By Isaac Constans
Listen Up, Lansing staff reporter
Like it or not, hip-hop is stating itself as the youth’s genre throughout the country and in local communities. And while Lansing might not exactly be a landmark city for profuse artistry, the importance of rap is tangible in Lansing, and it is only growing.
In Lansing, local hip-hop can serve as a serious source of income for the artists who rely on a dedicated, musically inclined fan base to buoy their careers. For fans, the scene is a consistent source of entertainment and a frequent hub for nightlife.
“I really enjoy it,” Scotty Bell, a lifelong Lansing resident and longtime follower of Lansing hip-hop, said about the local scene. “I frequently am touting the hip-hop scene’s vitality in this city, especially to a lot of people who don’t really interact with it.
“To be honest, right now it’s the genre that I use as a (counter)example when people give you that very tired speech of, ‘But the local scene sucks. There’s nothing to do here.’”
Bell, a talent buyer for Fusion Shows, says that there are sometimes four hip-hop shows a week that attract 150-300 people to the local venues of Mac’s Bar, the Loft, and Fahrenheit Ultra Lounge. The hip-hop fan base in Lansing is growing too, evidenced by the attraction of touring artists such as Big K.R.I.T., Skizzy Mars, and King Los to local venues in the past year alone.
Yet, nonlocal performers often have a tough time plugging into the market and have found that promoting their shows requires a lot of exertion. Andrew Meftah, a DJ based in Lansing with the stage name of Meftah DJ, says attendance and attention at his shows is far from guaranteed.
“If you play a show at Mac’s Bar in Lansing, you still have to promote pretty hard. While if you play at a popular bar in Detroit, there’ll always be people that will be there,” Meftah, who is originally from Detroit, said.
Kenny Greene, who has performed at The Loft and Mac’s Bar, recalled a similar experience. He noticed an immediate style and community difference from his hometown of Philadelphia.
“It’s really hard to meet those people (dedicated rappers and followers),” Greene said about Lansing. “It didn’t really have that vibe (of a rap city). In terms of just the culture, the integration, how people respond to it, I really just didn’t see it.”
Meftah, too, found that equally culpable for the seemingly absent culture was a lack of full-time artists. There were rappers, he said, but “bedroom artists” instead of devoted musicians.
“You know, I don’t actually see too many people out here professionally like putting on shows all the time, and albums, and projects, and stuff, and promoting it.” Meftah said. “While in Detroit, everybody is doing that. You have to promote really hard in Lansing with all your friends to get them to come out to a show.”
From his experience, however, Bell has seen a different side. While he acknowledged that Lansing did not have the rap resources of Detroit, Bell thought that the local scene “punched above its weight” and, like anywhere else, took years for people to plug into. Artists that he has tried to connect to local talent often are deceived by the apparent success of other artists and scramble before connections can be made.
“Anybody who feels like it’s hard to break into, just know that they have to keep trying,” Bell said, referencing many artists’ lack of patience. “And also know that the grass is always greener. Everybody always looks like they’re stunting harder than you… but in reality, everybody’s busting their ass to get 80 people inside the door.”
Bell has seen plenty of successful, unique rappers, such as Joshua Smith, JR Bad Influence, Ribcage, and Big Sherm stay in the Lansing, while others have been groomed locally before leaving. Additionally, the start of the BLAT! Collaborative and the All Of The Above Academy marks a new page for Lansing hip-hop. These programs are geared towards leaving a lasting impact, whether upon the individuals or upon the building of a communal hip-hop foundation.
Dr. Austin Jackson, a Michigan State assistant professor and rap historian, has studied the role rap can play in cultural and academic literacy. Jackson cited his childhood as a direct example of how hip-hop can motivate scholarship, as he would research the themes sowed into lyrics he heard and apply them in ciphers. This habit led to his increased knowledge of the world around him and developed a cerebral passion that would remain with him.
“Hip-hop was born out of the need to really, truly educate people in a real way,” Jackson said.
