February 18, 1996
By Neil Gladstone & Noreen Mallory
It's Friday night and the dark, crowded room in Temple's Mitten Hall is packed with excited hip-hop fans. Arms swing in the air, heads nod to the beats. The hardcore anthems of New York's Wu-Tang Clan pump from the speakers, and hip-hop heads in full gear baggies, sweatshirts and workboots rush to the stage. Like a cyclone of people, a freestyle "cipher" ensues where, one-by-one, a rapper "freestyles" improv raps while others eagerly await their turn.
One of the rappers, Mu-Stang Gang Tackle, steps up to the stage to start the party right.
"This is an African thing," he says roaming around the stage, his bright red knit cap looming like a beacon above the crowd. "Don't cut each other off," he instructs the rappers. "You have to respect one another."
High school and college-aged kids have come from across the city to check out the latest rhymes in this stately college hall. As the rappers drop their lyrics, the hyped crowd voices approval or disapproval with a cheer, a hoot or a groan.
For over a year, Temple's African Student Union has been putting on these "Hip-hop Cafés" (they've been so successful that the Haitian Student Union has started a Creole Café of its own).
There are many who think Philadelphia's hip-hop scene is dying a slow death. But if tonight's cipher is any indication, it may actually be vibing better than it has for years.
From critically acclaimed artists like The Roots to up-and-coming rappers like Bahamadia, Munk Wit Da Funk and Lux, Philly has recently seen greater national attention. More label representatives are coming to the city looking for new acts and recognizing that Philly indeed is a gold mine for hip-hop talent.
But it still has a bad rep to overcome.
Steady B and Cool C's recent arrest (Warren McGlone and Christopher Roney, respectively) for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer was a tragic blow to a movement whose morale was already low. The accused assailants were once fixtures of Philadelphia rap.
"It's another black eye to hip-hop," says Daryl James, editor-in-chief of the California-based Rapsheet magazine. The former stars' fall from grace is the latest bit of news on the Philadelphia hip-hop scene, and it isn't good.
But many rappers say Philadelphia's stigma has much more to do with a success story. When D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince became international superstars for breezy tunes like "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" and "Summertime," everyone associated the City of Brotherly Love with their upbeat "happy rap."
Even today, "A&R people expect your songs to be silly when you tell them where you're from," says Kenny Lee of the group 215 Asasinz. His group's recent song "Illadel Threat" fumes about the media's distortion of truth and points a finger at A.M. Philadelphia host Wally Kennedy, among others.
"Wally is always going on about O.J. I don't know whether O.J. did the murders or not, but why does he always have to talk about it all the time?" wonders Lee. "He even tied the Steady B and Cool C incident to O.J., it's like he wants to assassinate O.J. So, we figured we'd assassinate Wally in our lyrics."
"I know rappers who won't even say they're from Philadelphia because New York A&R people won't listen to them once they do," explains local rapper Lux. He's just released his first CD, The Man They Call Lux, on No Front Inc., a Philly-based independent label. The lyrics, which reflect Lux's recent 13 month-incarceration (for racketeering and controlled substance distribution), are hardly light entertainment.
After the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff became household names, says Lux, a lot of artists expected them to come back to the scene and develop other acts. They never did.
"It was like a smack in the face," he notes, and adds that the Fresh Prince used to live around the corner from him when they were both growing up.
Schoolly D, widely considered the father of Gangsta Rap, counters that the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff were important for bringing rap to rural Oklahoma and other places far outside the urban centers where the art form originated. Julius Nipskey, who works with Schoolly D's label, PSK records, thinks blaming the Philadelphia scene on Fresh Prince is as unfounded as Florida's scene blaming itself for Vanilla Ice.
Some artists say that to get better respect for the Philly hip-hop scene, rappers need to start supporting one another.
Colby Colb, a DJ on Power 99 (88.9 FM), says there is a tremendous jealousy among rappers. His show, Radioactive (on Friday nights from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.), is one of the city's premiere forums for local and national hip-hop acts. When asked about the strength of the local scene, he shakes his head emphatically and observes, "There is no unity at all."
