The gift of gab

The joint owners of Wax have put an incredible amount of energy into creating a positive, all-ages club devoted to hip-hop. Sara Maskovitz and Shannon Guthrie hope to reach neighborhood youth by promoting the four elements of hip-hop: graffiti, emceeing, turntablism and breakdancing – what they call the heart of the culture.

However, one recent event at Wax (located at 5101 N. Interstate Ave.) proved how much work lay ahead, exposing the troubled nature of a local scene in desperate need of healing.

“It just kind of happened,” Maskovitz said. “We had a whole bunch of neighborhood kids come [to Wax], thinking it was going to be a mainstream hip-hop club night, and that same night there was a fairly new Rock Steady Crew member who came up to visit and wanted to throw a party. So we put it on the message board, ‘Rock Steady Party, come breakdance and have a good time.'” Unfortunately, it was far from a good time.

“Shit was terrible,” she recalled.

“It was split right down the middle,” Guthrie added, “like a brick wall.”

Brian Baker, a local B-boy and coordinator of the upcoming B-boy jam, Rose City Revival Part II, remembered the night clearly.

“Some of the kids just started getting out of hand,” Baker said, “making fun of the breakdancers.”

According to Baker’s account, the mainstream kids seemed confounded by the unfamiliar sight of breakdancing and the breakbeats driving the dance floor. After one attendee knocked off a b-boy’s hat, a shoving match erupted. It was quickly broken up.

“There was not much respect,” Baker said.

This schism between the underground elements and mainstream rap in Portland is a concern for some in the scene, even though homegrown crews like Oldominion and the Lifesavas have gone on to receive national acclaim. To many fans there is almost no connection between the traditional elements of the underground and the bling-based bravado of what takes up the airwaves.

Wolveryne, a local MC who performs regularly with Portland favorite Libretto, knows the difficulties of reaching a local audience.

“People don’t support [local crews], especially in the Northeast community,” he said, suggesting that one explanation might be the appeal of the “Bay Area gansta sound,” a more confrontational subgenre of hip-hop exemplified by artists like Too Short and E-40. Wolveryne suggested that certain artists associated with this sound have instigated stabbings and fights when touring local clubs.

The absence of strong local support is compounded by the low profile of the scene. “There is a lack of promotion for the underground that comes from not knowing how to promote,” he added.

Scott Owens, a local DJ and hip-hop fan, agreed. “A really important part of being a DJ or a b-boy or an MC is being on your own nuts. It’s like, ‘Yo, look how much better I can flip it than this next guy.’ That’s what hip-hop is about – perpetual improvement.”

The means of communication

Regardless of the Portland scene’s capability to promote itself, local hip-hop is forced to compete against a multimillion-dollar industry presenting a sound and lifestyle through a virtual monopoly of television and radio stations. Many agree that this lifestyle is a world away from the Portland underground.

“Portland radio is not supporting local hip-hop,” Wolveryne said. “It’s politics and ownership concerned with money coming in from the Top 40.” There are some programs that try to focus on the local scene, he noted, but he feels that the crews showcased on these programs are lacking.

“They have half the quality,” Wolveryne continued. “The [local] underground is not cutting it.”

“A lot of Portland hip-hop I’ve heard is not good,” Owens said. “Of course those people are going to think that the hip-hop scene sucks, because it didn’t support them.”

Maskovitz blames media in general and radio in particular for not educating kids about the roots of hip-hop, a knowledge that could easily transform into an appreciation of local artists who are deeply tied to those roots.

“It seems like they just don’t care,” she said, referring to corporate radio. “They play the same ten god-awful, mainstream crunk songs every single hour. It’s the higher sources, it’s the people that have power, like these radio stations that are doing more damage.”

Hip-hop DJ Deanne Rhymes, who hosts a weekly radio show on KPSU, sees outlets for local music in Portland, but admits the independent community in Portland has a tendency to lean away from hip-hop.

