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When Will Richmond Embrace Hip-Hop?

Local artists are making inroads playing the world’s most popular music. But they say it isn’t easy pursuing those dreams in Richmond.

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Editor's note: Some of the included videos are not safe for work.

In a small apartment off Forest Hill Avenue, hundreds of records surround one of Richmond’s extraordinary beat-makers.

His workstation in Belfry Court includes a wide stack of turntables, samplers and cassette decks that allow him to craft his unique and lo-fi hip-hop instrumentals, songs that sound like compressed, crackling collage pieces filled with bits of vintage soul and jazz, and synths so heavily manipulated they seem on the verge of flying apart.

His name is Bradford Caudle, aka Ohbliv — taken from his early rap persona, Bradford Oblivion. Though he has a prolific recording career, chances are you haven’t seen him perform locally. The Chesterfield County native rarely does anymore, he says, even as his reputation has grown nationally.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “I’ve had to go out of town to go where I was wanted.”

He’s not bitter, though. During the course of an afternoon, he comes across as unassuming and grateful, an attentive and loving father to his son, Jackson, a 7-year-old who keeps popping downstairs to show his latest art projects (Dad: “Is that an alien?” Jackson: “No, it’s a ball.”)

Numerous publications have credited Ohbliv with singlehandedly changing the direction of instrumental hip-hop. The popular Potholes in My Blog website wrote that “he’s a revered, SP-404-wielding OG in the game that’s been making dirteesoulhop for several years … with an appreciation for ’80s new jack swing, jazz, soul and gospel.”

Rather than chasing trends, Ohbliv says he’s an artist whose music is about feel and emotion. He doesn’t use beat-mapping technology, for example, to make songs adhere to the beat. “Some people consider a sampler as a tool,” he says. “I consider it an instrument. If there’s a mistake, it’s human.”

Ohbliv is only one of the prominent examples of a local hip-hop artist who had to leave Richmond to find his audience.

Richmond group Divine Council — featuring rappers Lord Linco, Cyrax and Silkmoney — has been championed by stars Erykah Badu and Andre 3000. The group also includes Chicago-based producer Icytwat. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond group Divine Council — featuring rappers Lord Linco, Cyrax and Silkmoney — has been championed by stars Erykah Badu and Andre 3000. The group also includes Chicago-based producer Icytwat.

More recently, a young crew of South Side and North Side rappers known as Divine Council has been gaining national notice, its music catching on through the Internet. With its oldest member only 20, the group signed a deal with Epic Records offered by legendary recording executive L.A. Reid. He heard their music by way of stars Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 of Outkast fame — whose young son played it for them.

Divine Council, too, says it tends to look elsewhere when it’s time to perform.

“Honestly, Richmond don’t give a fuck,” says Council member Silk Money, a heavy baritone rapper recently named by Rolling Stone as an artist to watch. “Venues don’t give a fuck. People who come don’t give a fuck. Except for these rock shows.”

“We go to New York, L.A., Texas, Miami — got mad love out there,” he says. “Richmond moves at its own pace.”

With a new EP, Divine Council wants to reintroduce its wavy vibe, at turns gritty and darkly psychedelic. It’s a sound members developed independently, holed up at Silk’s grandmother’s house on the South Side, cocooned from any local scene. The other two rappers in the group are Lord Linco and Cyrax Bathbwoy.

“We made up our own genre we call audio pastel, the beats we use and the words we say give you the feel of a color,” Silk continues. “L.A. Reid met us and was like, ‘... I ain’t changing sheeeeeutt.’”

When most people think of Virginia hip-hop, they think of proven stars from the Tidewater area such as Pharrell Williams, Clipse, Timbaland or Missy Elliott. Richmond is known mainly for rapper and ghostwriter Mad Skillz, who also serves as a tour DJ for Nicki Minaj, rapper Nickelus F. and the neo-soul and funk crooner, D’Angelo. The latter has a history of legal problems in his hometown and has done little to promote local ties or area artists — though Ohbliv says he came close once.

