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Step inside Kaffa House on a typical Friday night, drop a bill, and slide past the square at the door. Just past the blood-colored curtains, Afro’d, dreadlocked, and shaven-headed twentysomethings lounge casually, vibing, profiling, or just trying to escape a midsummer night’s swelter. Antiseptically white Nikes mingle with post-work Kenneth Coleses in the cross-section of hiphop aficionados. Serving up adrenaline-surge hiphop, the House has become the latest in-spot among the many cafes and bars that have contributed to the U Street renaissance. This night, intermingled with animated chatter and a spirited debate centering on William Blake’s “London” are the familiar rituals and occasional feedback of a soundcheck. The band du jour is Freestyle Union, and right now its sole representative is a guitarist introduced only as Ezra, and he’s lazily picking at his ax.
Thirty minutes later, the members of the Union drift up to the performance area, then begin to wreck shit. Union founder Toni Blackman gives brief intros, remarks that “poetry is to rap as sun is to light,” and sparks the “cipher” of MCs, basically a rap jam session. From the outset to the last syllable, the Union displays exactly why it has created a buzz in D.C. heard by all but the most terminally unhip. Blackman, a 27-year-old Howard grad with a master’s in organizational communications, founded the Union two years ago to fill a void in the area’s hiphop scene. “I wanted to do something different with rappers, but in doing something different, a lot of times you don’t get support,” she observes. “Nine times out of 10 when you went to a hiphop event it was gonna be a flop, or there was a fight, or so many loud, drunk, wack artists that the serious people who came to rap would just not bother.”
The difference between the Union and its contemporaries is the organization’s stress on artistic as well as personal development and its function as a clearinghouse of hiphop history and culture. “The Freestyle Union united [artists] who had the same agenda—musical careers and trying to get put on in the industry,” notes 19-year-old rapper Seed. “It broke down walls so that there was no beef and no division between artists who are basically trying to do the same thing.” United under one roof is the group Freestyle Union—Blackman, Terence Nicolson (aka Subzero), Shatungwa Juma, and Carl Walker (aka Kokayi)—as well as the organization bearing the same name and consisting of roughly three dozen local rap artists. So a Freestyle Union show can turn up any of a myriad of combinations of rappers. In addition to the live performances, Union members also conduct seminars and lectures on the significance of hiphop within the range of black musical expression and meet for ciphers, in which artists showcase and sharpen their skills through rhyme exercises and the occasional battle. Blackman’s rationale is simple: “We want people to recognize this as an art form. Great artists practice their art.”
Within the Union, there is an absence of the misogynistic “bitch-ho” lyrics that have been etched into the rap lexicon. The Union’s guidelines observe that “Both male and female MCs fall prey to the bitch/clit syndrome,” then advocate something better. “Can we dig deeper and elevate just a little bit? For the sake of hiphop, standards have to be set.” The anti-sexist stance might seem only logical given that the group’s founder is a woman, but hiphop has always been a testosterone-driven genre. At the outset, most female rappers had their lyrics written for them by men and were packaged for a male audience. Even with a significant number of increasingly independent women involved in the music today, female artists have to struggle to remain outside the familiar categories of either hard-core sista-homies who downplay their femaleness in exchange for acceptance, or ghetto-diva sex toys who are never taken seriously as artists. Not that acceptance came easily for Blackman. Early on, male rappers would often assume that her reasons for founding the Union were less than artistic. “For the first year-and-a-half I would get tested,” she points out. “Guys would come up to me after shows and slip phone numbers to me—they assume that’s why you’re there.”
The Union’s operative term, “elevation”—pushing the artists and the art form to higher levels—indicates an attitude that’s driving the growing progressive edge in hiphop, represented by such groups as the Roots and the Fugees, that sprung up as “gangsta rap” lay on its deathbed. The Union manages to goad and uplift its audience without indulging in the preachiness for which older acts like Public Enemy and new-age agrarianists Arrested Development were criticized.
