It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in late May, that time of year when school is almost over and the days begin to feel like summer. Ari Berne, a 16-year-old junior at Charlottesville High School and a rapper who goes by the name Ghetti, has no time this afternoon to either study for finals or enjoy the fine weather.
Instead, Berne sits alongside Damani Harrison, his friend and musical mentor, in the basement of what used to be Mount Zion Baptist Church on Ridge Street. Now the home of the nonprofit Music Resource Center, the building houses all kinds of musical equipment, which is used by around 500 local teenagers, for free, under the instruction of local musicians. Hunched over a mixing board the size of a coffee table, Ari and Damani nod along to a wicked beat as they put the finishing touches on Ghetti’s debut album, Requiem for Reality—probably the only hip-hop record in the world referencing Jack Jouett Middle School.
Charlottesville hip-hop? Is there such a thing? Up until recently, the answer was a resounding “hell, no.” We’ve got pickers and grinners, jazz cats, jam bands and indie rockers, but for years locals have made the drive to Richmond or Virginia Beach to hear live hip-hop. A few violent incidents (most notably a 2001 shooting at the old Tokyo Rose and a fight three years ago at Starr Hill) had local club owners nervous. Nobody got seriously hurt in these altercations, but, as a result, many club owners refused to book hip-hop acts. For the past few years even Harrisonburg had a better hip-hop scene than Charlottesville.
But times are changing. This year Starr Hill hosted a wildly successful performance by GZA and DJ Muggs, and another by Ghostface Killah (GZA and Ghostface are rap royalty from the legendary Wu-Tang Clan; Muggs runs the wheels of steel for Cypress Hill). Another music venue, the Satellite Ballroom, recently brought underground rappers Blackalicious and Lyrics Born to town.
Meanwhile, Harrison’s group, the Beet-nix, have established a local fan base that’s expanding far beyond Charlottesville. At the Music Resource Center, young talents like Ghetti are finding the equipment and tutelage they need to turn their notebook verses into booming tracks. Along with the MRC, there is Light House, a nonprofit film academy, which gives young hip-hop artists an opportunity to put their energy into creative projects. The music that once provoked fear in certain circles now sounds like an opportunity for hope.
Making a scene
“It’s not that Charlottesville didn’t have a hip-hop scene,” says Harrison, who assumes the stage name “Glitch” as rapper and producer for the Beetnix. “The problem was that there was nobody to champion the scene.”
The current incarnation of the Beetnix formed about five years ago, when Harrison teamed up with fellow rapper Louis “Waterloo” Hampton after meeting him at a party. Now the pair usually perform with a DJ, guitar player and violinist.
“The idea was to do hip-hop based on influences other than funk, R&B and soul,” says Harrison. Their gigs at Rapture and Starr Hill bring together fans from across the music spectrum. In the early days, though, Harrison says some club owners heard “hip-hop” and reflexively balked.
“People would just throw up their hands and say, ‘There it goes again. Another shooting. Another fight. That’s just the way it goes with hip-hop,’” Harrison says. “We didn’t want to do that.”
When local clubs finally gave the Beet-nix a chance to perform, the group let fans know that the stakes were high.
“We told people that we’re trying to do something different, and if you’re not with us then you’re against us,” he says. “We had to build our reputation. There are cats who come to our shows who are living that grimy lifestyle, but they know to leave it at home.”
In addition to performing, the group also works as an ambassador to local venues, helping to book and promote national hip-hop acts. When Starr Hill booked Ghostface Killah, for example, the Beetnix took an opening slot and helped make sure the show went down peacefully. “The Beetnix are really helpful in marketing the hip-hop that comes through town,” says C.A. Fabio, Starr Hill’s music club manager. “They have a connection to the scene, and their professionalism really helps.”
“We helped make sure the shows are promoted in the right way,” says Harrison. “Like, you don’t put a big-booty chick on the flyer. If you put out a smutty flier, you get a smutty audience. You can be street and still have some class.”
Keepin’ it real
Hip-hop is emerging in Charlottesville at a time when the entire hip-hop industry, from huge stars like 50 Cent to teenage up-and-comers, struggle with a tension between image and reality. While rappers always talk about “keeping it real,” a closer look reveals that the hardest gangstas are often poseurs with a slick marketing team.
