Listen up!

C'ville's hip-hop scene is on the rise

Ron Paris

It’s a gray Sunday evening, 50-something degrees and drizzling when The Beetnix step onto the outdoor stage at IX Art Park. It’s been raining all day, but a crowd of more than 100 has gathered on the graffiti-painted concrete ground in front of the stage. Many of them hold their phones and tablets in the air, precipitation be damned, ready to capture Charlottesville’s most legendary hip-hop duo on video.

“Come closer,” Damani “Glitch One” Harrison says to the crowd as he picks up a mic. With his arms stretched out wide, Louis “Waterloo” Hampton beckons for everyone to move in closer.

For Harrison, 39, hip-hop has been part of his life since he was a kid. A military brat who grew up in Germany and Philadelphia, he remembers exactly where he was when the music caught him.

He was 9 or 10 years old, riding around Philadelphia in the passenger seat of his cousin David’s black Nissan Maxima (he “had all the good music and a good car stereo,” Harrison says), listening to Power 99 hip-hop and R&B radio. When Whodini’s “Freaks Come Out at Night” spun over the airwaves, Harrison recalls how different it sounded from the R&B, jazz, soul and gospel his parents had played. “It touched me in a different way,” Harrison says. “The words, the rhyming of the stories. Being a small kid, it was like someone took all the children’s books that you grew up reading and set them to music, and made them relevant to me.”

After moving to Charlottesville in the early 2000s with friends, Harrison started The Beetnix and met Hampton “through a strange turn of circumstances.” Harrison says they connected instantly over “comic books, weird movies, geek culture,” and they shared an in-your-face, socially conscious edge. Both MCs (a lyricist and rapper) were into painting pictures with their words, “movies for the blind,” as German rapper Cage says.

The Beetnix were keen on getting their music heard all over town, so Harrison and Hampton would save up $500 and visit the only CD duplicator in Charlottesville at the time (remember, this was pre-internet streaming), get 400 copies of their CD, then leave them on tables at the Downtown Mudhouse and hand them out for free at shows.

One of those CDs made it into the hands of Remy St. Clair, 32, a local MC, radio and event host who says The Beetnix are one of the most influential groups he’s ever had in his CD player, right up there with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Public Enemy.

St. Clair, who commits much of his time to the Charlottesville hip-hop scene, is one of the organizers of the Nine Pillars Hip-hop Cultural Fest, the occasion of The Beetnix’s set at IX, the duo’s first show in nearly four years. Over the course of a week in April, Nine Pillars made Charlottesville history with its workshops, lectures and performances as this city’s first hip-hop-focused festival.

Nine Pillars Hip-hop Cultural Fest

Play this now!

Louis “Waterloo” Hampton debuts his previously unreleased album, Give ’Em Hell, Kid! here

Many local artists agree that The Beetnix are the among the most influential groups in Charlottesville hip-hop, and although the duo has been absent from the stage for a few years, their influence hasn’t wavered.

The Beetnix gave local hip-hop artists confidence, St. Clair tells the crowd. “They gave us a scolding. They gave us hope.”

As Harrison and Hampton spit through their set with furrowed brows and focused looks, Keese Allen, 26, a local MC known simply as Keese, stands there in a hooded rain jacket the same shade of red as his Vans high-top sneakers. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he says with a grin, adding that he’s been “waiting on this for years.” Whether he is referring to The Beetnix performance or the festival as a whole isn’t quite clear but, either way, he’s elated. Like most people in the crowd, he knows all the lyrics to the songs and nods his head in time.

At the end of The Beetnix set, Harrison, wearing a black T-shirt with the words “F-SOCIETY” printed in red below an image of the Anonymous mask, matching black Adidas shoes with red stripes and jeans, stands at the edge of the stage and looks out at the crowd as Hampton, visibly moved, wipes a tear from the corner of his eye.

“It’s not a dream. It’s a reality that’s occurring,” Harrison says, referencing a line from Aesop Rock’s “No Regrets”: “You can dream a little dream or you can live a little dream / I’d rather live it.”

