Greg Enemy hops onstage at the Brick in stepped-on Keds and a vintage Kansas City Jazz T-shirt. He dips the mic stand like a dance partner, rearing back with an I feel good holler as the first bars of James Brown's "The Payback" flood the room. Leave it to the new school to take us back to the old school.
If Greg Enemy believed in going to college, this particular stage scene wouldn't be happening. But the rapper and bedroom producer went to work right after high school, manning a desk at the Kansas City Police Department's South Patrol station for, he says, "three miserable years." Boredom propelled him back into music, and not a moment too soon.
Just when the scene was beginning to feel stagnant, local hip-hoppers sneaked up on the first months of 2009 with some innovative surprises. Artists such as Miles Bonny and Reach began going multimedia, with online videos and podcasts. Rapper Les Izmore continues to break genre barriers by wailing with the Afrobeat band Hearts of Darkness, a gig he took up last summer.
But, by far, the most invigorating shot in the arm for KC hip-hop comes from the surge of just-turned-21 talent. The fliers crammed underneath windshield wipers in Westport bear the new names of these informally christened "Young Lions": thePhantom, Atilla, Craig Smith and Greg Enemy.
The little guy with funny specs ("Fly-Ass Glasses" is quickly becoming his signature anthem), Enemy is getting some recognition, thanks to numerous projects. These include a self-produced EP, an album he recently completed with rapper Stik Figa, an upcoming disc with ultra-hype party boy Dutch Newman and plenty of stage time.
"I think the funniest thing about it all is that everybody learned my name really fast," Enemy says. "It took no time at all for word to spread about little ol' me."
His real name is Greg Henry. "I didn't want a name that was too far away from my real name. Everything I do, I want it to be me. I think using your real name is a little more humble, a little more human," he explains.
And yet he chose the name Enemy, which befits the shit-talking spirit of a battle-inciting MC.
"If I'm going to be the best, I'm going to have to technically be everyone's enemy," Enemy says. "I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition because I'm short, I wear glasses and I'm a nice guy. So people are like, 'How could you be anyone's enemy?'"
A fairly authentic Greg Enemy action figure would be easy to twist together with pipe cleaners. But even though he might be the world's most pocket-sized rapper, his confidence and stage presence are anything but diminutive.
Earlier this month at the Brick, he doles out nuggets of his life story with bell-clear pronunciation and more swagger than dudes three times his size. His heady wordplay name-drops linguist Noam Chomsky and director Wes Anderson while proclaiming himself the "black Jack Kerouac."
In his live show, Enemy instructs, "All my people with bad eyesight, put your hands up!" His oversized frames make him look like someone in one of Jamel Shabazz's photos from Brooklyn in the 1980s. Meeting Enemy is like shaking hands with an anachronism, as if you've been magically transported to the set of a throwback Spike Lee joint.
"I get that a lot," Enemy says, not at all bothered by the retro comparison. Just as Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and OutKast influenced Enemy's old-school sound, Spike Lee movies compelled him to make art that sends a message.
A snoop around Enemy's small and tidy midtown apartment confirms those influences and reveals more. There's a crate full of records with the soundtrack for Spike Lee's School Daze (featuring E.U.'s "Da Butt") resting on top. One corner is dedicated to making music, evidenced by the foam padding stuck to the walls surrounding a keyboard, a microphone with pop screen, an MPC beat machine and a laptop with FL Studio installed.
Another corner showcases Enemy's aesthetic tastes: a poster of a print by artist Patrick Nagel (best known for the album cover art on Duran Duran's Rio), an overflowing closet of garage-sale and vintage-store finds, and a painting of his own depicting a minstrel face devouring a slice of watermelon.
That uncomfortable image is the seed of a provocative project that Enemy has been considering for a while.
"I haven't incorporated it into my music yet. I think I'm trying to do it the right way," he says. "I was really into the whole blackface minstrel era, from the beginning of entertainment in America to the '60s. ... I was really interested in why those images — as negative as they are — why they're not preserved and why you don't hear about them too much in black history."
A hip-hop scene inundated with false bravado could benefit from some of Enemy's social commentary. Another thing it needs? More fans.
"It seems to me like everyone is waiting for their turn to go on," Enemy says. While plenty of heads turn out to local hip-hop shows to give their support, he feels that a few appear merely to push their own projects.
He also wonders where the ladies are: "A bunch of shows are utter sausagefests," he says.
Obviously, Enemy has a checklist of beefs to address.
As one of the young lions, time is on his side.