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The Elements of Style

Labtekwon and Other Local Hip-Hop Vets Offer a Way Forward For The Scene--Looking Back

Jefferson Jackson Steele


Labtekwon's Di Na Ko Degg: Soul Power, a special online edition of his 2008 album, comes out on iTunes March 20, two new albums--Ghettoclectic: New Age and Ancient Soul and Godfrey vs Fantasy--are due this summer, and the Nile Water: Visions of Tehuti lifestyle and music documentary DVD is due later this year. He performs at 5 Seasons April 1. E the poet-emcee's weekly event The Art of Conversation welcomes Rod-Zilla to the Yabba Pot Feb. 21. Scottie B spins at London's Fabric Feb. 20 and every Saturday at Club International. Adam Stab plans to open a streetwear and original art boutique, End Times Trading Post, this spring in Fells Point.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/18/2009

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Scottie B and club's pioneers earned that respect: Nobody got famous with club overnight. They played in the clubs to find out what worked and what didn't. They listened to each other. And they learned how to work a room as a DJ, distribute product as a label, and work with other artists by watching and learning from the people they admired. With local hip-hop, that isn't happening anymore.

"With a lot of guys now, there's no respect for the quality," Burley says. "There's no respect for their predecessors. We were always--the guys that came before us, even locally, we could name DJ Spen and the Numarx and the Shawn Caesar crew and vibe like that, guys we look up to. But if you ask somebody now about a Labtekwon, they wouldn't know. That's a disconnect."

That disconnect is a product of both the speed at which the dominant mainstream culture can absorb subcultures and the speed at which information moves now. "I don't want to be one of those guys saying, 'gangsta rap ruined hip-hop,' but you started to see other strains developing when Dr. Dre put out The Chronic," says Eric Muhammad. Better known in Baltimore's spoken-word community as E the poet-emcee, Muhammad grew up in West Baltimore, attended Frederick Douglass High School, and first got into hip-hop as an MC in the group Mind's Eye Tribe. He migrated into spoken word in the mid-'90s, he says, when he realized Baltimore's so-called rap fans weren't really interested in what MCs actually said.

"What I see in Baltimore now, everybody wants to be a big star, everybody wants to be a rapper, and a lot of these guys can't really rap," he continues. "They have no interest in rapping to people outside of their [own circle]. And one of the politics of Baltimore City is to go with the flow. So when money becomes the dominant thing, that's when everything gets watered down."

It's a trend graf artist Adam Stab is noticing in younger generations, too. "Underground culture is sold, and we, right now, live at a time with the immediacy of technological information exchange that I think that has become an inherent part of the process," he says. Self-taught and educated, Stab moved to Baltimore in 1983 and got into graffiti writing. And like Rice, Booman, Jones, and Lab, he learned his skill by following the older experts around him.

Now, "you have kids not having to hold onto a thing for quite as long or wield it quite as long such that they realize the power of what they're wielding," Stab says. "Because eventually you're going to gain understanding from all the time that you've participated in it and holding it on high and honing your skills. It's one of these things that becomes meaningful. It becomes the way they communicate their life's poetry. And a lot of people aren't getting the time to put into it--they do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, until they're doing it damn well--so that they come to realizing the innocence and importance of what to hold on about it. Why it's an everyman art, why it's a folk art, why it came from there in the first place. You will never be bigger than it, it is bigger than you. And that sort of embrace of the commonality is getting lost from it as it becomes a total commodity."

That's the real danger facing Baltimore hip-hop right now. Not that nobody has been able to break big--Comp, Bossman, Young Leek, Los, D.O.G., A-maz-on, and Heavy Gold have all signed major-label deals, though none has yet to release an album on a major--but that all the creative labor that countless men and women have put into creating a Baltimore hip-hop community is being completely overlooked as local hip-hop becomes little more than what's popular on the radio here and nowhere else. Hip-hop in the 1980s and even the early 1990s was under-documented by the press across the country. If people today want to learn about what Baltimore gave hip-hop then, they're going to have to deal with the people who were there.

"It's very much the model of the griot in West Africa," Labtekwon says. "The history is documented in the hearts and minds of the people who lived through it. If you pay attention to what I do--not just what I say in interviews but listen to what I'm doing in my music--there's elements that are specific to Baltimore. Elements of my style--speedy delivery, melodic delivery--these were Baltimore things that I learned from listening to Chuck Maxx on 1360 [AM]. So when you hear me, or E the poet-emcee, you literally hear the evolution of the Baltimore MC."

Booman, Jimmy Jones, Muhammad, Scottie B, Stab, and Lab himself continue to be involved with their aspects of local hip-hop culture, and some have even expanded their reach to include community service and outreach, holding workshops and working with students. The message here is respect the art form enough to respect yourself and where you come from. Repping your 'hood means much, much more than having your boys think you're the shit.

And right now is the ideal time to remember that. The music industry's failing business models have forced artists to take a more holistic approach to their careers, and the return to a grassroots movement is already starting to take seed in Baltimore. Perhaps these stories and these artists are the people aspiring young artists can turn to for inspiration.

"What keeps me going is that I remember when none of this shit existed," Muhammad says. "I consider myself one of the blessed people because growing up with hip-hop, it kept me out of the box. I kept my youthful spirit and my dreams alive. I'm carrying it with me, and by doing that, it filters down.

"It's about carrying on the legacy," he continues. "And me, I don't care what the young cats are doing right now because they're doing only what they see because we're not showing them another thing. And we're at that age now that we are what we hated from our parents. If we didn't grow up hearing about the struggles of the '60s and had to read about Malcolm X from books when our parents were there, we were mad at them for that. Now, we're the elders of the situations. And whatever the kids don't know of the culture, that's on us."

"That's where the relevance is--Baltimore is already part of a musical heritage, and a lot of Baltimore artists don't always connect to their own legacy," Lab says. "And when people make dysfunctional art, it propagates misconceptions. . . . Hip-hop has nothing to do with your ability to hustle on the streets. Hip-hop is a solution, not a problem."

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