Hip Hop Knox
The hip hop scene may be hard to find in Knoxville, but it does exist.
By Joe Tarr
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: At Knoxville's biggest hip-hop club, a bartender blankly stares off into the distance, munching a Subway sandwich. A woman leans against the cash register by the door, waiting for people to fork over the $3 cover. It is 11:30 p.m., but not a paying customer has shown up for what was to be a happening back-to-school bash sponsored by a UT sorority.
Above the dance floor, DJ Tommy Ill dutifully spins records while he tries to figure out the lighting system. "Man, I should burn a CD for occasions like these," he mutters. A pre-mixed CD wouldn't require him to man the turntables.
Dark blue and red lights swirl around an empty dance floor.
Knoxville, it seems, simply doesn't dig hip hop.
But wait. Starting around 12:30 a.m.--in the span of 15 to 20 minutes--200 or so people appear at the club, nearly all of them heading immediately to the dance floor. Most of them are African American, most of them are college students. They're decked out in casual button-down plaids by FUBU and Phat Farm, and sexy tanktop blouses. Now and then, the women fall into line, twisting in uniform through the crowd, swirling around the guys who stand with their hands above their heads, swaying them to the beat. Just as many people stand along the peripheral of the floor, watching, and the dance floor becomes its own kind of world.
Many of these young people have recently arrived here from other cities where there are vibrant hip-hop clubs, radio stations, and groups.
Knoxville is, well, a different story. Few clubs play this style of music and the only urban radio station is located on the AM dial and rarely strays beyond the softer, poppier R&B tunes. The city's countless rap acts have nowhere to perform, and many accuse the police of suspiciously paying too much attention when a hip-hop club opens up.
Yet there is a dichotomy at work here. Go to any high school in the city or county and you will find kids dressed in the baggy pants, sneakers, and caps that have become a trademark for the genre. They likely bought the clothes at the mall after seeing rappers like Master P, Missy Misdemeanor Elliott and the late Tupac wear them on TV. College kids and twentysomethings--both black and white--crank this music in their cars as they zip past you on the street.
It is almost as though Knoxville was quietly co-opted by hip hop years ago, but refuses to admit it--and especially refuses to allow any strong public displays of affection.
Like any cultural form, the exact origins of hip hop are elusive and open to debate. Essentially, it grew out of the Bronx in the mid-'70s from a variety of sources. One was the development of turntable mixers, which allowed disco club DJs to seemlessly shift from one record player to another, keeping music steadily flowing--which in turn spotlighted DJs and fostered a new craft. Another key ingredient came from New York's Caribbean dub party scene, where bass and drum were accentuated to the point that melody was lost. These Jamaican DJs also "toasted" or talked with bravado through their performances. "A synergy between disco mixing, dub sounds, and toasting would ultimately provide the techniques and sensibilities that allowed the birth of 'hip hop,'" writes music critic Nelson George in his book, hiphopamerica.
Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash helped give hip hop its musical shape, formalizing turntable techniques like break spinning, punch phrasing, and scratching. Early rappers or MCs--including the likes of Melle Mel, Coke La Rock, Kurtis Blow and Cowboy--accompanied DJs on the microphone, developing breath-taking, virtuoso phrasing and rhyme schemes.
Meanwhile, new forms of dancing rose up around the music--most notably breakdancing--and young graffiti artists (or taggers) like Phase 2, Dondi White, and Samo (Jean-Michel Basquiat) were identified with and became integral parts of the culture.
Though hip hop was largely a child of the African American community, other ethnic groups have played important roles: Puerto Rican teenagers expanded breakdancing forms, white artists produced vital graffiti, and black DJs often turned to white European electronic groups like Kraftwerk for inspiration.
Because of narrow-minded corporate control of record companies and radio stations, and an intense backlash against disco, hip hop remained largely unnoticed by mainstream America for years.
But since its birth the form has gone every which way, slowly making its presence felt in rock, TV, movies, advertising, language, clothing, politics, business, religion, poetry, literature, art, race relations, recording technology, illegal drug use, education and social structures. You can hear and see it in suburban U.S. malls and tiny villages in the Himalayan mountains of India. Defining it may now be impossible--and pointless.
