The idea was born in an editorial meeting. While the rest of us kicked out the cobwebs straining for story ideas, intern/freelancer-cum-receptionist April L. Martin came up with the basic idea: "How about a Hip Hop cover story?"
Frustrated by what she saw as a lack of music coverage appealing to the throngs of young black CityBeat readers (and potential ones), Martin brandished a sort of challenge. The fiction writer Alice Munro said, "I write the stories I want to read."
After casting Music Editor Mike Breen a sideways "Do you want it?" glance, I volunteered to edit and oversee the issue because I didn't trust anyone else's handling of it. Because it'd been so long in the making, the package had to be multi-tiered.
It was exciting to work with Mildred Fallon, Dani McClain, Nichelle Bolden, Martin and Kevin Britton -- all non-traditional writers and journalists with few publishing options in this stingy little market. And with the exception of Britton, they're all sisters.
I brainstormed long and short feature stories, we solicited lists of favorite Hip Hop chestnuts from local heads and we balanced the entire mess on "Four Sexy Black Dudes," my feature story on the release of Kinkynasti by The Five Deez (issue of Oct. 22-29, 2003).
Art Director Sean Hughes used a strangely named illustrator for the cover art, a stunning and painterly rendering of Kyle David, Patrick "Pase" Johnson, Corey "Sonic" Brown and Jon "Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician" Marshall. I was thrilled it wasn't the standard subway-art statement marking Hip Hop.
About five years ago Fat Jon, producer and multi-instrumentalist, strolled through the sunshine and into Sakolah on Main Street, where I was hanging out with my girl, Shelle.
He left and returned with a fistful of hollas, handing me a stack of Five Deez 12-inch vinyls. I've been hooked ever since.
The reason I started "Four Sexy Black Dudes" with the weightiness of "Five Deez is Hip Hop now" is because I wanted readers to feel the immediacy and arrogance of the Deez' music and who they think they are. Many in the grassroots black arts community take great inspiration from the group and from their ability to live off their art, to travel internationally and thereby to be appreciated in Germany, the Netherlands and Japan without so much as a late-night spin on WIZF (100.9 FM).
The Five Deez are tantamount to the black creative class, invisible to most, who've stayed and somehow stayed just off the radar but who are known, nonetheless. I call it shitting locally and wiping globally.
The Five Deez -- and all Hip Hop in earnest -- succeeds because it's anti- in a way. Groups like them middle finger the populist notion of bling while concocting their own, acting like Rock stars in European hotel rooms the entire time.
"In Hip Hop (in Europe) there's not so much a big focus on materialism," Fat Jon said in the story. "You don't have to be all about cars and money to sell records. They want to know why you make the music you make."
"People here tend to buy into what they hear more than any other place," said Kyle, the group's MC.
I'm attracted to these four dudes because they embody the glory and gimmickry, the bravado and "Aw, shucks" of Hip Hop.
Hip Hop's struggles are theirs. Underground backpackers vs. bling vs. white vs. black vs. men vs. women vs. mixtape vs. sellout. Schizophrenia with a backbeat.
I recently watched Phonte and Big Pooh annihilate the Thursday night Hip Hop crowd at RBC in Over-the-Rhine. I was moved by their lyrics about rising from North Carolina yet still living and making art there because they're just regular black dudes with exceptional Hip Hop abilities.
Pase, the Deez's DJ who also manhandles turntables at Club Clau, organized the pre-show DJ showcase. He milled about with Noah from the Animal Crackers. Producer and beat-maker Phaelon, hardcore Hip Hop fan Fallon and some of the Liberated Souls crew were all there. Black, white, male and female.
That show was a perfect example of Hip Hop's stronghold on humanity. Further, it showed that Cincinnati is more together than we like to let on and that the media -- including CityBeat -- might not be doing the best job convincing you of just how bound we are.
Not for the sake of anything except groovy, bouncing, bangin' beats.
"Media influence in Cincinnati is a trip," Kyle said. "I see Cincinnati as a connection between the most passive blacks and the most aggressive whites. It's the Mason-Dixon line -- why would you stop here? There's a specter of oppression here."
In Blues, Jazz and Hip Hop, oppression is the mother of invention.
"Someday It'll All Make Sense" nabbed a third place arts and entertainment feature award for all the writers who contributed to the issue from the Cincinnati Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. (Cue Phife Dawg saying "I never let a statue tell me how nice I am.")
This story didn't get anyone off Death Row, change a city ordinance, expose the cops in an overtime fraud or embarrass a city council member, as other CityBeat stories have over the past 10 years. It reached into a community long taken for granted, however, and might have slapped us five on some desperately needed street credibility, preoccupied as this paper can be with changing the world while forgetting that we were founded originally as an arts and issues paper.
What vehicle better twins art to issues than Hip Hop?
Chuck D. anointed Hip Hop the black CNN. The concept of street credibility for a newspaper seems strangely "hip," like a white person speaking perfect black slang, like Eminem crossing over. No Joke.
For CityBeat, street credibility amounts to our bread and butter -- whether in news, the visual arts, cinema, column writing or Hip Hop. Sorry it took so long to acknowledge Hip Hop with a major head nod.
Working on this package taught me that -- as a vessel of information, trend-watching and documentation -- CityBeat needs to take care not to contribute to the very things we're good at accusing other factions in Cincinnati of perpetuating: the whitebread, lack-of-texture stories and ideas that have pressed us under "this mind-boggling haze," as Sonic said.
If we hadn't published "Someday It'll All Make Sense" when we did -- at April's suggestion -- it might have taken us another decade. Lord have mercy. ©