Although the term “hip-hop” covers a vast variety of styles—the zany funk of Outkast, the self-deprecating rhymes of De La Soul, the “dirty south” crunk grooves of Lil Jon—record companies have mostly seized on one particular style, known as “gangsta rap,” as the most lucrative (see sidebar, p. 25). Rappers who stray from the gangsta lyrical formula—dominating women, procuring wealth, getting drunk and shooting enemies—find it hard to get attention. From Berne’s point of view, it’s all getting a bit ridiculous.
“I don’t even listen to the radio anymore. It’s like NSync with guns,” Berne declares. He doesn’t look like the stereotypical rapper—dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, the soft-spoken Berne sports not a single piece of bling (unless you count his sensible, no-nonsense digital watch).
“Now everybody feels like they have to be a gangster,” he says. “Even if you have something to say, you don’t want to say it because you want to make some money. It’s messing up rap, in my opinion.”
Berne started rapping in sixth grade, imitating the gangsta rhymes he heard on the radio. When he got to the MRC, however, Harrison set him straight.
“I was rapping the tough-guy slick talk,” says Berne. “Then Damani introduced me to quality hip-hop, the underground stuff. It opened my mind. A week later I was working on my own stuff.”
The result is Requiem for Reality, a 16-track album Berne hopes to release this summer. Berne performed many of the tracks at an underground hip-hop showcase the Beetnix hosted at Starr Hill.
Like the Beetnix, Ghetti’s music combines adrenaline-shot beats with rock riffs from the likes of Radiohead and Nirvana. Ghetti’s dense raps, intricate rhymes and philosophical insight sound like they’re coming from a man twice his age.
“Ari is a great model for what we’re trying to do,” says Sibley Johns, executive director of the Music Resource Center. “The point is to get kids to reflect on the things that are happening in their own life. They don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not.
“When Ari first got here, he was the new kid on the block. Now he’s up on stage, doing videos, and he has kids looking up to him,” says Johns. “I think Ari understands that making music comes with a certain responsibility.”
That responsibility, says Harrison, means telling the truth. An Army brat who grew up in the rough neighborhoods of West Philadelphia and spent his school years in Germany, Harrision says that living in two worlds gave him the perspective he needed to see more possibilities for his life. Now he tries to help other kids do the same.
Each Wednesday he visits the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, reaching out to the kids locked up there. Some of the kids involved in a recent gang-related beating, which has prompted local police to finally take the possible presence of gangs in Charlottesville seriously, had visited the Music Resource Center.
“When they get back here, I’m going to say, ‘Tell me what happened. Give me both sides of the story,’” says Harrison. “It made you feel like a big man to kick that dude’s ass? That’s the first verse. The second verse is how bad the food is in the detention center, and how you felt like a bitch when you got the rubber-glove treatment.”
On the wall above his bed, Brandon Dudley has a picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb. Tucked inside the frame is a newspaper clipping with the headline “Brother Held in Girl’s Shooting.”
The article tells the story of Quanmetrice Robinson, a 15-year-old girl accidentally shot by her 14-year-old brother in their home. News of the tragedy shocked the community, especially Dudley and the rest of Robinson’s close friends. Dudley and his friends took their grief to the Music Resource Center.
“The kids were here in the studio the day after Quanmetrice was killed,” says Johns at the MRC. “What do you do with those feelings? They came to the studio. It gave them a place to immediately tease out their emotions, and to memorialize her death and what they went through with it.”
In seventh grade, Dudley discovered a passion for hip-hop alongside Joseph “Jay Dot” Scott, his friend since kindergarten. Like most fledgling MCs, they started by rapping along with instrumental tracks of popular songs, then graduated to crafting their own songs using drum machines and synthesizers. “My friend told me one day there was a studio. I started going, and that was it,” says Dudley, who raps under the name “Lee Bangah.”
He learned to craft beats and soundscapes, the best of which induce a spine-tingling chill. Older rappers helped him write rhymes that now flow effortlessly off his tongue, fluttering with the playfulness and precision of jazz drumming. Most importantly, he learned to tell a story. The story of Quanmetrice Robinson, which affected Dudley deeply, eventually became “Another Day,” a rap ballad that implores listeners to cherish their fleeting lives, because you never know what could happen tomorrow.
“You probably think this won’t happen to y’all,” Dudley raps, “until an accident happens, Lord Jesus just waits and calls.”
