Stream of Consciousness
Looking For The Hip-Hop You Won't See On TV? Try The Breakdown
Finally extricating himself to start the interview, his "hello" shatters the peace of the handful of regulars hiding from the sunshine on a weekday afternoon. Want a drink? "I don't drink," he booms. "He don't drink," an old man at the bar mutters incredulously to no one in particular, as if to say, What the hell are you doing here then?
"Hope the clothes didn't confuse you," Grins says through a satisfied trickster's smirk. Well, they kind of did. On loan today from his day job as an investment banker -his "Clark Kent life"-Grins looks less like an MC and promoter and more like a kid in his slightly oversized Sunday best that's up to no good. But the suit fits-figuratively, at least.
Grins is a mogul, or at least a mogul in waiting. He certainly talks like one, rattling off business models and "statistical averages" with a salesman's handshake. Timmy Grins can talk. He's got big, big plans, and he hopes you can be a part of them. Sometimes it feels like you woke up this morning and turned into a venture capitalist without knowing it. His cell vibrates constantly on the table during the next two hours. Graciously, he declines to answer it.
From a base of operations that is basically a few apartments in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Grins co-created a television network with a few friends. The Breakdown.tv, what he describes as the first online hip-hop channel, was born a little more than two years ago. It's a mix of videos from anti-bling acts, on-location interviews, and now a tour blog-what Grins calls a "reality TV show" for underground hip-hop.
Grins grimaces when you bring up MTV and its fractured confederacy of specialty channels. Many of them barely play videos anyway, you know. He has slightly less opprobrium for BET, but still calls it "kind of this urban version of TRL." The Breakdown wants to be the place people looking for a hip-hop alternative turn to first.
"It's exciting and it's a pain in the ass," Grins says. "Because it's a brand-new medium, you're not really constricted. But at the same time you've got no idea what you're doing. Who do I talk to for advice? CNN?"
Grins was born and raised in northern New Jersey, and despite living in Baltimore for a decade, he's still got the accent to prove it. He describes Sussex County as "poor-ish" in a rural, isolated way, the kind of place that's mostly pine trees and telephone poles. "The closest shopping mall was 45 miles away," he says. "I lived just far west enough [of New York] that Hot 97 couldn't quite get there. We'd drive around, waiting for the static to stop. `Mom, stop the car!'"
Grins bought or boosted cassettes whenever he could. (He recently handed Rakim a $10 bill on camera for a copy of the hip-hop legend's Paid in Full that he "liberated" in 1989 from "a certain national music outlet.") But mostly, he got his first taste of hip-hop through videos. He still talks about the late, lamented Yo! MTV Raps-which has been off the air for more than a decade-the same way some people talk about punk shows or jazz records that changed their lives.
"We used to take the boom box, put it up to the TV, and tape it," he says. "I still remember when the show went off the air. It was like someone I had grown up with had died."
He moved to Maryland in 1996 to attend Towson University, happy to be out of his personal 8 Mile and happy to be in a place where he could hear a radio station free of static. But the city also gave him a taste for living rough. A few years on, and things were unraveling.
"I used to drink," he says bluntly, taking a sip of water and suddenly making you wish you had picked a different venue. "I was the type of guy you hung out with on a Thursday, woke up on a Tuesday, and wondered what the hell happened [in between]. But I got myself in some trouble, early 2001."
He waves away what that trouble was exactly, but the result was your standard moment of clarity. "I quit drinking, started going to AA," he says. "But I needed something to pour myself into. Because I didn't really feel AA. Not like that."
So he gave his hip-hop group, Arcane, an ultimatum: get serious or quit, thinking MCing was a better alternative for staying straight than trying to adhere to 12 wobbly steps for the rest of his life. To Grins' surprise, his band mates got serious. And Arcane has since crisscrossed the U.S. and Europe multiple times, getting mobbed in hip-hop-starved Eastern Europe, touring with America's finest skate-punk bands on the Warped Tour, and recording two albums.
In 2002, Grins attended the Scribble Jam, a freestyle contest that's grown into one of America's biggest hip-hop festivals. "I said, man, we've got to have something like this in Baltimore," he says. "The culture here is so alive." The result was the Elements party, co-created with DJ P-Funk, a celebration of the quasi-mythical "four elements" of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, break dancing, and graffiti.
"I made sure we called all the break dancers in the region, all the graffiti artists in the region," he says. Are there even that many break dancers in the region at this point? "Had to put in quite a few phone calls to find people, attend every event in the city to find people."
But finding a regular venue proved difficult, even in a supposedly music-friendly town like Baltimore. "When we were doing shows, we were competing with rock bands," he says. "And we would go to a club, and they would be like, `Oh, hip-hop? No, no, we don't want hip-hop.' Man, this isn't shoot 'em up! This is local. This is `we're trying to make it happen' hip-hop. Give us a shot."
Eventually, they got it, starting at the Vault and moving through a string of rock clubs such as Fletcher's and the Ottobar. The Elements parties became havens for Baltimore hip-hop fans who looked back to a golden age they felt had been lost, an era before hip-hop became the multizillion-dollar entertainment-and-nothing-else monolith it can feel like today. The vibe was something like a three-ring hip-hop circus, a guy painting a burner next to a kid popping next to someone freestyling. But Grins says he and P-Funk "kinda got squeezed in the big battle between big promoters in town, between the Ottobar and Sonar. Suddenly the Ottobar's got itself in a dogfight and we're the little guy."
