COLUMBIA — The heads in the crowd bopped on beat to the fresh sounds of an underground league of hip-hop gentlemen making their way above ground. This was music they could vibe to.
At the The Fieldhouse, the crowd watched IndyGround hip-hop artists master a stage in the back, flanked by two men drawing and painting on canvases.
"Hip-hop is alive and well in Columbia!" exclaimed emcee Omar Kadir from the center of the stage.
IndyGround Entertainment, a record label that brings together many Columbia hip-hop performers, had officially arrived at the Bluebird Music and Arts Festival in mid-November.
It took four years, but the IndyGround label has given legitimacy to Columbia's hip-hop scene. Ray Pierce, who goes by Steddy P., created the label and has helped bring together a diverse set of artists, recorded albums and put on shows across the Midwest. It has become something of a success on Ninth Street and around Columbia. To the outside world, IndyGround is putting Columbia on the map.
“IndyGround has really set the tone, and nobody else is even close," said Chad Kelly, who does local promotions for hip-hop artist Tech N9ne and co-hosts a hip-hop radio show on KOPN every Saturday afternoon. "Not even close.”
Bluebird took downtown Columbia by storm that Saturday night. The music and arts festival showcased more than 50 bands at a variety of venues on Nov. 14 and 15. IndyGround took over The Fieldhouse from 2 to 8 p.m., and then the visionary of the label opened for the biggest act of the weekend: Atmosphere.
Steddy P. took IndyGround from daydream to reality. That night at The Fieldhouse he watched IndyGround's artists with admiration, his people's No. 1 fan. It was a weekend for optimism about the local hip-hop scene.
"I think one change is that you’ll see hip-hop right now, consistently, in a lot more venues," Steddy P said. "I think that’s the impact of Mad Real and IndyGround."
Before IndyGround, Columbia's main hip-hop scene consisted of on-and-off-again hip-hop nights at various venues, and its public image was marred by random outbreaks of violence. Like most hip-hop "heads" — people devoted to hip-hop — the artists who eventually made up IndyGround weren't interested in the bad news. They just wanted a place to perform.
Disc jockey Drew Wilson, who goes by Alpaca Radio when he performs, remembers how local artists came together to create a solution. "Instead of looking for a scene, we could make our own," he said.
Wilson regularly works for IndyGround artists and at local shows. He deejayed for Z.A.P., a local funk group that opened for future hip-hop legend, Common, on Oct. 24 at Jesse Hall. Although he hasn't signed with the label, Wilson says he is good friends with a lot of its artists who inspire him to keep spinning records.
"I've always loved music, and it's really been the people I've met," said Wilson, who began deejaying in his basement in 2007. "They were just people that took music to another level."
One of the people Wilson met was Steddy P., whose smooth, laid-back sound complements his emotional lyrics. Against the mainstream grain, he doesn't rhyme about money, sex or violence; he speaks out about hip-hop, his life and his hopes.
"This music is everything, I should've got a wedding ring," Steddy P. rhymes in his song "P.S." from his album, "Dear Columbia."
On the track, "State of the Union," Steddy P. calls out rappers who mimic the mainstream standards he calls "regurgitated TV dinner cookie rap." It was that song, Wilson said, that pushed him from the couch to the turntables.
But Wilson still works his day job as do many others on the IndyGround label. At Lee St. Deli, he makes flaming penguins and nachoburgers. Kadir, manager of IndyGround, is a certified public accountant during the day.
The opportunity to turn hip-hop from a hobby into something approximating a business arrived with Mad Real Mondays. The hip-hop night highlighted acts from Columbia and across the country. More important for Steddy P. and company, the weekly event got the IndyGround label noticed.
The innovator of Mad Real Mondays at Sapphire Lounge, Melissa Bushdiecker, takes the view that Mad Real Mondays filled a gap.
"I wanted to create a place where like-minded individuals could get together once a week and celebrate the music that we love because hip-hop gets a really bad rap from big business and mainstream media," Bushdiecker said.
"So the kind of music we listen to, the hip-hop I love, is hip-hop that makes me think and teaches me something," she said. "There's a lot of people working toward the same goal — which is bringing people together in peaceful gatherings and trying to be true to the hip-hop movement."
IndyGround's hip-hop movement gained momentum as word spread of Mad Real Mondays. Kadir, who goes by ThE.SiS, went to Mad Real Mondays as a lover of the music.
ThE.SiS started at the bottom. He went from the audience to selling T-shirts at the weekly event, then worked as a doorman. In the midst of all this, he said he started writing poetry. Steddy P. signed him to the label as a spoken-word artist in the summer of 2006. ThE.SiS went on a 60-show tour with Steddy P. in October 2007, he said. After that, he was promoted to manager of IndyGround.
"He hates it when I call him my boss," ThE.SiS said about Steddy P. "Because it's hip-hop. It's community."
And IndyGround's hip-hop community grew.
Jason Bommarito, an MU graduate also known as J-Bomb, used Mad Real Mondays to showcase his newfound interest in hip-hop. He went to freestyle. Now he is an emcee and musician for IndyGround with his first album, "Civilized People," set to be released in March.
J-Bomb's hip-hop is rock-inspired. He steps to the mic, casual in a brown striped sweater and jeans, and strums a guitar while he rhymes.
"You can't describe my sound," said J-Bomb after his Bluebird performance. "People would ask, 'What do you do? Acoustic hip-hop?'"
The crowd doesn't seem to care if his sound has a name. They respond with bopping, shout-outs and clapping. Since signing with IndyGround, he has booked shows in St. Louis and around Columbia and was scheduled to play at the IndyGround Monthly on Wednesday at The Blue Fugue.
The success of IndyGround has earned it a monthly gig at The Blue Fugue. Its artists have performed elsewhere in Missouri, including Kansas City and St. Louis. IndyGround duo, Rhyme University, has two albums available on iTunes. The brothers Black Caesar and Bustrip live in Texas and Illinois, respectively, and have played gigs there and in Missouri. Steddy P. finished out 2008 with a New Year's Eve show in Lawrence, Kan.
The latest addition to the label, Dallas Music, performed at Bluebird and will perform at Record Bar in Kansas City on April 17. Splitface's album, "A Face in the Crowd," can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.com.
IndyGround Entertainment continues to grow in popularity, evident by its celebration of its four-year anniversary Dec. 10 at The Blue Fugue. With anticipated shows and album releases, IndyGround's underground music scene shows few signs of slowing down.
The group's manager has high ambitions for the crew.
“I would like to see everyone on the label have notches — plural — on their belt,” ThE.SiS said, meaning more albums and tours, "(with) everyone as motivated, if not more motivated, than they are now.”