"You may know me as a political candidate and an attorney, but (right now), I am Hip Hop."
— Fanon Rucker
Professional and family demands aside, it's taken me four years to attend Perry Simmons' monthly poetry slam/Soul groove event dubbed The Vibe at downtown's Crush on Main.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that I'd be the absolute first person in line to bear witness to the combination of live, spoken word performances, soul-stirring a cappellas and old school R&B/Hip Hop served up by Simmons' crate-digging alter ego DJ Sol. Intelligent, feel-good music combined with an appropriate amount of social and political activism have always been essential ingredients for good Hip Hop.
So I'm four years late. Paraphrasing American Idol's Randy Jackson: my bad, dawg.
Just as my wife and I ascended the narrow staircase to the event venue, I half jokingly told her to be prepared for a blast of frankincense and patchouli. There's something about poetry performed in a cozy, dimly lit club that seems to bring out the boho/revolutionary chic in an otherwise hustle and bustle worker-bee crowd.
Well, I was close. It was, in fact, nag champa incense wafting through the air that provided the perfect ambiance to a night of soulful lyrics, poignant personal revelations and spoken word pieces offered by some of Cincinnati's most talented professional and amateur performers.
About four years ago to the night, Simmons — organizer and, of course, featured DJ for the event — sought to create a, well, "vibe" reminiscent of Russell Simmons' (no relation) popular HBO Def Poetry sessions while also introducing a mixture of under-the-radar Neo Soul, Deep House and classic Hip Hop targeted to a mature, professional crowd.
Marketed through e-mail blasts, glossy handbills and word-of-mouth, The Vibe has turned into a monthly ritual for people who share Simmons' vision for a comfortable, come-as-you-are (but no oversized white tees, please) lounge to accommodate urban Cincinnati's "grown-and-sexy" population.
But don't let the name or the vision fool you. Detractors who might suspect a night of haughty, pinky-finger-in-the-air pretentiousness need to see and hear Simmons work the crowd with his turntables. By the time my wife and I left, there was a sea of sweaty foreheads nodding to the Geto Boys' seminal classic "My Mind Playin' Tricks on Me."
But before Simmons had his turn at the decks, the spoken word artists and performers ruled the night. Hosted by the quick-witted, engaging Dawn Crook (aka Wisdom), a pleasantly diverse range of poets and artists blessed the "word space" including State Senator Eric Kearney (yes, you read right), who performed a call-and-response version of Gil Scott Herron's "The Revolution Will Not be Televised." One of the evening's highlights was former prosecutorial candidate/attorney Fanon Rucker's spoken medley of recognizable Hip Hop favorites from the '80s and '90s (beginning with Public Enemy's classic line, "I got a letter from the government, the other day ...").
Element, Kashiya and Ben Hughes were among Vibe regulars who also took center stage with introspective and politically-charged verses. Wisdom closed the word space with a 10-minute poem/indictment that may have alienated a few men who thought they walked on water, yet, not surprisingly, empowered the intelligent, independent women who have to deal with them.
Absorb the energy and agree to disagree. But once the word space is closed, it was all about the music.
As the stage closed, Simmons launched a mix set consisting largely of '80s and early-'90s Hip Hop and R&B classics, often dropping out the volume and allowing the crowd to chant memorized verses. More beat-matcher than cut 'n' scratch DJ, Simmons later confided that he had planned a meticulously arranged set for the event (no doubt consisting of his trademark esoteric Neo Soul gems) but ended up, as any true DJ should, responding to the energy of the crowd.
It's no secret that Cincinnati nightlife can be a little perilous these days; in fact, my dad still reminds me to locate all the club exit signs whenever I venture out. Yet, despite the densely-packed dance area where Simmons cranked out classic after classic, there was a comfortable, six degrees of separation between old friends, frat brothers, professionals, dreads, activists and artists that you would expect to find in some other city like Chicago, New York or D.C. But never in the 'Nati.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the positive experience I had when Common was in town to promote his album BE. I've since lamented about how unfortunate it was that there weren't similar, regularly scheduled events where positive, mature professionals could enjoy Hip Hop music and culture.
Yep — wrong again. Perry Simmons has been at this thing for the last four years and it was right under my nose the whole time.
THE VIBE at Crush on Main is held on the second Saturday of each month.
5 on the ledge
· "Before I Let Go" Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. While not an actual Hip Hop track, this mid-tempo Soul/Dance hit was perfectly at home in the middle of DJ Sol's set.
· "The Show" Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. A must-have for any 30-plus crowd.
· "My Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" The Geto Boys. "Candlesticks in the dark and visions of bodies being burned ..." Should I feel bad for loving this classic?
· "Cha Cha Cha" MC Lyte. This 1989 party starter is early proof that MC Lyte is one of the greatest to pick up the mic.
· "I Like" Guy. High-top fades and Teddy Riley's trademark "New Jack Swing" sound ruled the '90s.