"People call my show all the time dissing [insulting] other rappers," explains Colby Colb. Cleavland Brown, editor of the hip-hop zine, Noizemaka, likens the scene to a family, adding, "Families can't stay together if they're always fighting."
Unlike New York or California, where crews and cliques dominate the scene, Philly rap artists don't seem to have each other's "backs" (support) as in other cities. Certain audiences will only follow artists from their neighborhood. Pioneering rappers from the "old school" (the late '70s through the '80s) think the "new school" ('90s) style is sterile and the lyrics too violent. Many up-and-coming rappers think the former old school superstars are just burnt out and jealous.
Of course there are crews in Philadelphia, but none that would compare to the Wu-Tang Clan in New York or Death Row Records in California, with Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and now, Tupac.
"If somebody from Wu-Tang says 'I'll put you on,' [give you an opportunity], people would believe them before they would believe another Philly artist," offers Brown as an example of the lack of trust between Philadelphia artists.
Rappers and DJs in New York are known to support their artists even before they "blow up" [get popular]. Wu-Tang has several members (Old Dirty B, Method Man, Raekwon and The Genius) who have all produced individual albums with tremendous success, yet they still say they'll always remain one group. True to New York style, group members can often be seen at each other's shows.
Groups like the RAM Squad have emulated Wu-Tang's collective approach. Members of the RAM Squad, along with other groups from its North Philly neighborhood, frequently appear at shows together.
ButM.C. Breeze says it's also the audiences that make Philadelphia a tough town for entertainers. It's not just that crowds are often loyal to their section of town North Philly, West Philly, The Bottom (Mantua), Richard Allen Projects it's that when you mess up, the audience lets you know it.
"I've seen rappers rip shows and get no reaction from the crowd because they don't know them," says Lee. "Crowds won't react unless the song is totally booty."
Karen Good, assistant editor for the New York-based Vibe magazine, says that part of Philadelphia's identity problem may result from being located so close to the Big Apple. "Like it or not, New York dictates how hip-hop is going on the East Coast," she says.
Many followers of the local scene say it's not just New York which dictates the local scene: anyone who has a hit will be copied by young Philly artists. Tab Edwards, editor of Da Buzz, says that Philadelphia is plagued by musical copycats. Old-school rapper Disco C figures that teenagers have their eyes on the money instead of the art. They hear a rapper get big and assume that's the sound the records companies want (which, to some extent, is true) so they immediately cop the rapping style that's currently popular, she says.
Colby Colb says Philly rappers shouldn't try to emulate New York artists just because that's where the music originated.
"Don't worry about New York," he advises. "Come up on your own."
But finding your niche in the rap world isn't easy without places to showcase, in the clubs or on the airwaves.
Artists both new and old say Philadelphia radio isn't doing a lot to promote local bands. Power 99 and WKDU (91.7 FM) are the main venues for local hip-hop music, but for the most part Power 99 DJs include local artists only on the Friday and Saturday night mix shows, and WKDU has shows only on weekends. That amounts to a mere handful of airtime hours.
Lady B says it has always been difficult to get local artists on Power 99. She worked for the station in the late '80s.
"I would play Schoolly D because I liked him and the programmers would say, 'Don't play him, he's not hot enough,'" recalls the once-pervasive on-air personality. "I would say, 'How is he ever going to get hot if I don't play him?'"
"Power 99 is my favorite radio station, because it's the only radio station," jokes 215 Asasinz' Lee, mocking their catchphrase and position as the only full-time rap station in town. WKDU is good, he adds,but they play rap only a few times a week.
Tab Edwards says the situation at Power 99 is true of many radio stations in major markets. Often such radio stations are programmed by an outside company that wants to get only the biggest artists on air in hopes of getting the highest ratings possible.
