It's about the beats, that's for sure. But in a survey of the local hip hop scene, writer Audria Larsen discovers it's also about culture, community, and a collection of arts that combine to make hip hop more than a music genre. Read on for a sample of the local history and current talent involved in West Michigan hip hop and find out where to hear it for yourself right here in G-Rap.
To the uninitiated, hip hop is simply a music genre, albeit a hugely popular one. But to countless devotees, hip hop encapsulates a multi-faceted community that reaches beyond the airwaves and spans dance, sartorial aesthetics, and outsider art like graffiti and grassroots activism. It’s a way of life.
For decades Grand Rapids has played host to a diverse range of hip hop artists, many of whom have gone on to enjoy international success. In more recent years, the scene has gained increased visibility, in part due to support from local venues and the longevity of certain figures that have made a name here.
The subject of hip hop is so vast, and when it comes to music there are so many players who, often through intertwined histories, have paved the way not only for emerging artists today but for a platform where beat masters and MCs have a mouthpiece on stages and within communities. There is no singular voice that defines the culture. To survey the current scene, I spoke with a small sampling of local talent and each named a half-dozen more people who play a crucial role in the scene. Let this be a toe dip.
Victor Williams, aka Governor Slugwell, is the founder of the now-decade-old Grand Rapids Hip Hop Coalition
and considers himself a Grand Rapids hip hop archivist that came up as a second generation artist in the 1980s. “I’m one of those people that will tell you hip hop saved my life. Not everyone can tell you that,” says Williams. “I’m one of those people that found my life’s purpose with hip hop culture.”
That purpose is evident through Williams’ broad range of work. He counts his early group, New Concept, as one of the local pioneers alongside Hell Razor Robert S., Euro-K and Iceman Ja. “That was in the mid-80s,” he says. “Hell Razor Robert S. was the first [hip hop] artist from Michigan with a major record deal.”
After leaving Grand Rapids for New York where he says he “got his fill of the major industry,” Williams eventually returned and proceeded to connect with the community. He formed the Grand Rapids Hip Hop Coalition as a way to bring together artists who were isolated from each other, whether it was bridging the divide between different regions of town or neighboring cities like Holland and Muskegon. “You’ve got hundreds of artists and none of them knew each other,” he says. Williams also spearheaded the Grand Rapids Hip Hop awards for several years.
These days, Williams’ major focus is working with youth and imparting tenants of the culture. “Hip hop is about saving lives. It’s about uplifting community, peace, love, unity and safely having fun,” says Williams. “I differentiate between rap music and hip hop culture. I represent hip hop culture more than rap music, the industry aspect. Even today you have people who rap and have no idea what the culture is.”
The five elements of hip hop culture, as outlined by Afrika Bambaataa in the 1970s, include the oral element of MCing, the aural aspect of DJing or turntablism, the physical art of b-boys and b-girls found in breakdancing, the visual representation found in graffiti art, and knowledge. “
There’s a lot of people that can rap and can have great skills on the mic, but when you bring them together and bring that fifth element [of knowledge],” it is a message that is going to uplift, says Williams.
Since the early beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, the visibility of hip hop in Grand Rapids has had an ebb and flow. Max Weir, aka DJ Snax, got his start in 2008. “When I first started DJing, certain places would say ‘OK, you can play whatever you want but don’t market it as a hip hop night. Call it a funk night.’ People were afraid of that,” says Weir. But a few venues were willing to host shows, like Billy’s Lounge and the original The Intersection in Eastown. “Six or seven years ago they would do lots of shows that were at capacity and there were lines out the door. They realized they could do a show on a weekend and draw.”
Rick Chyme, left, and Nixon, right.
Rick Chyme echoes this experience. In 2005 he frequented Billy’s Monday night open mic nights, taking 15-minute time slots. “I couldn’t get a show anywhere else,” says Chyme. “We would prepare like a show, send out mass texts [to bring a crowd]. There were several artists who were at the same stage [in their careers] at the time. Pretty soon Monday nights would look like an actual show.”
