How does an underground hip-hop artist thrive — if at all — in a city once deemed “America’s Death Metal Mecca” (by none other than Rachel Maddow)?
Well, before we jump in, it’s important to distinguish what differentiates indie or underground hip-hop from plain ol’ hip-hop. Underground and indie are basically synonymous, both centered around a D.I.Y. approach, free from record labels or larger representative organizations.
Take, for example, the prominent underground Tampa emcees Jeremy “Infinite Skillz” Writt and Bryan “BC” Clardy. Skillz crafted a fan anthem for the Tampa Bay Rays and is inexhaustibly working toward gaining exposure wherever and whenever he can. Clardy hosts the weekly Hip Hop Flavors on WMNF from 1 to 4 a.m., and pens complex, dystopian raps a philosopher would have a field day with. The ambitions of these two hip-hop luminaries may differ, but what binds them is the underground spirit of self-reliance and community support.
DJ Sandman — on-air personality for 95.7 The Beat, longtime local promoter and figure in the scene, and often revered as the “Godfather of Tampa Hip-Hop” — cites this spirit as a prime reason for his appreciation of what the scene is like today. “We have a huge ‘jook’ movement that runs the club scene,” he said. (Jook is a hybrid style of hip-hop blending elements of bounce and dancehall reggae, championed by artists like Tom G and O’we Jive.) “Artists like Tom G, Famous Kid Brick, Strizzo, Christol, and Rated R have a giant underground following. At the same time, we have artists like Dynasty, The Villanz, Laws, Aych, Mike Mass, Jinx, The Rukus, the entire Gwan Massive movement, Blac Soap, and many others that have a different sound.”
Da Cypher — a Wednesday night open mic hosted by Tampa MC and freestyle forefather Aych at Club Legends, and before that, Crowbar — serves as both a goal and a gauntlet for new hip-hop talent looking to get recognized. Home Grown Hip Hop, a yearly showcase organized and headlined by the aforementioned Skillz, is a summer gathering of underground hip-hop heavyweights like Aych, recently featured in XXL, and Dynasty, a female emcee who’s gained steady traction in the international spotlight and just nabbed a deal with an overseas label.
Tampa hip-hop has had a modicum of shine in the mainstream spotlight thanks to the advent of jook, as well as one-off hits like O’we Jive’s “My Neck, My Back” in 1998 and Acafool’s “Hata Blockas” in 2006. This year St. Petersburg’s Famous Kid Brick gained regular rotation on terrestrial radio. But the prospect of Tampa hip-hop reaching Mecca-level status is a tall order, according to Jerry ‘DJ Lazy’ Dufrain, current owner of Orpheum and former host/current overseer of Hip Hop Flavors.
“I’m gonna be the naysayer and it’s gonna make me look like a prick," says Dufrain, "but you can’t be successful here. There’s no record labels here, there’s no hip-hop magazines here. To me, on some level, it’s a little bit luck, it’s a little bit fate, you know, like, why did anyone move to Seattle in the ’90s?”
So where does one find optimism in the mainstream/underground purgatory that’s Tampa hip-hop today?
“Well, people still make dope shit,” he asserts definitively, as if he's been asked if water is wet or the sky is blue. “The fact is, those guys are going to keep making music regardless, and like, even if they’re not, I’m gonna guess they’re going to somehow be involved or trying to bring up the next person.”
Notable acts in the hip-hop underground: Infinite Skillz, Temp, Prince Golden, B.C., Aych, Dynasty, Gwan Massive, Jinx, Mike Mass, Samurai Shotgun
Venues: Crowbar, Orpheum, Fubar, Local 662
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