today, hip-hop is the number-one selling genre of music in America. Hip-hop trends can be seen everywhere from the streets of Brooklyn, NY, to the cornfields of Omaha, Neb. To think it all began with a small community of local admirers is a testament to what can be achieved when people believe in something positive.

Tucsonans are soon to see something positive in hip-hop. A few local hip-hop heads have concocted a formula to bring back the purity of the music, devoid of all the current fads, fronts and fakeness.

"Underground Hip-Hop Night" combines a rotating cast of DJs who spin hip-hop that is abstract, eclectic and mostly under the average listener's radar. In addition, two live hip-hop acts perform every night and a freestyle session occurs during the last hour that allows anyone in attendance to step up and rock the microphone. These experiments are being conducted every Tuesday night at Club Congress.

"I wanted to do something to provide an alternative venue for people who like hip-hop but aren't really into the kind of generic, mainstream hip-hop nights that have popped up all over town that ÷ you know, supported by (local radio station) 98.3 or whatever, where you're going to hear the same type of music," said Solomon Freed, a 27-year-old education graduate student at UA.

"At this underground night, it's more of a forum for expression and more of an artistic, cultural atmosphere than the meat-market vibe that you might check out at these other kind of, you know, your generic hip-hop nights that's all over the place now."

Freed is not aiming for a club-party scenario perfectly typified by popular culture's new-rap-hero-of-the-month 50 Cent and his "In da Club" music video.

"This is, you know, every club that has their hip-hop night, it's kind of the same: Let's go out and shake our ass, meet some girls, you know, whatever ÷ which is what (Club) Congress had previous to this, which they had to cancel because there turned out to be too much of a violent element," Freed said. "So, you know, we're just trying to keep it fresh and creative and continue to bring in new aspects of the local culture.

"We're not trying to get into the meat market vibe; we're trying to, you know, if it's peaceful, that's great, you know? Basically, just expression, creativity, you know? We want to have · a forum for political activism as well. We're going to try to bring in speakers and, yeah, definitely keep it on the conscious level."

One of Freed's partners in this venture is Mike Jean, aka rapper Mentor, 25, a UA liberal arts senior and co-host of Tuesday nights. Jean thinks that the night will provide real hip-hop lovers with a sanctuary away from the flooded airwaves of Ja Rule and Ashanti songs.

"Basically, everybody's stuck on commercial radio and them type of clubs, you know, where they have all the Top-40 stuff, usually be catching drama," Jean said. "These are the cats that like to hear good music, but they don't know where to go to get it. So that's what we're trying to bring. A different · element to the scene down here."

Third partner and co-host Fred Jenkins, aka rapper Influence, 27, adds that "Underground Hip-Hop" night at Congress should be a place free of the cliched ignorance and negativity that is usually associated with popular hip-hop culture right now.

"It's not a gimmicky, you know, game that we're displaying up in Club Congress," Jenkins said. "And that's why I think you don't really have that kind of like, you know, the aggressiveness you see when a lot of people come through that, you know, hip-hop is really given a bad name for. So it's like a peaceful atmosphere, you know? It's just full expression."

Freed is currently working to have graffiti art on display, adding break dancers to the mix and possibly making the night 18+ instead of its current 21+ label. He also wants to bring in some national hip-hop acts. Freed thinks that if the night can get regular attendance, then it will become a built-in audience for touring hip-hop acts. Some national names that are in the works for a potential visit to Congress' Tuesday nights are Mr. Lif, J-Live and Killah Priest.

"A lot of people are from all different parts of the country who come to school here and, you know, they kind of feel that, coming to Tucson, they don't really see no hip-hop down here," Jean said. "So they think it's kind of wack. But there is a little cell that's trying to build right now. So that's why we're trying to get, you know, as many different people. And U of A is just culturally diverse, so I'm sure there is people here that want to hear it; they just don't know where to get it."

"You're not going to find this anywhere else that I'm aware of in Tucson," Freed said.

"Anyone whose ears are open to checking out some new music and just hanging out and having a good time, come check it out," he added. "Leave your attitude at the door; there's no dress code, just be 'illin and, you know, check out some fresh music."

"Underground Hip-Hop Night" will be going into its fifth week this Tuesday at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is $3 for men and free until 11 p.m. for ladies.

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