What counts as the mainstream of hip-hop in the Twin Cities, the Rhymesayers-Doomtree-Heiruspecs segment of artists who get airtime on The Current and play stages like First Avenue, the Cedar, and even the Guthrie regularly, is precisely what doesn’t count as mainstream hip-hop in all but a few other scenes in the country. Each of the past five years, the Twin Cities Hip-Hop Awards, for better and for worse, have revealed how much more hip-hop there is in the Twin Cities and tries to bring all the artists and fans together for at least one night.
On January 28 at First Avenue, artists and fans wore chains on wallets and around necks, with hats at every conceivable angle. While the night succeeded in showing the stylistic diversity of Twin Cities hip-hop, it simultaneously showed just how disappointingly divided hip-hop is here in the Twin Cities, due less to rivalries and beefs than to a simple lack of knowledge and familiarity among artists working in, and among fans of, different styles of hip-hop.
Throughout the night, as nominees were announced from the First Avenue stage, the familiar names of Twin Cities hip-hop (Atmosphere, Dessa, Brother Ali, Guante) got little or no love—and sometimes even a few boos—from the crowd, as each person nominated got a smattering of applause, often only from their assembled crews. One presenter mispronounced P.O.S. as “P-ohs.” Despite this, a consistent theme of the night from the hosts—FranzDiego.com and Tee Moore, along with the organizer of the event, David “Depth” Powell—was that the night was a celebration of all Minnesota hip-hop, and that artists from all parts of the stylistic spectrum need to celebrate what really is a unique scene here in Minnesota.
Despite the open, uncontrolled voting system (people can vote as many times as they want in the online poll), there were definitely expected winners in the evening: “Best Female MC” went to Dessa, “Best MC” went to Brother Ali, “Best Knowledge Spitta” went to Toki Wright, and “Best Hustla” went to YouTube sensation 50 Tyson, the MC from the North Side who’s been both celebrated and ridiculed on the web for his autism. He performed a few songs at the show as well, surrounded by his crew and three large security guards.
The night was not without its surprises, though. The young beat collective known as Audioperm, comprising Taylor Madrigal, Julian Fairbanks, and Cory Grindberg, took home both the “Best Producer” and “Album of the Year” awards, the former handed to them by none other than AG of New York’s legendary Diggin’ in the Crates crew. And self-proclaimed “hippie-hop” artist ModSun, reppin’ straight outta Bloomington, took home “Song of the Year” for “No Girlfriend.” The shaggy, all-but-embodying-a-stereotype rapper accepted the award, mimed smoking it like a joint, and bounced off-stage.
ModSun’s acceptance was followed by the best spectacle of the night, a performance by the newly crowned “MPLS Mayor” Sick. Blasting an adaptation of Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” for the Vikings crowd (“Purple Yellow”), he went through a three-song set that featured all the trappings of mainstream gangsta-oriented rap: a huge posse on-stage, coordinated video vixens dancing, even some signboards advertising him and his record label.
The pinch-yourself-to-see-if-it’s-real juxtaposition between Sick and ModSun encapsulates the downright weirdness of the Awards experience. MC, activist, and community youth organizer I Self Devine, however, put the night into perspective during his headlining set: “First time I was on this stage, I was 16. Now I’m 38.” Although he said he wasn’t trying to claim any old-school, triple OG authenticity with the statement, he is a foundational figure in Twin Cities hip-hop with the legendary Micranots crew and he’s had a longevity of career and influence that most of the people who graced the stage before and after him could only dream about. The fact that the majority of the crowd had cleared out by this point meant that many of the younger artists who really needed to listen to this message were already gone.
The show also had its reflective moments, with the honoring of Q the Blacksmith, a KMOJ DJ who died after being tased by Minneapolis police, and Eyedea, who passed away suddenly last October. The mothers of both men were in attendance that night and took the stage. Q’s mother called for an investigation and punishment for those responsible for her son’s death, and Kathy Averill, choking back tears, read a statement about how her son is looking down on her, laughing that now she’s in front of an audience instead of him. “We love you Mikey,” said FranzDiego.com as he took the stage afterwards.
I was very surprised that First Ave agreed to host the awards after last year’s debacle, when host Boima Freeman started a brawl with a heckler onstage, shutting the event down. FranzDiego and Moore definitely had their hands full keeping the night going (“Tonight was the hardest night I’ve ever hosted,” FranzDiego.com tweeted after the show, “but we did it! I love this city!”). There were two fights in the crowd, one by the merch table and one beneath the staircase on the right side of the floor, but they were quickly broken up by security and the offenders thrown out.
The Hip-Hop Awards show has received its share of criticism, much of it warranted, including its disorganization leading up to, during and after the show itself (almost a week after the show, the results of the Awards still haven’t made it on to their website or Facebook page), and especially its highly suspect voting system. But its attempts to celebrate all Twin Cities hip-hop, regardless of race, class, and geography, is absolutely necessary and (with the exception of last year’s event) gets better every year.