Hip-hop struggles to gain respectability — and venues — in Columbia

Friday, January 16, 2009 | 2:00 p.m. CST; updated 6:39 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Drew Wilson of Alpaca Radio works at a set for the Bluebird Music and Arts Festival on Nov. 15 at Field House. The two-day hip-hop festival featured a variety of artists at various venues throughout Columbia.

COLUMBIA — It is a windy Monday evening in Columbia. About 30 people have paid the $5 entry fee to Mad Real Mondays, a monthly hip-hop event at Mojo’s. The night features out-of-state acts, with Vast Aire headlining and opening artists including Mo Israel and Tyler Hobbes, who raps “love and peace, y’all, love and peace.”

In a way, the night is a success despite the small crowd. It is, after all, a Monday night at a bar away from Ninth Street. And people have paid to see national, non-mainstream, hip-hop artists.


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In another way, the event illustrates the plight of the hip-hop scene in Columbia, which has changed and diminished in recent years.

Accounts of fights and shootings have left Columbia’s hip-hop community asking the people of Columbia to look past the troublemakers who have triggered the few highly publicized incidents.

But stereotypical views of hip-hop are stubborn and have been validated by the violence. Business owners want hip-hop’s business but not its stigma or the few whose behavior prompt the scary headlines. Artists say it comes down to the performer and the environment and hope fans and the community will give their music another chance.

If not, the artists and people of Columbia’s niche hip-hop scene say they know what will happen — the genre that brings a sense of community to the lives of artists and fans could fade away, closing one more avenue for young people to show and receive affirmation for their hip-hop talent.

“It’s always there, and it’s always popular, and there’s really nowhere for everybody to be,” says Chad Kelly, co-host of KOPN’s Saturday hip-hop show. “If you don’t have anywhere to showcase it, it’s not going to grow like it should.”

'Somewhere to gather'

On Sept. 12, 2005, the Sapphire Lounge on Broadway hosted the debut of Mad Real Mondays, now a monthly hip-hop event featuring regional and local artists.

The place was packed with performers networking off-stage, break-dancers spinning anywhere they could find space and rappers battling on stage, recalled Ray Pierce, whose stage name is Steddy P. He became involved with the Columbia hip-hop scene through the open-mic event that had anyone and everyone hopping on stage, battling with a fellow fan of hip-hop, or just experimenting with performing in front of a crowd.

Hip-hop in Columbia had a real home.

Melissa Bushdiecker worked as a manager and bartender at Sapphire Lounge in 2005. As a hip-hop fan, she yearned for a place to sit back and enjoy the music. She got the idea to start Mad Real Mondays. She hooked up with the local talent and even organized acts from across the country to showcase there.

“Mad Real gave the Columbia community a chance to have somewhere to gather,” Steddy P. says. “It was all locals coming to see each other perform as well as people who wanted to watch, and it really created the good community I guess in the so-called heyday of Mad Real.”

So began an era of hip-hop in Columbia during which artists released CDs, a record label was created that gained credibility around the Midwest, and businesses developed an appetite for successful hip-hop events.

But, as hip-hop grew in Columbia, Mad Real Mondays changed. As word spread about the event more people started to show up, and its crowd grew beyond its original tight-knit group. More people wanting to rhyme on stage posed problems.

“Mad Reals started out as a hip-hop open mic. That was so awesome because everyone was down for it. And it was peaceful,” Steddy P. says. “Three years in, we kind of have a reputation for doing that, so now it’s bringing in all sorts of people. You can’t really just let anyone get up on the mic anymore. You used to be able to when it was a tight-knit group. People kind of knew what was up. But no longer.”
Mad Real Mondays ditched its open-mic format and started scheduling national and local artists. Rap battles and freestyling sessions are no more.
Its venue also changed.

In January 2008, Robin Ayers, who owned Sapphire, put a stop to the event.

“We got kicked out of there,” Steddy P. says.