“Stations like KPSU and KBOO are awesome avenues for underground hip-hop, because you won’t hear it anywhere else,” Rhymes said, “but when it comes down to it, Portland is just an indie rock town.”

Baker sees mainstream radio’s effect on the younger crowd as a detriment. “The battle between the mainstream and the underground is because the mainstream kids don’t know the elements, just radio. They style their patterns of dress and behavior after that.”

Most agree that the marketing force of corporate radio has had an influence on emerging MCs, especially in a city that does not have a deep local history in the genre.

“A lot of MCs are like, ‘Give me an 808 and a clap and let me go for mine,'” Wolveryne noted.

Owens also sees the desire of new MCs to become wildly popular after one record, � la 50 Cent. He’s dubbed this phenomenon “insta-bling.”

“An 808 and a clap to make your friends bust a gut, maybe.” Owens offered. “But you have to have a full-rounded sound to appeal to a lot of people and sell your album.”

If there is any mercy in all of this, it’s that Portland’s scene is young. Although that gives hope to the idea of eventually creating a versatile and well-supported community, this youth can also manifest itself as immaturity. The result is often petty complaints from audience members and in-fighting among crews. Many of the internet message boards devoted to the Portland hip-hop community are filled with pages upon pages of heated discussion about who is the better local MC or DJ.

While bravado has always been an integral part of the art form – many MCs have conducted playful battles on the mic since the birth of hip-hop – the current Portland climate is particularly spiteful.

“Portland’s hip-hop scene is the beginning, baby steps of hip-hop, emerging with the mainstream already existing,” Guthrie explained. “It doesn’t work.” He and Maskovitz suggested that there needs to be an evolution. For some, just seeing local acts on major labels like Ubiquity and Quanuum is enough to allow them to believe that the evolution has already begun.

“On the plus side,” Owens said. “There are a lot of people in Portland who don’t follow the norm. Sometimes the wack stuff should be seen as progression.”

At Wax, Guthrie and Maskovitz are ready to take on the challenges of a hip-hop scene that, though it may not be in peril, may need some tender loving care. What is certainly clear to everyone is that when kids who claim to be into hip-hop do not know where their music came from, there is something terribly wrong.

Still, in the small club off North Interstate Avenue there is some hope.

“It’s crazy when middle school kids come in here,” Maskovitz said. “And they may have never seen breakdancing in their life and they’re hearing this music that doesn’t make any sense to them but they like it. They’ll be here for hours and try to do some moves and it’s like, okay, we got these kids. They’re going to come up and know what real hip-hop was. You have to get them when they’re young.”

The hip-hop ABCs

808 n. a synthesizer ubiquitous in many forms of music in the 1980s, with trademark “cowbell” and “clap” sounds, manufactured by Roland.

B-boy n. one who breakdances.

battle n. & v. when a hip-hop artist performs and often competes against another, using rhyming, turntable or dance skills, with winners generally selected through crowd enthusiasm.

bling n. word describing the embellished glamour of an object, often jewelry that is characteristically expensive and often ostentatious. The term comes from the visual effect of when light catches such jewelry.

breakdance n. & v. dynamic form of dancing that combines seemingly unnatural spinning on various bodily surfaces and difficult feats of balance, associated but not to be confused with “popping.”

crew n. social group; gang; set; posse.

crunk n. & v. a mixture of “crazy” and “drunk” which refers to becoming intoxicated and bumbling or beats that emulate said state.

emceeing v. the process of producing impromptu rhymes as a DJ mixes on a turntable.

MC n. one who emcees.

Rock Steady Crew n. seminal innovating B-boy crew, established in Brooklyn, New York circa 1977.

turntablism n. the skill of using a turntable as a generator of original music through beats, cuts, samples, and rhythms, and the culture which has arisen around the art.

-Compiled by,Katie Streinz, Lindsay Baltus and Elizabeth Ford