‘Just trying to be heard’

In December 2007, C-VILLE ran a cover story with the headline “C’ville hip-hop R.I.P.?” The piece was written in the wake of a shooting that occurred at the now-defunct Outback Lodge on Preston Avenue, where, as the article details, on the night of November 14, 2007, police responded to reports of shots fired near the venue. A Louisa County man was shot in the leg and a second weapon was found on a convicted felon.

The incident led to the cancellation of hip-hop shows at the venue and, according to many longtime hip-hop artists in town, gave some other venues in town a reason to deny hip-hop a place on their stages.

“We’ve had a lot of talent around…but everybody was so scared to bring in hip-hop acts because of violence and all that,” says Hampton. “It was a huge negative stigma. …But our core fan base definitely held us down; we had little to no trouble at [Beetnix] shows. And a lot of these guys [making music in town] right now, they have that core fan base.”

Shonn “Bumpy Brown” Brown, 36, a producer who’s made beats for artists in town and elsewhere since he was a teenager, says that hip-hop, both locally and globally, has been wrongly perceived—“profiled,” he says—as a beacon for violence. “There’s not much to talk about except the profiling, point blank period,” he says. “Sometimes stuff happens and sometimes stuff don’t. You can’t expect, or know, it’s going to happen. If [hip-hop] is a positive thing that could grow and keep people out of doing certain things, then why stop it?” he asks.

Hampton, 36, like so many other MCs, was writing lyrics and delivering them into the mic (an act known as “spitting”) long before he stood on a stage. He’d grown up listening to lyricists like Jay-Z, Nas and Ice Cube, artists who gave him the advice—“check yourself before you wreck yourself”—that an older brother or a father would have doled out otherwise, and once he hit high school, he was winning freestyle battles at Monticello High School and Western Albemarle High. After meeting Brown, Hampton began visiting the Music Resource Center over Max/Trax near the Corner, where Brown, who’d already started making beats, encouraged Hampton to write his own lyrics. Brown would drop a cassette tape of beats into the tape deck while Hampton and others stood around a single mic and took turns spitting their verses, each rapper trying to outdo the next. Hampton stayed up “late, late, late at night, on school nights,” writing. “I would lose time, just going over and over” the words, Hampton remembers. “If you could perfectly recite these 16 bars, and everyone’s patting you on the back, nobody can tell you shit. You’re 10 feet tall.”

Hip-hop happens in the MRC, in schoolyards, high school hallways and on sidewalks in the 10th and Page neighborhood. It’s happened in the basement of Tokyo Rose to the music of Myson King. And it happens in home recording studios and in quiet moments of writing in bedrooms.

“Hip-hop is not this wild beast that comes down from the hill. It’s not this imaginary thing. It’s been here the whole time, fully integrated into society,” Harrison says. “The scene isn’t exploding; it’s being revealed.”

Over the last few years, venues such as The Ante Room, Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, Magnolia House and newly The Villa Sports Bar and Ultra Lounge, in the old Outback Lodge spot, have helped give local hip-hop artists a space to spit their lines and say what’s on their minds—hip-hop is like therapy for those who practice it, and a remedy for the listener, too. But take a look at most venue and festival calendars—everywhere from breweries to the Southern Café and Music Hall to the Jefferson Theater—and you’ll see more indie rock, singer-songwriter music than anything else. If hip-hop is on the calendar, it’s occasional. Some hip-hop-friendly venues have shut down or, in the case of Random Row Books on West Main Street, where Anthony “Double A 1 K” Amos held the occasional Verbs and Vibes open mic and hip-hop show, been demolished to make way for a hotel.

Tea Bazaar owner Gwendolyn Hall says that hip-hop is “like modern-day beat poetry,” and she’s happy to have it in her tea house. Hip-hop shows are, on average, some of the venue’s most well-attended shows. Jeyon Falsini, owner of The Ante Room who previously booked hip-hop shows at Outback Lodge, says that it’s a huge scene, both artist- and fan-wise, that’s becoming “more locally mainstream.” Whether there are more artists now than ever he can’t say for sure, but he’s seeing more of them—instead of booking a hip-hop show occasionally, he’s booking at least one a month at his venue.


Listen to the lyrics

Dumb it down for the public / Just so your ass can stomach it? / Yuki yuki yuki yuki.

