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Music: The Great Divide

On the eve of Scribble Jam, Cincinnati's Hip Hop 'underground' remains strong but splintered

By Mildred C. Fallen · August 10th, 2005 · Music
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Oliver Meinerding



Like oil, the soil's "black gold," Hip Hop is a natural resource that attracts investment. Stakes are high, and since everyone wants to strike big, idioms like "underground" and "keepin' it street" seem to be an artist's litmus test for authenticity.

Ironically, before Hip Hop sales wore a Soundscan tracking device on its ankle, "underground" wasn't a distinction. To the rest of the music industry, Rap was too "street" to be considered as anything else. Then when Rock guitar riffs helped MTV identify with early acts like Run DMC, a bubbling cru burst from underground and the mainstream slowly invested.

Imagine there's a fault line in Greater Cincinnati underneath I-75, where hundreds, maybe thousands of MCs are waiting to bubble. Instead of sprouting above ground, the fault line divided the scene into factions, where some artists trip about what's culturally authentic and who will be the first to "blow."

But with exceptions like Capitol recording artists Czar*Nok, producer Hi-Tek and Jibri Wise One, who dropped the timely single "The House the Dog Built" in 1991 with Warner Bros., the major distributors seem to be surveying and tapping into other cities. If that's the case, the entire Cincinnati scene itself is underground.

Notably, Scribble Jam, the city's famed Hip Hop festival, celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend. And because the event turns its focus toward four founding elements of Hip Hop (MCing, DJing, graffiti writing and breaking), it embraces being underground.

On the other hand, each person defines his or her own underground. If you juxtapose events like Scribble against a slideshow of BET videos that feature their version of underground, the two worlds are as different as Over-the-Rhine and the Central Business District. Within these communities, however, the divider is as apparent as Central Parkway.

"There's always gonna be that big divide because the majority of the Hip Hop culture that throws these Scribble Jams throw them because they're not mainstream," says Mista Swift, a producer and musician who's collaborated with scores of local bands and MCs. "You got your people that go and see your Lil Jon, your 50 Cent, your Pretty Ricky, and then you got your crowd that goes and listens to Blueprint and Souls of Mischief. But you don't have a big gathering of the two to go see both."

Dayton artist Small Eyez of Mind Musik Records attributes much of the division to conditioning and a fact of life.

"We're taught to categorize and separate things into different components in order to define them," he says.

"Everything is sectioned off in neat little boxes now," says Jermiside, an MC who moved to Atlanta and is known locally for his indie CD, The Biology of Kinship. "People are caught up believing they are so 'hood' or so 'conscious' that they can't climb out of their box and appreciate what's outside of it."

Ill Poetic of Definition agrees. "People's minds are polarized to the point where they're afraid to accept another genre's point of view or another culture in Hip Hop," he says. "And the thing is, it's all Hip Hop. It all started from the same thing -- it all came from the same place. What's really sad, it's kinda like a microcosm of Cincinnati. It's almost become a representation of the attitude of the city as a whole. Hip Hop is supposed to be the exact opposite of the city's viewpoint."

Part of uncovering our Hip Hop psychological barriers is examining the music scene historically.

When contemporaries like Mood, Hi-Tek and Five Deez aggressively marketed and distributed their sound outside of Ohio, Cincinnati wasn't exactly a cheering section. Many here don't know them at all.

The same remains with artists like Tocka, J. Gram and Watusi Tribe, whose sound could integrate the heads and the streets, but it's as if hometown artists have to break ground elsewhere and then return. According to Scribble co-founder DJ Mr. Dibbs -- who lived in Forest Park around Midnight Star, LA Reid and Babyface -- local artists of other genres received the same blasé, half-hearted push from Cincinnati.

"You could go on and on about people from Cincinnati and Ohio," Dibbs says. "Talk to Bootsy, he'd tell you. People weren't following Bootsy when he was right here with them, but when he did Parliament, it's like, 'That's Bootsy!' Then people got mad when people like Babyface left, and it's like, can you blame him?"

Still, these artists now have Hall of Fame status. Hip Hop is still holding out for its heroes from Cincinnati, which could be why there haven't been any.

"Locally, our Hip Hop generation didn't have any champions, and that's why we try to make ourselves champions," says Chestah T, promotions director of Web site Pass the Mic (

Oliver Meinerding



Like oil, the soil's "black gold," Hip Hop is a natural resource that attracts investment. Stakes are high, and since everyone wants to strike big, idioms like "underground" and "keepin' it street" seem to be an artist's litmus test for authenticity.

Ironically, before Hip Hop sales wore a Soundscan tracking device on its ankle, "underground" wasn't a distinction. To the rest of the music industry, Rap was too "street" to be considered as anything else. Then when Rock guitar riffs helped MTV identify with early acts like Run DMC, a bubbling cru burst from underground and the mainstream slowly invested.