Many fans and performers feel that a golden era of hip-hop radio ended on Philly when Lady B went off the air. But Garry Young, Power 99's program director, says the station is doing its part to support local artists during its daily programming. With segments such as "Hometown Jam" and "Make It or Break It," local artists get the opportunity to be heard.
As far as the weekend mix shows, DJs Colby Colb, DJ Ran and Cosmic Kev all have input into what gets played on the shows. But in order for a song make it on the air, at least one out of the three has to like it.
The club scene is also struggling.From '93 to '95, hip-hop clubs were booming, but one of the most popular spots Club Dances near 7th & Arch shut down in the summer of '95 because of construction on the block. Gothum and Club Vegas on Delaware Ave. and Fever on Chestnut St. attract good crowds, but have hip-hop performers only once or twice a week. New Alternatives, an after-hours club near Broad and Girard, is an important player, but is open only on Fridays and Saturdays. These days, Bobby Dance promotes hip-hop nights at Winners; he plans to reopen Club Dances soon at a different space near 12th and Arch.
Unfortunately, violence still crops up occasionally at shows. In December, a fight broke out at Lux's record release party at Illusions, forcing bouncers to clear the club. To prevent trouble,clubgoers at most places are now being patted down and checked for weapons.
"We didn't have to get patted or worry about shootings in our day," says old schooler Disco C wistfully. "I often hear about shows that I want to attend, but I don't because of the rowdy crowd that will be there." She worries that too much of today's hip-hop culture is based on kids bragging about money, cars and weapons.
Like many artists from the old school, Disco C would like to reach out to the new acts and share knowledge of the music business. Marvin Kingcade III, of the zine Urban Ground, is one who thinks they could use the help. Philadelphia, he says, is stagnated by business-side slack.
"There's no solid structure or foundation out of Philly coming from the business end," Kingcade explains.
For several years, old school rappers have talked about the need to network and preserve the history of rap in the city. Last Saturday night, the Old School Hip-Hop Association took steps in that direction by holding its first party, which turned out to be a great opportunity to exchange numbers and get back in touch.
C.C.'s at 40th and Filbert is a low-key neighborhood bar whose humble brick exterior easily blends in with the adjacent low-rise office buildings, row homes and convenience stores. There's no sign outside to announce the old-school rap all-stars filling the room on this Saturday night. Schoolly D, M.C. Breeze, Jazzy Jeff, Lady B, Disco C andIce Cream-T are just a few of the native rappers and DJs participating in this "family reunion." Former rivals are hugging like long lost brothers.
"Where's the party at?" screams M.C. Breeze (of B4orce) into the microphone on the stage in the back of the room. "Is the party phat?"
"Hell, yeah!" comes the unified reply from the dance floor, pulsing with about 150 people. It's almost like 1985 all over again, except there's no fat gold rope chains or shiny sweatsuits. A few of the men don Kangol hats, shelltop Adidas and the thick-rimmed sunglasses that Run-DMC made famous, but it seems more an homage than a fashion statement.
"We would have had Steady B and Cool C here, but they couldn't make it," jokes Breeze.
A couple of women work their black vinyl cat suits for all they're worth, but most people are dressed in button-down shirts or sweatshirts. By 2 o'clock, the party is in full swing. The barstools are almost empty and the dance floor is packed. A Philly blunt is passed around by a small circle of men leaning on the speaker. The rumble of the beat comes up through the soles of your shoes and forces your behind to wiggle, even if you're not into dancing.
The rap music on the turntables is a mixture of new and old. Public Enemy, Redman, LL Cool J, Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick and Method Man are just a few of the artists being spun tonight. Breeze shouts out to the people who haven't been on the scene for years.
Later, after he's finished his turn working the crowd, Breeze explains, "What I'm doing tonight is what being a rapper is all about, keeping the party going, making everyone happy. It's not about killing and guns and violence."
Breeze co-founded the Old School Hip-Hop Association a little over a month ago in hopes of reuniting the founding members of the scene. In addition to monthly parties where old-school DJs and rappers will perform, he'd like to make a documentary about the scene, as well as a book, compilation albums, T-shirts, baseball cards and even a hip-hop musical.
