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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Making peace with hip-hop
Madison needs to stop discriminating on the basis of genre
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One of the things I love about Madison is that you can find something new to see or do on any given night while still running into people you know. It's the best of big-city amenities and small-town familiarity. And among the big-city amenities I most adore is Madison's music scene, with its diverse lineup of artists and styles.

So I'm baffled by the oddly adversarial relationship my city has developed with one section of its music scene: hip-hop.

Pardon the pun, but hip-hop culture in Madison has gotten a bad rap. Its reputation for being violent and unpredictable is, I think, largely undeserved. But what I think isn't as important as what the public, city officials and police believe.

The overreaction to a small fight that broke out after a hip-hop show at the Brink Lounge last February is a case in point. Even though the altercation initially involved only a few people, and venue security quickly got the situation under control, 16 police officers responded to the call. The night ended with the arrest of four people who police said wouldn't leave.

Some witnesses felt that the arrests were unnecessary, and that some of those who wouldn't leave were performers who simply needed to remove their equipment.

Compare this to a downtown rock show by the band Clutch that same month where six major fights broke out. The police apparently responded in far smaller numbers.

While the Clutch story went unreported, coverage of the Brink show was ubiquitous. And though several reporters did their best to present the different perspectives on what occurred, the public and city officials processed it as a "Hip-Hop Leads to Violence" event.

Afterward, the Brink declared that it would no longer host hip-hop events. While it retracted that statement after some outcry, I'm told no hip-hop shows have been booked there since.

In fact, only a handful of local venues - the High Noon Saloon and the Frequency, for instance - ever open their doors to hip-hop, and very rarely at that. And the only reliable source for hip-hop DJ nights is Africana, which has been bumping up against city rules since it opened.

If hosting hip-hop events means heightened police and city security, it's no wonder venue owners are hesitant.

If Madison and hip-hop are going to peacefully coexist, the trick may be to devise some simple, common-sense steps. I was excited, then, when local promoter and hip-hop artist Shah presented his list of "hip-hop best practices" at a recent meeting of the Alcohol License Review Committee.

Shah's guidelines, written in concert with alcohol policy coordinator Katherine Plominski, include checking out the promoter and acts before booking events, creating a set of rules for organizers and artists, hiring trusted security, and anticipating the crowd.

When I read Shah's list, it struck me that these guidelines could be applied to all music shows and venues, regardless of genre.

After all, fights don't just break out at hip-hop events. My guess is that incidents of violence - and transcendent peacefulness - have been known to occur at events of all stripes.

So why not even the playing field for everyone? If all shows adhered to this seemingly straightforward list, many problems could be avoided without anyone having to overreact.

Continuing to overwhelmingly (and I'd say unfairly) target hip-hop shows will only lead to more misunderstandings and acrimony.

Madison can't afford to malign or take for granted any one of its communities. We are lucky to have all aspects of our local hip-hop culture - from MCs like Rob Dz and bands like the Crest, to the UW's groundbreaking First Wave hip-hop studies program, to the upstart 608 Magazine, to clothing designers and activists, break dancers and graffiti artists.

It's a highly diverse and substantial community, one that has done a lot of good for a lot of people.

It's time the city returned the favor.

Emily Mills writes a blog, Emily's Post, on

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