With local artists such as rapper Wiz Khalifa and others on the verge of mainstream success, and fresh voices -- and beats -- reverberating from the underground, Pittsburgh's hip-hop scene seems poised to step into the national spotlight. Yet for some, questions remain about the scene's infrastructure, its relationships with the media and music industry -- and whether its many parts are even talking to each other. CP brought together four active members of the hip-hop community with varying backgrounds, perceptions and musical styles, to discuss these issues one Saturday afternoon at East Liberty's urban-music hub, the Shadow Lounge.
OMAR: I wanted to get started by getting a general question out there. How do you feel about the state of local hip-hop and rap music, as far as the development of the music and the level of activity?
CHARON: I look forward to it growing a lot more than I think it has. We could be doing a lot more as artists as far as performance, as far as networking. From when I started in the '90s, I thought it was going to really take off, and a lot more groups were going to be performing and really doing their thing. Everyone's inspired -- if you're an artist, you're inspired -- but I think it's more of a "I'll stay in the house and do this. I won't network with anyone." Especially with MySpace now, it's making it even harder to [get people to] come out and perform.
BASICK: I think MySpace is a gift and a curse. Back in the '90s, if you were underground kids in the basement, there was no way for people to hear your music. So as soon as MySpace dropped, everybody with a computer and a five-dollar microphone from Wal-Mart started putting songs on MySpace. And half of them can't rap!
I run the only weekly hip-hop night in the city, and this week is my one-year anniversary. I get people down there, and I'm like "Good Lord. What did I book?" But at the same time, I get some really talented people that I wouldn't have known about if it wasn't for MySpace. And you know, it's comin' up. With Wiz coming on, and what you guys [gestures to Masai] did back in the day -- you laid the groundwork for everything. It's got momentum, it's moving.
MASAI: A lot of people are hustling to be the first group that gets signed, and that seems to be somewhat of a trap. And then other people are kinda putting out records, but there's not really a plan behind it. I think that for any hip-hop scene there has to be promotion, there has to be marketing, there has to be everything that goes behind scenes [that makes places] like Houston very successful. There's people in the Houston hip-hop scene that never rapped in their life, because they were just so much into the business.
The talent's here, but the things that aid talent aren't there, and that's why we're not seeing that momentum continue.
OMAR: Well, what's missing? Some artists seem to have more access to print media, some artists seem to have more access to promoters. It seems like there's a number of different ways artists lean on to be successful.
MASAI: It depends on what your strengths are. I think some artists may be a little more listener-friendly or radio-friendly, so they're praying to get on WAMO or for the record to be played in a certain area. But if you're not strong as a performer, you might not want to be trying to book big venues. Maybe you want to really push your MySpace plays, maybe you want to push your CD so people can get involved in your songs before they see you perform. Other people can go the other way, where they start performing to bubble up people, getting ready to buy their CD. [But] I see people doing the same thing in 1997 as they're doing in 2007, and they haven't learned from the mistakes of the past.
CP [Aaron Jentzen]: Is there something you're thinking of in particular?
MASAI: OK, there's this big thing on MySpace that was going around the other day about [a local club] being racist. And my group's name was mentioned in it, and there was an account of what happened with the business at my event. But it was inaccurate to begin with, and -- "Oh my God, club owners in Pittsburgh are racist? No! Really? And they don't want black people in there? And they don't want us to dress like we dress? They don't play hip-hop music?"
BASICK: They don't want live hip-hop anything. They won't book me: It ain't black or white, it's the live hip hop ...
MASAI: The point was, this has happened before. It's not the first time hip hop couldn't get into a club. So it's either create your own club, or learn the business so you can get your money and leave. We dealt with that at these other places that you've seen crumble because they wouldn't submit to the almighty god of hip hop, which runs the clubs. Rich white people like to listen to it, and poor black people like to listen to it.
OMAR: Basick, you've got tons of groups that come through [your hip-hop series]. Is there something a lot of groups are missing, that's preventing them from getting to the next level?