Zakiah Modeste, like most black students who come from other cities, had quite a shock when she moved to Knoxville from the Bronx.
"It was culture shock, big time. It was real hard getting used to the culture, everything was slow, everything closed early, there were no clubs, no parties. Usually people just hung out together," Modeste says. Attending UT on a track scholarship, her social life seemed even bleaker when she hurt her knee and had to take a hiatus from athletics. To deal with the boredom, she began promoting various hip-hop parties and events. "I had to do something, and there was nothing really happening in Knoxville for the hip-hop generation," she says.
In February, she put on a talent show, which benefited Carpetbag Theater. She also coaxed her cousin, old school rapper Doug E. Fresh to play at the Kuumba Festival.
Some blame the lack of things hip hop on the city's racial make up. "I don't think Knoxville can support a big hip-hop scene," says Angela Williams, a science-technology major at UT, as she sits at the Network one night. "It just forces you to cater to the majority," agrees her friend, Herman Sutton Jr., also from Memphis.
But plenty of white people listen to hip hop. Tim Brinson who works at Phaze One, a hip hop clothing/accessory store on North Broadway, says about half his customers are white. "Hip hop is in a little bit of everybody, unless you were brought up in the back woods or something."
"Knoxville parties to hip hop. But they don't know hip hop. They just don't know the music they dancing to is hip hop," says Raef Muhammad, a promoter who also owns Kings & Queens Fashions in East Knoxville. "When you say hip hop, they automatically think New York. These motherfuckers are retarded, man." Indeed, even heavy metal songs by the likes of AC/DC are remixed at clubs with a hip-hop beat.
And there are plenty of white people who know real hip hop too, says Stormthilous Hopkins, a DJ and producer from New Jersey who is with the local rap group, Demented Soundz. "I went to a party these white boys threw, and it was off the hook...Shit, I thought I was at home. It's so universal now, hip hop breaks down boundaries."
Despite its popularity, there aren't many venues that cater to the crowd. Many blame local police, saying they target hip-hop clubs out of fear and ignorance. When the police sent a street cleaner through the parking lot of the Network after it closed one Saturday night last month, many saw it as a clear-cut case of racism. On Saturday nights, the club plays mainly the Southern-style hip hop with a hardcore bent. The club played a mix of hip hop and club music every night it was open. However, unlike those other nights, Saturdays drew an almost exclusively black crowd.
Police say they'd been getting numerous calls at the club for fights and under-aged drinking. But patrons of the club dispute that. The club's owner, Don Rosen, has at least temporarily closed the club, and his attorney, Gregory Isaacs, is considering filing a lawsuit (he's already filed a lawsuit demanding city records which Isaacs says have been withheld).
"We are investigating allegations that the club was targeted on nights that drew an Afro-American crowd," Isaacs says. "We are trying to obtain all relevant information before we rush to judgment. But there has been an unceasing police presence that has done irreparable harm to this business.
"When was the decision made to send in the street sweeper, was it the result of a disturbance or was it a tactical decision to injure this business and its reputation?"
Compared to enormous clubs like O'Charley's on the Cumberland Avenue Strip, fights at the hip-hop clubs are minimal, says Dave Meader, AKA DJ Tommy III. "Every time I go to O'Charley's there's four or five fights. How can they get away with it? It's because it's a big corporation. I DJ three to five nights a week for two months at hip-hop clubs, I would see two fights."
"It seems like everything that is black-related draws a lot of police," says Simon Puli, an African American UT student who has lived in New York and Ottawa, Canada. During the same week police were cracking down on the Network, a riot broke out at O'Charley's--where many off-duty policemen work. (The Network had hired an off-duty policeman, but fired him). At O'Charley's, there were actual fights, while the people at the Network walked peacefully to their cars, despite getting sprayed by the street cleaner. The Network incident seemed to garner much more press, though in part that was probably because the club's owner challenged the police conduct and appealed to city council.
