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Ebb and Flow

Itís Baltimore Baby Live, Sonar, Aug. 30

Jefferson Jackson Steele
THE REALEST: Baltimore's Mullyman (Left) and Skarr Akbar spread the local hip-hop word.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 9/6/2006

Artists need a meeting place, maybe even more than fans do. Ostensibly, people came to Sonar last Wednesday night to listen to hip-hop, not necessarily to foster community spirit. But in perpetually on-the-brink Baltimore, every event takes on added significance. Dress was casual. The vibe was relaxed. DJ DNA was cutting up hard, generic East Coast thug shit like D-Block as if to say, This is Baltimore, not Atlanta. This was the second installment of promoter Courtney Wheeler's It's Baltimore Baby Live local hip-hop showcase.

Hip-hop fans can be a brutal audience. They do not heckle. They stand with arms folded, faces masks of bored stupefaction. Meanwhile, the rapper paces the stage urging everyone to make some noise/ get their fucking hands up/ is B-more in the house, and it bounces off the crowd like tennis balls against a barn door. No one wants to open up a hip-hop show, and tonight's honor fell to Only, who manfully tried to whip the crowd up to moderate effect.

His sparkplug body swimming in his T-shirt, Mullyman ramped the intensity levels up considerably, moving quickly and low to the ground, striding across the stage in nervous bursts only to stop and grab the wad of denim dangling below his crotch. He also proved two cardinal hip-hop rules. One, everyone sounds good rhyming over T.I.'s "What You Know." (Seriously, try it in your bathroom when no one's looking.) Two, an old-school medley will always get a crowd going.

Skarr Akbar came onstage in a T-shirt reading i run baltimore hip-hop, and tonight anyway, it was true. Skarr was more interested in delivering a good shout-along chorus than in trying to outrun his own rhyme scheme, his crew's bursts of "A! A! A!"-for Akbar's Arabz-punctuating every song. Juiced and grinning, Akbar climbed straight off the stage and into the middle of the hands-aloft crowd, by far the most exciting performance of the night.

Wheeler assured us the extended pause to allow R&B singer Jeneba Suma's live band to set up wouldn't kill the vibe. But it kinda did. Opening with a melodramatic take on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy"-complete with costume change and curtains made of bed sheets-an original, and then a strange house music medley (quoting Suzanne Vega of all people), Suma's performance dissipated all of Akbar's energy and a large chunk of the crowd.

Then Don Brody broke another hip-hop cardinal rule: The more hype men onstage, the worse the performance. (Mully and Skarr observed the proper 1:1 hype man/rapper ratio.) Brody's quality was impossible to gauge, a clash of competing shouts and little more. The two ladies of Golden Seal, on the other hand, had no hype (wo)men, just a guest spot from Ogun and some tight rhymes to get by on, even as the late hour and audience attrition conspired against them. It was a shame-the final song of the night, their strutting single "Sistas Pimpin," was one of the best.

Surveying the few dozen die-hards who had made it past the 1 a.m. mark, Wheeler said she was still tooling with the show's format and eventually she'd have it down to a science. She is and she will. But tonight also raised the question as to why Sonar can pack out the main stage for touring hip-hop acts but a regular local hip-hop showcase remains a hard sell. For the moment, the club stage is the right size for something like IBBL. But the real test will be the day it has to move into the big room.

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