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.