There has been violence at hip-hop clubs, however. Starting in 1993, the Electric Ballroom began holding hip-hop dance nights and booking hip-hop acts. At first, there were no problems at all, says Dana Wolfe, the club's former owner and an ex-cop. But Wolfe thinks they might have done too good a job. As the Electric Ballroom quickly became a safe hotspot for hip hop, trouble started. Wolfe suspects that now defunct nightclubs in East Knoxville--upset over losing business--tried to sabotage his business. "I think they were sending people over to our place to start problems because everybody was at our establishment," he says.
The final straw came when MC Lyte played the club in 1994. Rumors had circulated that it wasn't really MC Lyte, and a large crowd gathered outside but wouldn't buy tickets to come in. When they realized it really was the rapper, a near riot broke out, Wolfe says. He dropped the ticket prices to accommodate more people. Standing in the box office that night, Wolfe sat down, just as two gunshots shattered through the booth's glass.
Still, many music and entertainment genres have had been affected by violence. Knoxvillians only notice it when black people are involved, hip hop supporters say. "Some years past, I wanted to go see a country show," says James Upshaw, an R&B promoter. "I stepped into one of the rowdiest concerts--Hank Williams, Jr.--and that concert had more fighting and arrests than any hip-hop show."
Promoters like Muhammad and Upshaw get particularly riled up because they can't find venues that will stage their dances or concerts.
Some club owners that do have specific hip-hop nights didn't want to be quoted for this story, for fear that their establishment might become identified with it, and attract undue attention from the police or a more rowdy crowd.
The outside could use a new coat of paint, but it's a nice enough house on a quiet street in the black neighborhood of Burlington, nestled behind the new Kroger on Asheville Highway.
It's the home of Leonard Hill, and if you've ever had anything to do with hip hop in Knoxville, you know the name. Hill has been a key player in the Knoxville scene for about as long as there's been one.
He doesn't go out much anymore. He doesn't have to. "Everybody here that raps, they come through my door," Hill says. His head is shaved, and he sports a braided goatee and long fingernails that are filed smooth--which he uses instead of his fingertips to touch controls of his computer equipment. He's friendly, if a bit shy and reserved.
In a room that most people would use to eat dinner in, Hill has crammed with samplers, mixing equipment, speakers, and turntables. His old vinyl collection is stacked against a wall, and in a ratty old chair he sits visitors who come to record their music.
"I set my microphone up right in the middle of the floor and it get real good sound," he says, motioning to the black-and-white checkered tiles.
"That mic puts the fear in people. I've had people who say they can rap good come over, and as soon as the mic is in front of them, they start stuttering and stammering."
Nevertheless, some of them can in fact rap, and Hill records and produces their music, sometimes creating the beats, bass and samples that they rap over. Dogs bark from behind the house. "Oh, yeah, they've been in a couple recordings. My door bell's been in a whole lot."
As a teenager back in 1982, Hill started DJing when there was no hip hop scene to speak of. "There was about one rap group here back in '82. I don't even remember the name of the group." Hill was the group's DJ, however, with two cousins who MC'd.
So many acts have come and gone since then, none making any sort of impact nationally. "Nobody here has really caught on or blew up, but there's nothing wrong with the music here," Hill says.
As the years passed, Hill followed the natural progressing from DJing to producing. When the Magic City club on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue was held up in 1995, Hill was DJing at the club and ended up wrestling around with one of the gunmen. He hasn't DJ'd since, and rarely goes out to clubs. "When you pop a CD in your own house, that's not going to hurt you," says Hill. "But when you go out, that's when the problems start. I'd be afraid of it too."
He sits at home most of the time, producing music or commercials for extra money. One of his current projects is trying to put together a compilation CD of Knoxville hip-hop acts--which he hopes might garner the scene here some national attention. "There's a lot of talent here that's untapped. I believe in my hometown," he says.
There are countless hip-hop acts in Knoxville, but hardly any of them ever perform anywhere because there are no venues for this type of music. It exists--either thriving or quickly fading away--almost entirely by word of mouth.
Keith Foster, owner of JK Records on Magnolia, says most local groups will produce small quantities of their own tapes or CDs. The long list of local acts includes N.U.T.S., Black Market, 5Ft. Giant, Dynamo, Demented Soundz, The Suspects.
