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Thursday, November 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Fair
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Hip-hop haters
Music's not the real cause of King Street violence
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Credit:Anthony Brennan

A shooting around the corner, a stabbing, a number of fights, and complaints from the neighborhood residents and the city. They've all added up to a gaggle of new restrictions placed on King Street's Club Majestic. The problems, mostly taking place during the club's 18-and-over hip-hop DJ nights, have ignited a media firestorm and sparked a volatile public debate on hip-hop, violence and clubs.

While the Majestic situation may seem more or less resolved now, the violence that happened there reflects deeper issues about Madison. And these deeper issues ' racism, gentrification, the lack of communication between different cultures ' are going to be with us for a long time.

'This city is always trying to find a solution without ever identifying the problem first,' says Gary Knowledge, one of Madison's most experienced hip-hop promoters. 'There's a reason why people are acting out like this and why some individuals feel it's okay to engage in this behavior.'

Some fault the police for either not being enough of a presence or ' when they do step in ' being an antagonistic, unhelpful one. Some blame the venue owners for their promotional techniques and perceived inaction. Some point to the music itself, saying that hip-hop glorifies violence and causes people to act crazy. Some look at larger, more insidious trends in the city's treatment of people of color.

Fingers are firmly pointed in every direction. Where do we begin?

Simply illogical

Regardless of how much hip-hop has to do with this controversy, it's at the very center of the public debate, so it seems an appropriate starting point. Hip-hop is still startlingly misunderstood, particularly considering the fact that it's one of the dominant cultural forces on the planet. As a hip-hop artist, I've found myself in the position of defending the culture as a whole against its many uninformed critics more times than I can remember, from 'it's doggerel bereft of any artistic merit' to 'it's violent thug music that makes people shoot one another' to (and I'm not making this up) 'it's just a bunch of [N-word]s doing a rain dance.'

That is not to say that there are no valid criticisms of hip-hop and hip-hop artists, particularly when those criticisms are well informed and grounded in a specific context. I'm not going to defend the vitriolic homophobia of rapper Saigon just because I like to listen to Public Enemy. And personally, I'm no fan of the style of hip-hop that was generally played at Club Majestic, which was more sexist than violent or riot-inducing.

But in the end, nobody has to like hip-hop. Nobody has to sit down and listen to Mos Def and suddenly gain new, revelatory insights into the culture. I'm not here to defend hip-hop; I'm here to defend logic. Saying that hip-hop is to blame for club violence in Madison or anywhere else is simply illogical. Any first-year philosophy student at the UW should be able to tell you: Correlation does not equal causation. This is a point that is not up for debate.

I was by the Majestic in late July when shots were fired just around the corner, one of the major incidents in the Club Majestic saga. I had just played a show at the King Club across the street. A hip-hop show. A successful, fun hip-hop show with no violence of any kind. Hundreds of hip-hop shows happen each year in Madison, and while the local media might have you believe that shootings and stabbings are common occurrences, I can assure you, as someone who has played over a hundred shows and been to hundreds more, that they are not.

'I've done huge events, 400 to 700 people, and there weren't any fights or anything,' says DJ Scrump Boogz, a popular Madison club DJ and one-time Majestic performer. 'Don't give up on hip-hop. It's not the reason for the violence; it's not the devil sending messages to people.'

While a handful of unfortunate incidents have indeed taken place at hip-hop shows over the years, we are hopelessly lacking in perspective when we blame the music alone.

Maybe hip-hop is one ingredient in the club-violence gumbo, but I'm suspicious of those who focus on that and ignore the other factors: alcohol, capacity issues, security and police relations, the number and nature of dance clubs in the city playing hip-hop on any given night, and a thousand other factors. Blaming hip-hop for club violence is like blaming flowers for bee stings, disco for AIDS or country music for jingoism.

This doesn't, of course, let the Majestic off the hook. Problems happened there, hip-hop or no. But if we are ever to come to any real solutions to those problems (and the larger issues those problems allude to), we have to be able to identify their roots and not simply throw the baby out with the bathwater by banning hip-hop and turning Madison into a real-life version of Footloose.

Doing things better

So if hip-hop can't be blamed, where is the trouble surrounding Club Majestic (and other clubs through the years) coming from? Why are a few bad apples always present to ruin everything? Many look at the police, maintaining that in any other context, gunshots and brawls are their responsibility.

'Cops have to be a presence instead of a nuisance,' Knowledge says. 'Because it's not the people in the clubs who are causing the problems most of the time, it's the people who couldn't get in or who are just rolling by, the people outside. But the police do not make themselves a real presence. They sit off in the shadows and don't do anything.'

'The Madison Police Department should be renamed Madison Property Defense,' adds David Muhammad, a community activist, DJ and another former Majestic performer. 'They're there to look out for the arts district, the yuppie area. I saw the police reports ' a lot of calls, very few arrests. They were just there to oversee the drama.

'The fear of gun crimes is valid, but if there's the potential for gun crimes there needs to be a police presence. The venue's responsibility is inside their four walls. Nick [Schiavo, Club Majestic's co-owner] can't really be criticized ' his security was ample.'

