On a rainy Thursday night in early April, one of the best-known names in hip-hop, DMX, appeared along with several local acts at the Orpheum on State Street. The scene bordered on the comical in its incongruity: the crowd of about 400 barely filled a quarter of the theater's capacity, but police maintained a presence of anywhere from two to six officers the entire evening.
In addition, a small army outfitted in orange "Event Staff" shirts stood around, some practicing their bouncer face - like a poker face, but tougher - while others just looked bored or told each other jokes.
The fans didn't present much of a security challenge. Many were drinking and some puffed discreetly on pot pipes, but no one seemed even remotely in the mood to throw down.
But the fact that so many security personnel were present to watch over such a small, benign crowd illustrated the tension that crackles in the air at most hip-hop shows in Madison. The issue is compounded by the perception that African-American groups and hip-hop dance nights draw more scrutiny and increased security. And despite the enduring popularity of the genre, many local club owners remain wary about booking hip-hop acts. With another venue that booked hip-hop now closing its doors (The Klinic Bar on South Park Street), frustrated local hip-hop performers are seeking solutions.
"It is so difficult here to maintain a living in an urban entertainment," said local producer Greg Doby. "In this city, hip-hop has a negative connotation. It's always just those one or two individuals spoiling it for everyone."
Doby is working with local hip-hop record label owner Brent Hoffmann to confront such issues this summer, organizing "Industry Meltdown: Midwest Music Summit" on July 26 at the Inn on the Park. And Doby is hoping to attract some serious star power to the event, inviting Grammy-winning rapper and producer Kanye West, along with industry reps from Def Jam and Jive Records.
The purpose of the event "is to really get a discussion started because we haven't seemed to have found a solution here," said Hoffmann, who runs the North Coast Entertainment label and has worked in the Madison music scene for seven years.
The following week, the two are planning a town hall meeting to broaden the discussion of the Madison hip-hop debate "with police, venues, artists, media, bar owners and fans," he added.
THE 2 PERCENT PROBLEM
Whether or not hip-hop shows actually require more police attention than other kinds of music or entertainment is difficult to nail down.
"Officially, the Madison Police Department doesn't keep data on what kind of entertainment is at a venue. We really don't care," said Joe Balles, lieutenant in the Central District.
The correlation between hip-hop and violence is "overplayed," Balles said. "There's too much focus on the music. The focus should be on the proprietors."
For their part, club owners say 98 percent of the hip-hop shows are incident-free. But it's that 2 percent that makes them cautious.
Cathy Dethmers, owner of the High Noon Saloon, acknowledged that hip-hop shows tend to attract more scrutiny.
"Police have paid more attention to hip-hop. They'll just stop in to check it out," Dethmers said. "It's totally within their right, but it happens mostly at hip-hop shows."
Many venue owners interviewed for this article have war stories to tell about hip-hop shows that degenerated into a scene that predictably gets described the next day in the news as "a melee." Reports have included flying pool balls, smashed beer bottles, gun shots, drug deals and street brawls.
"We had a ban (on hip-hop) for a while. It just got too crazy," said Brota Oroian, general manager at the Annex Night Club. Late last fall, a party with live hip-hop acts at the Annex turned "into a war zone." His bartenders told him they didn't want to risk their lives at $6 an hour and refused to work more hip-hop shows.
"Everyone's afraid of that one time when someone pulls a gun," said Apollo Marquez, owner of the Inferno. "If you think your event is going to need security, nah, I don't even want it."
Oroian, Marquez and other venue owners stress their love for hip-hop and their desire to book it. But bad experiences have made them selective, and they say they're a lot more likely to book music that has a "positive" message over the gangsta rap that's popular on Top 40 radio.
"There's other hip-hop, about conscience and freethinking. They call it backpacker hip-hop. We have no problem supporting that," said Oroian.
Dethmers has ruled out acts based on the negative message she hears in the lyrics on their demo tapes: "There's a few where it's all about bitches and hos. I'm not really into that."
A PLACE TO BE HEARD
But local hip-hop performers say they are increasingly frustrated with how hard it's become to find venues with doors open to them.
Dexter Patterson, aka Tefman, said that his group L.O.S.T. S.O.U.L.S. was scheduled to play at the Klinic on May 9, but the owner canceled the event just four days beforehand after receiving a visit from the Madison police.
"The detective had a copy of the flier for the event in hand and basically told the Klinic this event will bring violence and if their presence was needed at the event it would bring about severe consequences. I was completely shocked by this news considering I've had three events at the Klinic this year where violence has never been an issue," Patterson wrote in a letter to The Capital Times.
Madison Police Lt. Stephanie Bradley Wilson of the South District didn't have any official record or knowledge of the exchange, but said "police officers may have had a casual conversation" with the Klinic, adding that the owner made the decision not to have any future hip-hop events.
