Friday, May 12, 2017

The Hobby Emcee

I’ll be the first to admit that in my earlier years I spent (in hindsight, somewhat wasted), a considerable amount of time discussing and debating topics such as; emcees vs. rappers, Hip Hop vs. Rap, and “real Hip Hop” vs., consequently, “not-so-real Hip Hop”.  Not to mention all the long-winded philosophies on the merits, fallacies, standards and contradictions of underground emcees, and the pros, cons, importance and detriments of commercial rappers. While it all provided great conversations among my crew, my peers, and during panels and conferences, as well as content for handfuls of songs, it yielded absolutely nothing in terms of real-life application. At the end of the day, we weren’t changing anything. Providing insights and sparking creativity, maybe, but nothing revolutionary. All we could do was just be who we were and take advantage of every opportunity we had to preserve and/or educate others on Hip Hop culture. Be it KRS-One, Too Short, a female emcee in Kansas, or a young male emcee in Germany, one’s life of Hip Hop, and/or one’s interactions with, and influences from Hip Hop, were always going to be drastically different. Who was I, or anyone else, to question one’s role in, or fandom of, Hip Hop? Yet, so many of us did. And let’s be perfectly honest, we loved Ice Cube as much as we loved Rakim, and enjoyed gangsta, pimp and party songs as much as we enjoyed thought provoking, lyrical masterpieces. And while we had a tendency to align and ally ourselves with certain categories (i.e. east, west or south, and underground, mid-level or mainstream), it never stopped us from appreciating all Hip Hop had to offer.

There’s no question that the commercialization of rap music formed a huge division between Hip Hop culture and rap music. Hip Hop started off like Pangea, one large land mass that drifted apart into multiple continents, with some still in close proximity to its point of origin, and some with vast oceans separating them. And while the landscapes, weather, populations, and lifestyles differ continent to continent, they all co-exist on the same planet, on the same symbiotic journey. And just like the landscapes, weather, populations and lifestyles of continents change over time, Hip Hop changed over time. Now-a-days, there is an entirely new generation of Hip Hop/rap that, like so many other things concerning the Millennial generation, pits all prior generations vs. Millennials. Speaking in commonly used generalizations, many Millennial Hip Hoppers  and fans are not educated on the history and culture of Hip Hop, don’t respect the Golden Era and its artists, think Kayne’s doper than Nas, and don’t have a clue Snoop was a rapper. In turn, again speaking in commonly used generalizations, us old school cats automatically assume everything/everyone new is wack, don’t like or respect trap or mumble rap, and are baffled by Millennials lack of respect and knowledge of Hip Hop’s past. Then of course, there’s the Lil’ Yachty debate… And so the cycle continues. However, the Old School vs. Millennial feud has produced something positive in the sense that it brought all of Hip Hop’s first thirty years together under one umbrella. All of the categories and labels we used to cling and refer to sort of just dissolved. Now granted, it may have just been a result of time and age. But nevertheless, we look back on all of it, the Foundation Era of 1974-1986 and the 1987-2002 Golden Era, and smile.

As a young child living in New Jersey I have many memories of going into Manhattan and the boroughs of NYC and seeing B-Boys on pieces of cardboard, and countless pieces on buildings and trains. Then, growing up in Fairfax County outside of DC, it was in elementary school that I truly fell in love with Hip Hop. Everything about it fascinated me. And even at a young age, I knew I wanted to be a part of it somehow. My uncle has VHS video of my cousin, Dan, and I beatboxing and rapping at the Miami Zoo. We were like seven and eight years old at the time. I’m sure it was cute because we were little, but just horrible (which reminds me, I need to get my hands on that tape…).  In my fifth grade music class we had to get into groups, pick a song, rehearse it, and then lip-sync perform it live in front of the entire school. By boy Steve, another dude, and  I picked a Public Enemy song. We came dressed for the part to the T, and put on what I like to think of as the dopest Public Enemy rendition ever performed by a Korean and two white fifth graders! Haha! In eighth grade, Steve and I decided we were going to form a rap group. We had a name, a debut album title, and even a paper cassette album cover we made by hand. However, we ran into problems when we actually sat down and tried to write songs. So that never went anywhere.  While in early high school, and still living in Northern Virginia, I started freestyling and writing, but other than small performances in front of my family and/or crew, I pretty much kept it to myself. My family moved to the Twin Cities of Minnesota right before my junior year of high school started. During those final two years of high school I branched out and started freestyling in cyphers at school and at parties, and performed live at school talent shows, dances and pep rallies. In May of 1998, my senior year, I started referring to myself as Versifier in freestyles and verses, and thus, Versifier was born.

