A casual glance at entertainment listings in Isthmus these days yields little in the way of hip-hop acts. A few DJs are active here and there, but it's rare to see hip-hop artists headlining shows at Madison's major venues. The evidence prompts a discussion of the state of hip-hop in our town, a place lacking in neither young people appreciative of the genre nor music venues capable of hosting shows.
"Madison's a tough place to make it," says Chuck Money, a local DJ who has been spinning in bars and clubs for ten years. "I've seen lots of rap groups fizzle, but I also know it could be a lot worse."
As a result of what he calls "the dilution of hip-hop," Money has disassociated himself from the Madison hip-hop community. "People haven't been getting what they deserve for 8 years," he says.
Who's to blame? Venues, patrons, the media, the police and the artists themselves are all identified by the performers interviewed for this piece when asked why hip-hop in Madison is a struggling art. But why would a city so dedicated to cultural diversity and open-mindedness throw up barriers to an entire musical genre?
Madison DJ and hip-hop performer DJ Pain 1 believes the city's reticence to accept his genre is racism, shrouded in lingo. Denied from a venue because he and his group were not "progressive" enough, Pain believes race is ingrained in the distaste for hip-hop.
"Even if we're not touching on race in this situation, it's a form of discrimination, and nobody wants to address it," Pain says. "It's a matter of 'No. Hip-hop causes violence and that's that.'"
Indeed, violence has erupted at clubs during hip-hop shows. Persistent violence at Club Majestic three years ago and a 2004 shooting at the Annex on Regent Street during a hip-hop show, prompted concerns about venues hosting hip-hop nights.
"There's always been a tenuous relationship between the Madison hip-hop community and the police," DJ Pain 1 says. "But it comes in waves. Sometimes it's tolerated, and sometimes the hammer falls."
Darwin Sampson, owner of The Frequency in downtown Madison, thinks hip-hop's violent reputation is unfounded, and raucous behavior is no more likely at a hip-hop show than a rock show.
"I think there is a huge misperception about safety at hip-hop shows," says Sampson, whose monthly line-up is about ten percent hip-hop. "My experience at The Frequency has been nothing but positive."
A local emcee who broke onto the scene ten years ago, Rob Dz believes the problem is not rooted in racism or violence, but the lack of cohesion among artists.
"Madison is willing to embrace hip-hop," Dz says. "But Madison artists have a responsibility to nurture the scene. Somewhere along the line, the artists have gotten lost in what it should be."
Dz is hopeful that Madison is ready to accept and celebrate its hip-hop scene, so long as the performers and DJs can form a collective.
"The reason we rise to popularity is because we're not doing what everyone else is doing.
I don't think overall hip-hop needs to change, as far as Madison. It just needs to set the bar for what is Madison hip-hop. If we want the voice to be of the people, we have to have the same message."
Madison emcee and promoter Gary Knowledge agrees with Dz that the responsibility lies with the artists, but he says that rather than looking inward, the hip-hop community must open a dialogue with others and help them understand the purpose of hip-hop.
"We have to have that communication," Knowledge says. "We need to sit down and say, 'Ok, what don't you understand?' That's one of the key elements of hip-hop -- an understanding of what's really going on."
Being more willing to address politics and engage in commentary on issues in the Madison area itself might help win a more appreciative audience, Knowledge says.
"No one wants to look at the real issues. They don't want to look at, 'We have an issue with hunger, with kids not knowing how to read.'"