Tonight the Union’s four-person core starts off simply with a type of lyrical warmup and then segues sharply into a high-intensity display of lyrical dexterity. On the musical side, the cadre weaves verbals over an audio mosaic of funk, soul, and dancehall snippets. The members of Freestyle Union take part in the newest wave of hiphop hybridity. Their samples blend fluidly into their live keyboards, drums, and guitar (so well in fact that I didn’t know they’d had problems with the sound system throughout the entire show until they told me afterward). What is most significant about the group, however, is that its performances are almost completely improvisational. Meaning that a split second before performance time, not even the performers know exactly what a song is going to sound like. And the songs don’t consist of simplistic glad-bad-sad, single-syllable couplets, either. For most of its live show the Freestyle Union fairly somersaults through a tongue-twisting display of rhymnastics. Subzero, for instance, subreferences like an Infotrac with a jammed search key, floating through a boombastic freestyle that contains allusions to Khalil Gibran, Mao, ex-boxer Livingstone Bramble, the China-Tibet conflict, Rosicrucianism, and Riddick Bowe’s lackluster performance in a bout the previous night.
The best line of the evening, however, is spun by a 17-year-old Duke Ellington senior, Beth “Baking Soda” Fomukong. Newborn dreadlocks swinging in sync with her furiously nodding head, she warns Seed that she could “get under your skin/Strip away your melanin/And leave your moms calling you Michael Jackson.”
Fomukong joined the group about two years ago because she wanted to “elevate as an MC,” and is one of eight female members of the Union. “Females come watch but often they won’t rhyme,” Blackman notes. “There are a lot more males than females.” The group is considering a series of females-only ciphers to encourage more women to participate. “The Freestyle Union has helped me find my creative and artistic center and mature as an individual,” Fomukong attests.
In the Darwinist world of hiphop, the art of the freestyle is often what separates the demigod from the screw-faced wannabe. Top-of-the-head rhyming offers not only the challenge of constructing meaningful rhyming phrases, but doing so while staying within a given rhythmic structure. Free-form lyricism, however, has become one of the first casualties of the increasingly corporate-driven craft of rapping. The classic conflict of artistic integrity vs. commercial success in rap is telescoped down to the streets vs. suites war for credibility that spawned the hiphop mantra, “keeping it real.” The hiphop cliché is shorthand for staying true to the cutting edge of urban culture, not the cartoonish gimmickry that is increasingly prevalent. Where generations of old-school artists honed their skills at innumerable basement jams and boulevard battles, many of today’s artists were FedExed into prominence based on their marketablility (translation: similarity to someone else whose release went platinum). And though rap has mined the wealth of its musical precursors, incorporating everything from the call-and-response of blues and gospel to snippets of archival sounds, the emphasis on hypnotically repetitive tracks has undercut another cornerstone of black music: improvisation. So beyond being an exercise in split-second word association, freestyling is another opportunity for rap to commune with its musical elders.
That the art of freestyling is being reincarnated in Washington is a slightly ironic benefit of the fact that the District, with the possible exception of Baltimore, ranks dead last among major East Coast cities in terms of industry recognition; D.C. hiphop pioneers like DJ Kool were largely ignored by the industry. Even the barren lands of Boston have their exemplars of b-boy wackness, Almighty RSO. The guiding principle seems to have been that Washingtonians listen to hiphop, but they don’t produce it. The recent success of Nonchalant’s “5 O’Clock,” however, might draw industry attention to Washington. But with the critical mass of local talent and relocated artists from other cities and enough diversity for a fair degree of musical cross-pollination, the District has already become fallow ground, from which the Freestyle Union has sprung up like wildflowers. “The vision keeps redefining itself,” Blackman notes. “Every time we think we have it down, someone comes along with another seed.”
And judging by the pumping fists and nodding heads in the crowd at Kaffa House, as well as the sweaty palms whose high-five collisions punctuate every other verse, the Union is more than equipped to keep it real. CP