As his career evolved, Chyme began freestyling with the Southpaw Players and through their partnership the band became a hip hop funk band. These shows offered a lot of stage time but also posed challenges. “I’ve rapped at a lot of venues…places with no stage, like Dockers [Fish House] in Muskegon where someone is eating an expensive lobster dinner. You have to be able to adapt enough in these environments, but you also have to be confident in what you are because that place isn’t looking for hip hop,” says Chyme.
Today, countless big name acts are coming through town, in large part due to The Pyramid Scheme, which is not only a mid-size venue that supports both local acts and major artists but is actively promoting hip hop. Greats like Kool Keith and Afrika Bambaataa have played there and DJ Grandmaster Flash is coming on April 17. Other venues have opened their arms, too.
“We might have been one of the first hip hop acts that played at Founders [Brewing Company] and now it happens regularly,” says Chyme. “You can credit Mike G. from La Famiglia to showing that a hip hop act can be financially viable. If they were booked, it was packed. And that was at Billy’s.”
Mike Gagliardo, aka Mike G., is now the talent buyer at The Intersection where Chyme says he is making opportunities for locals by booking acts on the bill with bigger names. “These people are really invested in what is going on at the local level,” says Chyme. “A lot of seeds have been planted, and they were watered and harvested…and now there are legitimate venues.”
“I think [the scene is] growing because the genre itself is growing," says Adrian Butler, aka AB, who is a local hip hop artist and DJ. “In terms of like creation of music and the amount of people putting out music, it is the most I have ever seen, personally. In the last two months I’ve met at least five hip hop artists that live in the city and I didn’t know they were as awesome as they are.”Butler notes that while older rappers are still enjoying their heyday, up and coming hip hoppers under the age of 25 are bringing fresh beats and putting out solid work. There’s enough growth in the Grand Rapids area that Butler says, “I kind of expect to hear about new rappers.”
The underground scene is harder to pin down, probably because of modern access to things like basic recording gear and websites like SoundCloud that can keep people working in their basements and promoting on the Internet instead of necessarily going out and having rap battles. However, Grand Rapids-based rapper Ajax Stacks hosts an event called Rap for a Stack, where independent artists compete live in front of a panel of judges and vie for $1,000. And Dante Cope co-hosts a popular monthly gathering of Michigan producers called Beat Suite at Mexicains Sans Frontieres.
But aside from just hitting the stage, many figures are making appearances in grade schools and high schools. Victor Willams, Rick Chyme and Adrian Butler are just a few people who are actively working with the youth to promote the true culture of hip hop and all that it has to offer. From performances in assemblies to exploring the creative process in English classes, the next generation of thoughtful creators is being bolstered through a commitment these artists have to the culture. In the same vein, 61Syx Teknique Street Dance Academy is another example of a hip hop-centric group working with kids. You can learn about their breakdancing programs in a 2014 interview
with Keegan Loye.
While it is impossible to note every individual doing exciting work in the local hip hop music scene, the genre is alive and well in our fair city. And it is no longer a small feat to go out and catch a show or witness an innovative collaboration. A few must-see local artists include AGO music collective, who are traveling worldwide and have enjoyed millions of hits on their SoundCloud not to mention performances at the SXSW festival; Willie the Kid, who got his start in Grand Rapids and now lives and raps in Atlanta; Rosewood 2055 (aka The Action Figures) who works with Victor Williams and his Bread Winner Music Group; and Assorted Anonymous, who are known for their exciting live shows. Don’t miss a beat; check 'em out.
Audria Larsen is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and professional entertainer. Her work has been published in Rapid Growth Media, Revue Magazine, Michigan Blue Magazine and Hooping.org. She is the founder of Audacious Hoops, Grand Rapids' original "hula" hoop company and produces a myriad of art and entertainment ventures.
Photography by Adam Bird