Hip Hop Revival
Local artists and entrepreneurs are working for the future of rap music in Erie.
What is hip-hop?
Now before you Reader readers jump on me, reciting that hip-hop is "a music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping" – something that any Wikipedia-loving American could come up with, I pray you to hold your proverbial horses.
What I'm talking about here is an ideal. A culture. A way of life. While your "stylized rhythmic music" is indeed a major part of hip-hop, it is just one part of a cultural movement that is decades old.
I must warn you; this story is bigger than hip-hop music.
It was back in the '70s when hip-hop got its start in the South Bronx area of New York City. Pioneered by DJ Kool Herc, the underground movement began spreading, giving a voice to those that wished to speak. From Herc's house parties spread a whole new movement, one which really gained steam when DJ Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Group defined the subculture and its four main elements: MCing, DJing, B-boying, and graffiti writing.
From the graffiti artists to the breakdancing B-boys and B-girls, the rapping Mic Controllers to the beat-making DJs, multitudes of musicians, artists, and others subscribing to the hip-hop culture have contributed to the lifestyle.
As the years passed, hip-hop saw the genre change from the early record-scratching pioneers of the '70s, eventually shifting from the disco-influenced early '80s to the beginnings of a more socially-conscious era, ushering in artists like Run-DMC and Public Enemy during what is known as the "golden age of hip-hop."
The underground movement finally broke through in 1990, scoring a critical and commercial success when Public Enemy released "Fear of a Black Planet," leading Time Magazine's Bill Adler to opine, "Rap is the rock 'n' roll of the day. Rock 'n' roll was about attitude, rebellion, a big beat, sex and, sometimes, social comment. If that's what you're looking for now, you're going to find it here."
Hip-hop's popularity continued to grow throughout the decade, eventually becoming the highest-selling music genre in 1999. The genre grew, expanding with the heavy bass of Southern hip-hop and alternative hip-hop experimenting with alternative styles like glitch-hop and dubstep, helping the movement grow from a small community in the Bronx to a worldwide phenomenon.
"I've been influenced by it ever since I was a youngster, and I've seen how it's grown and been accepted," said Jeremy Salter – who performs locally as DJ SALT, of the rise in the popularity of hip-hop.
"I wouldn't have even imagined that a hip-hop song would be played on a popular radio station like Star 104," DJ SALT said, his voice smooth and relaxed. "People understand it's an art now. They understand that it's a gift and it takes talent.
They are actually using hip-hop to teach children on Sesame Street. I've got a 2-year-old daughter and I have her watch it all the time."
Hip-hop is everywhere, with rap communities spanning the globe, with National Geographic even recognizing hip-hop as "the world's favorite youth culture" in the past. According to DJ SALT, no matter where you go in the world, whether it be France, China, or whatever country pops into your head, there are going to be rappers there honing their craft.
Ah, I'm starting to see that inquisitive twinkle in your eyes again, O Reader readers. With hip-hop influencing everything from the music business to commercials urging you to purchase a domain name for your canine apparel line, what does it mean to Erie – a cover-band loving town with nary an urban radio station, save for the weekend programming on Gannon University's 90.5 WERG? You may think that there isn't much of a hip-hop scene here in The Flagship City, but there are plenty of subscribers to the culture that would like to prove you wrong.
One of those people would be Jason "Iggy" Imig. As a local hip-hop promoter and member of the 2189 Crew, Iggy has been at the center of a recent surge in hip-hop awareness in this town, although he had immersed himself in the community long ago.
"I got into hip-hop about fourth grade," he said, shortly after we sat down at the Starbucks on the corner of West Fifth and State streets. "I started breakdancing with my friend Joel Polacci. He was teaching me in his attic. To me, that's when it was implanted in me, that's when I started the culture, that's when I started to see graffiti and breakdancing. At the time, I was so young that I didn't have the opportunity to link up with a lot of other people."
Eventually, Iggy, a self-described "short man with a beard," said that he moved out of Erie for a bit, living in Eugene, Ore. in the early 2000s. While there, he was impressed by the amount of hip-hop talent the city would bring in to an area that, according to Iggy, was demographically very similar to our fair Erie.