“Yuki,” EquallyOpposite

Start the spark that’ll change the globe, / A caveman when it’s sticks and stones, / you’re not stupid, we’re just humans, / dreamin’ lucid, release the nooses.

“HourGlass,” Sondai

One for my God, two for the bass. / Three to move a mountain with a mustard seed of faith.

“3rd Eye Open,” Remy St. Clair, Sons of Ichibei

No more gun clashes, no more wars, / no more sunglasses indoors, / no more fake tits, no more innocent dead, / no more spaceships, no more cinnamon bread, / no more us, so no more stressing, Armageddon.

“Seven Trumpets,” Fellowman, Sons of Ichibei


 

The general consensus among MCs, producers and DJs (the ones responsible for transitioning MCs from beat to beat or, in a party setting, keeping the crowd happy via music) is that there are more venues booking hip-hop than there were a few years ago—maybe three or four instead of one or two. It’s an improvement, but it’s not quite enough, especially because they’ll lose one when The Ante Room is torn down, along with the rest of the Main Street Arena, in 2018; a tech incubator will be built in its place.

Sitting on a black pleather couch pushed up against a royal purple wall at I Feel Famous Studios, a one-room production, recording and mentoring studio in the basement of a house in Belmont, Brown says there is indeed more hip-hop in Charlottesville than ever. He shakes a cigarette out of a pack pulled from the pocket of his black leather jacket and tugs on a small gold medallion hanging at the center of his chest while explaining that artists are starting to aspire to something more than local stardom. “[Hip-hop] is bigger than the local scene, of course, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and why not at home?” he says.

Artists like Lady Taij, who came up in Charlottesville and recently moved to Atlanta to reach a wider audience, are honing their skills in the ’ville and moving up and out when the time comes. Someone who hears Lady Taij in Atlanta might be prompted to check out the scene she came from and could get into Charlottesville artists like Nay Nichelle, or hear a beat from Doughman, a producer whom Harrison calls “the left ventricle” of Charlottesville hip-hop, because so many beats are going through him.

The goal is “to make people recognize, to show that we’re more serious. This is a lot of people’s lives; this is what they love,” Brown says before rattling off the names of no fewer than three dozen artists whom he’s worked with (or, for that matter, whom he’s related to) in town over the years. And that list isn’t complete

Local artists like Sondai are getting their music played on Spotify; others are gathering listeners on SoundCloud.

“There’s still a lot of people that we, that I haven’t even heard of, that I wish would show their faces. There’s probably more happening as we speak,” says Brown. And “eventually, more people are going to believe in it.”

Like Brown, Hampton feels as though hip-hop has been misunderstood and unfairly pushed to the margins by venues and, to an extent, listeners, in Charlottesville. There’s the stigma that hip-hop promotes violence and drug use, that rappers only rap about money, guns, drugs and sex. Those rappers are out there, sure, but they don’t represent the entire genre. “A lot of people don’t see the other side of it; they don’t hear the consciousness of it,” says Hampton, not to mention the wordplay, the rhymes. “They just hear about somebody getting robbed, or whatever. But there’s so much more to it. There’s so much more to it. So much beauty.”

Plus, “you can’t have a community like Charlottesville and not have hip-hop be a major part of it. There is a community here, a black community, that has something to say, and this is one of their ways to say it,” says Hampton.

“Every week, someone else is picking up a mic and starts rapping,” says Rico “Sweet Lick” Hearns, an event promoter who, for the past four years, has been interviewing local hip-hop MCs, producers and DJs about their music for his Sweet Lick Weekly web series. “Everyone’s just trying to be heard.”

Sondai

In mid-February Kevin Skinner was feeling down. Earlier in the month, Skinner, who goes by the moniker Sondai (pronounced “Sunday”) released a single, “One Chick,” on Spotify, and it hadn’t received much traction—maybe 150 listens over two weeks. The 27-year-old hip-hop artist has been writing and recording music for more than a decade—and he’s been writing poetry for even longer—but with the release of “One Chick,” he started to question his choice to pursue music.

