A New Generation Explodes Onto Burlington’s Hip-Hop Scene | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A New Generation Explodes Onto Burlington’s Hip-Hop Scene


  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Rivan C.

On Saturday, November 6, Burlington's ArtsRiot was packed to capacity. The occasion was a hip-hop showcase organized by New York City-based music video director Kelly Butts-Spirito, who has built a platform on YouTube and Instagram under his Love, Kelly brand. He assembled a stacked lineup, putting viral Atlanta stars Zaia and KBFR alongside young Burlington talents Rivan C., Brazii, HAKIM XOXO, Real Ricky, LooD (aka Yvng Ohm), Heady Betty and breakout star North Ave Jax.

The Love, Kelly showcase exceeded Butts-Spirito's already high expectations. "It honestly left me speechless," he said a week later. "We had a line around the whole building for hours and had to turn away hundreds of people."

Inside, the crowd danced and shouted along with every hook — even carrying the artists for a few memorable stage dives.

Although it was a triumph for his team, Butts-Spirito was focused on the bigger picture. "It was a win for all of us, the youthful music community of Burlington," he said, noting plans for an even bigger Love, Kelly showcase in the New Year.

Not long after the show, his friend and collaborator North Ave Jax announced that he had signed with LVRN, an Atlanta-based imprint of Interscope Records. The two recently commemorated the occasion with a killer new single, "Trust Nobody," and a music video to match, shot at Burlington High School and Al's French Frys.

But North Ave Jax is hardly the only developing story in Burlington hip-hop. The scene is booming, driven by a new generation of hungry, young talent.

This Saturday, December 4, fans can get another taste of the burgeoning scene, once again at ArtsRiot. The Queen City Kickback team presents a packed bill of hip-hop and punk for an all-ages celebration, including Guy Ferrari, Yvng Ohm, Don Rico, Suspect Behavior, Greaseface, Rivan C. and DJ David Chief.

During the peak of the pandemic lockdown, the QCKB brand became synonymous with DIY underground shows promoted by word of mouth and cryptic Instagram posts.

The duo behind the hype are two unassuming hard workers: Jesse Rivers and Rivan Calderin, aka Rivan C.

The two met three years ago when Rivers approached Calderin to model for a clothing brand Rivers was starting. "He was a sophomore in high school trying to start his own company, so I could tell he had drive in him," recalled Calderin, who is a ferocious force onstage but humble and easygoing in person.

When the quarantine era hit, they created QCKB for a virtual concert at Waterbury Center's Zenbarn, but the plan fell through. Instead of ditching the idea, the two decided to form a group under the name. As soon as state restrictions on gatherings were lifted, they started hosting underground shows in locations around Burlington.

According to Calderin, QCKB's first "real show" in a legit venue was over the summer, a sold-out event at Burlington dance studio and performance space Swan Dojo. "That's when we started to realize what we could make out of this," he said.

For artists and audiences alike, the QCKB series offered respite from a long pandemic nightmare.

"I've done two shows with them so far, and both of them were stupid fun," LooD said. "Everyone definitely needed to release some energy. As soon as I walked in the building, the vibe in there just took control."

The series is about much more than vibes, though. "I don't think enough people realize the raw talent these artists have," Rivers said. "Our goal is to give as big of a platform as we can for these guys."

This recent explosion of activity in Burlington is driven by young artists, young entrepreneurs and young fans. Hip-hop has always been a youth culture, after all. But the lineage of Vermont hip-hop stretches back nearly two decades, from the pioneering work of Eye Oh You, the Loyalists and VT Union to second-generation icons such as the Aztext and Lynguistic Civilians.

Still, nothing in that history looms quite so large today as the inspirational saga of 99 Neighbors, the seven-artist crew of hometown heroes who signed to Nice Work, a Warner Records imprint, in 2019. They dropped their magnificent major-label debut LP Wherever You're Going I Hope It's Great in September and are currently on a nationwide tour.

"It definitely gives Burlington artists hope," Calderin said of 99 Neighbors' success. He doesn't think that their formula will be easy to replicate, however. "They managed to make the right connections at the right time and took full advantage of them," he observed.

North Ave Jax - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • North Ave Jax

Connections are everything in the music business, but so is having good mentors. Butts-Spirito learned from a cast of artist managers, video directors and label executives from coast to coast. Rivers' big influences were closer to home. "I have learned everything I do now from Tim Cece and Kevin Statesir," he said, citing his years of working for them at the Double E Performance Center in Essex Junction.

Equally crucial is support from older artists. There are plenty of old heads grumbling about the new wave, but there are even more established names happy to help. Several of Burlington's young MCs said eager mentors in particular have included Burlington legend Konflik, poet and activist Rajnii Eddins, prolific super-producer Es-K, and rapper/singer Charlie Mayne, formerly known as Chyse Atkins.

The love is mutual, too.

"I see a lot in these young artists, man. So much potential," Mayne said. The collaborative, cooperative nature of the latest wave is key to the young artists' success, he noted: "It's a strong, positive wave, everyone respecting each others' talents, not wondering who's better or who's not. There's too many lanes and too much money to go around to have to compete anymore."

David Chief is another young producer, DJ and tastemaker who has been an active part of the scene since he arrived from New Jersey in 2017. He got his start as a Champlain College student at Red Square, "playing for pretty much nobody," he said, and he's been networking hard ever since.

Today, he's an institution unto himself. Chief was behind the DJ decks for the Love, Kelly showcase, and he'll be back for the QCKB celebration this Saturday. He's also been organizing hip-hop shows of his own for years, building a reputation for all-killer, no-filler lineups.

Burlington has no shortage of up-and-coming hip-hop talent, but the musicians would be nothing without fans. Longtime scenesters and young artists alike agree that Burlington is a special place with special fans. As Butts-Spirito put it, "All the out-of-town artists continually commented that the energy in Burlington is insane."

As for the ArtsRiot team, it's happy to keep hosting. "Kids are excited to show up for what they like and what they relate to," production manager Elise Albertini said. "I think that Burlington has a lot more to offer than the stereotypical Dead and Phish cover bands that take up a lot of space in the night scene."

Older artists watching the hip-hop scene know that young energy is helping it grow. "The kids show more support for music than the adults out here, for some reason," Mayne observed. "This momentum is exactly what Vermont needs."

The original print version of this article was headlined "They've Got Next | A new generation explodes onto Burlington's hip-hop scene"

Related Locations

  • ArtsRiot