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There’s a club here? That was my first thought as I rounded the corner on 18th Street NW looking for some indication of place. I’d already doubled back once and found Jefferson Street only with the aid of a helpful passer-by. There are a lot of nightspots around there, of course, but most of them—with the exception of the newly renovated Garage—do not play host to hiphop.
The sign revealing the nightclub’s name was far from obvious—a small word in a small window. As I reached for the handle of one of the nondescript double doors, someone opened it from the inside and questioned me. I gave my name and my affiliation as if to gain entry to some exclusive speakeasy. Turning toward the downward staircase, I saw a familiar face. It was a guy I’d seen at other shows and met at a party. Not a friend, but certainly a friend of a friend, and definitely a hiphop head. I said, “W’sup?” and did the universal head-nod thing. He responded in kind. Reassured, I descended into Red.
Red is very small. The decor is all exposed bricks and pipes. Two sets of turntables, the only physical hint that something vaguely performance-oriented might happen later, were set up on what looked like picnic tables. Dark but not dingy, the lounge is just roughshod enough to be trendy. Had this show been scheduled at the 9:30 Club or Nation, I might not feel the need to describe the interior. However, if you’re a regular D.C. hiphop enthusiast, chances are you weren’t there.
DJ Vadim is a London DJ and producer born in Russia. He has released tons of solo and collaborative efforts on his own European label, Jazz Fudge, as well as 12-inches and an album on the internationally known Ninja Tune label. He’s gone from primarily triphop (read: beats without rhymes) work to recording with a cavalcade of subterranean rappers. He’s currently touring to support his second full-length release on Ninja, U.S.S.R.: Life From the Other Side.
The album is a numbing collection of sparse, repetitive beats that go nowhere for far too long. Vadim relies heavily on that old triphop fallback, the instructional record vocal sample, and fails to innovate much. His guests on this album include a few European MCs whose lyrical styles amount to little more than their accents. The album does feature underground favorites El-P from Company Flow, Iriscience of Dilated Peoples, Swollen Members, and the Roots’ favorite angry female poet, Sarah Jones. Properly promoted, these names alone might be enough to sell this record in the states. They certainly would have encouraged curious local hiphoppers to attend Vadim’s D.C. appearance.
There were, however, no fliers for this show—no street teams tacking up posters or handing out cassette singles. I had seen no advertising, period. Days earlier, I’d asked one die-hard rap show attendee about the date. He said he’d never even been to the club and didn’t know where it was, but that he had heard it was a great place to dance to house music.
Indeed, the DJ was spinning house, and there were a couple of entranced guys flailing their arms around in that odd post-Madonna’s-“Vogue” style and dancing with the walls. But no signs of hiphop life.
I struck up a conversation with a couple of white women standing off to the right of the DJ. I’d seen one of them from time to time on the periphery of my own circle, possibly at a hiphop open mike at U Street’s Kaffa House or maybe at Soul Camp before it closed. One of the women wore a scarf around her hair, an A-line skirt, and open-toed sandals, cold weather notwithstanding—all the curious markings of NOVA girls enamored of “the scene.” The other spoke with too many “cools,” “dopes,” and “dudes.” It didn’t matter; I just wanted to stop feeling completely disconnected.
DJ Vadim came on around midnight with very little fanfare. Considering that his face is not depicted anywhere on his new album, at first I couldn’t tell him from any other DJ Shadow-inspired white kid with turntables. Comrade Mr. Thing was standing beside Vadim at another set of wheels, but except for Thing’s being taller, the two were interchangeable in the dim crimson atmosphere: baseball caps covering heads bent low over crossfaders. We knew the show was starting only when Killa Kela and Blu rum 13, Vadim’s hype-men-turned-headliners, took to the forefront.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams describes Cape Canaveral’s failure to detect the arrival of several dozen hostile UFOs bent on destroying the Earth as “a pity because it was exactly the sort of thing they’d been looking for all these years.” The quote echoed in my mind throughout DJ Vadim’s performance. His album is by no means good—it’s about as dull as his demeanor—but his “Russian percussion” live show is just the sort of hiphop exhibition that heads I know can’t get enough of.
Probably because Russia’s major stars are more popular than Vadim himself, none of them tour with him. It’s left to minor threats Kela, Blu, and Thing to pull the show together. On top of that, Kela and Thing appear only briefly on the album, and Blu has only one song. With very little actual material to perform, the quartet is left to devise and improvise new substance. This development is, surprisingly, not bad. They work well together, each of them contributing a unique talent.
Blu is a marginal MC hailing originally from—of all places—Gaithersburg who makes up for lack of skill with a great deal of enthusiasm and audience contact. The light-skinned dread’s rapport with human beatbox extraordinaire Kela gives the twosome the feel of a b-boy comedy team. Kela’s cheeky Brit playfulness and thick accent only add to the effect. Melodramatists seriously overstate the situation when they claim that human beatboxing (re-creating percussion with one’s mouth) is not just a neat trick, but the fifth major element of hiphop. Nevertheless, in measured amounts, the technique is a crowd pleaser, and Kela is impressive. More than once, it was tough to tell the difference between Vadim’s cutting in drums and Kela’s vocalizing.
Kela took a solo where he did convincing renditions of Jeru’s “Come Clean” and Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” Blu dropped an insightful a cappella. And Vadim did some colorful scratching on top of orchestrating the whole thing. The showstopper, however, was Thing, a member of the Scratch Perverts, the 1999 DMC DJ Competition team champions. He dissected Q-Tip’s line from Midnight Marauders: “I can kick a rhyme over ill drum rolls/With the kick, snare, kicks, and hi-hat,” and played the words like a set of drums.
But rather than bore the audience with endless soloing, Vadim & Co. created the best moments of the evening when they all did their thing at once. At one point, Vadim and Thing combined to reconstruct Pharoahe Monch’s hit single “Simon Sez” into an entirely new track, using the line “Y’all know the name” as a hook. Kela augmented the beats and Blu flung verses in between. It was as concentrated an ensemble effort as I’ve ever seen.
And I wondered: Where is everybody? Vadim played to a crowd of less than 50 people that night, and most of them were hipsters, not hiphoppers, with only a passing interest in the music in question. There were no aspiring DJs checking out DMC champ Thing’s technique. There were no MC fledglings bigging up Blu for representing the mid-Atlantic. D.C. hiphop was out of the loop. Perhaps the show was held at Red in keeping with Vadim’s Russian background, but somewhere like State of the Union—a club known not only for its Soviet-inspired decor but also for its hiphop-friendly clientele—might have held greater promise and more people. CP