Skinner relies on music to keep him going. “When I have a bad day, I don’t have to call anybody to talk about it, I can just write,” he says. It’s why he goes by Sondai: Sunday is a day to practice one’s faith, and his is music.

He contemplated removing “One Chick” from Spotify and other sites—something he’s done with his material in the past—but decided to think about it for one more day.

The next morning, he woke to a slew of texts from a friend.

“Yo. Did you know you’re on the front of my Spotify?” the friend asked. Skinner figured it was algorithm-based; if his friend was always looking up his stuff, then it’d make sense that “One Chick” would pop up as a suggested track.

But that wasn’t it. “One Chick” was on that week’s Fresh Finds playlist on the Spotify home page. According to the Spotify website, the popular playlist, updated every Wednesday, is “an automated curation of bound to break songs across five genres, powered by an analysis of Spotify tastemakers.”

In a single day, “One Chick,” a song about being in love with two women and the fear of choosing the wrong one—a song that was recorded, mixed and mastered in 20-year-old Finn Downey’s Belmont studio—garnered more than 20,000 listens. At press time, it had nearly 300,000 listens on Spotify alone.

Kevin Skinner, who goes by the moniker Sondai (pronounced “Sunday”), writes poetry in addition to lyrics. He says that writing gives him “existential purpose,” and it’s important to him that people connect with his words. A fan once wrote to Skinner and told him his song “So Reality” helped him through a really rough time in his life. “One person saying that meant the world to me,” Skinner says. Photo by Amy Jackson

Skinner still doesn’t know exactly how it happened, but it felt like a long time coming. He wrote his first poem, “I Feel Lonely,” during in-school suspension when he was in second grade in the Bronx. He started putting words to music when he was a pre-teen and put hours and hours into writing songs when he was at Charlottesville High School. He keeps all of his writing, from ideas jotted down on school worksheets and restaurant napkins to his neatly scribed poetry notebooks that never leave the house and the small leather notebooks full of lyrics that Skinner carries in his pockets. He likes to have a record of how he’s felt and when he felt that way, he says. It helps him keep in touch with who he is. He’s “just an average Joe,” he says, making music that he hopes other people will connect with.

A voracious reader, he always carries a paperback book with him, and he has stacks of them in his bedroom. He’s read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel over and over, and he recently finished José Saramago’s Death Without Interruptions, a book about what the world would be like if nobody died. But he’s not that into fiction, he says; he prefers real stories. “You have this life. This is it,” he says. “Why would you have to make anything up?”

When Skinner listens to music, he likes to be drawn into the artist’s world. “I want to feel like I know [that person],” he says. Listen to his new album Wallflower and you’ll get to know Skinner quite well—his tendency to view life as a series of movie scenes, his experience as a young black man in America, his yearning for romance and his aspiration to have “40 fucking acres with no neighbors.” You’ll hear his love for rhyme, vocabulary and imagery, too, when he strings together metaphors into one big, sensuous allegory: “In my room it’s a tomb an acoustic the strings I pull are attached to a heart that’s gone black but it’s never too bad you can always come back like elastic to me,” he spits fast as fire on “HourGlass.”

On that same track, he expresses his desire to relate to others over the music: “Start the spark that’ll change the globe, / A caveman when it’s sticks and stones, / you’re not stupid, we’re just humans, / dreamin’ lucid, release the nooses.”

Skinner is a sensitive guy—he feels the good and the bad with equal depth, he says. “Experts say that plants are aware of their surroundings and react to outside stimuli,” he says of the story he’s telling on his new record. “When you see someone standing in the corner of a party or just observing any situation, you never know what they’re feeling on the inside. …I decide to just tell the listener what I was feeling,” Skinner says.

Lately, he’s been feeling pretty good. At the Wallflower album release show at Magnolia House on April 29, Skinner couldn’t stop smiling. It had been a warm day and temperatures rose inside the house as a crowd of 50 or so people packed in to hear him perform his new tracks. As Skinner picked up the mic, a single lamp cast light on his many tattoos—two of which reference Sylvia Plath’s “Balloons” and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The room grew warmer with the grooving bodies, and beads of sweat slid down temples and off the tips of noses as the crowd matched Skinner word for word on “One Chick.” Barely able to contain his delight, Skinner dabbed the back of his neck with a terrycloth towel between songs and thanked the crowd and his mom, who stood in the corner filming the entire 25-minute set, for their support.