"Mugs my age threw out our pink suits a long time ago, but we still want to party," says Schoolly D. "We don't want to go to Gothum because it's too glitzy, and in the end, a lot of us end up sitting at home."
Breeze says that the importance of the association is to formally acknowledge a lot of what went on in the early '80s and impart a sense of pride to members of the old school.
"There were a number of great groups that were around before records were even made," says Breeze, "and they just disappeared." Newer groups don't know the history of Philadelphia rap and how the town was a center for innovative DJs like Jazzy Jeff, says Breeze. "They could cut records with their stomach, face and elbows," explains Breeze, who thinks that craft has been lost with the advent of the sampler in rap music.
Co-founder Dave Ware (B4orce member Disco Dave) explains that the purpose of the parties is to raise money. "We don't want to ask for anything from the DJs or rappers," says Ware. A lot of people didn't have confidence that anyone would show up, but he is very happy with Saturday night's strong crowd. (If you would like to help out with the association, his number is 382-8843.)
Ware and Breeze are also thinking about creating the Philadelphia Hip-Hop Alliance to build a bridge between the old and new schools of rap.
But that may not be quite as simple as it sounds. There is a generation gap between the two for several reasons. It isn't unusual for there to be as much as a 10-year age difference between the well-established groups and the new ones. But more importantly, old school rappers who used to pump up parties with DJs think the sample-laden rap is flat and gangsta lyrics are getting tired.
A lot of the new stuff is "fucking sterile," says Schoolly D, who adds that a lot of the newer artists have a limited musical vocabulary. "I grew up listening to Santana, Chicago, Funkadelic, jazz, and I went back to them when I started making music," explains the rapper. "Today, kids only listen to rap, and it shows."
Lady Bsays that even though a lot of the new lyrics are creative, the tracks often sample and mimic the old tunes.
Performing with samplers and tapes takes the live feel out of the music, says Breeze, who thinks the new groups are all starting to sound the same. People take a backing track and work it until it's stiff, he adds. "We want the needle to fall off of the record and have the M.C. make up for the mistake," explains Breeze.
True to that sentiment, the DJs did occasionally slip, or intentionally stop, the record Saturday night at C.C.'s. Sometimes it provoked laughter, but an M.C. like Kenny Krash saw it as an opportunity to fill the air with smoking vocal rhythm.
Edwards thinks the disparaging remarks of old school rappers about the new school are the result of jealousy and a longing for the "good old days." He releases a lot of younger artists on his record label, Kixx, and says samplers added myriad layers to the art form that didn't exist for rappers and DJs in the '80s.
"Sampling is the shit!" exclaims Lee. "If you don't have a live band and you're not using a sampler, you're going to sound whack." As for using a pre-recorded tape for back-up, he says it all depends on how you format the show and your ability as an entertainer. The rapper admits that he's been around the scene since the beginning and that using a DJ is always cool.
Ice Cream-T compliments a lot of younger rappers for vocal rhythms that outshine the ones their predecessors employed. However, like many of her generation, she's getting tired of the violent lyrics.
"We know the problems of the world by now," notes Lady B. "We should be talking more about how to fix them and not praise shooting people."
Breeze says he's sick of people asking, "Why do you black people always talk about violence?" He adds that rappers talk about everything, but the A&R people often pick up on gangsta lyrics. The companies that choose what to promote often aren't run by blacks. There's politically minded, conscientious rap, reality rap and comedy rap that's all just as good, but it's not put out by major labels.
For a while there were two distinct sounds coming from the city, says local producer Miz. One was the bohemian/abstract style of rap similar to De La Soul and the other was a sort of Islam-influenced rap.
"It's more of a religious thing than Afrocentrism," explains Miz. A lack of one dominating style is part of the city's identity problem and there hasn't been much new style for the last several years, says the producer. Just lately, though, there has been a wealth of new ideas, styles and sounds.
Bahamadia is a new Philadelphia artist who appears to be bridging the gap between the old and new school rap with '70s disco and soul.
