by Marcus K. Dowling
DMV hip-hop is a woefully disorganized mess of “never wills,” “almost dids,” “maybe I shoulds” and diabolical haters. The negative attitudes of a city where MC’s in the veteran class have consistently been largely overlooked for major label recognition certainly allowed for Wale’s career rise. Eventually, by steering himself almost entirely away from the stigma of performers seemingly hamstrung by their own negative attitudes, he had the easiest of roads to mainstream success. If you think the words that I have just written are a bunch of bulls***, then it’s time for you to take a serious look at injecting a sense of heightened purpose into DC area open mic culture, ensuring that in future generations, these stereotypes will be laid to rest.
Open microphone events are a staple of any local musical scene. Largely they are the the domain of independent artists struggling to locate the blend of talent and entertainment that will allow them to become full-time or otherwise well compensated musicians. The lure for the attendee? A love of the music, or, for the amateur futurist, a chance to find a performer who has the intangible “it factor” that guarantees them a perpetual chance at instantaneous stardom. In a quickly rising entertainment capital like Washington, DC, it stands to reason that the stakes at an open mic event could be high. Wale and Tabi Bonney have both proven themselves on different levels of the game to be marketable artists. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and noting the graduated levels of recent success of artists like Phil Ade and Fat Trel, the DC area’s brightest unsigned hype have a more than feasible shot at success.
Ironically, the ideal is to emulate the city of Brotherly Love. From 2000 to 2005, Philadelphia’s all female Black Lily Showcase was an open mic showcase supreme. Started by the Jazzyfatnastees, the event showcased Jill Scott, Floetry and Jaguar Wright. The Roots were often the backing band, the event a happy blend of the city’s top talents giving back and grooming the next class for success. In an interview I once conducted with Jaguar Wright, she stated about the showcase that, “There were no egos. It wasn’t competitive, but you knew that there was a lot on the line at a certain point. Labels knew that Philly had that soul sound, and they knew where to find it.”
Maybe DMV hip-hop has evolved to the point of no return? Maybe the politely interested crowd I observed at February 8th’s Laelo Hood mixtape release party at the Up and Up Open Mic Showcase just ALL had a hard day at work and weren’t deeply moved by Laelo’s yeoman-like attempts to use his solid new material to inspire a rousing response. Maybe Uptown XO’s January 30th appearance with slow bounce band XIB fell short of expectations?
You have to instill in people a desire to care about a product more than they already do. It’s quite possible that the local hip-hop community has reached its zenith. Furthermore, it’s possible that if open mic attendees don’t become artists or industry professionals themselves, they eventually reach the point where they de-evolve from being scenesters to occasional visitors to eventually finding another interest entirely. It has little to nothing to do with the talent of the artists. However, if their talent is not being recognized or showcased in the proper manner, the perception, whether justified or not, that someone is perpetually going to be a little known, second-tier artist is a hard stigma to shake.
The time has come for those who have succeeded from the city to first engage in more community building initiatives. From there, the effort must be made to have this unified community of successful local artists create a sustainable open mic culture that reflects the city as a proving ground for the next generation of sustainable mainstream performers. If this novel concept sounds absurd, then, well, DC will NEVER have a consistent representation in hip-hop’s mainstream, and the awful premise presented in the introduction is absolutely true. At present, Washington, DC has one of the quickest rising per capita incomes of any city in the country. Furthermore, the city’s hip-hop population is passionate and dying to be engaged in a manner that denotes that their support will create another local mainstream star. Of all of the places where DC can excel as a unified, prepared and top-tier musical success story waiting to happen, it’s hip-hop. Improving already thriving open mic showcases? An idea whose time has arrived.