“So what, so fuck it, still ridin’ ’round in my bucket,” he rhymed to the hyped-up, smiling crowd as it bounced to the “This Life” hook. “This life, this life / Don’t come without no price. / Don’t come without no vices / so save a seat on that flight. / We up, we out, we ridin’ around and we gettin’ it,” he sang.

“I’m talkin’ ’bout some real shit,” he declared a few lines later as his audience reached toward him to give dap—bump fists, or shake hands and lock thumbs during the set.


Ones to watch

Lady Taij. Publicity photo

Lady Taij

Tasia White, known as Lady Taij, recently moved from Staunton to Atlanta to chase her dream. “I really wanted to take my music to the next level,” she says of the conscious hip-hop she made and nurtured for years on local stages; as a lesbian woman performing songs about her personal experiences, she says she “received nothing but respect” from the Charlottesville scene. “I’ve had so much success in my small town but I really wanted to prove to myself that I can also be successful in the city that is currently dominating the sound of hip-hop right now.” Since moving to Atlanta, White has nabbed an internship with entertainment manager Sean “Jo Blo” Johnson, a former manager of Outkast, and is performing regularly. She’s won distribution deals, mixtape slots, radio plays and billing in national showcases, too.

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 1.15.49 PM

Bernardo DaVinci

Charlottesville-based rapper Bernard Talburtt, aka Bernardo DaVinci, doesn’t perform in town much, but he has a huge following online. Two of his tracks, “The Pot” and “Speed Up,” recently hit more than 1 million listens on SoundCloud. Two others, “Lit” and “Loaded,” have more than 980,000 listens apiece and will hit 1 million soon. It’s a feat that Talburtt suspects only a few other groups that got their start in Charlottesville—Dave Matthews Band and Parachute—have accomplished.


EquallyOpposite

The first time Lamar “Gordo” Gordon saw Zachary “ZacMac” McMullen, McMullen was spitting—fast—for a small circle of fellow students at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“Aren’t you looking for a partner?” Gordon’s girlfriend asked as they walked by McMullen’s impromptu performance.

“Yeah,” Gordon replied, not letting on that he was impressed by McMullen’s verse. He’d been creating rap parody videos and posting them to YouTube, and he wanted a creative partner.

The next day, McMullen, who’d seen some of those YouTube videos and wanted in, happened to walk up to Gordon and started talking parodies. Gordon didn’t recognize McMullen, but McMullen followed Gordon around campus for a week, insisting they should work together. Finally, Gordon asked McMullen to rap for him, to show him what he’s got.

When McMullen started rapping, Gordon recognized his voice and style immediately. And when McMullen told Gordon about a dream he had when he was a kid—one where his pants fell down in gym class and, no matter what he did, he couldn’t pull them up—Gordon was sold. It was the most original thing he’d heard all day.

“I was persistent,” McMullen says with a satisfied smile.

Lamar “Gordo” Gordon and Zachary “ZacMac” McMullen, who together make up EquallyOpposite, say they make “rap music for people who don’t like rap music.” Their experimental, unusual style and often humorous language is all to get the listener to pay closer attention to what they’re actually saying: As different as we appear to be, we’re all human and more similar than we think. Photo by Ron Paris

Gordon, 25, is calm and deliberate in conversation. He works in a factory. He’s a realist. He believes in coincidence. He writes down all of his lyrics in the Notes app on his phone and works them over and over and over—people always think he’s texting, but he’s writing. He says that his mom kept a figurative blindfold over his eyes when he was growing up in Orange County. “Cocaine could be right in front of me and I’d think it was sugar,” he says with a burst of laughter. “My mom would be like, ‘Oh, baby’s that sugar. But that’s not sugar for you.’ The common sense didn’t come until I was in high school, and then I was like, ‘What have I been around?!’”

McMullen, also 25, is an excited fast-talker. He works on a farm. He’s a dreamer. He believes in irony. He builds his lyrics via memorization, working out one line then going over it to build the next; he’ll go over those two bars and make the third; go over those three and make the fourth. Eventually, it’s memorized. He says he “grew up very, very fast” in Madison, “doing dumb stuff, getting into trouble.”