“I used to work at Barnes & Noble on Midlothian and D’Angelo lived near there and came into the music department,” Ohbliv recalls. “I gave him a tape of my beats. He called me later and asked me to rap and sing on the phone. We ended up talking and he said he wanted to offer me a deal on J Records.”

They talked a few more times, and then D’Angelo disappeared and changed his number. “My whole thing is I’m going to work my way back up,” Ohbliv says, with an edge of determination. “So next time we meet, we’re on more of a level field.”

Richmond is still defining itself when it comes to hip-hop. The music’s history runs deep here. The area was an early stopover for original stars coming from New York traveling Interstate 95. Yet the city never developed its own sound or identity, and never fully integrated its dance floors.

Crowd diversity is rising in some parts of town, especially considering hip-hop’s role in mainstream culture. Among local radio listeners, urban music is the most popular, with Kiss-FM 99.3/105.7 and 106.5 The Beat consistently leading ratings, according to reports from Nielsen. There’s also the popular iPower 92.1/104.1. And a throwback hip-hop station recently joined the market to a lot of buzz, G104.3.

But when it comes to nurturing a creative scene, Richmond has issues.

“Too many rappers and not enough fans,” laments Rob Fields, aka Black Liquid, a fast-talking DJ who’s witnessed three generations of local hip-hop.

“People always talk about how we should be like Atlanta. The real reason why [we’re not] is that we maintain a scene mentality where it’s artist-for artist. We’re told we’re not as good as, because we’re local rather than independent. When we have a local act open for a national artist, people don’t show up for the local act. Everybody talks about the artists, and we do have some shitty rappers, but it’s really the consumer.”

Lucas Fritz, owner and general manager of the Broadberry — which has been stepping up its hip-hop bookings — agrees that hip-hop artists seem more competitive with each other. “Indie rock is unified, the local hip-hop scene is almost the opposite,” he says. “They want to make sure they’re doing better than everyone else.”

Style spoke with a number of prominent figures within the local scene, from artists, DJs and promoters to academic historians and journalists, to better understand the state of local hip-hop and why so many artists feel they must go elsewhere to pursue their dreams. What emerges is a portrait of a talented and growing scene that remains fragmented and insular. There’s also a poor infrastructure for artists, who struggle to fight perceived stereotypes of violence, break through inconsistent media coverage and figure out the rules of the game from scratch.

One of Richmond’s most successful rappers, Mad Skillz, makes a cameo at the National for Art of Noise. He recently returned to producing and DJing, and is known locally for his year-in-review Rap Ups, which he’s made almost every year since 2002. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • One of Richmond’s most successful rappers, Mad Skillz, makes a cameo at the National for Art of Noise. He recently returned to producing and DJing, and is known locally for his year-in-review Rap Ups, which he’s made almost every year since 2002.

Six years ago, a pair of local rappers decided that the best thing they could do for Richmond was to showcase local talent. The annual Epic Fest, put on by Slapdash RVA, is held at venues across town and features up-and-coming rappers at various stages of their development.

Each year, founders Octavion X and partner Cain McCoy have tried to hone in on what excites people. Recently, this meant aligning their event with visual hip-hop culture, including art battles at their events.

“That’s what has Richmond bubbling, the visuals. So we started trying to ride their coattails somewhat,” Octavion says. “But every year we’ve tried to inspire new talent across the city and even different area codes. Before us, people were afraid to let their talent shine out there.”

But long-held stereotypes still hurt his chances with local venues and sponsorships, Octavion says. Bookers and owners don’t recognize the differences in the types of crowds attracted to the many different subgenres of hip-hop, he says, and there’s a prevalent attitude that hip-hop brings with it a violent element.

“For instance, at the Canal Club where we held our third Epic Fest, we never had any incidents,” Octavion says. “But there was a situation at an after-hours event there that didn’t have to do with us and the manager decided to ban all hip-hop events.” The manager told them it wasn’t personal, he adds.

