Since it break-danced into the national consciousness a quarter-century ago, hip-hop, it's safe to say, has become the mainstream. Witness its dominance on the Billboard singles charts, and the ubiquity of baggy-ass rapper clothes on kids in the suburbs.
Mirroring those trends, the local hip-hop community has grown healthily over the past few years. Burlington performers such as Eye Oh You and DJ A-Dog have achieved relative fame, frequently packing the bars. As more kids have eschewed guitars for turntables, more local nightclubs have booked DJ nights, with predominantly young, white males spinning the "wheels of steel." Even the jazz festival put a groovy turntablist -- DJ Logic -- on the bill this year.
Hip-hop is also revisiting its consciousness-raising roots in this election year, as office-seekers, artists and record moguls look to the popular genre for help in getting out the vote. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network -- headed by industry bigwigs Russell Simmons and Damon Dash, rapper/ entrepreneur Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Nation of Islam member Ben Chavis -- is deploying artists such as Eminem to register and activate young voters. Forget gangsta rap; hip-hop is hopping to a political beat.
With this in mind, I decide to check the action in the local hip-hop scene. One recent Wednesday evening, no fewer than five DJ and MC events are advertised in the Burlington club listings. At the Waiting Room, A-Dog is slinging vinyl for the expected crowd of hipsters and well-heeled young. Club Metronome has scheduled an evening of DJs and MCs including hip-hop vet Fattie B., A-Dog and Izza. Fattie is also booked at Red Square, spinning classic hip-hop and '80s cuts. College hangout Rasputin's is hosting DJ Kwik. And tonight is Millennium's inaugural Freestyle Battle with Nastee and Big Rye MC competition. Sounds like a solid night of beats and flows.
Except it isn't.
At 11 p.m. at Millennium, there's not a rapper in sight. I find myself mesmerized by hyperactive green lights flashing across the empty dance floor. The 20 or so people milling about have street style down -- cock-eyed caps and oversized basketball jerseys abound; one dude saunters in dressed top-to-bottom in a gigantic Celtics uniform. A large girl in a pink lace top feeds quarters into a gumball machine like she's playing slots. A small crowd gathers around the pool tables, working cue sticks, rather than microphones. 50 Cent's "In Da Club" pulses from the substantial sound system, yet the patrons seem more focused on pocketing eightballs than spitting rhymes.
By midnight the crowd has thickened a bit, and an occasional couple braves the dance floor. A guy in baggy jeans and a tank top yells, "Wassup!" as he jogs back to his table after busting a quick move. Meanwhile, a tall, lean man with an uncanny resemblance to Vanilla Ice settles into a groove of solo stepping, concentration etched on his face. His girlfriend looks on while sitting on the floor with her back against a post, resting her stiletto-heeled feet.
At 12:30, I'm tired of waiting for something to happen. Maybe this "competition" is only for the most nocturnal MCs.
Things are even less lively at Metronome, where DJ Izza is spinning for a crowd of five. Dressed in a baggy red T-shirt and jeans, Izza bends over his tables and tears into a bumping dance remix of Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise." Four student types dance half-jokingly, spinning and shaking in a corner of the room. A guy in a sweatshirt and jeans sits onstage in a chair, silently sipping a Heineken and watching Izza's set.
Eventually, DJ A-Dog walks in, explaining that the Waiting Room closed early because no one was there. A few more souls wander up the stairs, looking for something to do. The music shifts to Naughty By Nature's "O.P.P.," mixed with The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian."
I pin my hopes on Red Square and take a walk around the corner -- but no, the evening is equally dull here. Instead of Fattie B. and friends ripping it up, the stage is empty and dark. A bland rock tune wafts through the overhead speakers.
As Wednesday dissolves into the wee hours of Thursday, I'm beginning to wonder if the local hip-hop scene has a pulse, much less a political agenda. Forget Bush, or the body bags arriving from Iraq, or homeland insecurity. Right now I'd settle for a few choice couplets about Cristal and Chryslers.