When R.U.N.T.215th was growing up in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s, he routinely stayed up late and recorded Lady B’s “ Street Beat” Power 99 FM radio show, taping it on his boom box. He’d listen to the tapes over and over—the sets were packed full of Public Enemy, MC Lyte, Audio Two and Melle Mel tracks, plus in-studio rap battles and the music of the Bridge Wars—a track-for-track rivalry between the South Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions and Queensbridge’s Juice Crew over the birthplace of hip-hop music.
One night, Lady B played KRS-One’s “Criminal Minded,” and R.U.N.T. was hooked. Captivated by the wordplay, the sense of individuality and social consciousness expressed in song, he recalls thinking, “I’ve gotta do this.” He started rapping at home and in school, in the upstairs room of a neighborhood Episcopal church. He filled rhyme books and stacked them in his closet; sometimes, he says, his mom’s abusive boyfriend would tear up his rhyme books, but R.U.N.T. kept writing and rapping. He emceed, performed at block parties and the local Boys & Girls Club. He got into graffiti art, which, in addition to emceeing, DJing and breaking, is one of the four original elements of hip-hop culture.
R.U.N.T. began planning his future around hip-hop, but then his mom finished nursing school and they moved from Philadelphia to Charlottesville, a small city with an even smaller scene.
He’s been working on growing that scene ever since. After participating in a few different projects in town, including Burnt Bush Productions, R.U.N.T. formed his own hip-hop collective, Spititout Inc., in 2005, with the intention of cultivating an underground hip-hop circuit.
R.U.N.T. and his current Spititout Inc. collaborators—Rose Hill native MC Remy St. Clair and NOVA-raised producer and poet FellowMan—have organized Rugged Arts hip-hop showcases since summer 2013, first at Eunoia and now at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. Rugged Arts is a unifying, artistic outlet for underground artists from Charlottesville and the surrounding areas, and Spititout Inc. emphasizes that it’s a safe and welcoming space for hip-hop culture. It’s the place to go to be exactly who you are.
St. Clair says Spititout—made up of a second-generation Philadelphia hip-hop head, a white man and an openly gay black man—is “a blueprint for unity within the hip-hop community.”
Every Rugged Arts event tells “the story of a struggling city that never really gave our art form a chance,” says St. Clair, who hosts the showcases. When certain venues would host hip-hop, the organizers would have to jump through hoops—hiring extra security guards, purchasing extra insurance on the building— and that makes holding a show fairly difficult, financially and otherwise, St. Clair says. (Other venues currently hosting local hip-hop shows include The Ante Room, Milli Coffee Roasters booked by Camp Ugly and Magnolia House.)
Spititout Inc. feels that the stigma against hip-hop, especially underground hip-hop, is unwarranted. It’s all about peace, love, unity and having fun—those are the core values, R.U.N.T. says; it’s not about violence and hatred.
That’s not to say that the showcases are soft. “Rugged Arts is a place where you can talk about social issues and plan events to confront certain social issues,” R.U.N.T. says. The music addresses poverty, oppression, racism, sexism, politics and so much more, but there’s a social activism component to it as well: There’s always a donation box on the merch table, raising money for causes such as the bail fund for those arrested during the protests in Charlotte, North Carolina in September.
“What we stand for [at Rugged Arts] is what hip-hop stands for and has always stood for,” FellowMan says, and that’s for equality and voice and against exploitation and oppression. “It’s important that we continue to make politicized art because…art is maybe the only tool we have [against suppression], so it’s vital that we encourage it.”
Spititout Inc. looks for genuine, individual and entertaining artists with a social conscience who are pounding the pavement in search of a platform. They book around five artists per showcase; each shares his music with Rugged Arts’ DJ Double-U, who fires the beats at the right time in each artist’s set.
The promoters have plenty of goals for the future of Charlottesville underground hip-hop. R.U.N.T. hopes the scene diversifies while continuing to offer socially-conscious entertainment; he wants local artists to tour and touring artists to stop in Charlottesville. St. Clair wants area hip-hop acts to play Fridays After Five, and FellowMan wants to see hip-hop at the Tom Tom Founders Festival. “I would like to see a ‘community event’ actually accept us fully and not just tolerate us,” St. Clair says.
Every Rugged Arts event ends with a cypher, a group freestyle where anyone in the house can grab the mic and spit it out. DJ Double-U plays the beats—often made by local producers—and the mic is passed around. Everyone knows when an MC is ready to talk—you can see it on his or her face, St. Clair says—and when the hand touches the mic and the words start to flow, it’s an audible emotional exhale. It’s relief, the remedy for whatever ails them that day.