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Towson Event Aims to Explore Hip-Hop's Culture Core

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Phonetic Armageddon

By Bret McCabe | Posted

Cut any slice out of pop music's pie these days and you're likely to find some hip-hop in the filling. It may be in the beat backing Britney Spears' bump and grind, or in the fashions 'N Sync wears so well, or the dance moves all over anybody's video, black or white.

The genre may have evolved as a forum for inner-city storytelling, but "now everybody is using hip-hop to tell stories and share with each other their own life experience through this culture," says 22-year-old Ben Osher, an editor at the Baltimore-based free quarterly hip-hop/culture zine Manifest. "Everybody's doing it."

There is both stone-cold truth and wishful thinking in Osher's notion. Hip-hop has become pop music's lingua franca, but by the time it reaches the masses it's often more worried about hitting its target market than keeping it real. Some hip-hop players see nothing but dollar signs in the music's ubiquity. But the people at Manifest and their peers in the local hip-hop collective Phonetic Armageddon want to do something about that.

Their efforts coalesce this week at HipHop: Elements of Universal Culture 3, a week of workshops, panel discussions, and shows at Towson University designed to raise awareness about the culture of an art form that everybody knows yet doesn't.

The Feb. 18-23 event's daytime schedule is taken up with workshops devoted to hip-hop culture's component parts: graffiti on Monday, B-boying Tuesday, DJing/turntablism Wednesday, and MCing Thursday. Tuesday evening, MCs Busy Bee and Labtekwon and special guests lead a talk on the local hip-hop community. A film series Friday screens the hip-hop documentaries Wilde Style and Style Wars and the animated adventure Wave Twister, which was inspired by DJ Q-Bert's sci-fi concept album of the same name. HipHop 3 closes Saturday night with a concert featuring performances by Phonetic Armageddon, Dos Noun, DJ Jay Cee Oh, Busy Bee, Labtekwon, Cex (aka City Paper contributor Rjyan Kidwell), Kahnstruct, Sub Conscious, Dr. Becket, and others.

As the title suggests, this is the third HipHop event Phonetic Armageddon has staged at Towson, following concerts in 1999 and 2000, but the first for which it had the means to organize interactive programs to go along with live performances.

"I look at Phonetic as [being] like an umbrella, and under the umbrella we cover different areas," says Phonetic member Justin "JWho" Miles, a 25-year-old family counselor at the nonprofit Progressive Life Center. "Right now we're developing educational models under the name HipHop Alliance. So the premise is that we can use it in regular school curriculum using hip-hop as an education tool, but also for psychological development, for spiritual development.

"These shows are kind of like a prelude to that," Miles continues. "That was the original premise of all of them. We didn't just want to put on a good show. It was also a way to meet and talk to people and get them to be a part of [hip-hop], not only through some cultural voyeurism, but to take something from it with you when you go home."

This cultural activism has been part of the collective since it was created in 1998 by 11 young adults who met as members of the Brotherhood, a Towson University community-service organization. The nine men and two women who formed Phonetic Armageddon soon added a musical element to their activities and started performing around town and on the road.

Meanwhile, Goucher College student Osher and his classmate Fubz (just Fubz) were putting together Manifest, which debuted with in the fall of 1999 as a single-sheet edition. They made more than 500 copies. Osher and Fubz broadened the operation after graduating in 2001; the most recent issue, which came out Feb. 11, is a 24-page booklet with a print run of 10,000. It's available at Sound Garden and other similar local stores.

The all-African-American Phonetic takes a hands-on approach to hip-hop evangelizing--after performing at Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., last year, they returned to work with students on curriculum issues--while the white Osher and Fubz mainly chronicle the scene, but both camps say the stylistic and racial differences are transcended by a shared commitment to hip-hop as a cultural experience rather than as merely music.

"Hip-hop in its inception was never just a black thing," Miles says. "It started out with blacks, Latinos, and white folks. And it has always been a platform for class issues--for poverty, for crime, for drugs, for wanting money, for a change in the political arena. It's a soapbox for the oppressed. And once you start getting to the core of it, those color lines get erased."

If such a goal seems illusory when race still looms large in the popular view of hip-hop and images of gangstas and guns make the serious coin, the enthusiasm with which the members of Phonetic and Manifest talk about the form's possibilities is compelling and contagious. Fubz and Miles speak with a passionate candor, a down-with-the-scene sincerity that recalls New York's 1970s free-jazz loft community or early-'80s American punk. Clearly, hip-hop possesses a vibe that goes well beyond the beat behind a teen starlet's voice.

"The beauty of hip-hop right now is that it's this generation's literature," Fubz says. "One of my guys said to me other day, 'Man, I wish Mos Def would write a book.' And I was, like, 'Why?' He doesn't have to. He can say whatever he needs to say in three bars. He says what I can't think or write in 12 pages in, like, 20 words. You don't need the rest. And that's what hip-hop is. Hip-hop is knowledge minus static and filler."

HipHop: Elements of Universal Culture 3 runs Feb. 18-23 at the Towson University Student Center. Symposiums 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Thursday; panel discussion 6-9 p.m. Tuesday; films 6 p.m. Friday; concert 6 p.m. Saturday. Call (410) 837-5027 for more information.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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