The Klinic's owner and booking manager did not returned phone calls to 77 Square about the incident. According the bar's Web site, the club closed down May 20.
Add the South Park Street venue to a growing list of Madison clubs that had been booking hip-hop before they closed down: Adair's Lounge, King Club, Seven, Mass Appeal, Kimia Lounge, The Underground, Club Hilltopp, Que Sera, Stillwaters, and most notoriously, Club Majestic.
The former venue at 115 King St. hosted hip-hop dances with $10 all-you-can-drink specials, and many weekend nights culminated in brawls and reports of gang activity. It was a disaster in the eyes of neighbors, police and city government, and eventually was shut down in 2006.
The club reopened under new management last fall as the Majestic Theatre, and neighbors pressured the new proprietors not to bring hip-hop into the venue, co-owner Scott Leslie said. Restrictions on hip-hop are not written into the Majestic's alcohol license or in any other part of the business plan, but Leslie said the venue's liability insurance would be four times higher if it was designated as a nightclub. As it is, the Majestic brings in a mix of revenue from live shows and special events like movie theme nights, thereby escaping the pricey "nightclub" tag.
The Majestic has hosted some hip-hop artists, like Natty Nation, Sage Francis, DJ Charlie Tuna of Jurassic 5 and dumate, and neighbors report being very happy with how the venue is running. What Leslie said he's steering away from are regular hip-hop dance nights: "There are a lot less problems at live events than deejayed or party events. Live music tends to bring out the best in people, and that goes across the genres."
Shay Newman, aka DJ Fusion, spins five nights a week in Madison and said some venues give him a list of music he can play ("Eminem, Nelly, songs from five years ago") and music he can't play (L'il John, L'il Wayne).
"Realistically, it comes down to - venues want the hip-hop money but they don't want the hip-hop problems. They only want white kids coming in," he said. He praises Frida's and the Angelic Brewing Co. as two downtown venues that host successful hip-hop dance parties.
What worked at Frida's on State Street are high covers ($20 for men, $10 for women), a strict dress code, tight security and spacing events out instead of making them weekly, according to employee Sara Krowiorz. But the best solution, started recently, was to make hip-hop events at the State Street restaurant-cum-club "invite only" parties, she added.
Jay Kang, assistant general manager at Angelic Brewing, said he books hip-hop events with a different attitude than most business owners.
"We just try to keep it fun. Ending every night with country music seems to get everybody out fast. Everybody hates country music," he said.
IT'S NOT THE MUSIC
Almost everyone, from police to performers, seems to agree that gangsta rap attracts a small element of people who emulate the lyrics and pick fights or otherwise ruin a show. But squelching the potential for violence is not as simple as cutting out one type of hip-hop, say performers.
"Venues should take responsibility. If they want to ban hip-hop, that's their prerogative. But ban everybody," said Newman. Cherry-picking what kind of hip-hop gets to go onstage won't solve anything, he added.
Many performers express a desire for more communication and relationship-building with venues.
Emcee Dudu Stinks of the band dumate came to Madison in 1998, when the local hip-hop scene was "throbbing and thriving." Since then, he said he's seen it peak and ebb like a sound wave. A violent incident, no matter how isolated, will scare venues away from booking for a while. Then, a few months later, hip-hop will show up again.
What often gets glossed over in the discussion about hip-hop in Madison is race, he said. Hip-hop music sells everything from gum to presidential candidates, but when it moves out of the TV and into the community, "the idea of hip-hop is not so easily swallowable, digestible."
It's hypocritical, he said, when "a lot of brown people outside the Majestic" attract more police and community attention than the predominantly white college kids who spill out of Madison Avenue and Brothers after partying all night to Top 40 hip-hop hits.
"That's Madison's racism. It's not a liberal place," he said.
Performer Rob Dz said Madison's hip-hop scene won't grow until clubs start listening to performers instead of looking at hip-hop as a way "just to make dough."
"When you set yourself up for a problem, you get a problem. It's about being willing to take a chance and understand that it's for the long haul and not a short-term fix," he said. A quick-buck attitude brings in "a crowd that lives a quick fix life."
He's been branching out lately to Chicago and Milwaukee with his group The Rob Dz Experience because playing in Madison often means "playing for peanuts" without a guarantee (that's what a venue promises to pay an artist, no matter how many people buy tickets).
It's frustrating, he said, because he's been working hard to build a fan base in Madison.
Still, those in the local scene are hopeful that solutions will be found to ensure the city is a place where all types of music are welcome.
"It's going to have to take a change from everybody," said Hoffmann, the co-organizer of the upcoming music summit. "Things have not changed in the past five years, except that more artists are now genuinely wanting to find a solution. Before, it was such a 'dealing with emotions' reaction."