As a freshman at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN I quickly clicked with some other emcees and we’d have cyphers in dorm rooms and at parties. But I wanted a way to bring all the Hip Hop cats together, and to bring Hip Hop culture to the forefront on campus. Thus, I started the Hip Hop Manifesters Club, an official student organization that promoted Hip Hop culture and awareness. We had meetings, would host informational tables in the student union, throw parties, etc. From the club, three of us formed the group, Manifesters. With the exception of me, Manifesters’ roster changed a handful of times between 1999 and 2002. Now for those unfamiliar with the history of Versifier and Manifesters, the following is an extremely abbreviated rundown: From 1999 to 2006 we (Manifesters, and I/Versifier as a solo artist), pretty much did it all. We performed at open mics, we performed live shows, we toured the Midwest, we recorded and released albums, we opened up for national recording artists, we did interviews and performed on TV, radio, and documentaries, we contributed songs to compilation albums, recorded radio commercials, did music videos, taught and spoke at schools, sat on panels at conferences, had a live band, started an artist collective, appeared at community and charity events, battled, organized shows and events, etc., etc., etc. It was an absolute blast!

However, throughout that entire time period, we were either full time students, working full time, or both. So while we were fully committed to Hip Hop, we were also fully committed to those other areas of life simultaneously. We knew other artists who didn’t work or go to school and threw all their chips in the pot of making a career out of music. Despite numerous moments of temptation and longing, we just couldn’t do it. And by the end of 2006 we had all transitioned into our careers, home ownership, wives, kids, etc. From 2007 to mid-2010 we only performed three times, and did not record or release a single track. I still wrote here and there, and went out to local shows to support cats from my era that were still rockin’ though. Then, in August of 2010 we had a resurgence of sorts. The digital music age was in full effect and offered us easy and convenient ways to release new music. The local scene however, was an entirely different animal. In the early 2000’s one could easily list off all the Hip Hop cats actually doing things in Minneapolis and St. Paul. By 2010 it was absolutely flooded with new artists. Times, technology and culture had changed to the degree that anyone could become an emcee, DJ, producer, performer, promoter, etc. Other than to the older heads who knew us, we didn’t exist anymore. So from 2010 to 2015 we sort of just hovered. We launched our digital music presence, beefed up our social media accounts, released a good deal of music, a couple videos, and performed a handful of shows. Essentially, we were directionless. At first, this did not sit well with me. But with some honest self-reflection I realized that I no longer had a desire to make a career out of music. Would I love for millions of people to hear my music? Of course I would. But leaving my house at 10pm on a work night to go perform when I have to be up at 5am the next morning sounded god awful. Performing live used to be a huge surge in my life-blood. Now I essentially have zero interest in performing. The catch is that, without performing and touring to form a fan base, no one knows about, or is looking for, the music we put out. I no longer had the desire to chase a career in music, but the fire to keep writing, recording and releasing music and videos was still burning.

By 2016 I finally, willingly and comfortably, settled into the role of a “hobby emcee”. Like the other hobbies I have, making music is something I do because I get enjoyment from it, and take pride in doing it. I’m fortunate enough to still have dope and renown producers throwing me beats, and access to a great studio and engineer. I can simply do the pieces I enjoy most (writing, recording, shooting videos, and releasing), on my time, with zero expectations. I still want the quality to be impeccable though, and thus am still willing to spend money to guarantee that. But spending money on recording, mixing and mastering is not something I look at as a futile investment. Instead, it’s just funding my hobby, like when I buy new pieces for my Star Wars collection. I make the music for me. Yes, I put it on BandCamp, SoundCloud, iTunes, Amazon, etc. as well. And if people hear it and enjoy it, that’s fantastic. But in not seeking fame or a following, and by not performing, I’m content knowing only a small number of people will ever hear my music. I’ll always know its dope!

My point is this; one’s role in Hip Hop music and/or Hip Hop culture doesn’t make one more or less “Hip Hop”. I’ve played (for lack of a better word), numerous roles in Hip Hop, i.e. fan, aspiring artist, emcee, performer, promoter, activist, hobby emcee, etc. But since childhood, my life has been Hip Hop. And it will be until I die.    

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