As any municipal rock star will tell you, other than maybe “heroin,” there are really only four words that local musicians should avoid like the clap, the plague, and the fretless bass combined: “Battle of the Bands.” For permanently scarred survivors, even invoking the phrase conjures images of apathetic crowds slogging through eighteen-band-bill monstrosities. Okay, “Open-Mic Night” is a similarly toxic phrase — lousy Dylan-aping amateurs trapped on a two-song conveyor belt of fear and self-loathing.
This is no way to make a living, or no way to become a rock star in the hope of avoiding having to actually make a living.
To Wide Hive’s credit, the Bay Area label’s new Scout experiment contains elements of both entities, while managing to not entirely invoke either. The weekly series is part-A&R audition project and part live-action MC jam session: A steady stream of rappers and beatboxers — some recruited, some completely unknown and untested — will flow into the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco every Wednesday night in May and June for fifteen-minute slots. Everything is recorded, and the best moments will be compiled onto an official Wide Hive Scout CD. One track also will appear on the label’s upcoming solo album from D.U.S.T. — the Zion-I rapper also serves as the series’ official host MC.
Best of all, there’s the house band Variable Unit, a fabulous live hip-hop ensemble (drums, bass, keys, turntables, etc.) with a bit more of a loungy soul-jazz edge than Oakland’s own similarly arranged Crown City Rockers. Furthermore, VU possesses the uncanny ability to instantly match its tempo and temperament to fit any aspiring rapper’s vibe, no matter how confident or clunky that vibe may be.
You see, some of these rappers are profoundly lousy.
“In those cases, those people are just gettin’ their feet wet, kinda rookies, and occasionally you run into one who’s got no flow,” admits Wide Hive founder and VU producer Gregory Howe. “But I think you have to accept that. There’s gonna be an occasional unqualified rapper, but I don’t necessarily think we’re gonna discriminate on that level. I want to see what anybody can do.”
So it’s a murky Wednesday night, and the Red Devil is overrun with Nervous Amateur Rapper Types. They pace around aimlessly. They scribble furiously in their notebooks, aided only by red-tinted candlelight (a very Ruby Room vibe in this joint). And they bob and weave Rocky-style on the stairs as the instrumental hip-hop duo Cubik and Origami inaugurates this hoedown with an hour of Enthusiastic Knob Twiddling and synchronized, hypnotic head-bobbing. Both these dudes will need chiropractors within five years.
And then, the Nervous Amateur Rapper Types stare intently at Variable Unit as the dudes take the stage, attempting some sort of lock-in telepathy. The live hip-hop band racket might look easy to you people, but excellence is most assuredly not a foregone conclusion — the following night, the heavily hyped Prefuse 73 played the Great American and sounded like a guy trapped in an enormous bong violently pounding a drum kit. By contrast, VU, to steal a phrase from an associate of mine, is like listening to champagne. Most remarkable is defensive-tackle-sized drummer Thomas McCree, who rattles off absurdly nimble Here Comes the Cavalry fills with the ease and nonchalance of a man picking his teeth.
He’ll pick his teeth with these rappers, if they’re not careful. First up: San Leandro’s own Enzyme, who starts rockin’ the somewhat sparse crowd like a champ as he regales us with tales of old high school classmates who became strippers and meth addicts. He inquires as to how we motherfuckers are doing tonight, and we motherfuckers feel just fine. He trades verses with two slightly less dominant associates: One has a laid-back, reggae-fied flow that does the trick (VU keyboard guru Jacob Elijah Aginsky rises to the challenge with some breezy G-funk melody lines), but the other literally spits a rapid-fire, largely impenetrable block of verbiage. (Memo to aspiring rappers: slow down.)
Enzyme entreats us to wave our ass, flop our tits and, most important, smile. He then hops offstage and starts talking up his MySpace page. Next up is poet N8tive Sun, who instructs VU bassist Matt Montgomery to launch into the “For the Love of Money” bassline as he verbally denounces the IRS; Sun’s next tune is explicitly “for the ladies,” but as he moves from ex-girlfriend to next girlfriend you get the sense that’s definitely “ladies,” plural.
Goodword, an amicable-looking dude with a benevolent frathouse air to him, takes over and verbally berates his haters as his lady friend stands nearby and giggles appreciably. Not particularly compelling, but hardly catastrophic, either. The same can be said for the Retainer, a particularly nervous white kid carrying around a Scout T-shirt who flips his hoodie up 8 Mile style as he grabs the mic and commences discussing his inner-city past and prospective future (college doesn’t seem right for him). This is not like listening to champagne — the phrase vibrant community doesn’t exactly roll off his tongue. He fires off one good line (kill Dick Cheney, and the Retainer’ll give you props like a stagehand) and bails out pretty early, nearly forgetting his T-shirt as he makes a beeline for the door.
But who wants absolute confidence and total success at a hip-hop jam session anyway? Embrace this experiment’s danger and uncertainty, which can only magnify its high points. Beatboxers are Scout’s secret weapon — Howe raves that the prior week featured the talented crew Felonious, which valiantly challenged McCree to a Live Drums vs. Beatboxing battle. This time out, Each of the highly talented Vowel Movement crew took on both McCree and VU turntable expert DJ Quest, and though he lost on both counts, he tackled the job with admirable enthusiasm. As did Tha Archivez, a robust pirate radio dude who launched into a spastic, hilariously unhinged freestyle that seemed to last a half-hour, to the point where he was forced to rhyme Frisco with Crisco.
Will any of these performances make the Scout CD? Perhaps not, but quiet excellence gets old fast — Scout’s awkward humanity and human drama make it both fascinating and slightly more authentic than your typical polished MC flow. Why watch neophyte musicians battle each other when you can watch them battle themselves?