She’s All That
Fan Turned Impresario Courtney Wheeler Brings A Much Needed Woman’s Touch To Local Hip-Hop
Chillin’ in front of the Charles Theatre on a warm evening and sporting her trademark librarian glasses, Wheeler laughs about her rise from a local hip-hop fan sick of sitting on the sidelines and watching the city’s talent go to waste to a moving and shaking force doing what most people promise but never deliver: She got off her ass and did something about it. “I know someone who wants to do a cartoon strip of me, where I’m a superhero that helps out MCs,” she laughs.
The Baltimore native and self-proclaimed local “hip-hop ambassador” combines a hustler’s go-get-it mentality with a motherly touch. Which is not to say she coddles folks. “I feel like the scene here is stifled,” Wheeler says bluntly. “It’s crawling. It’s like a baby. [And] most of them [local rappers] are just self-centered, rambunctious, hardheaded—anything you can say to explain a 2- or 3-year-old child. That’s Baltimore hip-hop right now.
“People say that I mother MCs,” she continues. “Well, OK, I’m getting ready to spank some people then. And if they don’t wanna understand what’s going on, they can sit in a corner.”
Such brutal honesty is why Wheeler has become so respected. She is a woman that will politely tell you why you suck but also offer encouragement to stop sucking. “People realize that I’m trying to help,” she says. “It’s like child development. They have disintegrative disorder. The scene here is disconnected. There’s no network to channel the information of who’s doing shows and things like that.”
Her journey from local hip-hop fan to active participant started when her own personal life took a blow. She lost her job last year—“and it was a good job,” she says, a better paying, more chill research gig—without explanation, and while looking for work she sat at home posting to local hip-hop message boards to find out what was going on. She was a regular presence on sites like www.everything411.com and www.mid
atlantichiphop.com—a site she has since been banned from for posting opinions that board major-domos deemed controversial. In the process, she discovered that local hip-hop promoters weren’t getting the word out enough to bring people into clubs.
“I just started going out to see who these people were,” Wheeler recalls. “I was going out and meeting people and I noticed that there weren’t a lot of people at the venues, and I just said to myself, ‘Damn, these people aren’t doing it right.’”
Enter Style Warz, the monthly hip-hop battle session with a twist that debuted this past February.
“C-Love and I fashioned the rules out of a need for a ‘no drama’ battle competition that we thought would encourage showmanship, not just put-downs and slanders,” says Pete “P-Funk” Lynch, a DJ and co-founder of local street team Elements and of Style Warz, which is held every last Thursday of the month at the new 5 Seasons on Guilford Avenue. “As a result, win or lose, MCs are walking away talking about collaborating, which wouldn’t be possible if they were pissed at each other for claiming they screwed each other’s girlfriend, or shooting each other, feel me?”
It was a conscious push to move away from battle rap’s same-old put downs and tap into the honest emotions of local rhymers. “Baltimore is depressed,” Wheeler says. “In a lot of people’s minds, there are limited opportunities [here]. There’s high unemployment, and from that depressed pool of people you draw your MCs.”
“This is the first step in re-creating what were more positive battles of the old school where nobody got hurt,” Lynch says. “It was all love. And C-Love hosts the event with a woman’s touch to further push the ‘all love’ aspects of it. [She’s] instrumental in promotion and registering the MCs for the battle, she’s my partner in the whole concept, my not-so-secret weapon to getting a female hip-hop enthusiast movement exposed in B-more. It’s hard to get women out at first, but when they come, they’re comfortable and they come back.”
Wheeler is front and center onstage as hostess, picking names from a hat to decide the battle order and announcing the winners. Throughout the show, she also plays crowd controller and rule enforcer. She brings a diplomatic assertiveness to the proceedings, and she’s quick to squash any booing or disrespect, be it from the crowd or the MCs. And she manages to remain charming the whole time, whether she’s politely asking a fallen MC to get the hell off the stage or throwing in her 2 cents about a performance. “You know, females are the Number 1 consumers of music,” she has calmly quipped with a courteous smile after any particularly sexist raps.
The evening actually plays more like a showcase than a typical cipher. And with a prize of $500 dollars—funded by the $20 bucks each of the 25 MCs pay to compete—and bragging rights for the next month, Style Warz has drawn the attention of local rappers and heads from Philly, Washington, New Jersey, and North Carolina in the past few months, all ready to put their rep on the line for a chance to shine for the packed house.
Though technically a competition, the 25 participants are encouraged not to rap to each other. Instead the MCs show up and floss their best 16-24 bars and hook to the audience over a random instrumental. The setup highlights the polished MC while sending the typical battle rapper, an MC who is alright on the street but has yet to develop an onstage persona or writerly rhymes, back to the drawing board. It’s a novel approach, because everybody knows a cat who spits rhymes these days, but a writer who can deliver a hook and put on a good stage show? That takes more practice than a lot of cats think.
And anyone who goes out to local hip-hop events has surely noticed a boost in the scene. Not that there wasn’t a decent underground already established, but this year shows and events have been a little more organized, a bit more polished, and definitely more consistent. “Style Warz is the one event that I look forward to every month, whether I’m performing, participating in the battle, or I’m in the crowd,” says D’Ionna Willis, aka ShellBe RAW, the gully Morgan State University student from Boston and frontwoman of local group 360. “I’m guaranteed to have a good time. It’s a great way to see what talent is in the city and a great way to politic and meet new people.”
The potential to come away with a similar vibe and a newfound camaraderie is what makes the event so effective. Style Warz is a fun, unbiased night where the slept-on MC can break out, the overrated are put in their place, and the underdogs leave it all on the stage. And worst-case scenario, you can pick up a decent demo or two from a hungry MC for less than it costs to be disappointed by the new 50 Cent joint.
And at the end of the day, that’s what most important: bridging the gap between the local hip-hop musician and the local hip-hop fan. “If you make music and you’re in a studio and you don’t know how to market yourself, get some stickers,” Wheeler says. “[If] you’re doing shows with the same people over and over again, then you don’t get it. And since you don’t get it, I’m gonna do it for you.”
That’s just the kind of woman Wheeler is. Working at Kennedy Krieger is “pretty regimented work, but it fulfills that desire inside of me to be altruistic and to help people I don’t even know and leave something behind in this world,” she says. “It’s like a dual life—that’s why they wanna do a comic strip. I’m the hip-hop avenger. I just want to see the local artist I personally enjoy become a household name.”
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