BASICK: I don't think people understand the business end of things. There's a lot of business behind the music, and you have to be prepared for that -- the marketing, with the management, with the professional image of your project, with how you present yourself onstage. I started out, you know, white boy rappin', never given a chance. I couldn't get a show. 'Cause I was different; my shit is not typical hip-hop shit, so they were like, "Oh, you're ah, you're a little weird." But ... I get in with I.D. [Labs], I interned there and I swept the floors, I took the garbage out, and one thing led to another.
OMAR: Well, let me ask this real quick: What would define local success for you?
CHARON: Unity. From the artist to the producers to the owners of venues. That's the main thing, I think: Being around progressive people [who are] striving for what you're striving for. Even if you don't have the business mind and all that, you still have to be around them to give them your ideas and your different thoughts on the matter. Like Wiz -- he's around talented producers, and he was around different people for that team to even gravitate towards him.
MASAI: For many years, if you made it on MTV or BET and you're signed to a major label, that's what people would call a successful artist. Wiz Khalifa is very talented, but I've heard his name come up more since people have been saying that he's signed. So it seems like our definition of success is, someone at a company we all were just saying is ridiculous says, "You're granted a record deal." And there's people just hating on the dude, because he got signed? Or now they're trying to find out things that they can pick apart: "He ain't from Pittsburgh! He's from North Dakota" or whatever people are saying.
I've been a part of that race, like "Oh my God, I've got to get a deal!" But to me, if I'm not in love with the music that I'm making, then all this other "I got signed" or "I put out an album" doesn't matter, 'cause your music still sucks.
CHARON: Success for me would be more and more people hearing my music, and just giving feedback. I'm about to drop a project -- my own project -- which is gonna be internationally distributed. But it's small steps. If the major thing happens, it's just gonna be a bonus for me. I am working forward, but I'm not running up the steps to it.
BASICK: Success to me is getting on stage and seeing dudes rock the fuck out. My one track, motherfuckers break out the lighters and shit; a couple of my songs, I cry onstage -- it's real shit, and that's successful.
CP: Is being able to eat off your music the main thing?
MASAI: The artists that have put out records are putting them out mostly because they love to get people's feedback, they like to see the records out, all those different things. You're not seeing people like, "Yo, I just bought a crib!" "How'd you do that?" "My album just came out!" Sustainability on a business and financial level does not exist in Pittsburgh hip-hop music, to me. Maybe it's working for some studios; I don't even know a label that's sustaining music enough to be able to pay bills for a family or whatever. Maybe some of the studios are, maybe some of the DJs are.
OMAR: Every market is a niche. And there is a misunderstanding of how to make that market niche profitable. Most of the club owners that I interact with don't really have a broad sense of marketing skills, and they also don't have a sense of the uniqueness of this market.
MASAI: It's so sad that 10 years later, Pittsburgh's about to "get on the map." It's like, "Huh? Pittsburgh's about to get on the map again?" I mean, even Cleveland -- I don't know if they're "on the map," or not, I haven't seen this "map" [laughs] -- but I know people that are making money in Cleveland, selling records. And that's all they do -- they sell records. But I know some people that make some pretty decent music, and they have no idea who to sell it to.
OMAR: I still don't know how ChaRon and Huggy got a record deal. I mean, you're relatively quiet, and Huggy, you can't even find this dude -- you're not the person we see on the scene, just tirelessly sweating and grinding. I'm not saying you're not putting in the work, but there's artists who got a mixtape every week. But then there's you guys, who are on your second international release. How did you guys get a deal?
CHARON: First off, just performing around the city. Once we were performing around the city, and Moes [of promotions company Influential Flavor] came to one of the shows, and I was rockin' with a live band, that I put together back then. And Huggy was in that, DJin' and whatnot. And Moes came to the show, checked us out. He collaborated with Masai, from Strict Flow, and we put together a small East Coast tour, and these guys headlined, and showed us things where we could grow.
MASAI: "This is how you bounce from a Cleveland, from a club, without paying them!" [Laughs.] "This is how you tell your whole squad to get in the van, now! This is how you profit off an unprofitable show!"
OMAR: How do you all feel about the relationship the local hip-hop and rap community has with local venues?