He shrugs. "No bad blood. It is what it is. You gotta survive right now." P-Funk continues to host Style Warz, the monthly freestyle battle at 5 Seasons, under the Elements banner, but Grins says he's done with promoting.
Maybe because he can stay on his butt for his new gig. "I remember the first night, thinking, God, this is so much easier than promoting for the Elements party because I don't have to leave the house," he says, letting slip that same smirk. "I can just send e-mails, post on message boards. This is wonderful. Monday night, where am I? I'm online."
Chalk it all up to the power of the internet. Initially planning on shipping the show to public access in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Grins realized the playing field for an online video show was wide open. Over two "seasons" totalling 24 episodes, the Breakdown now pulls in about 250,000 visitors a month, many of them staying for more than 12 minutes at a time. From an advertiser's standpoint, that's an eon-which makes you wonder why no one thought of this sooner.
"I figure there's going to be people piggybacking soon," Grins says. "The barrier for entry is pretty low. Basically, anybody with a video camera can make it happen."
Well, not quite. Grins met the Breakdown's co-creator, TrenZ, at an Arcane tour stop in Pittsburgh, where Grins was blown away by his skill with video. After the six-member Breakdown crew (TrenZ, DJ Excel, Big Mike, Noetik, Sean O'Grady, J Clazzified) gets its interviews and picks its videos, it's up to TrenZ to turn the raw footage into a TV show. Oh, and do all the fun technical stuff that turns a videotape of a TV show into a digital file that streams across your desktop.
TrenZ obviously knows his way around an editing desk; the Breakdown has a theme song, graphics, the whole nine. But there's still something enjoyably homespun about it all, especially when it's stumbling through the baby steps you rarely get to see on terrestrial TV.
"I was interviewing Cage," Grins laughs, eyeballing the tape recorder. "He's a pretty cerebral guy, so I had written down 10 questions-c'mon, I had never done an interview before. My girlfriend worked for NBC at the time, and she was like, `You can't write your questions down!' Why not? `You've gotta be conversational, you're on camera.' So I walked in there, asked him the first question. And he said, `Yep.' Didn't say anything else. My insides were screaming."
"Cerebral" rappers like Cage are the Breakdown's beat. "We try to focus on people who aren't getting any love," Grins says. No love from major labels, no love from hip-hop magazines, and no love from the radio, that is. The Breakdown's vision of hip-hop isn't going to get anywhere near 92Q. And Top 10 hits? Forget about it. "We try to focus on independent artists, but really, our focus is hip-hop. Quality. I'm not trying to really deal with the here today, gone tomorrows."
Grins doesn't have any time for people who think music video is a bastard art or simply a form of advertising. After all, if Mr. Lif or MF Doom doesn't have a hope in hell of getting played on Rap City, what reason do they have to make a video, other than for the art of it? But mostly Grins is so passionate about video because it was his beacon as a kid. These days, even kids who live in bumfuck are more connected than Grins was. But Grins still hopes to be that beacon for someone sick of the hip-hop he or she is being spoon-fed by major labels.
"In time for the third season this fall, we're going to do an entire site redesign," he says. "We hope to raise some money so we can really take this thing out, visit people in different cities, capture them in their element. `Yo, let's take a ride around town.' Nothing to me was more powerful than when Fab 5 Freddy rode around on the back of a truck in Compton with NWA. People still remember that."
At one point, Grins launches into a laundry list of technical complaints: the flaws in streaming video, the fact that they can't offer a downloadable version just yet because of licensing restrictions. He says even getting the videos from the labels can be a struggle, ironic considering it's basically free publicity. Sounds like a lot of work for a second job. "Well, yeah," he sighs, momentarily dropping the sales pitch. He snaps back almost immediately, a wide smile cutting into the angular planes of his face. "I mean, it's a lot of fun, though."
Big Music Issue 2010 (7/14/2010)
Might Don't Make It (7/14/2010)
Baltimore hip-hop may never go mainstream--is it up to its iconoclasts to carry the torch if it doesn't?
Brand of Outsiders (7/14/2010)
Boutique labels reinvent the artist-label relationship
Keeping Up (12/2/2009)
Nearly 20 years after his death, Arthur Russell finally gets the biography he deserves
Human Architecture (7/29/2009)
The protagonist isn't the only one obsessed with capturing life in two dimensions in Asterios Polyp
The Unseen (11/5/2008)
Catherine Pancake and Jai Brooks Capture a Slice of Black Baltimore Lesbian Life in Jay Dreams
Q&A: Alco in Q+A 2/18/2009
Q&A: MC Chinchilla in Q+A 2/18/2009
Q&A: Boodamonk in Q+A 2/18/2009
The Elements of Style : Labtekwon and Other Local Hip-Hop Vets Offer a Way Forward For The Scene--Looking Back 2/18/2009
Baltimore Hip-Hop: An iTunes Playlist in Noise 8/23/2007
Turning The Tables : DJ Spontaneous Goes From West Side To Morning Drive 7/19/2006
Spitting Game : A Small But Vocal Local Scene Looks To Revive The Ancient Art Of Beatboxing 7/19/2006
The Best Of Both Worlds : Baltimore Hip-Hop Finally Has A Sound Of Its Own-Just Don't Call It "Club-Hop" 7/19/2006
Baltimore Hip-Hop Trading Cards in Big Music Feature 7/19/2006
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201