Kathy Jacobs with the Canal Club says that it held a Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University party years ago and a fight broke out. “We have a restriction on our ABC license that prohibits us to do anything that focuses on hip-hop or rap,” she says in an email to Style.

Virginia ABC spokeswoman Jennifer Guild says the only thing state law imposes on licensees is “that they be able to adequately monitor and control activities on their premises, with or without entertainment and including all security measures needed. Unless there are pre-negotiated restrictions … on a license, Virginia ABC does not typically dictate the amount/levels of security needed at a venue.”

Jacobs didn’t retun a follow-up message seeking clarification.

Fritz of the Broadberry says it boils down to the club manager’s comfort level with the performer.

“There are higher costs with a number of shows, not just hip-hop,” Fritz says, adding that the only ABC issues he’s aware of relating to hip-hop would have to do with bottle laws — with an emphasis on buying bottles as popularized in hip-hop videos. In Virginia, the laws vary between champagne and wine and liquor sales.

DJ Lonnie Battle has played local nightclubs, house parties and recreation centers for more than two decades. Lonnie B. also has a radio show on iPower 92.1 and serves as a member of Heavy Hitters, a national group of tastemakers that includes Kanye West. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • DJ Lonnie Battle has played local nightclubs, house parties and recreation centers for more than two decades. Lonnie B. also has a radio show on iPower 92.1 and serves as a member of Heavy Hitters, a national group of tastemakers that includes Kanye West.

What’s more challenging is ramping up the promotion side, Fritz says.

“When it comes to hip-hop a lot of artists have a big presence on Twitter and Instagram, which can be difficult to promote because we don’t have access to fans like the artists do,” he says. “We don’t have many fans in the database yet. So we’re still trying to find ways to reach that crowd.”

Regarding Epic Fest, Octavion says other venues simply price him out. After one venue quoted him a price that he felt was exceedingly high — $6,000 and a $3,000 bar guarantee — Octavion reached out to other promoters to combat the negative stereotyping for shows. This is leading to increased efforts to self-police local hip-hop events so that a few bad apples don’t ruin the tree, he says.

Octavion says that many artists feel trapped in Richmond because the king-making power resides in big-city hip-hop media outlets — major radio stations and media such as XXL, Fader and the Source — which put less value on artists from a smaller market. “The major outlets for the genre are New York, Atlanta, Miami, L.A.,” he says. “Anything and everything is limited for hip-hop in Richmond.”

He says those who gain success in the industry, such as Skillz, are besieged with requests for help, even though he received little himself when he lived in Richmond.

“I’ve talked to Skillz about this in L.A. and asked him why he wasn’t doing more,” Octavion says. “Nobody’s asking for a million dollars, just for contacts and for him to act like he’s from here, or to tweet shout-outs. His response was everybody thinks on the outside that he has the power but they don’t know how things work … which is a good point.”

One of the most successful local hip-hop parties is geared toward an older, over-40 crowd. The Art of Noise, a DJ-focused event and “old-school gym-jam party” has thrown several sold-out shows at the National and landed the occasional famous cameos from guest artists such as Biz Markie. A recent show was packed with a loose and diverse audience, ready to dance.

The event was created by veteran DJ Lonnie B., who’s on air at iPower 92.1, and Kelli Lemon, who works at iPower as well as Kiss-FM. They say a cult following has developed and they’ve even taken the show on the road to Raleigh, North Carolina.

“In order to live a life sometimes you have to create it yourself,” says Lemon, who early next year is leaving her job managing Mama J’s to become what she calls a social entrepreneur, connecting people and continuing her various hip-hop themed pop-up parties across the city. “We’re saying don’t be afraid to let us in, or don’t think everything to do with hip-hop is hardcore or violent.”

Lonnie B. says their party is all about taking away labels and just playing “good music” they grew up on, which is now attracting a nostalgic audience.

They recently held a well-received pop-up DJ event at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The Kehinde Wiley exhibit was showing and the museum called to ask how it could “get hip-hop in the museum.” Lemon says she’s now planning pop-ups monthly.