Faustina Bohling, former member of the Madison Urban Music Alliance and current member of the Wisconsin Association of Equal Opportunity, compares what she's seen in Madison to other cities. 'In the larger cities you see the club owners and the police work together. Here, club owners are shunned by the police. And what do the police do when someone acts out of line? What are the consequences? They don't want to file reports, so they slap people on the hands. They need to follow through with procedures to let people know that this is real, that this is not an okay thing to do.'

But the police should not shoulder the blame alone. Promoters and club owners need to be able to develop positive relationships with patrons that lead to a mutual respect, something the Majestic could have done better. Security forces at venues need to be well trained and decisive. DJs can work to defuse tension and stop fights from getting out of hand using their microphones and even the music itself, something Club Majestic DJs David Muhammad and Triple X were known for.

'I'm not happy with the suggested solution that we just need to pack downtown with police,' says Ald. Judy Olson. 'That was the Majestic's solution. That lack of responsibility on their part bothered me. I'd like to think that we could come up with a solution that didn't involve the city providing security.'

'Really, we need to look at everyone,' Knowledge says. 'The police, the club owners and the promoters ' we can all do things better.'

Urban problems

Perhaps the lack of hip-hop venues is a factor in the trouble. This concentrates the bad apples with the people who just want to dance and have fun.

'In a perfect world, there would be a wider selection of venues in the city,' says Scrump Boogz. 'People want to hear commercial hip-hop and they want to hear it in a club.'

Ald. Brian Benford agrees. 'There's only that one place that's hot on any given night, so everyone's going to go there, the good people and the bad apples. It reflects a lack of opportunities. There are very few places that people who like hip-hop can go and feel a sense of community. This is the second-largest city in Wisconsin, and there aren't enough places for people to go. The city can do more to foster that.'

But David Muhammad sees something else going on here. 'I think it's a myth that hip-hop doesn't have venues. The Kimia Lounge, Bullfeathers, Madison Avenue, Frida's, the Stadium Bar ' all these places and more are playing hip-hop. However, while hip-hop has a place in Madison, there are no spaces for black entertainment. That's a reality. White people are still listening to rap all across downtown.'

Muhammad brings up a good point. While they are often lumped together as one homogenous mass, the hip-hop community and the people-of-color community are definitely not the same thing. What's interesting about the Majestic controversy is that, despite the public outcry over hip-hop, race (and also class, to an extent) is really the issue. The spectacle of 400 black people spilling out of Club Majestic once a week is scaring people.

'Despite how the media portray this situation, it isn't about hip-hop,' Bohling says. 'It's about the lack of cooperation from upper levels of government and the larger populationtorecognize and appreciateall people in the community as citizens.'

The idea that the city is trying to push people of color out of downtown Madison isn't as much of a paranoid conspiracy theory as some might think. Among the evidence: the Majestic situation, the targeting of other downtown clubs over the years, the dress-code policies at various downtown bars, the gradual gentrification of State Street and a proposed anti-loitering ordinance.

'Madison's got urban problems,' Muhammad says. 'But instead of policing them they're trying to contain them ' on the south side, Elver Park, Coho Street, Northport Drive, those areas. And when you don't have cultural spaces and social networks for a given community, you get things associated with that culture that are real negative.'

Let's talk

Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions, and communication is the vital first step. Though past public meetings on the King Street situation have been less than productive, Madison cannot afford to simply give up ' these problems are not going anywhere.

'Until we can break the communication barrier down between the police and the African American community, as well as the one between the police and the hip-hop community, nothing will change,' Knowledge says. 'Really, we have the same concerns you do ' I want my kids to be safe, I want to be able to go to a club and not worry about getting shot or jumped. But we need to communicate.'

'The police have to work with the clubs,' Muhammad adds. 'They just don't want to embrace the reality that people are going to like rap music, and they're going to like it in the venues where they are used to hearing it. It's a fact of life. Deal with it. Work with us. The club owners and the promoters will have to start working with the police too. Hip-hop isn't going anywhere.'

The plea for constructive communication isn't entirely abstract. Some are proposing action to try to solve this problem once and for all.

'Once a month we could do a panel with some promoters, some artists, some club owners, some police, some city officials and anyone interested in the scene,' Knowledge suggests. 'Let's talk. Let's find out what we need from each other.'

Olson agrees. 'I think it would be a useful thing for the city ' whether the ALRC [Alcohol License Review Committee] or some other group ' to convene a discussion about these issues and see what answers people come up with. Because I don't think it's okay to have disturbances of the sort we had on King Street. But on the other hand, it seems wrong to not have the kinds of music and cultural opportunities downtown that serve the entire community. Discussing how we could do that could be a good start.'

Indeed, the restrictions currently placed on Club Majestic will probably work to stop the incidents in that area. But it's a shortsighted solution. Troublemakers aren't going to disappear because they can't go to their favorite club anymore. They are going to go elsewhere in the city. And another club will undoubtedly open ' hip-hop is too profitable to ignore. If we as a community wish to create spaces where everyone ' not just white people ' can be safe, comfortable and happy, we need to look deeper and open up these lines of communication.

'It isn't just about a bar, or music or a club closing,' Benford says. 'It's a reflection of what the city of Madison is like. Is this town welcoming to everyone like it once was, or is it a tale of two cities?'

Plans are already under way to make these suggestions a reality. Local hip-hop activist Arthur Richardson will include a panel addressing hip-hop, clubs and violence in his Music, Media and Technology Conference on Nov. 4 at the UW's Red Gym.

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