Imagine there's a fault line in Greater Cincinnati underneath I-75, where hundreds, maybe thousands of MCs are waiting to bubble. Instead of sprouting above ground, the fault line divided the scene into factions, where some artists trip about what's culturally authentic and who will be the first to "blow."

But with exceptions like Capitol recording artists Czar*Nok, producer Hi-Tek and Jibri Wise One, who dropped the timely single "The House the Dog Built" in 1991 with Warner Bros., the major distributors seem to be surveying and tapping into other cities. If that's the case, the entire Cincinnati scene itself is underground.

Notably, Scribble Jam, the city's famed Hip Hop festival, celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend. And because the event turns its focus toward four founding elements of Hip Hop (MCing, DJing, graffiti writing and breaking), it embraces being underground.

On the other hand, each person defines his or her own underground. If you juxtapose events like Scribble against a slideshow of BET videos that feature their version of underground, the two worlds are as different as Over-the-Rhine and the Central Business District. Within these communities, however, the divider is as apparent as Central Parkway.

"There's always gonna be that big divide because the majority of the Hip Hop culture that throws these Scribble Jams throw them because they're not mainstream," says Mista Swift, a producer and musician who's collaborated with scores of local bands and MCs. "You got your people that go and see your Lil Jon, your 50 Cent, your Pretty Ricky, and then you got your crowd that goes and listens to Blueprint and Souls of Mischief. But you don't have a big gathering of the two to go see both."

Dayton artist Small Eyez of Mind Musik Records attributes much of the division to conditioning and a fact of life.

"We're taught to categorize and separate things into different components in order to define them," he says.

"Everything is sectioned off in neat little boxes now," says Jermiside, an MC who moved to Atlanta and is known locally for his indie CD, The Biology of Kinship. "People are caught up believing they are so 'hood' or so 'conscious' that they can't climb out of their box and appreciate what's outside of it."

Ill Poetic of Definition agrees. "People's minds are polarized to the point where they're afraid to accept another genre's point of view or another culture in Hip Hop," he says. "And the thing is, it's all Hip Hop. It all started from the same thing -- it all came from the same place. What's really sad, it's kinda like a microcosm of Cincinnati. It's almost become a representation of the attitude of the city as a whole. Hip Hop is supposed to be the exact opposite of the city's viewpoint."

Part of uncovering our Hip Hop psychological barriers is examining the music scene historically. When contemporaries like Mood, Hi-Tek and Five Deez aggressively marketed and distributed their sound outside of Ohio, Cincinnati wasn't exactly a cheering section. Many here don't know them at all.

The same remains with artists like Tocka, J. Gram and Watusi Tribe, whose sound could integrate the heads and the streets, but it's as if hometown artists have to break ground elsewhere and then return. According to Scribble co-founder DJ Mr. Dibbs -- who lived in Forest Park around Midnight Star, LA Reid and Babyface -- local artists of other genres received the same blasé, half-hearted push from Cincinnati.

"You could go on and on about people from Cincinnati and Ohio," Dibbs says. "Talk to Bootsy, he'd tell you. People weren't following Bootsy when he was right here with them, but when he did Parliament, it's like, 'That's Bootsy!' Then people got mad when people like Babyface left, and it's like, can you blame him?"

Still, these artists now have Hall of Fame status. Hip Hop is still holding out for its heroes from Cincinnati, which could be why there haven't been any.

"Locally, our Hip Hop generation didn't have any champions, and that's why we try to make ourselves champions," says Chestah T, promotions director of Web site Pass the Mic (passthemic.com). "You gotta think about a lot of these Funk and Soul bands -- how did they blow up? These artists should've had a template set for Hip Hop to come follow straight through. That's what happened in other cities. In New York, during the Disco era, the DJs (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa) were the champions, and what they did was put back into Hip Hop."

Locally, Chestah refers to WAIF-FM host Sugar Daddy as Cincinnati's outlet for Hip Hop during that period. "He was playing Funk and Disco, he used to run with Bootsy and he was part of that generation. He started playing these little Hip Hop cuts that he was getting from New York, and that was the spawn of Hip Hop coming through Cincinnati. That's what made me pay attention."

Today, with Czar*Nok's new video for "Pimp Tight" getting rotation on BET, Cincinnati Hip Hop might finally break through and demand attention. E-Nok says he and Hayczar plan to represent Cincinnati and the Midwest as a whole: "That one way: by any means necessary."



SCRIBBLE JAM events take place Thursday-Sunday at various venues, with the main concerts at Annie's. For CityBeat's take on Friday's concert highlights, see page 36; for a preview of the related Hip Hop art show at the Contemporary Arts Center, see page 41; for a complete rundown of Scribble festivities, see scribblejam.net.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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