Marc Cheatham sits at the head of the table during his Cheats Movement podcast, which recently celebrated its first anniversary. On Saturday, Sept. 17, Cheatham will take part in the Afrikana Film Festival moderating a discussion with a Duke University professor and producer, 9th Wonder. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Marc Cheatham sits at the head of the table during his Cheats Movement podcast, which recently celebrated its first anniversary. On Saturday, Sept. 17, Cheatham will take part in the Afrikana Film Festival moderating a discussion with a Duke University professor and producer, 9th Wonder.

Downstairs at Overcoast Studio on Main Street, a hip-hop roundtable is in progress. It’s strangely quiet as each rapper wears headphones and sits before podcast microphones, bobbing his or her head. Local hip-hop is playing between the interviews, and the silence is broken only by the occasional “Mm-hmm … Oh, OK … that’s dope.”

Manning the podcast is Marc Cheatham, creator of the Cheats Movement site and one of the city’s most outspoken proponents for hip-hop.

Part hype man and promoter, part media personality, part reporter, Cheatham founded his website in 2011. It’s become a crucial hub for local hip-hop information and has evolved from reviewing artists (“No more,” he says. “I learned my lesson there”) to covering the “intersection between hip-hop culture and community.”

Cheats, as he’s known to most, says that his movement and its familiar hashtag refrain, “we see it,” emerged to fill a void. “I was doing a photo blog at first,” he says, laughing. “Then instantly became the leading online media site covering hip-hop.”

He notes a lack of infrastructure and guidance for local hip-hop acts — still a relatively young art form when compared with other genres. “Outside of rapper Skillz,” he says, “there hasn’t been a signature Richmond artist who’s been successful in hip-hop, so you’re writing your own map.”

The Mad Skillz album, “From Where?” with its “golden-age boom-bap lyrical style” was the first album from Richmond to put the city on the map back in the ’90s, notes local hip-hop historian Kevin Kosanovich (see sidebar). “The apocryphal story is that he went to New York and was being brought along by [rapper] Q-Tip who, after he told him he was from Richmond, said, ‘From where?’”

Radio personality Kelli Lemon co-hosts the Art of Noise at the National, parties that usually are held the night before major state holidays. She also books at least one hip-hop themed roving pop-up party a month. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Radio personality Kelli Lemon co-hosts the Art of Noise at the National, parties that usually are held the night before major state holidays. She also books at least one hip-hop themed roving pop-up party a month.

Kosanovich believes that historically, issues surrounding stereotyping are reflected in numerous ways, including higher cost of insurance and security for shows that disproportionately affect predominantly black music like hip-hop.

“Fewer and fewer venues have been willing to put on shows due to the extra scrutiny,” he says. “Over the years, one incident would cause a venue to close and make it difficult to keep the scene alive. … Then again, hip-hop’s cultural DNA at its core is to be fragmented and run under the mainstream.”

Richmond’s location makes an established regional sound or identity more difficult, Kosanovich says. “What is Virginia? Is it the bottom of the North, top of the South?” he asks. “We get a lot of different influences but it makes it hard to pin down. The Richmond sound just doesn’t exist.”

But things are on the upswing, Cheatham says, noting that clubs such as the Camel, the Broadberry, Strange Matter and Gallery5 have increased bookings of hip-hop acts during the past two years. “The hip-hop community has never been as grass-roots as punk or rock in the past,” he says. “House shows are just now starting to do better here.”

Hip-hop proponent Noah-0 is working on a three-album trilogy named “Trillipino.” He’s also in talks with content channels about picking up the second season of his online show, “Evolution of Noah-O,” a collaboration with K-Swiss and RVA Mag. - PHOTO COURTESY NOAH-O
  • photo courtesy Noah-O
  • Hip-hop proponent Noah-0 is working on a three-album trilogy named “Trillipino.” He’s also in talks with content channels about picking up the second season of his online show, “Evolution of Noah-O,” a collaboration with K-Swiss and RVA Mag.

