Hip-Hop in Hickville
By Star Watson, Staff Writer
When walking past Athens, Ohio’s local rock and roll bar, The Union, on a Wednesday afternoon, you wouldn’t think that twice a month they hold the biggest and most routine hip-hop shop and emcee battle in town. Driving down Court Street on any given day wouldn’t give you the slightest idea that a group of emcees, along with local drunkards, form a cipher outside of Pawpurr’s Bar & Grille every first Friday of the month around one in the morning. But like the saying around there goes: “This is hip-hop. This is not rap. Rap is on the radio, and this (hip-hop in Athens) is not that.
”For people who pass through Athens, all they see are trees and hills. But lying beneath them is the hip-hop scene. This is what is really underground in, what Ohio University students call, Hickville, Ohio. The city that is home to Ohio University, one of the top party schools in the nation. The city that’s downtown is called uptown. The city that, when driving outside the city limits, you find yourself heading nowhere but up. The city has swag. The city has hip-hop.
Athens, through all of its rural-ness, has managed to slither in a hip-hop scene different from the major cities in Ohio, and even the major cities in the country. It is arguably a bigger hip-hop scene than a lot of major cities that have more projects and drugs than Athens tries to claim. Someone could say hip-hop exists in Athens, but not through the quantity of people, but through the quality of music. “When you play some real hip-hop, people are automatically going to raise their ear and want to hear about it,” said Chris “Crispy” Crosby. Crispy is a popular rapper in Athens, as well as a senior English student at OU. “People are going to want to hear real hip-hop, for real, for real. It’s special to me as an artist when somebody in a four by four is bumping your music after they been mud racing.
”So every other Wednesday night throughout the fall, winter, and spring quarters at OU is the Hip-Hop Shop at The Union. It carries the atmosphere of a biker bar, but as you enter it becomes a different story. You walk in hearing rock music right in front of you, but are gravitated upstairs by the sweet melody of mellow hip-hop music, like “Passin’ Me By” by Pharcyde. You see people waiting around in booths for the mics to open up. You feel the cool breeze coming from the open door downstairs until someone hops on the stage you can tell is hungry for some hip-hop. A well-built, stocky guy grabs the mic and says with smooth, low voice, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, welcome to the Hip-Hop Shop here at The Union. How y’all feeling tonight?” As the crowd makes some noise, a sense of warmth fills the air, and you don’t know whether it’s the familial atmosphere in this place or someone’s bad, alcohol-tainted breath.
The Hip-Hop Shop was started in 2003 by a group of people living in Athens. They began holding the event in the Shisha Cafe Hookah Bar, but outgrew the place by the end of the year. The original group, Hil Hackworth, Ryan Schwartzoff, Dana, Daniel Martino, Marcus Meecham, and D Jones, decided to move it to the Union so everyone could fit and have a good time.
“We never really had a problem with Shisha being way, way too full. We only had enough room for like 20 to 30 people. So we moved to The Union to better accommodate everyone, so we could have like 50 people come through,” said D Jones, who is going to be hanging his hat as the organizer of the Hip-Hop Shop because he has finished the film program at OU and his documentary on the federal prison complex. He will also be making more music.
“It seems like there are a lot more people participating in hip-hop culture, whether they are emcees, DJs, graffiti artists A few years ago there were only a couple of emcees and a couple of DJs and a couple of musicians, but now we’ve got more than enough people to make the Hip-Hop Shop last six hours a night,” he said. Before the end of the last Hip-Hop Shop, the new organizer, Je’an Pierre “Je’an P” Johnson, gave a little speech about his love for the Hip-Hop Shop and D Jones, and gave D Jones a certificate. Je’an P said to D Jones, “If there was no hip-hop shop on Wednesdays, motherfuckers would be at home doing homework. And I would be one of them.
”Anything imaginable in the mind of a hip-hop head has gone down at the Hip-Hop Shop. At the final show of the year, Crispy did the unthinkable on stage for the Athens crowd: a five-minute freestyle. He started out with his favorite current rapper, Cam’ron’s, song “I Hate My Job” switching it up to “I Hate My Prof” so the song will stick to the students, who make up most of the audience. He went through three instrumentals from the 90s, ending with the classic, “Gin and Juice”, by Snoop Dogg. As he got off the stage, everyone was hugging him and congratulating him.
Crispy, along with the others who gave him love after his performance, feels that there is a sense of family and closeness in the hip-hop community here. “The hip-hop scene in Athens, with its size, has a lot of cohesiveness, as far as the different groups,” said Marc “J-Pesc” Rose, a member of the Iron MCs. The incredible thing about this four-man group is that they each faced each other in the final round of every emcee battle, so it’s like the group has never lost. And beyond all of that, J-Pesc manages to see the hip-hop scene in Athens moving forward. “There’s no tension between anyone, and I think that’s good as far the grassroots habit will grow. Everybody has got a pretty good relationship with everyone else, and I think that’ll only make the progress continue that much faster,” said J-Pesc.
Even during the First Friday Freestyle Fellowships there is a sense of community. 4F was started by Charlie Brown, an OU med student from Cleveland who was a local star because of his amazing ability to rap about anything. This guy taught tutors how to rap to the students for studying things like science and math, and that was his strategy for studying. Using these same skills, he attracted such emcees as D Jones and Crispy, who now run 4F along with a few others. 4F is pretty simple – they take their backpack, which has speakers placed in it (aka the boombag), and take whoever else feels like going outside of Pawpurr’s Bar on Court Street at 1 am to rhyme. They gather using the old school type of emceeing – in a cypher.
A cypher is a circle of people who want to rap or watch other people rap. They usually go a certain direction and the person next to them will start after they are finished. The cypher just continues, with the people rhyming until they either run out of batteries, run out of instrumentals, or run out of punchlines. “A lot of people think you got to have talent, or be the next big thing, and I get a kick out of someone who wants to come up and kick a freestyle or just come and listen. There are people who enjoy being a part of something that isn’t on the radio or on TV or anything like that,” said D Jones.
Many people watch as they pass by to get to the next bar, but a lot stay to because they feel they can rhyme too, or they are captivated by what is going on. “Most people aren’t familiar with a cypher. They don’t know what it is and what it means to a hip-hop community,” said Crispy.
It’s a certain rush you get when you see a large group of people standing around before the beat drops. At first you feel nervous because if you don’t already know what’s going on, you would probably suspect something bad to happen. But once the beats play and you see a big group of people nodding their head and cheering on the person next to them, you get that warm feeling again from the Hip-Hop Shop. You learn it wasn’t the bad, alcohol-tainted breath, but it was that feeling of community, that feeling of liberation, that feeling of hip-hop. “We definitely have the atmosphere where people think it’s cool to see someone they see on campus the next day who just murdered a beat the night before because it may not be something that they particularly do,” said D Jones.
So the next time you ride through Athens, take a deeper look. Look past the trees and the hills, look beyond Ohio University’s campus, and you might catch someone writing a verse for the next 4F, or practicing their break moves for the next Hip-Hop Shop, or bopping their head to the latest Mos Def album. If you look just a little bit deeper, you might see the most diverse lifestyle in Athens.