"I don't know why people want separate things out either it's dope or it's not," says the rapper from her record company's offices in New York. "When I did the single 'Blas Blah,' it was electric boogie, disco, go-go all of it combined." Her new album, Kollage, will be released on March 15. She worked with several different producers for the album, including Guru of Gang Starr, DJ Premier and local luminaries the Roots.
"I've never been so ecstatic about an album," says the Roots' Ahmir, who produced one of her songs. "I mean I was happy with what we did together, but a lot of the other stuff is so much better."
Although she's been working in the Philly scene since the mid-'80s, Bahamadia was only recently signed to a major label, EMI. Her first single, "UKNOWHOWWEDU," was just out Jan. 9 and is already winning critical acclaim and commercial success. The sultry rap song pays homage to the Philadelphia scene old and new and offers a "who's who" list of notable rappers and DJs. The video for "UKNOWHOWWEDU" was filmed in early December of last year at Third Story Recording Studio a hip-hop hot spot and features many of the artists mentioned in the song.
The production brought a lot of old school rappers together for the first time in years. Rapper Ice Cream-T says the video was "the start of a big thing." Old school and new school rappers started networking seriously to forge a new unity.
"It was a really smart move," she says of the video get-together, "and it should have happened a long time ago."
Bahamadia's positive karma appears to be returning not only to herself but for the city as well.
"There's such a huge buzz about Bahamadia in the industry, she's going to bring interest back into the city," figures Vibe magazine's Good.
Edwards agrees. Just last week, he gave people at EMI recordings what he considers to be the city's best new offerings, at the request of a Philly-born A&R representative.
James says that even though the Roots are a "phenomenal" band and their major label debut Do You Want More?!!!??! received overwhelming acclaim, they're still seen as a marginal act in the hip-hop community because their music mixes live music and jazz influences. Although the Goats are viewed as mainstream rap by some, many in the scene consider them closer to rock. Good had never heard of them.
Bahamadia, on the other hand, has her own distinctive style, but is much more accessible to the mainstream.
Currently, Bahamadia is up in New York filming the video for her second single, "True Honey Buns." She'll be performing in Philadelphia Saturday night (actually, early Sunday morning)at New Alternatives. She's looking forward to getting back to her hometown and says she'd never move. Her favorite hangouts range from Studio 37 at Broad and Erie (on Tuesday nights) to the McDonald's at Broad and Allegheny.
For some local rappers,Bahamadia's success feels like it could be contagious. While watching a Bahamadia interview on the BET television show, Rap City, Luxsays into the telephone, "I feel like I'm next."
Another positive development is that many artists are now taking on protgs. Ice Cream-T is helping develop a young act called ASL. She instructs them on management, copyrights and distribution. She is also starting her own label. Schoolly D is producing Da Funk Mob and putting them out on his own label, PSK records.
Kincade says it would help a lot to have a major distributor out of Philly. There is one, Universal, but they primarily handle major record labels. James thinks that people shouldn'tscorn independent distribution when rap is concerned. In fact, he thinks many independent companies treasure their rap artists more and know how to promote them better than the majors.
Ahmir agrees. The Roots' first-album sales probably suffered by Geffen being new to the hip-hop genre.
At Third Story studios in West Philly, Miz, members of the group Tasc4orce and others are sitting back relaxing before the session.
"Brothas need to study what they're doing before they get in it," says Miz, a former DJ champ.
In the studio, Miz sets up the mix board while Tasc4orce members arrange equipment in the sound booth. They are preparing to lay down some vocals for a new track. The group's producer, Andy, is waiting and watching inside the studio.
At one time, Tasc4orce had a deal with an A&R subsidiary, but the label dissolved before they could release an album.
"A lot of people gave up on them because the deal with A&R didn't go through," says Andy, "but I don't give up easy. I'm not giving up."
"I'm not either," Miz chimes in. "I'm not either."
Like Miz, Philadelphia hip-hop may just be getting its second wind.