Talented local rapper Noah Oddo, aka Noah-O, is another vocal proponent for local hip-hop culture. He started his own label, Charged Up Entertainment, runs hip-hop nights at local clubs, holds shoe events — he’s an ambassador for K-Swiss — and gives back to the community.

“After a while, you can’t repeat the same thing, there’s a mindset that you need to blow up quick,” Noah-O says, noting the lack of opportunity here and frustrations within his own career. He also notes his background — he’s half-Filipino, originally from California.

“I don’t look like the typical rapper, there are no other white or Asian dudes like me [locally] who’ve done what I’ve done, get a video on MTV, etc.” he says. “Sometimes I feel like there’s people who don’t want me to be the face of Richmond hip-hop. But I don’t blame nobody for nothing, I’m real self-sufficient.”

When asked about seemingly segregated audiences and crowds within the local hip-hop world, Noah-O says it’s complicated.

“There are several different Richmonds: There’s real traditional hip-hop, new wave cloud rap or whatever, real street shit from the projects, underground house parties and college hip-hop shows, it’s real fractured,” he says. “There are deep lines within hip-hop. … It’s really about the crowd each type of music attracts.”

And many local hip-hop artists don’t want to work slowly up a ladder of clubs that grow in size, as bands in other genres usually do, Noah-O says: “It’s more like, put me in front of the largest crowd possible — right off the bat.”

 

After getting his master’s degree in marketing with an entertainment business focus, Ricky “Dreamer” Parker and his wife moved back to Richmond from Washington because he believes the scene is ready to emerge from the shadows of Norfolk.

Parker is co-founder and creative director of Dream for Purpose. He works with artists Michael Millions — featured in XXL and Stash for his Muhammad Ali tribute —Noah-O and Chance Fischer. He’s also an adjunct professor at Virginia Union University and is working with Style to identify up-and-coming hip-hop writing talent.

“Right now, Richmond may be more well-known for the production side than for its artists ... but the DMV (It stands for the District of Columbia, Maryland and Northern Virginia) is growing,” Parker says. “Connections are happening organically — Michael Millions, he’s an artist but he’s also an engineer working with different artists. I think you’ll see a lot of bigger projects coming out of Richmond in the coming year.”

Jessica Gordon has booked local concerts through her Trigger System for about 15 years, featuring all kinds of music. Clubs cannot afford to cater to one style of music anymore, she notes. In recent years she’s branched into booking more hip-hop and has noticed some things are different about working with the genre. She typically uses national booking agents and says that although styles vary, there’s an “accepted set of practices” for bringing an artist to town.

“Hip-hop defies all the rules I’ve learned,” she says, noting that many hip-hop acts book shows through a single manager, not an agency — even the larger acts. “So I’m not aware of any credibility they might have because you don’t know who the manager is. They want a deposit right away, and usually you feel confident with an agency that if the show is canceled, you’ll get your money back. But when you’re sending money to a random stranger somewhere, you just don’t know.”

Gordon, who also teaches English at Virginia Commonwealth University, says she’s had only one bad experience with deposits, where she lost $1,500, and it was for a hip-hop show.

Her other criticisms fall under an umbrella of professionalism standards: In this way, hip-hop comes across as far more loose and rebellious than rock-and-rollers or even young punk bands.

“It’s hard to know what to expect with hip-hop,” Gordon says. “Rock bands show up well beforehand usually. With hip-hop, the artists often just show up at 11 at night. Sometimes they send someone else to sound check, or don’t sound check at all,” she says. “It’s scary for the promoter because you’ve got a roomful of people waiting.”

Additionally, she says contract riders for hip-hop acts tend to include heavy expenses, such as specifying the need for pre-approved four- or five-star hotel rooms, often outside of her budget. “You might think it’s one guy coming, but he wants four or five hotel rooms,” she says.

Gordon has pulled off some successful hip-hop shows, but acknowledges that the extra hassles have made her slightly less likely to book the genre. While it’s always difficult to predict how well a show will do, she says, it’s especially hard with hip-hop: “I get the feeling there’s not as much of an established scene here in Richmond of people who will come out for those shows.”

