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New performance series helps Madison hip-hop get past its troubles
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Karen Reece is planning a series of events that celebrate hip-hop's artistic elements.
Karen Reece is planning a series of events that celebrate hip-hop's artistic elements.

This article shouldn't be about the continual struggle to find a stable place for live hip-hop in Madison. It should be about any of the following: Madison rapper Sincere Life put out a new mixtape, Don't Let Me Get That Beat, and announced that he'll put out a new album this summer; producer DJ Pain 1 put out the first volume of his Painkillerz series, and the popular blog 2dopeboyz picked up a track from the second installment.

Rapper-producer DLO released a generous compilation, Freewrites, and announced that the fifth installment of his excellent series Pempstrumentals will be out July 10.

DLO's friend Man Mantis, who has left Madison for Denver, scored a big break as a producer, landing tracks on indie-rap veteran Sole's upcoming album. So after years of beefing up Madison's hip-hop quality -- in dumate, with rapper F. Stokes, and on his instrumental solo release -- Mantis will get his work heard alongside tracks produced by people like Busdriver and Alias. I plan to talk soon with both Mantis and Pain 1 about what it means to start getting some national play as a hip-hop producer.

And that's just scratching the surface. But it's hard to get past this: Madison hip-hop is always having to deal with concerns over public safety and, more or less, the actions of a small number of foolish individuals.

One concrete attempt to get past this is an upcoming concert series organized by Karen Reece, of the Madison Hip-Hop Awards and Urban Community Arts Network. She's planning a series of events that celebrate hip-hop's artistic elements.

The series kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 14 in Penn Park with an emcee/spoken-word-focused event. From 1-5 p.m. Saturday, August 4, in James Madison Park, the producer battle Beats by 608 is planned for as many as 32 contestants. Between rounds, the event will feature performances from local MCs. Half the entry fee will help fund a prize package for the winners, and the other half will go to the Madison Hip-Hop Awards' coffers. For the fall, events organized around other hip-hop elements -- dance, graffiti -- are being planned.

"My goal is to try to incorporate elements that will draw both the general community and the night crowd," Reece says. "We're having all sides of this represented." Subsequent events will focus separately on elements like emceeing, spoken-word, and dance.

Meanwhile, Reece and other local hip-hop advocates are negotiating those harder issues. There's progress, but also what Reece calls "our usual cycle." There are reports of productive, encouraging meetings with city officials, but also the usual cries that the city and the press and the venues have it out for hip-hop. Reece says local artists, promoters and community members are continuing a community-level discussion they started at a February meeting, with small groups that focus on specific issues, like security at shows.

Reece tried to be forgiving in comments about a recent news report on rising crime, which used clips from a video by Madison MC Young Dafi. Reece says Madison Police Chief Noble Wray showed the video during a press conference "where they pointed out specific concerns, aside from the lyrical content, such as particular gang signs, the location in the Darbo Road area, which has been experiencing an increase in violent crime, and two individuals who have been detained on gun-related charges."

Madison police might have known how the media would spin the clip, says Reece, "but we understand the chief was organizing the press conference on short notice."

But the way at least one reporter chose to spin the video wasn't all bad. David Douglas, WISC's recently departed, pixie-sized looker, sat down with Young Dafi, real name Marcus Johnson, who told him, "my life is not negative. I'm married, have kids, I live a positive life." Compared to adjacent clips of police officials seemingly on the verge of choking up, Johnson seemed to be making an appeal to cooler heads.

Recently the Memorial Union Terrace hosted a bill of two Madison MCs, Sincere Life and J Dante. They drew a good crowd and the music connected nicely, especially Sincere Life's sharp-tongued delivery. The atmosphere was congenial all around, not a knucklehead in sight. But Reece seems to think it's naive to see the successful show as a sign that the city is warming up again to hip-hop in general.

"Terrace booking seems to be fairly segregated from local politics, and promotion largely occurs largely within the UW audience," she says. She admits that some of the people Sincere Life brought out are "not necessarily the college crowd."

In fact, veteran Madison MC and activist Rob Dz might caution you not to read too much into the fact that he's performed recently at the Terrace and the east-side restaurant Alchemy, and even a fundraiser at pricey cocktail bar Merchant for Mahlon Mitchell's lieutenant governor campaign. These shows were mostly in the jazz-plus-spoken-word format Dz has been exploring of late.

"I kind of feel like I've been termed 'safe,' so venues will take a chance with me doing more experimental stuff, like the jazz, as opposed to a lot of other hip-hop artists," Dz says. "I think that the hip-hop that will get through the cracks is more of the socially and politically conscious stuff," he says, pointing, like Reece, to UW-connected events that he feels do not attract the same scrutiny.

When one venue for hip-hop, Segredo, defended its liquor license during the Monday, June 11, meeting of the city's Alcohol License Review Committee, there was no mention of genre. But there was an emphatic effort to draw a line between who's a patron and who isn't.

Segredo owner Michael Hierl declared a beef with the media, saying it unfairly tied the liquor-license review to a nearby shooting that took place May 11. Indeed, Madison Police Capt. Carl Gloede clarified that this incident wasn't the one at issue. The city was specifically concerned with an April incident in which a staff member apparently dallied in telling police a patron had left a gun there during an altercation. In the end, the ALRC approved Segredo's alcohol license.

Hierl took pains to nudge the discussion to what goes on outside Segredo, rather than inside. He repeatedly drew distinctions between Segredo's customers -- "college students and young professionals ... good kids" -- and "the folks outside," "sketchy people," an undefined "they" or "them" who, according to Hierl, look for places to make trouble. Speaking in support of Segredo, Madison Fresh Market owner Jeff Maurer backed up the claim about the distinction, using the phrase, "people wearing hats and bandanas, hats on backwards."

Former Segredo coat-check manager Rosemary Lee, 74, told the ALRC that she serves as an "extra pair of eyes" on University Avenue. She spoke of "thugs" who loiter in the area, and "seem to have radar [for] when the police are not there." Both she and Hierl said that loiterers materialized with uncanny quickness when police in the area were called away to handle a recent fight. Both decried Madison's lack of a loitering ordinance.

The speakers often seemed to be looking for just the right way to pin blame on a particular but vaguely defined segment of youth -- without helping to identify the actual, individual trouble-makers, i.e. the only folks who should be getting shamed in this whole conversation.

Say what you will about "violent" MCs, but at least when they talk they don't tiptoe around.

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