"They had the best music scene going on," he said, his slightly nasal tenor swelling as he remembered his days in the Pacific Northwest. "They had amazing hip-hop groups from San Francisco all be a part of it, and it's just like 'Why can't I get that going in Erie."
Now, Iggy is doing just that. Along with Jon and Dom Box of The Box Street Couture, local artist Doc Proto, and others, Iggy has helped push the hip-hop scene out of relative obscurity, promoting a new movement of socially-conscious performers.
"We're not doing it because we're trying to get famous," Iggy said. "I wanted to show Erie that there's another side of hip-hop. A lot of times, it's getting wrapped up in the violence, the materialism, and the misogyny, and I was hoping to focus on the positive aspects by bringing in true lyrical MCs and hopefully have an impact on the younger kids."
With this renaissance in local hip-hop, Iggy and company have begun to earn the respect of others within the music community.
"He's become sort of the centerpiece, in my eyes, in developing and establishing the local hip-hop scene," Marty Schwab, owner of The Crooked I, said to me a few days earlier. "The three years that I've been here, I was not consciously aware of any hip-hop acts that I was interested in working with, and then Iggy came to me."
Iggy and Marty had worked on a couple of shows before last summer's Bencher's Union, an ambitious event that combined graffiti painting, B-boy battles, and a show at The Crooked I . The success of that show helped pave the way for the popular Drips & Beats shows hosted once a month at The Crooked I , where big out-of-town talents like Beedie and The 58s come to play alongside local hip-hop musicians like C. Brown, Profound Produce, The Lower Eastside Connection, and more.
"We're all in it for the same thing: Just to watch Erie blow up, to see hip-hop in Erie flourish," Iggy said. But while the hip-hop scene has been thriving as of late, the scene wasn't always on the way up.
According to Iggy, Erie had a small-but-talented, scene back in the mid-2000s with performers like Hectic, Devious, and DJ Nitro leading the way. However, as the end of the decade approached, the hip-hop community was rapidly shrinking.
"For a period of time, there was a big wall," said C. Brown (left), one of Erie's promising MCs. "Erie hip-hop was dead – it was quiet. You didn't know who was doing what, and the people that were popular weren't even rapping anymore."
The deep-voiced, 25-year-old C. Brown wasn't the only MC who noticed a change in the scene. Hectic, who had begun earning attention with his lyrical skills around 2005, also noted a lull amongst his comrades.
"Nobody was really promoting themselves," Hectic, former Rock Erie Music Hip-Hop Award winner, said as the tall MC leaned back in his chair, the words slowly parting from his lips as he recalled the quiet period in hip-hop. "All you saw was somebody on Facebook, but nobody was really performing, and if they were performing, they're not promoting it, so nobody knew about it, so it was kind of like a little dead spot in Erie for about a year or so."
Erie wasn't the only town to experience the hip-hop shrink, with genre sales falling by 44 percent in 2005 since the beginning of the decade. Industry experts suggested that more listeners were becoming disenchanted with degrading and violent lyrics. While hip hop on the national level was wounded, however, the local scene was close to flatlining.
For those that had seen the mid-2000s era of Erie hip-hop, it was like an intermission, except one wouldn't be quite sure whether the show would start back up again. For those that came in during the lull, it was as if the show had never even started.
The scene had become so quiet that when Jon Box, CEO and owner of The Box Street Couture, moved to Erie during the lull in hip-hop, it took him awhile before he was able to find any traces of a hip-hop community.
"Every Sunday morning at 9 o'clock since 2009, we would walk just so that I could put my headphones on, listen to some Souls of Mischief and close my eyes and pretend I was back home," he lamented. "That's how depressing it was. All I wanted to do was see some graffiti, listen to some hip-hop and pretend I was back home in California because I felt like my heart was taken. That's why I'm so happy we're doing this [now], because I think I almost died [back then]."