In April, Mad Real Mondays moved to Mojo’s, and the event was held sporadically over the summer, Steddy P. says. The weekly event changed to a monthly show in October.

In May, Ayers started a Wednesday night hip-hop event at Sapphire Lounge, but on Sept. 18, she canceled it after a fight broke out outside the bar and someone allegedly shot at a police officer.

“We had some problems down there that weren’t with hip-hop,” says Ayers during an interview at her bar-restaurant, Teller’s. “I don’t blame the music. There are just some bad seeds.”

"Honestly, it was just the people that were running it. I knew that was going to happen," Bushdiecker says of what happened to hip-hop night after she left the Sapphire Lounge. 

Since then, no business owner has started hosting a weekly hip-hop event.

Hip-hop has had a hard time staying put on a weekly basis in Columbia, and the rare violent incident has contributed to the problem.

Sapphire Lounge isn't the only place that's had problems, but that doesn't mean every hip-hop show spawns a fight. Shows take place every week without incident or a police officer in sight.

But, rarely would a casual fan find mention of a show on a newscast or news Web site — unless someone has been arrested. Fans of hip-hop say there's far too little attention paid to hip-hop as an art form and far too much when something goes wrong.

"Individuals, communities, will always target hip-hop," says Omar Kadir, manager of IndyGround Entertainment, a local hip-hop record label. "Do you bend or break, or do you persevere?"

Columbia hip-hop artists have chosen to persevere, searching out stages to showcase their talents. 

'He's killing it'

With no permanent weekly home for hip-hop in Columbia, performers seek out shows wherever there's a mic.

“It’s a good vibe to get shows. It’s easy,” says Jason Bommarito, who goes by J-Bomb on stage. Bommarito has performed at Bengals Bar & Grill, Forge & Vine and at an MU sorority.

About 5 feet, 6 inches and slightly built, J-Bomb laughs and tells jokes often.  His mind has a tendency to wander. “Where was I? What was I talking about?” he says often.

His personality comes through in his rare brand of hip-hop music. He mostly plays acoustic guitar, covering '90s songs and freestyling on stage.

“He’s doing something that nobody’s doing,” Steddy P. says of J-Bomb. “He’s blending genres, and it’s a little bit more acceptable through his chamber, or his facet or brand of hip-hop.”

J-Bomb is part of an all-inclusive and diverse hip-hop community. Fans, as well as artists, represent the racial and economic spectrum of Columbia. People of all colors perform and enjoy the music as fans.

J-Bomb, 23, graduated in May with a business management degree from MU. School brought him to Columbia, but he stuck around until December for music. He’s since moved back to St. Louis to get a “real job” with plans to perform on the side.

The IndyGround label is slated to release J-Bomb’s first album in March.

“He’s killing it,” Steddy P. says as he rolls his eyes. That's a compliment.

'Evolved into a headache'

But for some in the business community, the isolated incident at a hip-hop night has overshadowed the artistry of people such as J-Bomb and other performers.

Richard King, owner of The Blue Note and Mojo’s, hosted a hip-hop dance night at The Blue Note about five years ago. Sporadic outbreaks of fighting prompted him to cancel the weekly event, he said.

“We had it going for a couple of years, and it evolved into a headache,” King says. “It was truly a nightmare.”

A few years ago at a hip-hop show at The Blue Note, someone threw a steel chair from the balcony and cracked a woman’s skull.

King says he likes hip-hop and that “it sucks” that his past experiences with violence at the hip-hop dance night have turned him off to hosting a similar weekly event.

“For me, I value the reputation that The Blue Note has, and I want (fans) to feel safe and comfortable when they come here,” he says. “When you jeopardize that safety and that trust, believe me, the consequences can be more than you’ll ever want to deal with.”
Club Tropicana, formerly located at 808 Cherry St., was home to Latin and hip-hop dancing, but it closed in December 2007 after the building changed hands.

