To be a hip-hop artist in Madison is simultaneously a gift and a curse. When the 11 Madison-based hip-hop acts take the stage at The Sett in Union South Friday, they’ll be carrying these realities with them — the reality that they make music in an artistically vibrant city smack dab in the middle of a state filled with cornfields and dairy farms. But bass will threaten Union South’s structural integrity and rhymes will unfold atop it all. It will be the first-ever Madison Hip Hop Festival, and it will be, above all else, a celebration of everything that makes the Madison hip-hop scene great.
The aforementioned “curse” that constricts the Madison hip-hop scene is multifaceted. The city is located between hip-hop hotbeds of Chicago and Minneapolis, two cities that make it relatively easier to blow up as underground or mainstream hip-hop artists. Madison is also a college town, which means talented hip-hop artists often arrive on the University of Wisconsin campus to pursue an undergraduate degree only to leave four years later. It’s a transient culture on the UW campus; there are always plenty of talented, college-aged rappers, but they rarely stick around post-graduation.
Much more troubling is the city’s deeply embedded discrimination against live hip-hop music, much of which carries with it implicit racial undertones. Madison is a city that prides itself in its liberal tendencies and artistic inclusiveness. But after a shot was fired during a fight outside of a hip-hop show at The Frequency in Jan. 2013, the venue banned all future hip-hop shows. To many — including Michael Penn II, a UW junior who will be performing Friday under the name CRASHprez — the ban was a racially motivated move and a direct attack on hip-hop.
“The city relationship with [hip-hop] is fucked up — blaming it for violence, when there’s violence at all types of shows and being scared to work with it, which is deeply, racially tense,” Penn said.
Daniel Kaplan, a UW sophomore who will headline Friday as Lord of the Fly, puts it simply:
“They kind of put a negative stigma on hip-hop, I’d say.”
Outside of these problems with the Madison music scene as a whole, the city’s hip-hop community finds itself split down UW and “city” lines. This split creates two different but vibrant communities. That’s where the “gift” comes in.
On the UW campus, organizations such as the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community and WUD Music go to great lengths to promote students interested in pursuing their art and messages through hip-hop.
“One thing that I really like about the campus scene is that it’s not so much just rap artists trying to make music. What I’ve seen a lot more is artists in general converging around music to make art,” Kaplan said, referencing hip-hop artists’ tendency to collaborate on visual media with scholars in the communication arts department.
Outside of campus is an entire city, however, with a vibrant hip-hop community of its own. These artists, including Michael Medall, Pooh G and SincereLife — all of whom will be performing Friday — play few UW shows but often share their music at venues like the High Noon Saloon. These artists often collaborate with Madison-based DJ Pain 1 (who, surprise, will also perform Friday), a producer who has made beats for the likes of Young Jeezy, 50 Cent and Public Enemy.
Despite this division between the campus and “city” hip-hop communities, Friday’s Madison Hip Hop Festival will bring it all under one roof. Kaplan says he knows of nearly all the rappers who share the bill with him (he follows them on Twitter), but he’s never actually met them in person.
“I think one of the most interesting aspects of the festival is that its not a purely UW show and it’s not purely a Madison city hip-hop show. It’s really that united. It’ll be interesting to see if there is that sense of community or if it is stratified into those two circles,” Kaplan said.
“This festival really fosters a sense of community and artistic growth,” he added.
Penn shares a similar anticipation of the show’s social dynamics, but regardless, he says it will be an amazing show.
“I want to see that shit packed. I really want to see that shit packed. I think it will be awesome,” he said. “The fact that there will be that intersection: It’ll be good to see how that’ll all blend on one card.”
The first-ever Madison Hip Hop Festival will be held Friday at The Sett in Union South from 7:30 p.m. to midnight. The event is free, but tickets must be picked up ahead of time at the Vilas Hall box office. Only two tickets can be picked up per person. Tickets can be picked up by students from the entire UW system, as well as MATC and Edgewood. Any leftover tickets can be picked up at Union South on Friday with a valid student ID. Artists not mentioned in this preview who will also be performing include Dada x Oppi, Flame the Ruler, 3rd Dimension, Mic Kellogg and Webster X.