Jackson, 42, saw his teenage self as vulnerable to the temptations of selling drugs because of his exposure to that lifestyle, raised by a mom who was addicted to cocaine and a step-dad who used. However, he credited the lyrics and implied meanings of rap as what kept him going, such as “Hip-hop, you don’t stop. Keep on, keep on going you don’t stop.” Furthermore, the culture encouraged him to explore the social injustices that he faced as an African-American, inner-city youth and question the system in a way that kept him out of trouble.
“Now I’ve oftentimes thought how scary it is, that if hip-hop would have been different, if hip-hop would have been 2 Chainz in ’87, I don’t think it would have had the same impact on me as it did,” Jackson, 42, said.
“So I was very lucky, very fortunate in that respect, and in fact, hip-hop saved my life. And it was in fact that call to educate yourself through hip-hop that led me to do the things that I’m doing right now.”
Jackson is optimistic about the future of Lansing hip-hop because of organizations such as the BLAT! Project and the All Of The Above Academy. Jackson, also director of the My Brother’s Keeper program, has worked with both to make sure that these organizations not only popularize local rap, but also teach the pillars of hip-hop (knowledge, MCing, DJing, dance, and graffiti) properly to Lansing youth, promoting the right message.
Formerly a touring artist, Ozay Moore moved to Lansing in 2006 and saw the need in Lansing for a true hip-hop community. In 2010, he started the All Of The Above Academy, a nonprofit organization designed to help fuse the independent talents of Lansing hip-hop into a unified group and truly plant the roots for a hip-hop city by teaching the lessons of hip-hop.
“There’s always been the ability to connect with music and connect with artists, and I’ve always been kind of set towards the history side of hip-hop culture,” Moore, formerly known as Othello, said. “So I started noticing I had a natural tendency towards engaging youth and I had a kid who I knew wanted to get involved in hip-hop but had a loose understanding of what the culture was really about. So saw a need and wanted to address it, because you can’t expect the next generation to understand the culture if we’re not teaching them.”
The All Of The Above Academy’s work is designed to keep students constructive and spark their interest in learning, with classes in the basics of hip-hop held at the Oak Park YMCA. The other aim of Moore’s vision is for people to recognize the hip-hop talent that thrives in Lansing, and to build a highly visible community that is more than a pit stop.
“There’s crazy talent here and there’s really, really good artists, but by the time they realize they have something the world values, they end up moving to Chicago or New York or LA, somewhere that’s more conducive to an actual career like that,” Moore said, reiterating that an artistic, hip-hop community served many purposes to better society.
“I think the perspective is needed around the world that hip-hop can be a positive force in a community and in society. We know that not everybody is going to choose the positive path, but if you can build this synergy in your community with a variety of faces and truly a sense of community, it’s amazing what can come out of that.”
Incorporating hip-hop into kids’ curriculums, Jackson believes, will not only build that sense of community but also help foster an appreciation of the arts and intellectual drive. That is one of the goals of the All Of The Above Academy, to instill a culture of “edutainment,” as dubbed by KRS-One, whereby learning the art of hip-hop simultaneously teaches kids about the world.
“It’s the thing that kept us productive,” Jackson said about studying hip-hop, crediting it for his own consciousness. “It kept us off the streets. Using this art as a way to educate people… hip-hop was my first education.
“It’s how I learned about Malcolm X. It’s how I learned about African history and the system of oppression. I only gained that knowledge through the intellectual work of hip-hop during that time period. The history of hip-hop is based on education.”
With programs like BLAT! and All Of The Above, Lansing is building its hip-hop base upon the five pillars and the important edutainment roots of the genre that now primarily only come from the underground scene. While Lansing’s historical hip-hop scene historically lacked the organization as a unit to establish itself as a permanent force, that is changing. And that change is spearheaded by community members like Jackson and Moore, tracing their teachings to the fundamentals popularized by The Roots, KRS-One, and other rappers dedicated to the cause of edutainment.
“We need hip-hop activists that’ll represent the genre and push back at these corporations that continue to exploit it for money,” Jackson said, “All of this ‘I’ll kill you,’ all of this quasi-pornography that you hear now on the radio, and I’m not prudish, but if that’s the only thing represented on the radio, then that’s a problem.
“As Mos Def said, ‘Old white men are running this rap (expletive)…’ People that don’t care about anything except for money, and we have to challenge those people.”