Hip-hop is like the Internet, or in theory, like the government: Nobody owns it; it's open to anyone. Even those who don't know Chuck D's Public Enemy from James Cagney's. No example of this open-tent philosophy could be better than the Kool Keith show at Steamboat two weeks ago. Old-timers and neophytes alike lined up early and endured a positively stifling Saturday night packed house to witness the multiple personae of the former Ultramagnetic MC, who with Dr. Octagonecolygist, Sex Styles, and the brand-new Black Elvis/Lost in Space, reigns as one of hip-hop's most verbally gifted, and commercially appealing, resident oddballs. Taking the stage well after 1am, Keith rhymed convincingly for about 30 minutes, to the relish of some and the disgruntlement of others. The Daily Texan wrote in a somewhat misguided review -- after petulantly insulting members of Hip-Hop Mecca, the local promoting crew that put on the show -- that Keith was "alright" but "could have been anyone." Not quite. It's doubtful that just "anyone" could have caused such heat-stroked bedlam. Moreover, Hip-Hop Mecca's production was calfskin-smooth considering the taxing conditions; a Steamboat doorman noted the evening's only real hitch was "they gave away too many free tickets." He was right, too.
Far from the Beastie Boys-espoused refrain of "money makin', money, money makin'," Hip-Hop Mecca has hardly broken the bank during its two years of promoting and providing top-flight talent for Austin heads. They wind up in the red more often than a roulette wheel, yet the only thing that equals their passion for hip-hop is their ambitious bookings. So far, Hip-Hop Mecca has put on high-profile roadshows by Channel Live, Latyrx, Prince Po, Freestyle Fellowship, Big Pun and X-Zibit, Hieroglyphics, Organized Konfusion, Abstract Tribe Unique, Mixmaster Mike, and Keith -- not to mention the GZA show at Steamboat this Friday. Then there was the completely bananas SXSW 99 showcase at Bob Popular that converged all four elements of hip-hop -- DJing, MCing, B-Boying (break dancing), and graffiti art -- and drew glowing reviews all the way to Japan. Mecca doesn't always hit up out-of-towners to come down Texas way, either; the group has also staged productions at clubs such as the Mercury, Electric Lounge, and Flamingo Cantina, featuring hometown hip-hoppers like DJs Nick Nack and Foulmouth and MCs NOOK, Izwon tha ProfaZ, and Smackola.
"I really don't forsee myself making money off Hip-Hop Mecca for a few years," admits David Crump, who estimates he's currently $5,000 in the hole after Kool Keith. "I want to see the business grow, us collectively, then I think profits start coming in."
Contrary to the popular beliefs that arise out of hip-hop labels named Cash Money and the almost onanistic obsession with green paper that pervades the rhymes of popular rappers from Master P to Jay-Z, Hip-Hop Mecca -- founded in 1997 by Crump and partner Doug Mecca -- is more focused on showcasing skills and establishing a permanent hip-hop presence in Austin than accumulating fat stacks of bills, not that Crump doesn't want to get paid.
"Imagine if I could run an office," he speculates. "I could round up all these cats I got working with me, and there they'd be trying to branch out and do what their job description is, but I ain't got no money to keep them going. I got no money to make their life easier."
Right now the Meccas have much greater difficulty finding parties willing to underwrite their productions than young MCs and DJs eager to perform at them; hip-hop's notorious and persistent reputation for unruly crowds, shady business practices, and occasional gun battles generally scares off potential investors.
"In this game it's like we all just thugs, we all just gangstas," says local DJ Izwon. "I never been in a gang. I'm Z-Won, and Z-Won is Z-only. I don't need all that. But my family is Hip-Hop Mecca, my culture is hip-hop, politics, religion, everything, because it's something I can understand. It's something that I feel. I feel like I'm in a clown suit when I dress up to go to work. That's when I feel like I'm playing myself, because I gotta put on some pressed pants and a starched shirt."
On the subject of clown suits, Crump has even tried the corporate-sponsorship game -- it's a sad fact that conglomerates like Coca-Cola/Sprite, Tommy Hilfiger, and Sony make more money off hip-hop in 48 hours than most of the culture's pioneers will see in their lifetimes -- but hit the proverbial brick wall. The big companies want their products associated with high-profile arenas like MTV and big radio (Beat 104.3 being the capital city's prime example) and aren't much interested in grassroots, street-level promotions.
