City Paper is not for tourists
With only “two turntables and a mike”as their song suggestsBuckshot and DJ Evil Dee of Black Moon rock beats and rhymes from a stage that’s barely a foot high. Hanging in the back by the bar, the diminutive MC is hidden beneath the forest of waving hands. Eventually, he has to jump up on the furniture just to be seen. The audience doesn’t care. They are D.C.’s handful of the faithful, hiphop fiends who can effortlessly follow along to Black Moon classics like “Who Got the Props?” and new joints like Buckshot’s remake of Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” They may have stumbled a little over the words when the original came out, but that’s OK; most of these kids are pretty young, and Rakim’s not around.
Buckshot leads them through material from his new album, Warzone, and the crowd gets hyped. It’s not stuff they’ve heard on the radio. In fact, most of the tunes heard tonight never get spun on commercial radio. But they do get plenty of love on mix tapes, on college-radio shows, and right here in this room every Thursday night. As he bounces about on stage, Buckshot’s ridiculous gold chain swings back and forth to the rhythm, intermittently revealing the bright orange Ill Con logo emblazoned on his T-shirt. Ill Con Productions is DJ Dirty Hands and DJ TaekOne, who, along with promoters Chris Stiles and Jimmy Gioni, are responsible for bringing Buckshot down from Brooklyn this evening. It’s another sweet night at Soul Camp, currently D.C.’s most successful underground hiphop spot.
Soul Camp has been regularly packing 300 to 400 18-and-uppers into the Hung Jury restaurant at 19th and H Streets NW every Thursday for almost a year now. Over the course of this night, about 700 Black Moon fans and general hiphop heads will pass through the cluba Soul Camp record. The very next week, the house will fill up again for local rappers the Infinite Loop and their album-release party. Dave “Kaz” Kasdan, a D.C. promoter who specializes in hiphop shows, says of Ill Con, “Those two are the best at what they do in the city, which is spin and promote underground hiphop.” After five years in the business, Kaz can reliably smell an opportunity, and he’s hooked up with Ill Con to create a Saturday night event similar to Soul Camp. “With what they’re doing on a Thursday, I’m scared of how many people they’re going to bring on a Saturday.” He clarifies: “Scared in a good way.”
Dirty Hands’ impressive vinyl collection is strewn around the floor in his Northwest one-bedroom. The centerpiece of the room is the turntable setup, two Technics 1200s, of course. The conversation in the room revolves around women and beats, what you’d expect from two 24-year-old guys in khaki cargo pants and baggy Adidas sweats. As talk turns to business, Chuck “Dirty Hands” Koch and Kheedim “TaekOne” Oh (“one O, not two O’s”) are preoccupied with a semantic argument. Frequently at odds over minutiae, the two are disputing the original meaning of their abbreviated moniker. Koch thinks it was “Ill Concepts”; Oh remembers “Ill Confidence.” At least they agree on the origin of the partnership.
Oh is Korean; Koch is white. They met at a record pool when Koch was gearing up to take classes at an engineering school and Oh was in the midst of an extended education that eventually encompassed three separate universities. “We decided to make music our business,” Oh says; they formed Ill Con Productions in 1997. Since then they have mixed and spun all over the D.C. area as well as in Baltimore, New York, and Richmond. Here in D.C. they’ve spun their way all the way from D.C. Live to the Bank to the Ritz to Felix. They have placed highly in various DJ battles in the mid-Atlantic area.
Oh is the resident Friday night DJ for State of the Union as well. There he spins not only old-school funk and rare grooves but also the more commercial brand of hiphop that usually doesn’t make its way into his Thursday night set. “I don’t really make too much of a distinction between underground and commercial,” he admits. “It’s all commercial, because these records are put out there to sell, to make money. Period.”
“I’ve heard him play Puffy songsand Juvenile,” Koch accuses. Oh punches him.
Rather than switch off during the same night, Koch and Oh DJ alternate weeks at Soul Camp to preserve the continuity of their four-hour routines. When one is in the booth, the other patrols the club. Oh can often be seen standing away from the crowd with his standard half-cocked Kangol, not mixing but watching. He blames his seriousness on his responsibilities: “To make a night run successfully at a nightclub, there are a lot of details that need to be attended to that you always have to be on top of and be prepared to take care of.”
Soul Camp may be open for campers just one night a week, but Koch and Oh insist that keeping their fledgling entertainment company going is a “24-seven, 365” task. “People think I don’t do shit all day but sit around the house,” Koch says. Oh chimes in, “We’ll be in meetings, or we’ll be on the phone.” They even have the matching pocket cell phones to prove it.