After recording the song at the Music Resource Center, Dudley made a video with the help of Light House’s production studio. The video for “Another Day” is an elaborate effort, featuring Dudley and dozens of friends in various locations, including a cemetery and a packed church. The Listen Up! Youth Media Network selected “Another Day” as one of their best submissions of 2004. Another one of Dudley’s Light House videos, for the song “You’ll Never Know Me,” was a finalist for a Listen Up! award this year, and the video was also shown last month at the Future Filmmaker’s Festival in Chicago.
If you still doubt Dudley’s commitment to his music, check out his forearms, which are tattooed with the words “Live Easy”—his personal philosophy, and the title of his upcoming debut album.
“When I write, I just think about things that happen in my own life,” he says. In songs like “The Survival” and “You Don’t Know Me,” he tells of the age-old teenage quest for identity in an often unfriendly world.
Part of teenage life is trying on personas like clothes, looking for an identity that feels right. More than ever, today’s media-saturated culture gives teens millions of options, almost unlimited ways of being. Yet, in the pandemonium of sounds and images screaming for kids’ attention (and money), something often gets lost: the soft, true sound of their own inner voice.
As Dudley says in the introduction to the “You’ll Never Know Me” video, hip-hop provides a way to reflect on his own life, to tell his own story in his own voice.
“People talk about how I’m not going to be nothing in life, just an original black boy living where I’m living,” Dudley says. “This video is telling people, like, just listen to what I have to say. Don’t judge a book by its cover. ‘Cause deep down, I have some stuff to tell that people really need to hear.”
A brief history
To understand why hip-hop is currently mired in gangsta cliché, we have to go back to the old school—the mid-1970s, when hip-hop culture emerged from the housing projects in the South Bronx, New York.
The godfather of hip-hop was Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell, a Bronx teenager who began throwing parties using a massive sound system based on those he saw in his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica. Herc noticed that the crowd went especially wild during the solo drum and bass parts (called “breakdowns”) in funk songs, so he devised a way to extend the drum break indefinitely by switching back and forth between a pair of turntables, producing a raw, rhythmic, bass-heavy music. This “breakbeat” is the key innovation that gave rise to hip-hop.
The breakbeat spawned a new kind of dance called breakdancing. As Herc played his beats, friends would grab a microphone and, in the style of Jamaican “toasting,” encourage people to get up and dance. These proto-rappers soon became known as MCs (for “masters
of ceremony” or “mike controllers”). Following Herc’s innovations, pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash developed hip-hop as we know it today: a culture that encompasses four art forms (DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti art). This nascent hip-hop culture was infused with a sense of competition, a peaceful, intellectual form of battle for rival street gangs. Songs like MC Shan’s “Kill That Noise” and KRS-One’s “The Bridge is Over” fought it out on record and at block parties, with the MCs exchanging snappy insults instead of bullets.
A few rap acts, like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, went mainstream in the 1980s, but most record executives still considered hip-hop a fad until 1989. Then N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, featuring such memorable ditties as “Fuck Tha Police” and quotable lyrics like “life ain’t nuthin’ but bitches and money.” Straight Outta Compton was deemed so offensive that radio and television wouldn’t touch it—yet the record sold 2 million copies on word of mouth alone.
Straight Outta Compton defined a genre of hip-hop now known as “gangsta rap.” When record executives realized that N.W.A. was selling huge amounts of re-cords to white heavy metal fans, gangsta became a money-making formula. Companies made stars (and huge profits) out of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent, while rappers with more nuanced, socially conscious messages were largely forced “underground,” struggling to be heard above the gunshots and booty smacks.—J.B.
Digging up the roots
Not feeling the gangsta vibe? Here are some underground heroes whom you might not know—but should.—J.B.
A Tribe Called Quest
Their 1991 album The Low End Theory defined “progressive” hip-hop as an alternative to gangsta rap.
MC Guru and DJ Premier (who is widely regarded as one of
the greatest DJs of all time) are kings of East Coast hip-hop. Check out their greatest-hits compilation, Full Clip (1999).
His 1998 release, Black Star, with
fellow New York MC Talib Kweli, sparked an
underground rap revival.
The newest underground sensation, Murs doesn’t swear or exploit the N-word on his latest record, Murray’s Revenge. His record label, Def Jux, is the home of fellow underground star Aesop Rock.