A shooting outside the club on July 5, 2007, injured MU power forward DeMarre Carroll. The owners wanted a quieter tenant because they planned to construct luxury apartments on the second floor, according to earlier reports in the Missourian.

Athena Night Club, a hip-hop and R&B club, formerly located at 1100 Locust St., closed in February following a January fight that led to the suspension of five MU basketball players.

Then, in September, came the most recent blow to Columbia hip-hop — the fight and the shot at a police officer at Sapphire Lounge. Arrests and police "contacts," which can be initiated by police, had been on the rise at the nightclub since it started hosting the Wednesday hip-hop night after Mad Real Mondays moved to Mojo’s.

“Hip-hop has gotten a bad reputation in the city of Columbia,” says Kadir, who goes by ThE.SiS on stage and is a spoken-word artist and IndyGround Entertainment’s general manager.

The fights start like most others elsewhere in Columbia, local artists say. Alcohol and a troublemaker or two are part of the mix, and the results have business owners vowing, “no more hip-hop,” Kelly says.

“It’s always one knucklehead that messes up everything,” Steddy P. says.

And that taints the public's perception of everyone and everything hip-hop.

“Everyone attaches this stigma to hip-hop,” says Dan Mahfood, a St. Louis-based disc jockey who does shows in Columbia. “They have this preconceived notion that we’re all going to be wrecking the spot and spraying the walls with graffiti.”

The trouble at hip-hop events has led some to question whether police target the events. “It might be racist,” Kelly says. “They’ve got their eyes on certain people.”
Ayers also sees an undue focus on hip-hop events. “It’s hard for me to point a finger, but I agree that it’s being targeted,” she says.

Others disagree and see no problem with the enforcement. “I haven’t really seen that,” Steddy P. says.

Former Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm says under his watch, which ended in July, the Police Department did not target hip-hop music or its listeners. The police went where they were called and where they had the most calls, he said. Although he says that sometimes there was violence at hip-hop events, he wouldn't want to leave the impression that the music was the cause.

“I don’t know if I would be willing to say that it was one kind of music, no,” Boehm says. “There were times we had issues at a bar that was primarily country.” Boehm says the country bar in question was on Route B and used to be called Silver Bullet, but since then has changed ownership several times.

Capt. Zim Schwartze, who oversees the Police Department's Community Services Unit, says the unit keeps "a pretty close eye" on what goes on with all bars and that she wouldn't paint hip-hop with a broad brush, either. It's not the music; it's the crowd. And a trouble-making crowd can gather at any bar at any time, depending on lots of factors including drink specials and whether it's a home football game weekend.

Regardless of the enforcement, the genre’s bad reputation in Columbia hasn’t kept lovers of the style away, which has venue owners wanting hip-hop’s ticket — just not a weekly show.

At the time Ayers felt compelled to cancel her bar’s Wednesday night event, it was her biggest draw, she says.

The Blue Fugue doesn’t host a weekly event, but it remains interested in the hip-hop scene. In October, Steddy P. says the venue had booked a monthly event with IndyGround Entertainment for April to December. He says he told them to wait on booking any more, but the venue went ahead and continued booking the monthly show for this month through April.

'You have to better yourself'

Columbia artists and entertainers also say it comes down to performances, not just the brand of music.

“It has to do with the people putting on the shows,” Kelly says.

Steddy P. says the performer’s lyrics influence the crowd at a show.

“I’ve done everything, good and bad sides of life, please believe. But I choose what to put into my music. You know, I’m not going to be portraying drug dealings and killings in my music,” he says. “Other people’s music does, and I think with that comes problems.”

Steddy P. says Mad Real Mondays tried to make sure violence didn’t creep into the shows. Before Mad Real Mondays, a weekly event called Rhyme or Die existed in Columbia, but that ended after violence broke out at a show, Steddy P. says.

“We were really serious about not letting that happen because it happens so much,” Steddy P. says.

He says the people attending Mad Real Mondays realized the artists weren’t going to praise that type of music. “I think it kind of stopped a lot of the people who wanted that from even coming in,” he says.