Demented Soundz is composed of Hopkins (AKA Storm) and Jason Sawyer. Hopkins came from Trenton, N.J., to go to school at Knoxville College. Though there is a much more vibrant scene in his hometown, he stays in Knoxville because it allows him to concentrate on his music, and because it's exposed him to a diversity of sounds, many of which he samples. "It's a lot cheaper to put a project together here," he says. "Here, it's so much easier to focus. There, if we wanted to go to a club right now, we could go."
In a corner right off the front door and near the kitchen of his Townview Terrace apartment, Hopkins keeps his sampler, a computer mixer, turntables and old vinyl. In a box, sit hundreds of floppy discs and 10 Zip discs--containing his massive musical output. Storm plays one of his more recent recordings--a seven song CD made with Sawyer and three other local hip hoppers. On one track, "Rap Back to the Camp," he samples a submarine horn from a movie, bass from an old record. The resulting sound is deeply textured and complex, which together with Sawyer's voice exudes both paranoia and subversiveness.
Though Hopkins is confident Demented Soundz will make something of itself, the group's members prefer to take their time and do it on their own terms, rather than losing control of their art to record companies, of which they've already had some unpleasant dealings--including one they claim stole the concept for a song from them.
For now, Demented Soundz and all of Knoxville's other hip-hop acts exist almost entirely underground. Some groups have sold significantly locally, but none have ever done well regionally or nationally. "People come to me everyday with CDs. Probably 20 CDs in the course of this year have been put out in Knoxville. But they don't have anywhere to get the exposure," Foster says.
Foster opened JK Records three years ago because he saw a niche that wasn't being met. While there are plenty of record stores in Knoxville selling hip hop, few have staff that really know the music beyond what's on the Top 40 charts.
Like the local groups that come and go, small, corner hip-hop stores--selling everything from clothes to CDs to beepers--also tend to fade fairly quickly. Foster always has an eye for promotion (he drives a bright yellow mini-van with a large JK painted on both sides) and his store has so far thrived. He hopes to put his promotional skills to work pushing N.U.T.S., perhaps the city's biggest selling rap group.
Though their first CD, Knoxville, sold well locally, the group hasn't played a show in a year. The act's Nico Hardin says it's the stigma that rap has.
"They don't really want that going on in Knoxville," he says. "Even if we do a show, the first thing we're going to see is a whole parking lot of police. We're trying to squash the East-West [gang] stuff but they won't let us get together," Hardin says. "We can't do nothing, we can't expand Knoxville because they won't let us get together. They target us. Can you imagine what it's like to be a target all the time?"
The two wrote and produced the CD themselves, and with the help of Foster, they're planning to make it big.
Foster says N.U.T.S. have a good chance of riding the coattails of Southern acts like Master P and Outkast to regional or even national fame--and put Knoxville hip hop on the map. Already recorded, the group expects strong local sales to attract a national distributor.
"We're going to sell thousands right here alone," Foster says. "Out of all the hip-hop groups in Knoxville, these are the most marketable. Nobody ever sold more copies than them. And they're going to open up doors for more acts because people are going to start to pay attention to the Knoxville scene."
For Hardin and Pruitt--who have been DJing and rapping since their teens and working together since about '94--success isn't even a question. "If you have one dollar left in your pocket, bet on it. This is it," Hardin says.
"We got hardcore rap music for the streets, for the less fortunate," says Hardin, the more talkative of the two. "We speaking for people that we see everyday struggling. We went through it, we've been there."
The struggles he refers to include losing friends to drug and gang battles and having friends sent to prison. Although many of Knoxville's gang members are N.U.T.S. fans, the two say they don't take sides. "We don't represent no gangs, we're just trying to get people together," Hardin says. "We've done shows where East and West were there, and it wasn't a problem."
Criticism that hardcore rap promotes violence and damages the hip hop and African American communities is unfounded, they say. "It ain't no different to me than seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger kill 41 people in a move. What's worse?" Hardin says.
Not everyone is convinced that gangsta--or thug--rap is true-to-life. Some hip-hoppers don't even consider it hip hop. They see gangsta as a crass, bland product pushed by greedy record companies who don't care about how the music or urban communities will be affected.