For all of their apparent differences, Gordon and McMullen are quite similar. When the duo moved to Charlottesville in 2015 to be closer to a hip-hop scene, this was the biggest city either of them had been to. They’re both into baseball hats, comic books, video games and cartoons. They’re both quirky and goofy and not afraid to show it in their lyrics: “I don’t speak Japanese / I speak happinese,” Gordon spits on one song. “Playing games, eating Mike and Ikes / Now that sounds like my kind of night,” McMullen rhymes on another.

In their songs, they frequently trade off roles, one playing the straight man and the other playing the clown; one gets dark while the other goes light, equally in opposition and all in service of a shared message. On “Prepare for Snow,” a single from their upcoming record Xmas in August, Gordon voices innocence while McMullen voices experience over a beat that sounds like a twinkly sweet soundtrack to a video game snow globe world. As always, they come together in the hook: “Bring your ass inside before you go catch a cold. / You better ask next time, before you go out the door. / The world will wake you up, / ho ho hooo / Put you in the ground, / ho ho hoooo / It’s dangerous when the world is cold, / So prepare for snow.”

With their true-to-themselves brand of hip-hop, EquallyOpposite is sneaking into the consciousness of audiences here in Charlottesville—“Those guys can spit!” says Hampton—and elsewhere. Last year, the duo performed shows all over Virginia, in Brooklyn, Atlanta, at the POP Montreal Festival in Canada and in front of thousands of people at the Pittsburgh Pride Festival.

“With us, you never know what you’re gonna get,” says Gordon. Maybe it’s a hook based off of Fred Flintstone’s “Yabba Dabba Doo” or a line about being “a good cookie.” Maybe it’s a declaration of their expectations of a listener, as in “Yuki,” where, in the hook to the song, they explain how it feels “yuki” to make music without a message, how they refuse to “dumb it down for the public / just so your ass can stomach it.” They’re into sick beats, but only as a gateway into their weird and wonderful world of lyrical quirks.

“We’re trying to find that medium between conscious and popular, saying things you need to hear in a cool way to make you accept it,” says McMullen.

Gordon says it best in the hook to “Yabba Dabba”: “I preach the print a bit different / If this don’t pin a point of yo interest,” he spits. “Trust, believe that we can dig deeper. / Two tunnel vision.”

Andy Fang, a member of UVA's breakdance club The Hooligans, busts a windmill move at the Nine Pillars Hip-Hop Cultural Fest block party on April 23. Photo by Ron Paris

Nine Pillars of Hip-Hop

“Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live,” spits KRS-One in the hook of his song “9 Elements” off of his 2003 Kristyles album. When the organizers of the Nine Pillars Hip-hop Cultural Fest put together a week of events, they wanted to show Charlottesville that hip-hop isn’t just music, it’s a lifestyle. So they built their
festival—which included a beat-making workshop, live graffiti art, a lecture on hip-hop history and various music performances—around the nine elements, or nine pillars, of hip-hop culture:

1. Breaking/breakdancing/b-boying

2. MC-ing/rap

3. Graffiti art/tagging

4. DJ-ing

5. Beatboxing

6. Street fashion

7. Street language

8. Street knowledge (“common sense, the wisdom of elders from way back whence,” KRS-One says)

9. Street entrepreneurialism

“If you understand what the nine pillars are, you can apply them to your craft and fully utilize them,” says Remy St. Clair, one half of local duo Sons of Ichibei, who organized the festival
along with rap partner Cullen “Fellowman” Wade, Devyn
“DJ Double U” Wildy, Meliza Brillantes and Matt Burke.

Everyone has his own interpretation of the pillars, or elements, says Wade. “I don’t breakdance, but I don’t have to be doing backspins and headspins and crazy footwork in order to be practicing that element. I just have to be able to express myself through physical motion. Hip-hop is an awareness…it’s how you move through the world. So when I walk a certain way, that’s breakdancing, b-boying, because I’m bringing my physical movement in line with the spirit and soul of hip-hop culture. When I speak a certain way, that’s the language component.”


