There was a time during the ’90s and early 2000s when hip-hop vibrated throughout the halls of venues and clubs on the isthmus.
There was a sense of a real scene in Madison — hip-hop artists and DJs performed on a weekly basis, LaCouir Yancey, a member of one of Madison’s pioneering hip-hop acts, The Black Poets Society, said.
But in the years that followed, Yancey said the entire genre — associated with people of color — came under fire for isolated incidents of violence that occurred at Madison shows.
“A couple guys — ignorant guys — would cause a disturbance and then it would be blamed all on hip-hop, i.e. black folk,” Yancey said. “It became that wherever there was hip-hop, there was going to be negative stuff.”
As hip-hop’s reputation in Madison deteriorated, it became more difficult to find spaces where it would be welcomed. Over time, larger venues dedicated to the genre closed their doors. Other venues, fearing a similar fate, limited the number of hip-hop acts they hosted.
Today, The Frequency on West Main Street is the only local venue that frequently hosts local hip-hop artists. But in early March, the venue decided to halt booking new hip-hop shows for a year following a fight that broke out during a private event.
In previous years, The Frequency was forced to sign a lease that explicitly banned hosting hip-hop events, Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said. The move came from the landlord after several high profile instances of violence at or around hip-hop events, he said.
“The Alcohol Licensing Review Committee has struggled with this for many years and I personally cringe when applicants come before us and go to great lengths to say they won’t play hip-hop,” Verveer said.
The Frequency was quick to rescind their March 2016 ban and issue an apology. From the beginning, owner Darwin Sampson said he lamented the need for a “timeout.”
In his apology two days later, following an outcry from the local hip-hop community, Sampson admitted the ban was an irrational response.
“I regret throwing a blanket, dogmatic solution on the issue of violence,” Sampson said. “It was a mistake to lump all hip-hop together.”
But The Frequency’s hip-hop booking agent, Shah Evans, said this genre-blaming is far from an isolated incident.
Venues like High Noon Saloon have refused to book shows for local hip-hop artists, Brennan Haelig, Strange Oasis Entertainment co-founder, said.
Cathy Dethmers, owner of the High Noon Saloon, said this is primarily because her venue focuses on the rock genre. The High Noon books about 15 to 20 hip-hop shows a year, but they are primarily national acts.
Equating the genre with violence has been detrimental to hip-hop’s development in Madison, Evans said.
For Christian Robinson, a hip-hop artist based in Madison, The Frequency’s temporary ruling presented a threat to the local scene.
“What happened was really dangerous for hip-hop,” he said. “People look at the Frequency like an institution … so when The Frequency posted something that negatively impacts a genre like they did, people will just buy into it.”
But despite genre-blaming, Madison’s hip-hop artists have refused to stand idly by as they’ve witnessed their genre take a hit.
In response to a lack of venues that host hip-hop shows, Evans said local artists, along with Madison business and government leaders, will form an ad hoc task force committee to help guide the approval process for new entertainment events at private and public venues within the city.
Evans said the proliferation of new venue locations will be critical for both the health of the scene and violence prevention.
The mayor will appoint the members of the 11-person task force, which the City Department of Civil Rights will support. Gloria Reyes, deputy mayor for public safety, civil rights and community services will direct the task force, which will include artists, promoters, police and ALRC members.
So far, the task force has yet to appoint all its members and it remains unclear exactly what shape its initiatives will take.
Evans said he hopes the task force will create protections for venues that follow city and task force safety guidelines. These protections would mean the ALRC and city attorney’s office would have a more difficult time blaming venues for instances of violence that occur at hip-hop shows if they meet all the guidelines, he said.
But for some artists, the lack of venues is only the tip of the iceberg.
Rob Franklin, a Madison rapper and current candidate for the Dane County Board of Supervisors, said a significant obstacle for the local scene will be the popular perception of the genre as a whole.
“A lot of times hip-hop is code for black, and that causes a skewed interpretation,” Franklin said. “If a fight happens at a hip-hop show, then people say it’s because of hip-hop, when really it’s because of a few individuals.”
Hip-hop as local goodwill
In Madison, individuals have used hip-hop to foster goodwill on a local and national level.
Roberto Rivera is president of The Good Life Organization, which works to engage kids across the U.S. using methods like hip-hop. Along with others including Yancey, Rivera also helped found University of Wisconsin’s multicultural First Wave program, which grants scholarships and develops students’ art to promote positive social dialogue. Rivera got his start working side-by-side with Madison hip-hop artists, including Yancey and The Black Poets Society.
Rivera learned the positive power of hip-hop through working at local youth centers in Madison. He noticed teens were fascinated by forms of hip-hop, but were frustrated because of a lack of guidance.
To address this gap, Rivera enlisted the help of Madison hip-hop artists to help mentor and develop the kids.
“Workshops turned into concerts and festivals,” he said. “We started doing hip-hop plays, and it became … a whole alliance of hip-hop artists throughout the city representing real hip-hop and mentoring youths in the process.”
The Good Life Organization is not alone in promoting the positivity of hip-hop in Madison. The John Vietnam Nguyen Project and Urban Community Arts Network also focus on using hip-hop as a tool for social change.
In another effort to strengthen the genre in Madison, the hip-hop community is pushing to better unify the local scene, which some artists argue is divided by generation and location.
Robinson, who recently graduated from UW and First Wave, is a prominent facilitator in the unification effort. He is also a founder of First Wave Music, a collective of musicians within the scholarship program created to promote each other’s work.
Robinson realized there was a division between campus artists and artists in the wider Madison community.
“We all live in the same 10-mile radius, but there’s not a lot of collaboration going on,” he said.
Campus and area artists often go to each other’s shows, he said, but they rarely perform shows together.
To make progress on the issue, Robinson organized a Feb. 26 show, Nimbus 2.0. Named after his previous album Nimbus, the show was a re-purposing of the album to include 16 artists from both UW and the wider Madison community.
“Everyone gave it their all,” he said. “What was beautiful was seeing a local audience mixed with a campus audience. If we could just do that for every show, I think that’s where you start seeing a Madison scene.”
Strange Oasis Entertainment, a local concert promoter founded by UW students, also plays a role in bringing the campus and local scene together through underground events.
Because of the combination of high demand for hip-hop with a general lack of venue space, Haelig said most Strange Oasis Entertainment shows happen in unlicensed basements and houses.
In addition to SOE, the North Street Cabaret, opening this summer, hopes to create a culturally diverse venue, Kevin Willmott, an organizer, said. The venue will feature a Black Arts Matter evening, which will include one younger and older local rapper, Willmott said
A recent effort from Rivera, Yancey and others has been the return of an event called Soul Sessions, a monthly celebration of hip-hop in all its forms.
“The three goals of Soul Sessions is to unify the hip-hop community, build consciousness in the community and to give youth a voice,” Rivera said.
Rivera said Soul Sessions seek to join together not only the campus and community scenes, but also the various generations of Madison hip-hop artists.
Robinson said the on-going efforts have already produced results — albeit small ones.
“It’s in baby phases, but you’re beginning to see emerge a Madison sound where people can hear a song and react, ‘oh, that’s the Madison sound right there,’” Robinson said.
On a grander level, Rivera said efforts to unify and strengthen Madison’s hip-hop can even help eradicate racial disparities the city faces.
“This idea of building an artistic and cultural community that’s inclusive and diverse is important for addressing … the ills going on in our community,” Rivera said. “If we can get that right, we’ll start to see a lot of other needles move in the right direction.”
Correction: A previous version of this article implied that Roberto Rivera was the sole founder of First Wave, which is incorrect. The Badger Herald regrets this error.