"Nashville hip-hop right now, I think, is in a Renaissance period," says Nashville MC Openmic. "It's talent linking up with talent and representing the city in a good light."
Openmic is on the phone. Somehow he's managed to cram an interview into an insanely busy month that includes finishing classes at TSU, taking finals, dropping his sophomore mixtape For the Rebels and — as if that wasn't enough to overwhelm the average person — playing the biggest gig of his rap career at The Cannery Ballroom. But then again, that's typical of this new crop of hip-hop kids — a nouvelle vague of artists that includes Mic, Dee Goodz, Chancellor Warhol, Call It Dope!, Stix Izza and Sam & Tre. There's a fire in these kids — a drive that goes beyond your typical hip-hop trappings — and their art and growing audiences reflect that.
"There's a lot of rappers here, but most of 'em suck," laughs Openmic. "But dealing with that, we finally got past all of that to the point that people are actually willing to listen to someone from Nashville rap. It's a good time, man, because we have so much talent here that's not just from here. The industry here, it's just connected. Everybody knows everybody — or respects everybody to a certain level — that's in these circles. I think it's going to be a crucial time for the culture in Nashville. If we put it up right, the shit is definitely going to shift."
For longtime observers, that shift has already happened. Concrete Magazine, the long-running digest-size chronicle of Nashville street culture, recently ran their "Other Side of Nashville" issue, which featured studio whiz and party-jam savant Rio as well as Dee Goodz, Wick-It and more on the cover. Established promoters are bringing the big hip-hop shows that have been skipping our fair city for as long as we can remember, and packing the undercards with local talent. It's almost impossible to go to a show — electronic, rock, folk, whatever — without someone bringing up a hot new track or recent show from a local hip-hop act. Hell, Chancellor Warhol won the first installment of this year's Road to Bonnaroo band battle, securing a slot at the Manchester, Tenn., festival and planting a hip-hop flag on the Nashville club scene's rock-y moon.
"There are all sorts of people that I've never seen before," says DJ Crisis, Sunday night radio host on 101.1 The Beat, mixtape impresario and scene stalwart. "Black people, white people, all sorts of people that I've never seen out before." Underground hip-hop in Nashville hasn't always drawn audiences the way that longtime supporters have felt it should. And now that it is drawing, well, those supporters are a little surprised at who's walking through the door — because it's pretty much everyone. Nashville is a polyglot city — apologies (not really) to the assholes in the state legislature who would like to pretend otherwise — and more than anywhere, we're seeing that in the audience at underground hip-hop shows in packed rooms where Vandy grads and Glencliff dropouts are in the front row alongside mall punks and fashionistas.
Nashville hip-hop circa 2011 is big-tent hip-hop, and it's tough not to see that as a result of the sorts of music being made here. While all the artists propelling the resurgence right now do make hip-hop in the broadest sense, the variety of sounds and styles changes significantly from artist to artist. There's no monolithic sound that's driving this movement — as has been the case in so many other places. Rather, Nashville's boom is powered by a plurality of sounds. No one is going to confuse Warhol's electro explorations with Openmic's minimalist tone poems, Sam & Tre's monster dub-bass, Dee Goodz's post-backpacker stoner rap or Stix Izza's lush and introspective audio-biographies. Nashville hip-hop circa 2011 is music for voracious listeners made by voracious listeners.
"The average person coming through is not just listening to hip-hop, or even a certain subgenre of hip-hop," says John Gotty, the Nashville-based editor of nationally recognized hip-hop and culture blog The Smoking Section. "They're listening to some of everything. ... If you could peek into people's iPods, not many have just one genre that they follow or are keeping up with. There's always two or three or more that they're well-versed in."
The artist-audience connection stems from what most folks would see as the digital disconnect — the splintering of culture through narrowcasting and customization. The positive reaction doesn't come from aiming for the easy target or the middle ground, but instead snatching things from the outer edges — whether musical, emotional or intellectual — and reconfiguring them in a way that connects with a lot people on a lot of levels. When you pop on mixtapes like Stix Izza's Bridge 2 Jupiter or Goodz's Floetic Justice, or albums like Sam & Tre's self-titled debut and Warhol's Japanese Lunchbox, you find complex characters relating richly detailed stories, cracking guffaw-worthy one-liners and spitting all sorts of fire from all sorts of mental spaces.
In a city that's been defined by its exultation of wordsmiths and song-crafters, it's easy to see why these artists are connecting on such a broad level: These kids are capital-W Writers. Goodz has a stream-of-consciousness flow that's pure poetry — the beauty of The Beats meets the braggadocio of the streets — and when he switches to more straightforward storytelling on tracks like "Peace of Mind," there's a depth and human element that's undeniable. It takes about, oh, two bars of Openmic's "Beautiful Rebellion" — a haunting piece for solo piano and vocals — to realize that you're not just listening to a rapper, but rather a heavyweight intellectual who does his best work when tackling the most daunting of topics. And the list goes on: Stix Izza can make personal pain into a party jam like few others, Sam & Tre's Tre Easley has an uncanny ability to capture everyday life in his raps ... you get the picture.
But the rise of Nashville hip-hop's new wave can't just be attributed to these artists and what they bring to the table. There's an entire community supporting and encouraging them behind the scenes. Rare is the recent hip-hop show that isn't swarming with a phalanx of photographers, videographers and bloggers — a huge part of why the scene is doing so well is that it's so well-documented. Bloggers like D'Llisha Davis from www.2Lsonacloud.com, Chris Deline from www.CultureBully.com and the crew from www.Breakonacloud.com — plus the dozen or so other sites that keep our news feed bumpin' — have, as the song goes, "put on" for their city, documenting nearly every show, song and sweet hang in town with enthusiasm and excitement. For fans of local music and hip-hop in general, it's like a surprise birthday party every time you open your news reader.
Please, however, don't think this is anywhere near a comprehensive overview of what's happening in local hip-hop. Consider this just a snapshot of the furious activity — as much as we could fit in the frame. One of the things that makes this scene so exciting is the insane pace it keeps — the sheer level of productivity within the racks. Hell, we thought we had this story wrapped up when we got the link to The Stuyvesants Meets Gummy SOUL from classic funk fiends Gummy SOUL, and then local producer and beat battle champion Ducko McFli posted new tracks from his ever-growing stable of artists, and then we got the heads-up on Stix Izza's new feature-length documentary (!) Building the Highway 2 Mars — each of which deserves an article of its own. And then there's all the hotness we can expect this summer, including new albums from Scene favorites like Future the Unknown and The Billy Goats, Dee Goodz's debut album, new tapes from Crisis and — more likely than not — a whole slew of new kids trying to outshine everyone else. This is a scene on the move.
"I think people want to be a part of something that everyone else isn't," says Openmic. "It's cool to listen to the main rappers out now, the main commercial artist in any genre. It's fine to be aware of what they've got going on. But people take a certain pride in watching something develop firsthand, knowing everybody isn't privileged to see it. It gives them ownership, in a sense. I think that's what this whole time right now is for Nashville: We're creating what we own — this is ours. It's a special time."
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