Chunky beats throbbed from inside the churchlike building when I walked up around 10 p.m. After frisking me, the gruff doorman let me inside. The show had been going on since around 7, and the air in the carpeted auditorium was sultry with sweat. About 40 performers were on the bill, each slated for up to three songs. Participants gave CDs with their prerecorded beats to the soundman, Jaz Brewer of 64111 Studios, and then passed around the wireless mic.
Almost everyone was black; hardly anyone looked older than 30. Sodas, tater tots, chicken fingers and other goodies were for sold by the kitchen in the back. There was no booze, and only a handful of people stood outside smoking. An older white guy wearing a T-shirt with a Vietnam veterans slogan printed on it occasionally walked around with a flashlight. Cops were neither present nor needed.
At first, I didn't recognize a soul. This was not the capital-H Hip-Hop crowd that gets most of the positive press in town from the Pitch, The Kansas City Star and Lawrence.com. Tell It 2 Da Mic was a showcase attended by the crowd that puts reality rhymes on its mix tapes. The baggy-clothes-and-bling-bling crew. The nobody-wants-us-"thuggin'-up"-their-club side of the local scene.
I took a seat next to a merch table that had Rich the Factor's and other artists' CDs for sale. Two MCs were on the mic in front of a PA consisting of two speakers on stands and two gargantuan woofers not much, but it was plenty loud. The duo down front tried their best to rule the crowd, but only one kid, who was practically crumpin' in his chair, seemed into it. A white MC got up next and announced that he was representing "poor people." His name was Dogar T. Oppenheimer, and he works up to 80 hours a week delivering hospital beds. Unlike most of the contestants that night, he started spitting over vocals-free beats rather than rapping along to his own voice.
The man in charge of the night was F.L.O. (pronounced flow). Older than his 27 years, F.L.O. has a long and somewhat checkered history. He started as a rapper and a thug, and though he still makes music, he has given up the street life and made a name for himself as a respected promoter. He has put on around 30 of these open mics, and none of the events has been tainted with an act of violence. The same goes for the concerts he books. At F.L.O.'s shows, the only beef is the kind that wears NFL apparel and either spits rhymes or has a bro who does.
Even though the music was mostly hardcore and it was a competition, the vibe was pure fun. From his spot at the mixing desk table next to Jaz, F.L.O. presided over the event like an encouraging older brother one who ain't in it for the money. It cost just $10 to get in ($5 for the ladies), and considering the expenses of renting a room, gathering prize money and booking studio time for the winners, that's a fuckin' deal. F.L.O. told me later that the most profit he has ever made off a show like that is $250. That's a large part of why people respect him and, therefore, don't act foolish at his shows.
If last Friday was the rule rather than the exception, F.L.O. offers an alternative, friendly, music-oriented environment that is practically an entertainment school for wannabe MCs. After a confident duo called Legal Tender finished its set, F.L.O. made the two performers teacher's pets, shouting into the mic, "That's how you gotta do it, man, like there's 500 motherfuckers in the building!"
People there weren't afraid to be honest, however. Crowd members showed their love or hate by holding up cards printed with numbers 1 to 10. After one sweet but shrill and repetitive female MC duo finished, a distinctly uncharmed fellow in the back held up a 4.
Fortunately, there were several judges. Hot local MC Joe Good was one, as was Xta-C, who had a local radio hit a couple of years ago with "So Heavy" and seems to be back on the rise. I probably shouldn't spill the details, but X has been in meetings in, um, other cities.
Around midnight, the judges tallied scores and announced three winners. In third place was T-Frame, a 64111 Clinic regular whose half-bling, half-hipster style should appeal to both sides of the scene. An angry young man named Deuce came in second. Grand-prize winners were the Renegades (whom I missed seeing), an almost painfully young group with an ably produced mix tape and a clean-cut look. Back 2 Basics Vol. 1 drops the group on the gifted-kid side of the block, even if they rip off Kanye like they doesn't know better. A straight cover of "Goldigger"? Why?
In the nonwinners circle, I saw much mediocrity but also some noteworthy acts. Dressed in red, celebrating intoxication and giving high-fives to the crowd were the Drunk Boys, and I dug special-guest reggaeton artist Dizzy Dust, who grew up in Jamaica and now lives here and reps KC in his slinky rhymes. He even got some ladies up on their feet on one song before vanishing into the night. And before the evening was over, F.L.O. got on the mic and showed the room what ass-movin', hardcore rap is all about.
By the end, it felt weird that we weren't in a club. I hope someday F.L.O.'s peaceful throwdowns make it past the velvet rope and into KC nightlife, where they belong. Go With the F.L.O. While you've been watching slanted news reports from the ghetto, a local rapper has been nice-ing up the scene.