Nyala’s Restaurant is on the wrong part of U Street. Located on 9th, it’s a bit of a hike from the glimmer and flash that nightly lights up the corridor between 12th and 14th. The liquor jointthat timeless stalwart of ghetto geographysprawling directly across from Nyala’s clues you in to a little secret: You’re not in Buppietown anymore.
But every Thursday night from 7 until 11, Nyala rocks with freestyling, MC battles, and poetry, all courtesy of the Amphibians, a loose crew of sonically inclined artists or, as one of its members explains, “a family specializing in music and life.”
A weird name indeed for a group of backyard musicologists and wordsmiths. But there is a science to it all, says Amphibian Joe Villa: “‘Amphibians’ basically describes who we are as people. We’re trying to adapt to any atmosphere.”
The group formed back in 1994, magnetizing around a love of hiphop. But nailing these kids as simple hiphop heads is like calling a tadpole a fish. “Where I’m coming from,” says John Moon, “I’ll have a mix tape that’s got, like, Safir, Tori Amos, Erykah Badu, and Prodigy. My man over hereyou know what I’m saying?he listens to all types of stuff.”
In this, the Amphibians are utterly ununique. Hiphop is perhaps the most protean of arts, and it respects no boundariesthe RZA samples Bob James; Premier samples water dropping into a cup. The Bomb Squad once sampled the theme from Flash Gordon. Rakim said it best: “Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up, convert it into hiphop form.”
The Amphibians understand this, and they make no claims to being the originators of diversity theory in hiphop. If anything, they take pride in being squarely in the tradition. “The mix tape I was listening to today was all jazz, show tunes,” says Jamal Reid. He pauses and flashes a smile: “All different stuff, but it had everything to do and nothing to do with hiphop.”Ta-Nehisi Coates