But in rap, club appearances are few and far between, limited to low-profile sets at dance halls, such as Tremors in Lawrence, or opening slots when national hip-hop tours roll through town. Radio support is all but nonexistent, meaning street buzz and spins from friends at clubs provide the only means for getting music out to listeners. It's not impossible to succeed under these circumstances: The Rogue Dog Villains and Tech N9ne sell tens of thousands of records. As a result, these acts are to the Klammies what Duke and North Carolina are to March Madness: the teams novice voters select based solely on name recognition.
That's unfortunate for the rest of the groups in what is arguably the strongest category out of the whole lot. From top to bottom (actually, Tech and the RDVs are on the top and bottom, respectively), each of the remaining nominees in the Best Hip-Hop category does something very different -- and very well. There are Approach and Mac Lethal with their highbrow hip-hop and 7 Fold Symphony with its take on Roots-style live instrumentation. And there's Topeka's DVS Mindz, the five-man crew that pumps out old-school rhymes as well as anyone and that just finished production on a documentary chronicling the hard-knock life of MC-ing in the Midwest.
"It's just being true," says DJ Kutt, who rarely gets a mic in his hand and takes this opportunity to run with it. "Because we're doing the things we're doing, it'll make it that much easier for our people that want to come up to do this. You know it's going to be hard, especially when you're pioneering. But I guess we're doing all right; everybody else doesn't have someone calling them to do an interview."
True enough, but over the past year the group's public persona hasn't reflected such self-assured, we're-in-demand confidence. Its profile certainly has risen because of what is perhaps the best live hip-hop show in the area. Instead of resorting to the crowd-involvement gimmicks and strip-club antics that turn a lot of rap shows into endurance tests, DVS Mindz keeps it simple: four MCs trading rhymes over haunting beats. As Str8 Jakket says, "We came up writing our own lyrics and rocking like that. It's not about that 'I'm a superstar' shit with Bentleys and Hummers." But it is about respect, and the members of DVS Mindz have publicly admitted to being a little pissed off that they aren't getting more of it.
After the group was the lone act mentioned by the Pitch's Shawn Edwards in a cover story about a local promoter's ill-fated events, the members of DVS Mindz felt they had been singled out for ridicule in connection to a concert that had far deeper problems than subpar sets by its performers. "No Respect" then became the unofficial Y2K battle cry for DVS Mindz, which took time out at every show to preach from the pulpit about the evils of the local music bureaucracy. Over time, these diatribes snowballed into full-blown conspiracy theories.
"The Pitch isn't even distributed [in Topeka] anymore, which I think is a direct conspiracy to keep us from ever getting nominated again," Killa the Hun volunteers. "Someone at the Pitch threw away ballots with votes for us on them last year," Str8 Jakket adds. "It came back to us through the grapevine."
Kutt, normally sequestered behind the turntables, emerges as the voice of reason in interviews. "There's a lot of elbowing for position in the Midwest among artists and groups, and there's not a lot of room around here, but the elbows that hurt us the most are the ones that we don't see, the ones behind closed doors," he says. "It's not a conspiracy against us. There are just a lot of people pursuing their own agendas."
Topeka's most prominent rap group is fighting back by moving forward with its own agenda. In addition to having helped complete the documentary, Kutt is producing a compilation featuring DVS as well as such Top City acts as The Mafia Boys, Scorpion and Big B. The group is also working on Million Dolla Broke Niggaz, Vol. 2, the appropriately titled follow-up to last year's stellar DVS debut, which featured "Tired of Talking" and "Niggaz (1137)," two of the best hip-hop singles ever to come out of this area. So, conspiracy or not, Klammy or not, DVS isn't going anywhere. "It's like in our song 'Real Niggaz Don't Die,'" Killa says. "We'll still be around, so whether it's ten people or a hundred, we come ready to get down."