Gordon says she thinks there’s a strong correlation, at least anecdotally, between the Richmond artists who are making national noise and their level of professionalism and commitment. “They tend to be bands that are really responsible,” she says, “answer your emails and do things on time.”

To address that issue, Octavion says he’s started to include seminars and bloggers within the Epic Fest as a means for artists to network and learn the business side of hip-hop, including how to market themselves.

Rapper and DJ Black Liquid is one of the foremost advocates for local hip-hop through his FM radio shows on both WRIR 97.3 and WDCE 90.1. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Rapper and DJ Black Liquid is one of the foremost advocates for local hip-hop through his FM radio shows on both WRIR 97.3 and WDCE 90.1.

University of Richmond might seem like a strange home for hip-hop, but its on-campus radio station, WDCE-FM 90.1, is host to one of the area’s first local rap shows. And the university recently produced a comedic white rapper, Lil’ Dicky (with an ingenious schtick) who was given a coveted nod by XXL magazine this year. Dicky straight plays up his "whiteness" while appropriating black culture, as seen in this video, which has over 54 million views.

There’s also a professor there, Erik Nielson, who wrote a brief with rapper Killer Mike defending hip-hop artists from lawsuits involving lyrics that received national media attention. As Nielson wrote in a 2015 essay for USA Today:

“No other fictional form — musical, literary or cinematic— is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with rap music, as well as the misconception that hip-hop and the artists behind it are dangerous.”

When reached by Style, Nielson says that he’s only beginning to learn about local hip-hop and isn’t yet comfortable being interviewed about it.

It’s likely that DJ and rapper Rob Fields, aka Black Liquid, plays the most local hip-hop of anyone through his two radio shows, “Hip Hop For the Rest of Us” on WRIR-FM 97.3 (Saturdays, 1-3 a.m.) and his “Hip Hop 101” (Mondays, 11 p.m.-1 a.m.) on UR’s WDCE, where he serves as hip-hop director. He also holds FaceMelt Fridays rap showcases at Strange Matter twice a month and this fall will release his 20th album as an artist. You can always see Black Liq outside of shows meeting fans, getting to know the audience.

Fields says the main reason local hip-hop doesn’t get played on the radio is that the game still revolves around “back-scratching and ass kissing,” and that mainstream radio stations must prove an artist’s viability for its commercial interests.

Michael Donovan, aka Mikemetic, and Afro Beta are celebrating the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington with a satellite event Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. at RVA Eventspace. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Michael Donovan, aka Mikemetic, and Afro Beta are celebrating the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington with a satellite event Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. at RVA Eventspace.

“Richmond is a hating-ass place, it’s true, but we hate shit until we love it,” Fields says. “This city’s never going to give a fuck about you, unless you give a fuck about Richmond.”

Lonnie B. says he’s heard a great deal of criticism for not playing local artists during his job as a disc jockey at iPower 92.1 (5 to 6 p.m. weekdays). “In 2016, social media, YouTube are breaking artists,” he says. “I tell people to build buzz first and then bring it to me. If you prove it’s a hit record, that people want it, I’ll play it.”

Lonnie B. notes that while online viral videos can make or break an artist, they also may be having a negative side effect. He says he thinks they’ve made local artists more lazy and unwilling to push as hard to learn the industry.

“At the end of the day, it all comes down to how bad you want it,” he says, noting that the Internet offers answers for those willing to do the research.

This sentiment is echoed by Sommer Regan McCoy, former manager for nationally known Virginia Beach artists Clipse and now the New York-based founder of the Mixtape Museum. She also sits on the board of directors of the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame’s artifacts, exhibits and preservation committee.

The members of Clipse were able to make it nationally because they were in school with like-minded friends such as Pharrell Williams all trying to make it. “They all moved together,” she says. “They basically pulled each other along.”

When she began working for the Clipse, McCoy says she was a liaison, taking meetings in New York while members were in Virginia. “They seldom performed in Virginia and when they did they hated it,” she says. “There were so many local haters. It could be a thing that’s not just a Virginia problem, it’s a local problem everywhere.”

