Chris Williamson has a test tomorrow.
It's a Thursday afternoon at the midtown duplex that he shares with his wife, a nurse at KU Medical Center, and Williamson's college Spanish textbook is laid out on his coffee table. Propped on a stand a few feet away is a Dimebag Darrell-style Dean electric guitar. "Oh, yeah, metal all the way," says the 30-year-old UMKC film student. "I also love '90s grunge. That will just not go away."
Balding, goateed and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, cargo shorts and Nike ankle socks, Williamson doesn't look like a man who has just spent his summer shooting a documentary about Kansas City's underground rap scene. (He doesn't look like much of a science nerd, either, but in his spare spare time, Williamson blogs about brainy subjects like transhumanism and artificial intelligence at bloggingthesingularity.com.)
When he finishes editing it later this year, Williamson's film, Mics on Fire, will present an oral history and very vocal portrait of the current state of KC hip-hop. It will combine interviews with about 130 rappers with live performance footage and artsy music videos.
The project started in February, when Williamson got laid off from his day job. He had previously studied for a year at Avila University with regionally renowned filmmaker Benjamin Meade — "He showed me you can do a lot with very little," Williamson says. He was planning to enroll in UMKC this fall, but he wasn't going to wait until he had a degree to get started. In fact, he already had a finished documentary on his hard drive: Racing Heart, about the rise of two Laotian-American brothers in the world of import racing.
Looking to make some scratch, he posted a Craigslist ad in May, offering his music-video services. Craig Kearney of Kinetic Entertainment answered. Soon, Williamson was shooting a performance by the hip-hop group Overkill at Korruption in the West Bottoms. Only about 10 people showed up for the concert, but Williamson saw potential for his next feature film.
Williamson says he knew nothing about rap music, local or otherwise (despite the fact that his father owned a music store called Planet Earth Records on State Avenue, which flourished from 1977 to 1998 before becoming Loud and Clear Car Audio). With Kearney as his guide, Williamson took his camera to places such as Bodyworks Phase II on Troost (where he met the charismatic DJ and rapper Hobo Tone), the Executive Lounge in KCK, and various rental halls and home studios — and at least one pajama party.
He shot the Juz Biz crew, which includes Strange Music refugee Snug Brim, camping on blunts at their studio in an East Side home and talking about how the local scene was gonna blow up. Crossing the musical border from street rap to old-school hip-hop, he paid a visit to the Heet Mob, who threw down freestyle after freestyle for his lens.
Gearing up the special effects, he made videos for songs by some of his favorite new artists, including Stakc, the Real McKoy, Irv Da Phenom and Sonny Lavae. Big names? Not even close. But if there's a word that sums up the spirit of Mics on Fire, it's hungry.
"Everyone's just so happy that I'm doing this that I pretty much have an all-access pass," he says.
The most remarkable place that pass led him might be a burgeoning gay and lesbian rap scene, anchored by fire-spitting ladies like Kels La Chelle and Curv.
"There's some good-ass music in this movie and some good-ass musicians in this town dying for some shine," he says.
In the 45 minutes that Williamson showed me, Tech N9ne's name gets dropped half a dozen times. Sometimes in credibility-grabbing shout-outs, but more often as a gauge of local success.
When they were asked to talk about Kansas City music, Williamson says, many rappers responded, "It's full of haters."
"Nobody can get up and out, because nobody's supporting each other," he says.
It's true. Even though it portrays a vibrant scene, Mics on Fire depicts many separate crews interested only in promoting themselves and repping their own small corners of the metro. Many have little clue as to how the broader world of music operates — that is, the world that got Tech N9ne where he is.
In hopes of promoting unity (and, of course, his film), Williamson launched micsonfirekc.com, a social-networking site where artists can create profiles, blog, upload video and audio, and participate in a forum. Built using Ning, the site actually works pretty well. Even if the movie doesn't take off, the site could benefit the scene for as long as Williamson — or someone — is willing to maintain it.
But right now, he has a Spanish test to study for and that crazy science blog to update.