BASICK: DJ-wise or live performance-wise? Everybody loves the DJ. DJs are what bring people into the clubs, and DJs are what make the money. Nobody wants the live acts -- nobody.
CHARON: I don't think there is a relationship. I don't think the owners want there to be a relationship. I mean, just trying to get into a club wearing hip-hop clothing: I gotta fight to get into your club to give you my money. I've been in other cities and got into more upscale clubs than we have in Pittsburgh, with the same clothing on. So I think it's people don't respect anything that's different from them. So why should I go to these people and ask about a hip-hop show or anything like that, when I can't get into their weekly night? As far as the establishments like the Shadow Lounge and the [Hkan] hookah lounge, it's all good. It's out there for artists to wind up rockin' at these establishments. But it's still a minority.
BASICK: I tried to book a show, and the guy says, "Oh cool, cool, cool," and we start talking about prices a little bit, and he's like, "Well what kind of music do you do?" and I'm like, "a little like experimental, rock, rap-type of music," and he's like, [makes face]: "Give me your number." I was like, "I want your club -- I'm very interested in doing a show, call me call me call me." He never called.
CHARON: It's always that look!
MASAI: Relationships are the solution. But they're hard to build. There's not a lot of access for up-and-coming, or even sometimes established artists, without connections. But there's places I just won't play, 'cause I know how they do people. Or people are now pulling out the insurance rule: "We don't have hip-hop insurance." I'm like, you don't have hip-hop insurance, but I made you $15,000 last month. And it was all good then, so ...
OMAR: Is hip-hop insurance real? I haven't even done the knowledge on that yet.
MASAI: The insurance companies will say, "We'll insure you except for hip hop."
BASICK: It's the same with a mosh pit.
MASAI: I think a lot of these people, they have different reasons and different experiences, with maybe some amateur or bad hip-hop promoters. Also, the types of events we're putting on may be completely different than another hip-hop style of event that they may have had once, [but] it all gets lumped together as "Black Music." So, anybody who's black, or hangs out with black people, or knows black music, is gonna get "Oh ... what kind of music is that? Oh yeah, give me your number."
OMAR: How do you guys feel about relationships with hip-hop and rap music with the local radio?
MASAI: For the most part, it's true, but again, it's like an access thing. I had a song in rotation on WAMO for a few months, and I don't think it was a radio hit. They were going to play one of my songs, and they picked the one they liked the most. I mean, why don't they have a local hip-hop hour on WAMO?
CP: That's the same with most of the rock stations too, right?
BASICK: No, you've got "Edge of the X"!
MASAI: And let me tell you the truth: "Edge of the X" played my record before any of the other stations would play it. We're getting support from other genres and people are jumping on records more quickly than even the radio stations that are supposed to be "blazin'" this and "blazin'" that.
I think there's definitely a stereotype that goes along with local hip-hop music. There was a lot of bullshit that came out, and people didn't feel it. So that became the taste of what local hip hop was. There were a lot of bad shows and a lot of bad promoters, and people didn't feel them.
OMAR: It looks like the hip-hop community is broken up into a lot of cliques.
CHARON: Yeah, I think there's different cliques, different styles of music, but we have a commonality within our music, being from Pittsburgh. I think focusing on the differences is creating the separation.
OMAR: Is it broken up into neighborhoods, or by musical styles?
CHARON: It's mostly neighborhood, I would say. I can hear styles from someone from down my way -- like East Liberty, Larimer Ave., Lincoln Ave. -- sounding like someone from the North Side. But it's like, "He's from the North Side, I'm from East Lib." They don't want to focus on those similarities.
BASICK: That's what I try and break down. I have no rhyme or reason in my booking. And I think it's better for that, because dudes from the North Side come through with dudes from over wherever, and then a white kid from Beaver, and everybody sees each other. If you got talent, you got talent, period. And dudes respect it: 52 shows in 52 weeks, and -- knock on wood -- I ain't had one incident there.
OMAR: Some people don't want to deal with other people and neighborhoods; you're eager to do it -- why's that?