Only three major record labels are left, McCoy notes — Universal, Sony and Warner. And while it’s still about whom you know, there’s less physical contact today because of the digital era. Being famous is more about social media presence than sales.

“Being a rapper is being a business major. … You have access online to find people,” she says. “You have to be resourceful and able to present yourself well, or find someone to do it if you can’t write a professional email. I get it, maybe there’s an educational barrier. But I don’t care how stupid you think you are, you can find someone to help you navigate. … I had to do everything for Clipse when [we] started.”

While McCoy has heard little about Richmond’s current rap scene, there’s reason to have hope: Veteran DJ Michael Donovan, aka Mikemetic, says the quality of local artists is at an all-time high.

Multi-instrumentalist Devonne Harris, or DJ Harrison, has drawn the curiosity of major rap names. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Multi-instrumentalist Devonne Harris, or DJ Harrison, has drawn the curiosity of major rap names.

He cites multi-instrumentalist Devonne Harris, or DJ Harrison, who has gotten props from Roots drummer Questlove, as well as Nickelus F., a revered lyricist with writing credits for Drake, and low-key artists such as Lil’ Ugly Mane.

“I often tell people that hip-hop is where rock ’n’ roll was in the ’80s: There are so many caricatures of artists that it seems like the majority of the industry has lost its mind,” Mikemetic says.

Too much of local hip-hop still is recycled (see trap music) and the artistic bar isn’t moving, Mikemetic says: “You have artists that don’t even have industry contacts trying to get recognized by buying into the industry formula of success, which is promoting a variety of socially destructive mindsets and behaviors.”

He emphasizes the need for strong hip-hop music critics in Richmond who can write objectively about the genre. “Most of the sites that do that now are more in it for popularity than for honest curation of quality hip-hop,” he says.

Historian Kosanovich says this happens nationally too, citing the Source magazine’s well-known conflict of interest promotion of artists tied to its corporate well being.

Mikemetic says hip-hop at its essence is still protest music that helps urban youth identify and relate with the reality of their surroundings. “The art form still provides a safe window to view the culture for those that aren’t able to — or have a desire to — experience it firsthand,” he says.

Richmond rapper Chance Fischer is teaming up with PBS for a “Hamilton” event at the Byrd Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 18, along with rapper Goldin. - STUART HOLMAN
  • Stuart Holman
  • Richmond rapper Chance Fischer is teaming up with PBS for a “Hamilton” event at the Byrd Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 18, along with rapper Goldin.

Chance Fischer has a smooth style about him. The 26-year-old rapper, a Cornell University graduate who also works as assistant general manager of Lemaire in the Jefferson Hotel, often shows up in a tuxedo to his concerts. He likes to keep things mysterious, he says, so audiences don’t know he’s the rapper.

Fischer grew up in the Randolph area and has been battle rapping since he was 12. In person, he’s a lively conversationalist.

“I’m not a hood-ass dude but I had to navigate a lot growing up,” he says, noting that he attended a private school through his church and then Richmond Community High School. “I’m not ivory tower either. I know what it’s like to be in the crib and only have Spam, or potted meat to eat; to live in a one-bedroom where I’m sleeping on a cot and we got to heat up water tonight to have a bath.” And, he adds, laughing, “I also know what it’s like to drink a $500 bottle of Scotch with the mayor of Los Angeles’ son at Princeton.”

Since 2011, Fischer has been making inroads in the local hip-hop scene, releasing four albums and opening shows for established stars such as Talib Kweli, who praised him for bringing out a crowd. He says he gets booked more than most partly because of how he looks and carries himself.

“Bookers don’t want the artists to be polarizing,” he says. “They don’t want the ’hood artists, but do want to listen to Gucci Mane — it makes no sense. They don’t want the ’hood artist until it’s culturally acceptable, or safe enough.”