ThE.SiS doesn’t spend his time placing blame for hip-hop’s bad reputation. “Despite all that, you have to better yourself, the dream, the passion,” he says.

Helping hip-hop grow in Columbia will require a welcoming atmosphere for young crowds, ThE.SiS says. “The environment has to prove to everybody that there is something there,” he said.

Other artists agree and say it comes down to doing shows and spreading the word. “The more locations I can do around here, the better,” J-Bomb says.

But the hip-hop community is also battling what the rest of the city deals with: a transient Columbia. Talented artists come to MU, break onto the scene and might even latch onto a label. But a few years later, they’re gone, and Columbia is left craving another talented group, which is the case today, Steaddy P. says.

“It’s time for a new group of kids to step up,” Steddy P. says.

The group that started Mad Real Mondays has largely moved on, and the hip-hop scene awaits new talent. J-Bomb says Steddy P. calls him the new school of hip-hop in Columbia. “He basically put it on me,” J-Bomb says.

J-Bomb sees a suffering hip-hop community in Columbia. “You want to hear that there’s this new group of hip-hop, but there isn’t,” he says.

And any new artists might have a harder time joining the scene. J-Bomb got started by freestyling at Mad Real Mondays, an avenue that’s been closed.

At the same time, there are signs the scene has grown. Mad Real Mondays had been going for more than three years, an unusually long time for a hip-hop event anywhere in the U.S., let alone mid-Missouri.

Hip-hop can also be found more frequently, even if it’s not in the form of a weekly show. In any given week, there are shows at Mojo’s, The Blue Note and The Blue Fugue and sometimes at The Forge & Vine and Eastside Tavern.

National artists coming through Missouri have now made Columbia a destination point when passing through, DJ-Mahf, a noted deejay and turntable artist, says.

At the Bluebird Music and Arts Festival the weekend of Nov. 14 and 15, IndyGround Entertainment's artists performed at the The Fieldhouse.

Steddy P. and the rest of Columbia’s hip-hop community want people to look past the violent acts and unfortunate headlines, such as the shooting at Sapphire Lounge, that have “nothing affiliated with anyone who’s been doing hip-hop here for years.”

“They never report on the positives. They always report on the negatives. It’s always been like that with hip-hop. Always. But we’re fighting that every day in Columbia,” Steddy P. says. “And for the most part, you know, I think we’re winning the war.”

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Charles Dudley Jr January 16, 2009 | 4:59 p.m.

I'm all for everybody enjoying the kind of music that they want to but hip hop does not glorify the "family life" nor "family values" what so ever.

It only glorifies the openness of "feeling groovy" which was the "flower children's message" of the mid to late 60's of smoking dope,dropping acid and saying to hell with the man we are going to do our own thing.

Show me where the hip hop culture teaches or endorses the family life and family values that are needed so much in our society today.

If the hip hoppers want more respect then they need a little different reformation of values IMHO.

Really you see these little hip hopper girls wearing practically nothing at all and what kind of message does that send to the younger youth growing up behind them?

Until there is a reformation amongst the hip hop culture itself they will always continued to be reflected upon as the pacified side of the gang banger culture.

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Holly Hobbs January 16, 2009 | 6:08 p.m.

I believe there are a few who might disagree with the assertion that the "flower child" message was about drugs and apathy...from time immemorial in this country, as in the rest of the world, it has been normal citizens who have stood up to demand change...and folk music has been pivotal in its role in these social movements. From KRS-1 to NWA to our artists in New Orleans who have been at the forefront of the rebuilding effort post-Katrina, hiphop continues to be a musical form that is closely and intimately connected with the fight for change. Hiphop is a HUGE subject, with every facet--both good and bad--of a major cultural, artistic, and social movement. If one is only finding misogyny and the glorification of the destruction of the family unit in the music they listen to, then one might consider looking beyond the 5-song rotation on 106.1FM.

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