If you step into the bar car of The Cantina in Cummins Station on a Wednesday night, you’ll see a crowd of people standing in a semicircle, and several DJs spinning feverishly at the back of the joint. Drawn by the beat, you’ll notice that the semicircle contains whirling break-dancers battling as if in a back-alley gymnastics meet. Near the rear door, the MCs wait their turn to get on the mic and freestyle. The block is rocking, but the excitement obscures a troubling fact: This is one of the few places in town where you can catch three core elements of hip-hop culture in action.
Does Nashville have a bona fide hip-hop scene? From inside the city, the answer is yes. Local MCs represent every day in Music City: on commercial rap radio; on the airwaves of college stations WFSK and WRVU; at open-mic stands on Jefferson and Fourth South; in indie record stores from Charlotte to Inglewood. But these ingredients have never jelled. While artists from other Southern cities pack the Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville rappers scratch for gigs at The Muse, or the Murfreesboro club The Boro 30 miles down the road.
The problem isn’t a lack of roots. Nashville’s two historically black colleges have been at or near the epicenter of African American culture throughout the century. And while the phrase “Music City” may conjure visions of Hank Sr. and Jr., Faith, Tim and the Grand Old Opry, it applies just as strongly to the world renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, or to the city’s blazing output of R&B and funk singles in the 1950s and ’60s. A rich legacy of Nashville-bred jazz and blues survives, even if many of the clubs that defined those scenes disappeared after highway construction forever changed the face of 11th Avenue and Jefferson Street. With all these factors in place, what happened?
Nothing, that’s what. Occasionally, Nashville blips on rap’s radar as area artists like Me Phi Me, Count Bass D, Pistol, GRITS and Haystak make regional or national noise. But the city has yet to produce a chart-topping breakout artist, someone who could make the rest of the country take notice of the local rap scene. A single performer could break Nashville the way other Dirty South stylists have brought attention to their hometownsthe way Master P broke New Orleans, OutKast outed Atlanta, or Nelly boosted St. Louis. So far, that single unifying figure has yet to emerge.
That can’t be blamed entirely on the rappers themselves. The problem, says Lee Lane, owner of New Life Record Shop, one of the best places in town to hear local rap, is that Nashville acts don’t get enough support from local radio stations.
Just as crucial to breaking new sounds, however, is performing live. Yet it’s tough to find local rappers spitting live in Nashville. The lure of the bling-bling lifestyle makes some MCs focus solely on putting out recordsin an effort, as Count Bass D says, “to be on television” rather than perfect their art onstage.
The artists who do want to get in front of an audience often face a double-barreled blast of disinterest from clubs and audiences. Chris “Coolout” Davis, a local producer and former organizer of the hip-hop showcase The Spot, believes that the ubiquity of music videos has socialized people not to appreciate rap in a live context.
But there are other reasons live rap is scarce in Music Cityamong them the skittishness of club bookers. According to Lane, one problem is that “local stuff too many times turns into violence.” Well-publicized brouhahas at the now-defunct venues the Palladium and Music City Mix Factory reinforced a generic impression of rap culture as thug life. Yet local rappers counter that these are isolated exceptions to the upbeat, positive rule. Reavis Mitchell of the edifying rap crew Utopia State believes there is an unfounded fear that rap shows will always bring discord.
“Club owners are afraid to let us come in and let us play hip-hop,” Mitchell said. If rap had the kind of industry base here that country enjoys, the city’s live hip-hop scene would be as bumping as Atlanta’s. But Music Row isn’t exactly staking out local rappers. Major studios have other divisions for that, and they aren’t in Nashville. “It’s short-sightedness on the part of the music industry,” said Mitchell. “If Nashville as a city is to be successful, we will have to hold up and promote a more diversified and cosmopolitan image.”
Some might raise the specter of racism as the reason Nashville labels aren’t looking to locals for the next Nelly. New Life’s Lane, however, disagrees. “I’ve met a lot of people in country music who have a lot of respect for hip-hop,” he said. “It’s simply that their specialty is country, not rap. They don’t try to take on [hip-hop] because they aren’t really geared toward that.”
All these factors have branded Nashville a secondary market for rap music, making it as tough for national acts to find gigs as it is for homegrown up-and-comers. And it’s going to get tougher, what with longtime venues such as 328 Performance Hall and the Exit/In out of commission. But the situation might not be as dire as it appears. Recent festivals such as the Pak Da Park show at Hadley Park and the Kung Fu Fight Night at The Muse featured local rap acts. Two commercial radio stations in town now play hip-hop, both of them slotting local rappers such as Quanie Cash, Aldo Capone, Jack Zane and Kriz Kang. Recent releases by Haystak and GRITS have once again brought the local hip-hop community to the breakout crossroads.
So yeah, there’s a hip-hop scene in Nashville; it just doesn’t resemble those in other Southern cities. Simply put, hip-hop is the name for the culture of which rap music is but a part. The presence of a Master P in New Orleans doesn’t mean there is any more of a hip-hop scene there than in Nashville. It only means that a commercially successful artist brought attention to other acts in the area.
And in a way, it’s an encouraging sign that Nashville’s hip-hop culture isn’t progressing exactly the same as other cities. When the breakout comes, it will be for Music City’s own skills, own beats, own sounds. Mister Abraham, musician and former organizer of The Cantina’s hip-hop night, puts it this way: “Hip-hop is four MCs sitting in an old car in the dark of night trading lines back and forth with no music.” Hip-hop is also break-dancers, and freestyle MCs and DJs at The Cantina doing it for free. As long as that kind of spirit remains, there will always be hope.
New Life Record Shop’s 10 best-selling rap albums
1. Lil’ Flip, Undaground Legend (Columbia)
2. Nelly, Nellyville (Universal)
3. Project Pat, Layin’ Da Smack Down (LOUD)
4. Clipse, Lord Willin’ (Arista)
5. Eminem, Eminem Show (Interscope)
6. Haystak, Natural (In the Paint)
7. Scarface, Fix (Universal)
8. DJ Paul, Underground Vol. 16 for Da Summa (D.evil)
9. Trick Daddy, www.thug. com (Atlantic)
10. Cadence, The Book of Matthew (Paper Weight Records)
Take Five: Count Bass D
(Dean of Middle Tennessee rappers, Count Bass D recorded ambitious, acclaimed albums for Sony and Spongebath, and he contributed a remix to the Beastie Boys DVD compilation.)
1. American Pimp (The Hughes Brothers, directors) (DVD)
2. Joe Girard, How to Sell Anything to Anybody (book)
3. MF DOOM, Operation: Doomsday (Metal Face Records)
4. Writehanded.com (Web site)
5. The Green Hills Public Library
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