BASICK: To build. For everybody, for the scene. In the community sense and for my personal sense, I'm eager for it. 'Cause I feel good about the Hill, I like their music. Keeping it real -- I know it's a cliché.
MASAI: No, that's real. Honestly, most artists that put on shows, put on shit that only they like. I haven't seen a lot of artists take their ego and opinions out of booking.
BASICK: My clique, I guess, is the no-cliques. If you have a clique, and they're throwing shows, then you don't need me. Good for you -- rock on. But my spot is for people who ain't got no clique, and don't know nothing about it.
MASAI: To me, if your goal is to look like the biggest drug dealer and pimp, you're gonna get next to the people that are trying to do that. And these are the dudes that hand you a card as soon as they see you, and it says they're the CEO of something. But if you ask them what "CEO" stands for, they don't know. And if they got a record label, they never put out a record, but they spent a whole album budget on bottle service at Diesel, because they thought that's what they were supposed to do. I think a lot of it comes down to what you want the scene to do for you. 'Cause the scene can do a lot of different things for different people.
OMAR: So why aren't these little cliques, these sub-cliques, a part of the entire scene?
CHARON: That's when it gets to be a problem: when they're not reaching out to other groups, when you're not putting all your friends together and building a family.
MASAI: Right now, if everybody said "Let's get together," where would they get together?
BASICK: Shadow Lounge and the Hkan -- those are the only two spots that appreciate the young urban demographic.
MASAI: But see, that's one of the problems. Like, I love the Shadow Lounge to death, but I don't want to be here every single night. It would be really great if there was more than one official hip-hop record store, or one club that mainly had urban programming. And maybe more than one performance venue for people to choose from.
CHARON: But I mean, if you had a show that had different types of groups performing, you're gonna have different type of fanbases coming. I think that's a start.
MASAI: We've definitely developed. But I think the rappers have to stop putting the shows on.
BASICK: I also pride myself on being one of the only venues in the city that has shows that don't charge artists [to perform]. People come to me like, "Yo, how much to get on?" 'Cause people are so used to it. I hear that question at least once a week. And the worst part is, some of the cliques that I've seen form out of my shit, they're going to do shit elsewhere, and they're charging each other to get on the show. Blows my fuckin' mind.
MASAI: Fighting over scraps, that's what it is.
OMAR: It sounds like there's some ignorance there, too. It sounds like there's some low education as far as professionalism or business.
CHARON: These people need to be confronted, and just asked, "Why do you charge?"
MASAI: When we opened for 50 Cent, [local acts] gave 'em $4,000 to play 15 minutes while people was walking in -- $4,000. They got four people to do it. And I watched it, so it's not folklore. Not even 15 -- it was 10 minutes, no lights, no nothing. I mean, these were kids that didn't have records out. Nobody announces you, nobody says your name, it's no type of promotion. You have no records, you didn't have no fliers -- you just wanted to be in the light one time. And that's the type of cats that we're seeing come out: They have the passion, but they have no intelligence in the game at all. And it's like the comparisons have always been made to drugs and to hip hop, but who do you know that's going out on the corner and selling drugs, and never had nobody school them on nothing?
CP: Isn't that just a "dummy tax"?
MASAI: Yeah! There's rules to every game, and they didn't know the rules, so they got played. But that's your "I wanna be a superstar as quick as possible" clique. You know what I mean? Which is also the dummy-tax clique.
BASICK: I'm kinda glad that we're not alone in this pain, that it's still happening at the major level. But it sucks either way -- I don't know who rat-fucked the whole system here, but it's fucked-up from top to bottom.
MASAI: There are too many people outside of the community making decisions for the community, too. Like, how come we're still asking people can we do something? Where's our venue? Where's our record label, where's our promotions team, where's our publication? There has to be something else aside from asking people all the time to recognize us and allow us to exist. I think that's like the opposite of hip hop.
CHARON: It is.
MASAI: It has to be kind of do-it-yourself, but with some common sense involved, and with communication involved. If you really want to be a viable business, as well as put out the music you love and chase your dream, you should be having conversations with people and not feel insecure about learning. I think that the ego that makes us so strong also hurts us so much.