Go to a hip-hop show in Charlottesville and you’ll see a rapper spitting lines to a crowd full of people giving him their full attention. They’ll be standing there, hipsters and hip-hop heads alike, stroking their chins, heads nodding to the beat. “They’re listening to every single word,” and when the rapper “says something dope, people fucking cheer,” says Mike “Mike Bizarro” White, a local rapper who performs as one-half of the duo Cognitive Dissidents.
“People go because they admire the craft, both in the beat production and the lyricism. It’s almost like going to see beat poetry,” White says. “Everybody’s there wearing their heart on their sleeve,” and with events like the newly established Round Robin Hip-Hop Showcase at The Ante Room, local rap artists are being given more chances to gain new audiences.
Jeyon Falsini, who owns and runs The Ante Room, noticed that rappers brought in by local promoters to perform during the last hour of his venue’s dance parties had more talent to share. The rappers needed a stage to themselves, so he started building hip-hop bills.
“I was noticing that rappers’ fans that came out for just their one friend wouldn’t stay to see the other acts,” says Falsini. After hosting a singer-songwriter round robin, where each artist played a song before passing the mic to the next artist, Falsini thought a similar format would work well for hip-hop. Each rapper performs a short set before passing the mic to the next MC. The mic makes two full rounds—each rapper performs twice.
Falsini expects the performers to come prepared, to know their lines and spit them out over their backing tracks—“warts and all”—no lip-syncing. “The energy, ‘the vibration,’ as I’ve heard it put, comes from performing live,” Falsini says.
The next showcase takes place on October 6 and features three individuals and one duo, all from Charlottesville, with each offering a slightly different musical style (it’s a broad genre, after all) and a different perspective on life. But they all agree on two things: Hip-hop is important, and it’s on the rise in Charlottesville.
Danny Lz, one of the youngest rappers on the scene, delivers straight-up hip-hop, with rhymes and beats heavily influenced by ’90s rap (think Jay-Z and Nas). He tends to tell stories about himself, and about his life, to relate to his audience. The genre, he says, “keeps your ear to the streets, to what’s going on in the world.”
That’s precisely what drew Louis “Waterloo” Hampton, member of The Beetnix and one of the scene’s most established lyrical artists, to hip-hop when he was a teen in the ’90s. “At the time, I didn’t have a dad in the house, and I was the big brother, so I didn’t really have anybody to look up to,” he says. “Music let me know what was cool, what was hip. It let me know what to keep my eyes peeled for, gave me the advice that I needed.” Plus, it “let me know it was okay to be who I was.”
Hampton cites Ice Cube’s “Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself,” off of 1992’s The Predator, as particularly important to him. Not only was it musically and lyrically fantastic, it offered good advice: “You better check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self,” Ice Cube insists, warning of the pitfalls of the street.
“Ice Cube really spoke about the ills of the system and police brutality,” Hampton says, sighing heavily before pointing out that incidents of police brutality toward black men is, 24 years later, still an issue. Hip-hop, he says, can provide sound guidance.
For White, who played in jam bands before forming Cognitive Dissidents with Phil “dogfuck” Green, rap is an emotional and mental release that’s open to audience interpretation. When he spits “My thoughts sink distantly, consistent as barflies / Stand guard for epiphany, turn rosary to barbed wire,” he expects the listener to find personal meaning in his lines. “It’s not up to me what my words mean,” he says. He’s all about metaphor and simile, allusion and allegory.
Green, on the other hand, goes for specificity. He raps: “Your mom’s so white, she said ‘Hey’ I said ‘Hey.’ / I said ‘Goodbye’ and she said ‘Namaste.’ / Then she dove in her Volvo and drove on her way / To practice her Spanish down at Chipotle. / Your mom’s so white she almost makes a white dude’s pay / But if she stayed at home and raised you then that’d probably be okay / and Hannity and company, they wouldn’t have shit to say about the welfare state of America’s decay.” He calls out his own whiteness, gender and race politics, big business and more all in a few lines.
Lalo Lloyd, who lived in Washington, D.C., New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia before moving to Charlottesville about a year ago, blends old-school hip-hop with a little R&B. “I base everything off an emotion,” he says, beats and lyrics alike. His songs are about relationships. As a child, he watched his stepfather abuse his mother; he’s lost friends and family members to drugs, to disease. “Most of it is stuff I’ve seen with my own eyes,” he says. “When people listen to [my music], I want them to feel like they know me. What you see is what you get; there’s no smoke and mirrors here.”
In addition to The Ante Room, Magnolia House, Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and Milli Coffee Roasters host local hip-hop shows. But while the scene is emerging, it can only grow and deepen if people start to come to shows and if more venues begin supporting the hip-hop community, says White, who insists Charlottesville needs that musical diversity.
But no matter what, “Hip-hop is never going to go away,” Hampton says. “It’s a part of music—it’s a genre of music that’s in every city, everywhere you go. So, to have hip-hop in Charlottesville is totally normal,” he says. Not only that, but it’s necessary. “There are kids, who grew up like I did, who need that outlet like I did,” kids from all backgrounds who need their version of The Predator, he says. Maybe he—or another local rapper—will be the one to provide it.
Contact Erin O’Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org.