Koch, the more chatty of the two, assumes the role of spokesperson for Ill Con. Over his favorite drink, a cold Corona and sloe gin, he speechifies about the merits of positive habits. “It’s basically a matter of work ethic and being responsible. Being on time, doing what you say you’re going to do, and just going through with it.” Koch is a strong believer in making his pastimes lucrative. Aside from DJ-ing, Koch is a snowboarder, sponsored by both a snowboard manufacturer and a clothing company. He has just secured a similar sponsorship from a sneaker company for Ill Con. He views D.C. as “an open canvas” where many such opportunities await. He says, “It’s just straight-up getting up in the morning and treating it as a regular job and not treating it as if it’s entertainment: ‘I hope I get a break’ and sitting on your ass. It’s a matter of making the break come to you.”
Oh gives his words the nod. “D.C. is a wide-open market as far as hiphop is concerned.”
“That’s a profound statement,” says Koch, sarcastically. “I just said that.”
Regardless of who said it, others agree. Stiles, 24, who besides helping to promote Soul Camp was also behind the larger multigenre party called Pollen, sees the Soul Camp party as a bit of a no-brainer. “It was just waiting,” he says. “Anybody that would have put the work in could do it.”
Although the opportunity may have been merely overlooked by some, most shy away from hiphop-devoted parties for valid reasons. “It’s very tough to sell a hiphop function, because everybody gets scared of violence,” Kaz says. Stile’s partner, Gioni, admits, “I had some reservations because of the name tag that’s branded on all hiphop parties: that it attracts negative people.”
Soul Camp does have its share of fights, at least one minor affair every other week. To take care of them, Ill Con has brought in Lawrence “Larry” Metcalf and his Big Kids, a security company that has handled national acts like Doug E. Fresh and Patti LaBelle. Metcalf’s a big guy, as are his nine employees. Their shirts read, “Don’t Start None, Won’t Be None.” Metcalf says, “We’re just there to send a message that if you allow yourself to get out of hand you will be dealt with properly.”
When he’s not dragging some intoxicated knucklehead toward the exit in a choke hold, Metcalf sees Soul Camp as “a place of peace.” He gives Koch and Oh credit: “They’re young but very professional, and that’s what counts. It’s not your age that makes you a success; it’s the way you treat people and the way you do business.”
They may have an opportunity to lay out their business ethics in a broader market. Rob Schick, of Schlick Records, observes, “It seems like there are a lot of people interested in Dirty Hands and TaekOne right now.” Schick is in the process of forging an alliance between Ill Con Productions and his brand-new label.
Schick’s not the only one showing interest in their corner of D.C. hiphop. Oh just received a half-page write-up in the newest edition of Blaze, the national hiphop magazine. Even the official Ill Con gear is starting to sell (“$12 a T-shirt, $45 a sweatshirt. Be the first kid on your block to have one!”). Koch and Oh are happy with what has come their way, but cautious to the point of paranoia. They’re still unincorporated and decline to speak about some ventures “for tax reasons.” “A lot of people want to give us money to do things,” Koch says. “We’re very careful about who we associate our name with.”
And then he gets carried away. “Every time
we put the Ill Con label on something, that’s
Oh can’t sit still for such rhetoric. He busts out laughing. “Chuck is a dick.”
Behind a very stylish corporate logo, a surprisingly successful weekly event, and a growing reputation, it’s all still running like family. Besides setting each other up with gigs whenever possible, Koch and Oh are helping Metcalf and the bouncers promote their own Wednesday night event. A close friend designs all Ill Con fliers and graphics. Pals at the various colleges around the city do a lot of the fliering. The Hung Jury’s manager, Nasser Abdalla, says that before this year of plenty, it initially took Soul Camp about six months to pick up. The rent wasn’t getting paid, but Abdalla allowed the partners to stay and tough it out. “[With] where I come frommy culture, which is EgyptI felt that I was at home with these people.”
Kelli Mowatt, another friend, has worked the doorusually free of chargeat Soul Camp since the beginning. On any given Thursday, the guest list can number up to a hundred namesfriends, friends of friends, friends of the security guards, breakdancers, graffiti writers, skaters, other DJs, andmost importantlythose who have supported Ill Con and Soul Camp from the beginning. Although the club loses money on all the freebies, Mowatt maintains, “We need to take care of these people. Having people in the club is more of a joy for Chuck and Kheedim and Chris and Jimmy than it is that they’re making money.”CP