Hip-hop music = trouble.
That’s the simple equation in the minds of many Madisonians and one of the main obstacles that keeps the local hip-hop scene — despite an abundance of youth, talent, and ambition — from thriving.
There are lots of hip-hop musicians in the Madison area who have done some pretty amazing things and have been featured in some of the biggest publications in the world.
There are positive events and rappers both young and old giving back to the community. Yet, the local hip-hop scene continues to struggle. A few isolated negative innocents at hip-hop shows over the years has tainted hip-hop musicians, fans, and even the music itself.
“They think that any time you do hip-hop there’s going to be a problem,” says Shah Evans, vice president of the Urban Community Arts Network and a long-time local hip-hop promoter and enthusiast. “There have been so many hip-hop shows without a problem. It’s not even a close comparison. I think I’ve done well over 300 shows and I’ve had 3-5 issues. The comparison is nowhere near the same.”
Evans sat down with The Madison Times at Barriques on South Park Street to discuss how —despite the stigmas and the stereotypes — hip-hop was moving forward in Madison.
“There was a fight recently at the Brass Ring [on Madison’s near east side] and there was not hip-hop involved at all. But people are still scared of hip-hop and the fight was associated with hip-hop,” Evans says. “It’s something that we are fighting hard against and the biggest misconception is that if you do local hip-hop there’s going to be a problem.
There are problems going on all the time around us and nobody is really talking about them. We need to fix what is going on in the community and not blame a genre of music.”
To the delight of many Madison hip-hop artists and enthusiasts, Evans was recently hired as an independent concert promoter by The Frequency. Evans will serve as a booking agent and social media specialist for the downtown establishment, bringing in local hip-hop artists.
“After I dive in and go for a little while I will basically come on as a more full-time booking manager. I won’t be limited to just booking hip-hop, but right now there’s a need for it,” Evans says. “I’m really going to be focused on our local [hip-hop] talent here in Madison and giving them a platform to do their craft.”
Darwin Sampson is the owner of The Frequency, the lone local establishment willing to give hip-hop a chance. “Darwin has been a great supporter of hip-hop for years. He’s a big supporter of all local music,” Evans says. “He believes that if you have a local scene all music will thrive. And he’s right.
“One of the biggest problem we have with hip-hop here in Madison is that it is not a united front,” Evans adds. “[OMAI’s]First Wave is doing their thing here, the local Hip Hop scene is over there and there are many people doing their own thing in between. It’s so separated. There is such a divide there and it’s hard to make one major scene come together. It’s challenging.”
For years, Evans has been working to pull the hip-hop community together through his work as vice president of the Urban Community Arts Network (UCAN), an organization that advocates for Madison-area hip-hop acts. On Memorial Day 2010, a group of hip-hop community representatives, including Evans, DJ Pain 1, musician Karen Reece and others came together to think of ways to showcase the positive sides of the local hip-hop community. The Madison Hip-Hop Awards were born out of a need to bring the community together, to celebrate the best hip-hop musicians in Madison, and provide opportunities for young people to be creative via a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
“The Madison Hip-Hop Awards have been great. We still have artists having success. There are a lot of great things going on in the hip-hop community here,” Evans says. “We have artists of all races doing amazing things — not just black artists. We have white artists, Latino artists, Asian artists. We have multiple ethnicities doing great things in hip-hop and it is despite all of the negatives; despite all of the things people have said. Hip-hop still fights for the community. Hip-hop goes out of their way to do fund-raiser shows whether it’s coat drives or food drives. They do a lot of good in the community.”
The mountain of good that hip-hop does in the Madison community far too often goes unnoticed. On the flip side, one gunshot at a hip-hop event will be covered by every possible media outlet. And, worse, remembered for years.
“It’s a struggle to get people to cover the Madison Hip-Hop Awards — who give money to the Boys and Girls Club to support their music program and helps kids a lot. The TV news stations won’t cover it,” Evans says. “But … I guarantee you that if I do a show at the High Noon [Saloon] and there’s a fight and officers have to be called ….news trucks will be out there immediately wanting to get interviews with me and want[ing] to know every little thing that is going on. I’m like, ‘Man, can we just get a little bit of positivity going?’
“What I’m doing at The Frequency in most markets wouldn’t be anything major. A promoter who books a lot of shows and works with a lot of national acts is now working for a venue — it makes sense,” Evans adds. “The difference is that Madison doesn’t really have anybody doing hip-hop, so for a Madison venue to take a chance and bring somebody on who works primarily with hip-hop … that’s a big deal. I don’t know how many artists have hit me up and said, ‘I’m glad somebody is doing this. I’m glad somebody is taking this step.’ It makes me feel like I’m marking the right decision. I chose to take less money to do this.”
Hip-hop has been Evans’ lifelong passion. He was hooked from the first listen. “I’m 34,” he says. “I was born in 1980 right along with hip-hop and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t listen to hip-hop. [Rappers like] Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, LL Cool J.
“Honestly, I think hip-hop changed my life like it changed a lot of people’s lives in the ‘90s,” he continues. “When I turned 13 in 1993, I will argue with anybody that that was hip-hop’s biggest year. In 1993, you had Dr. Dre, Snoop [Dogg], A Tribe Called Quest, TuPac, Scarface, Wu-Tang [Clan]. Some of the biggest albums to date in hip-hop history. I just turned 13. I couldn’t believe the music that was coming out. You see I have headphones connected to my phone right now. Back then, I had a walkman with headphones. I have never walked around without listening to hip-hop or R&B. I’ve always loved hip-hop and I always knew I wanted to do something in hip-hop.
“When I had the chance, I jumped on it,” he adds. “The [hip-hop] door opened a crack for me and I ripped that door off the hinges and made my own way. And now I’m trying to help other people and give them opportunities that I never had or took me forever to get. I want the young people to have those opportunities.”
As Evans moves forward on this local hip-hop mission, he realizes that hip-hop is under the microscope. Like it always has, hip-hop will be watched with far more scrutiny than anything else in Madison. That includes scenarios where hip-hop gets blamed when it’s not even around.
“It’s been a struggle. There’s been a couple of incidents at the Brass Ring that people connect to hip-hop even though hip-hop had nothing to do with that,” Evans says. “I’m not going to say what people really mean by it. I don’t need to say it. But there were two altercations that involved a certain ethnic background and they are worried — because of those things — not to do a patio event with local hip-hop [there]. Basically, what we’ve been saying forever has come to life,” he adds. “For some reason, [some people] think hip-hop just serves one ethic background and that ethnic background is not the best to have around in bunches. That blows my mind.”
As Evans continues to build a positive counter-narrative to what Madison generally believes about hip-hop music, he says that he’s an optimist. But, also a realist.
“We haven’t had a local hip-hop scene at a venue on a regular basis in a while in Madison,” Evans says. “Myself and [UCAN President] Karen Reece are working with the city, the ALRC [Alcohol License Review Committee], the Madison Police Department, the mayor’s office, civil right’s office, the Dane Arts Commission — pretty much everybody we need to be sitting at the table is sitting at the table and we are trying to figure out how we can not only help out the local hip-hop scene but local musicians period.
“If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be working so hard for it still,” he adds. “We are hoping in the end that we can bring the hip-hop community together on a unified front and open more doors that have been historically closed.”
For all of its struggles in Madison, Evans insists that hip-hop will come out on top.
“The hip-hop community is like Rocky [Balboa]. It takes a lot of beatings. It gets punched a lot. It deals with some low blows. It deals with the Mr. T’s and the Hulk Hogan body slams,” Evans says. “But we keep coming. We deal with the bigger, more-powerful people trying to drag us down but we persevere every time.”