A few area players have decided it's time for a total makeover, starting with a new name. "Hip-hop is a cliché term," says the Hurricane's Stan Henry. "We should start calling it what it really is: pop culture."
"I'd rather present parties than concerts," says veteran promoter Bill Pile.
Fortunately, these pop-culture parties won't just offer the same product with a more alluring name. Over the years, too many rap events have deteriorated into pathetic displays of hostility, with surly lyricists blaming their fans for their own inadequacies and blackmailing the crowd with threats to leave the stage if they don't receive a ransom of undeserved applause. Female fans frequently get the worst treatment, with misogynist fog billowing from the stage like smoke-machine exhaust at a metal show.
Locally, James Reed has proven hip-hop happenings can be infinitely more appealing. His Oro Negro shows, which popped up at various locations last summer, embraced audience interaction and promoted a positive, woman-friendly environment. Those elements, in addition to Oro Negro's focus on up-and-coming new talent, made Reed's showcases the local equivalent of New York's twelve-year-old Lyricist Lounge, which spawned Mos Def and Talib Kweli, hosted Eminem and Notorious B.I.G. and produced several classic compilations. Now, thanks to Reed, Pile and Henry, the Lyricist Lounge itself will be a monthly fixture in Kansas City starting on Saturday, January 18, and continuing on the third Saturday of each month at the Hurricane.
Perhaps the Lyricist Lounge's organizers hadn't heard about Kansas City's sparse support for under-the-radar rap, though it's likely the Roots might have submitted a less-than-flattering reference. But Pile says KC is in the right place at the right time of the week. "They needed something on a Saturday between Minneapolis and Denver," he admits. "It was pretty much luck."
The biggest beneficiaries of this fortunate twist will be local MCs, who will no longer have to submit parental permission slips or pretend to be calypso singers until they're safely on area stages. El Torreon, the Brick and the Hurricane all began welcoming area rappers in the past year, but the Lyricist Lounge provides the biggest break. It's a chance to share a bill with old-school legends: Das EFX and Boot Camp Clik headline the January 18 show; other potential visitors include Big Daddy Kane, Warren G and MC Lyte. That means a knowledgeable, enthusiastic crowd, one that will oooh at furious freestyles and encourage amateur wordsmiths.
And though Lyricist Lounge events are inviting and informal, they're also structured. That means no insufferable waits between acts and no stages clogged with talentless hangers-on. Master Fuol, the tour's goofy yet professional host and hype man, keeps things moving, ensuring there's always a mic in use or a roof-incinerating record in rotation.
Hip-hop has the most interactive potential of any genre. Most members of the audience at a rock show can't really get involved unless they haul along their own guitars, amps and drum sets. But as Nas says, all MCs need is one mic. Guests at the Lounge can generate their own excitement by jumping into a freestyle session -- and when you don't know what you're going to say next and the crowd is waiting, it's an adrenaline shot. Improvisational jazz jams provide similar thrills, but those require some mastery of an instrument. Entry-level freestyling requires only a voice and a vocabulary.
Lyricist Lounge residencies are usually limited to larger cities, so Kansas City's inclusion represents a victory. But this coup goes beyond the "who, me?" thrills KC gets from being recognized for any reason. With the tools Lyricist Lounge provides, the city's hip-hop scene could evolve from hoping people notice to making them pay attention.