Though not speaking specifically about N.U.T.S., Upshaw says hardcore, violent rap has had a bad effect. "I don't like the devastation in the dirty South rap. Some of it is okay if they're saying something positive. But I don't like hip hop that's devastating to the community or that demoralizes black folk."
"I could get on a soap box. I think [gangsta rap] is playing right into the hands of racists on both sides," says Wolfe, the former Electric Ballroom proprietor who is white and middle-aged. "Early hip hop, I liked. But a lot of the gangsta rap is counterproductive. Everything is taken so literally by the young people today."
For others it's just plain silly--a macho fantasy that has little basis in reality. Shinpaugh points out that while Master P--who grossed $56 million, making him the 10th richest entertainer last year, according to Source magazine--raps about killing and drugs, he's also involved with pro wrestling. "There's something wrong with that. You're glamorizing killing and yet you're hanging out with pro wrestlers. And people can't see through that?" he says.
"It's all about making money, and the media pushes that," chimes in Kevin Wells (aka Special K), a DJ who plays house dance music. "People can't think for themselves."
During the year and a half that Shinpaugh lived in Phoenix, he watched a single DJ named Z-Trip from New York change the city's attitude. It wasn't easy, but he did it. When Z-Trip arrived in Phoenix, there were no places to hear real hip hop. Clubs didn't want to play it. Z-Trip played where he could--coffee shops, parks, wherever. He'd get a regular gig somewhere, and quickly lose it. Z-Trip persisted. Eventually, the city came around. "He pretty much changed the whole demographics. Now it's real hip hop. It's real positive," Shinpaugh says. "It was the music he played that did it. It was real."
Z-Trip's example is one of the reasons Shinpaugh stays in Knoxville. "There's always one person who sticks with it and they're the pioneer. I don't want to go to someone else's scene and just be a part of it. I'd rather stay here and help create one."
There is certainly no shortage of hip-hop fans in Knoxville, or of DJs hoping to push the genre to the forefront. (As a testament to how bad the times are for DJs here, Shinpaugh (AKA Slink) is currently without a steady job, despite being voted the city's best DJ by Metro Pulse readers in the spring.)
Just what exactly will it take to make Knoxville a hip-hop-friendly city is tough to say. Many say it needs a good venue. Others say the problem is that no one supports the scene, even though there are plenty of fans here.
"All the kids complain about how there's nothing to do but when somebody tries to do something nobody supports it. But when it's gone, everybody talks about how great it was," Shinpaugh says.
With the possible demise of the Network, it's hard to say where hip-hop fans will turn. Maybe they'll rely on private parties, or perhaps some other club will take a chance on the genre. Flamingo's on the Cumberland Avenue Strip has taken up some of the slack--recently starting a genuine hip hop night every Sunday, but you must be a UT student to get in. The affair is hosted by Meador, who may be the city's hardest working DJ.
He'll play pop, thug, underground or vintage hip hop--whatever it takes to please the crowd. He hosts Club 90 on WUTK from 8 to midnight on Friday nights, and co-owns Down To Earth, a hip-hop clothing and vinyl store on the back side of Cumberland Avenue. He also runs a record collective for DJs.
Though many people who frequent the Strip want to hear hip hop, few clubs seem to play it, Meador says. Though these clubs attract students and people of all races, the entertainment is geared mainly toward whites, he says. Sometimes, too, the crowds often resist new sounds, favoring instead the bland pop songs they've heard hundreds of times already. "In this city, you've got to spoon feed people. You've got to get the crowd, then sneak new sounds in," he says.
Former UT quarterback Sterl "the Pearl" Henton has seen hip hop's popularity wax and wane over the past decade. Henton started perhaps the city's first true hip-hop show on WUTK, back in 1989--a show that ended just this July.
Henton reminisces about the glory days in 1994 and '95, when the Electric Ballroom was bringing in hip-hop artists, and "First Fridays" was being held at the Cedar Bluff Ramada Inn--attracting people who would fly in from all over the South.
Though currently the scene is in sad shape, Henton isn't worried. Hip hop is bigger than Knoxville. "This music is strong, man. Rap music and hip-hop music is so strong, it's the strongest driving force in music today. It touches everyone. And there is a song out there that you will like--if you listen."
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