"I don't like to fuckin' do the things I have to do sometimes in hip-hop, or cater to certain needs, or people's attitudes, but to me it's a challenge," says Crump. "I want everybody to come. I wish I could do shows and not have to sell alcohol and families would come. I wish we could do block parties, I wish I could have sponsorship; [the corporate] mentality is like they don't want to help out people really doing for hip-hop, they want to exploit the culture. If you want to help out the positive image of hip-hop, why don't you give us money where blunts ain't being smoked and beer ain't being drank, people just eating barbecue, drinking a soda, and having a good time at a block party. They don't give money for that shit; they don't think it's high-impact. They're missing the whole point. It is high-impact."
A couple of days after the Kool Keith hysteria subsides, upward of 15 Austin hip-hop players converge in a living room a jump shot or two from Research Blvd. Present are Crump and his older brother, J.D.; Izwon and another member of Hip-Hop Mecca's inner circle, Scooter; MC's Smackola and Grapefruit; DJ Nick Nack, who also hosts the B-Side radio show on KVRX; Foulmouth; Denise, a dancer with the Swing Team crew who "represents hip-hop in any way possible"; promoter/writer Brent Fierro; and promoter Stephanie Lang, who works the hip-hop pipeline between Dallas and Austin and is one of the few women behind the scenes.
Adding historical weight to the discussion are Romeo Navarro, a veteran B-Boy representing Montopolis; Brother K, who recently took over KOOP's Friday-afternoon essential Dolla Holla Show; DJ Crash, who B-boyed and DJed in England for years before returning to the ATX; MC Tre God Shakim, who's been around "for years and years and years"; and Cassanova, who was rocking crowds at Liberty Lunch and the Black Cat a decade ago. The gathering has the aura of a local, contemporary version of the famous jazz photograph A Great Day in Harlem. The discussion veers back and forth between the present and "back in the day," but even the veterans agree that right now is an especially fertile period for hip-hop in Austin.
"Basically, everybody in here has got a track that either A, has been on the radio, or B, that you could buy at one time -- everybody that rhymes," says Brother K.
"There was a surge in '93 as far as the hip-hop scene goes, '93-'95," remembers Shakim. "Then it went down again. It's had its waves and crests and all that, but this seems to be a good one. I think this one's gonna stay, because everybody's elevated their game and [is] just thinking on a whole new level."
"As soon as my time [in the military] was up, I just got out, didn't care what was next, this is what I wanted to do," says Smackola, readying a debut CD for the fall. "So I got out, saw that Austin hasn't really blown up so big yet compared to where I was at [Sacramento], where if you weren't already in there, it was gonna be harder to get in there. But here, everybody's still comin' up and gettin' stronger and I wanted to be a part of that."
"Now, with Hip-Hop Mecca comin' through, it's been pretty much a livened scene, sold-out shows and things of that nature," says DJ Crash. "That says a lot about how it's up and coming, about to grow. Hip-hop has its ups and downs over the years, so hopefully this would be an up, and it'll stay up."
Locally and worldwide, hip-hop figures to stay up for a while. Count on Hip-Hop Mecca to be in the middle, as they continue their quest to turn a profit while confronting other issues, like how to unify heads from both sides of I-35. Such a task is difficult enough that few locals have even attempted it in the past, thanks to the cultural, economic, and philosophic differences that have always divided East and West Austin -- plus the different sides' predilection for different styles; though it's not a hard and fast hip-hop bylaw, the East gets down to the Southern-style, high-floss storytelling raps of Tupac, Houston's Lil' Troy, and the No Limit posse, while the West cleaves to the four traditional elements of DJing, MCing, B-Boying, and graffiti. It's still all hip-hop, something the Mecca folks can't emphasize enough.
"The real reason I got into doing shows, and why I'm doing 'em now, was doing something positive." says Crump, who envisions community centers where children learn the fundamentals of hip-hop culture. "The music and the culture had given me so much knowledge -- self-knowledge -- about what's going on in my surroundings, I thought I wanted to be part of a solution."
"A lot of people relate to Southern rap more than a straight-up breakbeat/metaphoric kind of flow," says DJ NOOK, who hosted the "Jump on It" gatherings at the Eastside's Rosewood Park this summer. "That's why the flossy baller style picked up here -- people never lived a life of much financial freedom, so they want versus MCs spitting skills using metaphors. The love is different, because the storytelling is like therapy when we go through struggles. It's a form of expression to listen to Tupac when he's pissed at the world. I'm gonna relate to that more than hearing Redman talk about blunting MCs."
Still, NOOK thinks there's plenty of love for hip-hop to go around.
"The Austin hip-hop scene hasn't blown up like it has the potential to," he says. "The goal should be to build, not destroy -- that kills the morale of those who are excited about the scene. They get a lot of love behind it."
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