“If you really listen to my music though,” he continues, “I am not safe for work or for children. … I have a song called ‘Candles’ where I talk about as soon as I wake up, I’m thinking about whether I got to carry my gun with me, because I don’t know if the cops are going to shoot me, or my own people will shoot me. … It’s really about the frustrations that push me to that boiling point.”

Fischer notes that it’s easier for rock bands to divide the chores of pushing their music locally, whereas for rap artists, usually it’s all on the individual. He says he often suggests that rap artists look to musicians in other genres for tips on booking shows.  

“Rapping in Richmond is a lot like being a civil rights activist — not only do you have to try to get your voice heard, you got to find the right channels to get your voice heard and have them trust you to suggest other people,” he says. “It’s a constant fight to find a place to be heard and be respected. You got to be present and find out all the details, like you would if you were pushing legislation.”

Eventually though, he says you must tour to advance. One of the hardest-working local touring acts is rapper Versace Chachi, who when reached by Style was on tour in Europe.

“People tend to sleep on Richmond artists as a whole, we have people out here making noise but they’ll never give us our full cred until we do the unthinkable,” Chachi says via e-mail. “As far as what’s happening in the city, it’s normally word-of-mouth or Facebook nowadays.”

Having toured Europe three times, Chachi wants his grind to be an example to Richmond rappers. When asked about any discrimination he’s faced, he says it’s mostly the same old stereotypes.

“They think majority of us are negative and preach bad things when we actually talk about what we have seen or witnessed in reality,” he says. “I even have a problem reaching out to certain people or brands because of my color. They usually don’t take me as serious until they go and do their homework. I wish people were more open-minded about African-American artists as a whole — not just in Richmond.”

Chichi Amobi holds three events monthly, including the Clash Party, which is usually the last Sunday of the month, often at Alcove Martini Bar or Visions Ultra Lounge. - CHICHI AMOBI
  • Chichi Amobi
  • Chichi Amobi holds three events monthly, including the Clash Party, which is usually the last Sunday of the month, often at Alcove Martini Bar or Visions Ultra Lounge.

Other struggling artists stay busy finding ways to break out of the small-town Richmond label. After pushing his last video “Eff Swag” hard locally and not seeing results, local rapper Chichi Amobi tried something different. He went to Los Angeles to film a polished, sexually explicit video for a new remix song, “Come See Me.” A week after its recent release, the video had racked up more than 62,000 views.

Amobi, who hails from a creative musical family, says he doesn’t think rappers can make it from here because “there’s too much beef and segregation amongst ourselves.”

“I’ve seen fans from Creighton Court not fuck with the most popular rappers from Broad Rock simply because the star from Creighton is in a feud with the South Side superstar,” he says. “I created the Clash Party showcase to try to help break down those barriers and it has helped tremendously, but we have a ways to go.”

More of an entrepreneur, Amobi also runs 2 Dope 2 B Local showcase, hiring a credible judge and giving $350 to the winner, and recently established the I’m Radio Ready showcase with the winner getting his or her single played on 106.5 The Beat, as well as an interview with DJ Kay Lyke.

While it’s clear that Richmond hip-hop artists can make strides in many areas, national notice still is most likely to come from three primary avenues: the all-powerful hit song, taking the art form into new places with greater creativity, and perhaps, like hip-hop groups of old, by making lyrics more meaningful again.

Kosanovich says Richmond has the potential to create some of the most important music in the region. “Looking at Black Lives Matter, police violence, racial tensions and issues that have existed historically,” he says, “what better place than the former Capital of the Confederacy than to give voice to these issues?”

One person already working on this is instrumentalist Ohbliv, who says he’s looking at ways to create historically themed works under the alias Dark Twain, compositions that deal with Richmond’s painful history.

And when it comes to the members of a young rising group such as Divine Council, most recent on the national scene’s radar, don’t think they hate Richmond as much as it sounds — or that they’re unmotivated to embrace their hometown.

“Just because Richmond don’t show us no love, doesn’t mean we don’t want that shit,” Silk says. “At the end of the day, Richmond made [us] who we are.” S

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