It’s Not Just about the MCs

Just like hip-hop is about more than just music, hip-hop music is about more than just rappers. Producers, DJs and sound engineers are just as important to the mix, and we have plenty of them in town.

Doughman. Courtesy subject
Doughman. Courtesy subject

Doughman, a 28-year-old producer who runs the Doughman Netwurk, loves the art of music, the process of taking an idea, a feeling, and turning it into something audible. He’ll use computer programs to compose the beats that artists rap over, considering in his arrangements “every clap, kick, hi hat, sub bass and pitch, even down to how it [hits] the vocals.” He’s gained a reputation for having an original, slightly left-field sound, and local DJs often play his beats in the cyphers– a group freestyle where anyone in the house can grab the mic and spit– that end a show.

Doughman, who Damani Harrison calls the “left ventricle” of Charlottesville hip-hop, because everything is going through him, worked with local MCs like The Beetnix, Trauma Tone and Ordinary Chris, and with Atlanta rapper Big Homie Quan and New York’s Young MA.

“I love creating music…it’s a creation from the mind,” Doughman says. “To make people sing, rap and dance from the soul is a hard job. Being able to do so is a talent and a blessing,” he says. “I love the energy I get when I see people at a show dancing or just rocking to my music, my sound. I love it.”

Devyn “DJ Double U” Wildy, 24, loves DJ-ing so much that he rarely turns down a gig. If he’s not mixing tunes in Charlottesville for a party at the The Ante Room or a hip-hop showcase at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, he’s spinning at a private party, at The Golden Pony or Ruby’s in Harrisonburg, or on tour with local artists EquallyOpposite and Wassi.

Whether he’s DJ-ing a party or backing up an artist on stage, Wildy says it’s his job as a DJ “to be smooth and energetic. A DJ has to be smooth in transitions from song to song, smooth while using sound effects and drops, and energetic while using the mic.” He has to be on top of the artist’s setlist and be able to read the crowd—all in service of making sure everyone has a good time.  

His reputation for being professional, supportive and fun has made Wildy’s presence so sought-after that on a recent Friday night, he had two back-to-back gigs. After DJ-ing a Rugged Arts hip-hop showcase at Tea Bazaar, he packed up his equipment and walked down to The Ante Room, on the other side of the Downtown Mall, to spin for a party.    


 

Sons of Ichibei

At a recent Charlottesville/Harrisonburg hip-hop bill at the Tea Bazaar, Remy St. Clair stood on stage, his slim frame bathed in red and purple light from the lamps overhead. He held the microphone to his lips, raised an eyebrow and addressed the crowd in front of him: “Attitude check?”

“Fuck you!” they replied.

“Attitude check?” he repeated.

“Fuck you!” the crowd said, a little louder this time.

“Attitude check?”

“Fuck! You!”

“Fuck you too,” St. Clair said with a low chuckle. It’s how St. Clair, who was performing that night with Cullen “Fellowman” Wade as Sons of Ichibei, likes to test his crowds, to see if they’re paying attention to what he’s saying and how ready they are to engage with his words.

St. Clair and Wade, 31, formed Sons of Ichibei in summer 2016, though they’ve been performing and organizing hip-hop events together, along with Tracy “R.U.N.T. 215th” Saxon, as part of Spititout, Inc. since around 2011 (they can’t remember when, exactly). Sons of Ichibei sets are some of the most politically charged, socially conscious hip-hop in town.

“One for my God, two for the bass, three to move a mountain with a mustard seed of faith,” St. Clair begins on his track “3rd Eye Open,” before launching into a critique of, among other things, modern politics and our lack of sympathy for our fellow human beings. “Mental elevators come to elevate us and finance. / Stab us in the back like Judas. / From ashes to ashes, then to dust, / you say you’re for the people but you treat them like they’re useless. / No health care. / Place them on the curb there. / The word sympathy is forbidden to be used here. / So tell me who are you to pick and choose here? / Ye judge and be judged is the rule here,” he spits before launching into a mantra that will help solve that problem: “I said ya third eye’s open / I said ya third eye’s open / I said ya third eye’s open open open open / I said ya third eye’s open open open open / And never closing.”