While Box eventually found signs of life in the hip-hop community during the hip-hop lull, a lot of it had been scared away. Fights would break out during shows, instilling a fear of hip-hop events into some local music fans. These incidents ended up leaving members of the hip-hop community with a figurative black eye – and in some cases, a literal one.
Due to the posturing and violent antics of some, the number of shows began to dwindle, as venue owners would shy away from the genre.
"Because of the stereotype that hip-hop brings along with it, from my perspective as a club owner, I don't want to take that risk," Schwab said, leaning against The Crooked I bar, looking me straight in the eye. "There's just a lot of negative connotations that come along with that and quite frankly I don't need those crowds. Don't want them, don't need them."
Schwab isn't talking about every hip-hop fan – he's talking about the rowdy groups that come in, don't tip, order "Grey Goose and vodka" because they heard it in a song, and cause the problems that led to venues backing away from hip-hop in the late 2000s. Instead, he wants to help foster the socially-conscious hip-hop scene, just like Iggy and Box, and does so, bringing in big names like Dead Prez, Gift of Gab, and others. Still, the self-described hip-hop lover knows that while The Crooked I is open to allowing the scene into his establishment, other venues may still be wary.
"That to me is the biggest uphill battle, not only in Erie, but in any city," Schwab said, toying with his drink. "It is a shame that people won't open up a little bit and receive the music."
At its best, the ideals of hip-hop allow people to have a voice when they feel the need to speak, with artists like Afrika Bambaataa and A Tribe Called Quest acting as an example for rappers and DJs to follow. However, some MCs moved away from the socially-conscious rhymes and into a dialogue promoting materialism, sexism, and, ultimately, violence.
According to Iggy, much of the gun-toting, hard-posturing wave of rappers can be traced back to the aggressive gangsta rap style of N.W.A., whose "Straight Outta Compton" was a major influence during the golden age of hip-hop. To quote Public Enemy's Chuck D, "Hip-hop is the CNN of the ghetto." Even though the content of these early gangsta rappers were more abrasive and chronicled sex, drugs, and violence, it was still acting as a commentary on inner-city life.
Still, other hip-hop artists began straying farther from using hip-hop as a way to spread a message, eventually culminating in a section of the scene where one must show their dominance, even if that leads to violence. Like many cities, the Erie hip-hop scene suffered as people began treating all shows as if they would break out into chaos at any moment.
"It definitely hindered [the scene], because people don't want to go out and have to deal with that," C. Brown said of the drama and potential danger of some raucous shows, as he adjusted his hat. "I would tell friends about shows and they wouldn't come out because they were afraid that they might get shot, so the violence that was taking place at these events definitely put a damper on things and played a factor in I guess the 'quote-unquote' death of hip-hop in '07-'08."
While some rappers were driving away potential hip-hop crowds, other local MCs, DJs, and proponents of the culture weren't able to show that there was more to the scene than the stereotype.
"Profound [Produce] did a show out in the woods where some kids could have gone missing, and they didn't," Box said, raising his raspy voice slightly as he began to lord over the table. "They came home in one piece. Everybody came back alive. When we did that toy drive [for the December Drips & Beats show], having two big bags of toys, that was it, that was the biggest part. People had fun. We were able to share that passion. Unfortunately, some people overlook that because of what they see on MTV or BET."
Slowly, the hip-hop scene began to show that it wasn't comprised of the bunch of thugs that some people had narrow-mindedly assumed these performers were. Luckily for local hip-hop artists, they still had some believers that were willing to fight the uphill battle to help get performers more exposure.
"What it is, honestly, is that people like Iggy and Jon Box pretty much redeemed the city, as far as hip-hop music," C. Brown said. "They came here and they started putting on shows. Obviously, they saw hip-hop here, and we just needed somebody to back us up, so I would definitely have to thank them for what they've done."
What Iggy, Box, and others have done is to start a new era of hip-hop in Erie, an era in which the MCs, DJs, B-boys, and graffiti artists can promote their crafts and spread their messages while distancing themselves from the vision of all hip-hop performers as thugs.