Cullen “Fellowman” Wade and Remy St. Clair, who met when they both joined local hip-hop culture collective Spititout Inc., recently started performing together as Sons of Ichibei, one of Charlottesville’s most socially conscious hip-hop groups. Each considers the other one to be the best lyricist he knows. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

Sons of Ichibei’s brand of hip-hop functions in much the same way as enlightenment, opening the listener’s mind by burrowing into their ears, their heart.

About a week after that show, Sons of Ichibei sit at a corner table at Milli Coffee Roasters. St. Clair keeps his wool peacoat on but unbuttoned and sips a bottle of water; Wade drinks black coffee and keeps a knitting project on the table next to him. “I believe that all true MCs are wizards, spell casters. If you say the wrong spell, bad things [can] happen,” St. Clair says, noting that in Harry Potter, when Harry tries floo powder for the first time and yells “diagonally” instead of “Diagon Alley,” he’s transported not to the place to buy school books, wands and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, but to Knockturn Alley, a crooked row of shops devoted to the dark arts. St. Clair believes that lyrics, when spit correctly, can elevate the consciousness to new levels of understanding.

He explains this while Wade works through the C-VILLE Weekly crossword puzzle in blue pen.

“This is what he do,” St. Clair says of Wade.

“I’m just a word nerd,” Wade says, mentioning that the wordplay, in combination with the drive to make something out of nothing and the genre’s leftist politics, is a big part of what drew him to hip-hop in the first place. Lyrics are an MC’s art, and “with art, you can get under people’s skin…you can put thoughts in people’s heads in a way that you can’t [otherwise],” says Wade while St. Clair nods his head and murmurs sounds of agreement.

Wade says that if he walked out onto West Main Street and started talking to random people about the themes he addresses in his song “Seven Trumpets,” which is about the apocalypse, he’d be labeled crazy. “Forget the monsoon / listen to this song’s tune. / Gongs boom, we’ll be gone soon. / Nothing left to consume, trees will not bloom. / A clean sweep with God’s broom,” the song begins.

“Seven Trumpets” explores Wade’s belief that if we “dismantle systems of oppression, we have to believe that we can build something better in the aftermath. However, when you look around at the world, it’s hard not to feel like we’re heading for some serious turmoil and devastation.”

St. Clair and Wade named their duo after a character from the Japanese comic book, or manga, Bleach. Ichibe, the “Monk Who Calls the Real Name,” is the giver and taker of names—by assigning names to people, he gives them meaning; he can also take away their names and thereby make them nothing. “In a city where hip-hop is so frowned upon, we want to give [hip-hop] the name it’s supposed to have and take away the stigmas,” St. Clair says (and it sounds cool, too, he adds).

Wade, agrees; he’s finished the crossword and picked up his knitting needles, which clack lightly in his hands as he knits a brown-and-orange bag—or is it a hat? Sons of Ichibei want to make sure that when someone decides to pick up a mic and spit or sit down at the computer and make a beat, there’s a place for that person to speak and be heard.

And we should be ready to hear more hip-hop than ever, they say. With million-dollar condos being built downtown and historically black and low-income neighborhoods gentrifying, Wade says that plenty of people in Charlottesville, “anyone who values authentic culture and authentic expression, has good reason to be frightened and sad about the direction things are going in this town. …And the exciting emotion of hip-hop is dissatisfaction. That’s how it comes about.”

Attitude check

As The Beetnix wrap up their Nine Pillars set, the sun falls beyond the horizon and the rain quickens against the night sky. People turn up their hoods and open their umbrellas, unwilling to miss a single word. The Beetnix aren’t done yet, Harrison and Hampton promise to an eruption of applause, but, for now, they set down their mics.

St. Clair takes the stage to close out the festival. He thanks performers and supporters, legends and newcomers alike, and promises there’s more where this came from. “This is just the beginning,” he says. And then, as always, he tests his audience:

“This is a family event, y’all, so let’s say ‘hip-hop’ this time.

Attitude check?”

“Hip-hop!” the crowd yells.

“Attitude check?”

“Hip! Hop!” Their voices grow louder.

“Attitude check?”

“Hip! HOP!”