"Probably one of the best quotes that really puts it out there is 'Rap is something you do, hip-hop something you live,'" Iggy said, as he fiddled with the cup that once held his chai tea latte. "That's by KRS-One. That's the way it is. This city is full of rappers, but there are only a few MCs. There's a difference. There are people that want to live the rapper lifestyle, and there are people who follow hip-hop culture.
"When I was younger, I was a white-and-black type of guy, and things were never grey. If you were talking about gangster stuff, it wasn't hip-hop to me, but growing up and talking to a lot of people that have been involved for a really long time, it all has its place, but it's not something that I necessarily want to spend our time promoting and putting it out there, because that just promotes more hate and more violence. While that stuff has its place, those people can figure out their own way to do their shows and put out their own CDs, whereas I'd rather focus my time on stuff that is going to make people think and come out of that show a better person."
Because of this shift, the hip-hop scene hasn't just come back; it's grown bigger than it was before. From the all-ages Boom Bap events at places like Basement Transmissions and the Performing Artists Collective Alliance to the monthly Drips & Beats shows at The Crooked I , Erie is seeing more and more people become involved in terms of both performers and fans. Multiple local hip-hop artists are now able to take the stage, ranging from the "hippie-hop" of The LEC to Hectic's mix of personal lyrics detailing both the positives and negatives of life, from the highs of spending time with his children to a night out drinking.
So what exactly does the future hold for hip-hop in Erie? While the scene is riding a high it hasn't seen in years, there's still much more work to be done. Slowly, but surely, this town is becoming more and more aware of the amount of talent its hip-hop community has, from MCs like C. Brown and Hectic, DJs like Nitro and SALT, B-boys like Phatlam and Chopstick, and the numerous graffiti artists that contributed to the mural spanning Peach and Sassafras streets.
But how much farther can Erie go? While much of the scene has been fueled by the passion the hip-hop community has for movement, it hasn't been lining the pocketbooks of its biggest proponents. Despite all the hard work and time Iggy has spent to bring in out-of-town artists while also promoting the local performers, he admitted that he has yet to recoup all of the money he has lost for past shows. But that's not why he keeps pushing forward.
"I know that this is something that's important, that needs to happen," he said. "When the late '80s, early '90s came around, the hip-hop that was speaking to me was A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, and they were all groups telling me to be yourself. At the time, that's when a lot of the hard posturing came out in hip-hop and that you had to be tough, and to have these groups say that, that was really important for me to hear."
And now, Iggy, Box, and the others that have witnessed their beloved hip-hop community begin to thrive can finally start to share the influences that formed them with the next generation of the community.
"I'm so proud of my city," C. Brown said. "I hear people tell me all the time 'There's no scene here.' Are you serious? You've got to be kidding me, there is a scene here. It might not be as big or as appealing, but there is something here and it's definitely brewing, and if we keep going at this momentum, we might all be millionaires one day. Who knows? But we need the support from the people too, because they play a part in our careers. They're just as important whether they know it or not. I wouldn't be who I am and other people wouldn't be who they are if wasn't for them.
"If you come to one of my shows, you might catch me standing there with a blank stare on my face. I might not even be saying anything, just staring out into the crowd. That's that moment. It's like 'This can't be real.' A few years ago, this wasn't going on with me, I didn't think that I would get this far in this city. I've put a lot of my life into my music, and to have somebody actually listen to me is pretty much therapeutic. Growing up, I always wanted somebody to hear me out, and now it's happening."
The hip-hop scene is full of stories waiting to be told and people ready to embrace the city that they call home. It's a community full of passion, and one that is ready to entertain Erie and show just how much this culture, this way of life, can mean to people.
Yes, the music is popular, but people like Iggy, Box, C. Brown, Hectic, and DJ SALT do more than just listen to hip-hop – they live it. Even decades after the culture got its start in a Bronx high-rise apartment, the feeling of being able to communicate through their true talents allows them to rise above whatever may ail them.
That, my friends, is hip-hop.
To hear and see the performers mentioned in this story, click here.
Alex Bieler can be contacted at aBieler@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Catch20Q.