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Monday, November 5, 2012

Thizzler's Bay Area Freshmen 10 Cypher: Local Hip-Hop Tries To Get Its Game On

Posted By on Mon, Nov 5, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Stevie Joe at the Freshman 10 Cypher.
  • Stevie Joe at the Freshman 10 Cypher.

Bay Area Freshmen 10 Class of 2011 Star Cypher

Rafael Casal, Richie Cunning, Mike-Dash-E, Show Banga, Young Bari, Damey, Young Gully, Lil Rae, Symba, Cousin Fix, Nikatine Da King, Shady Blaze, Erik Tha Jerk, Mistah FAB, Stevie Joe, Big Rich, Bailey

Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012

Brick & Mortar Music Hall

Better than: The "Home Turf" show on KMEL, though not quite as good as KMEL in its totality.

Hip-hop is certainly no meritocracy, and in a sterile, perennially under-nourished environment like the Bay Area, it can be a particularly tough line of work.

Just ask Stresmatic. A member of the once-famous Fairfield hyphy group The Federation, he's now an elder statesman of the Bay Area scene -- which basically means he's relegated to rapping hooks on other people's radio hits. He prefers listening to rock music these days (his new group is a rap-rock hybrid called 1st Place), and says it's doubtful The Federation will return to its original glory. "We all have kids," he explained.

Surprisingly, Stresmatic might be the last person to look at hip-hop with a jaundiced eye. Sitting in the sidelines at Brick & Mortar Music Hall on Sunday, watching a rather haphazardly-organized showcase of last year's "Bay Area Freshmen 10" -- a cherry-picked group of the region's hip-hop elite -- he seemed cautiously optimistic. He's convinced that The Freshmen 10 could serve as a viable talent incubator in a scene that traditionally hasn't cared for its young.

"It definitely still matters," the O.G. said, glancing over a mostly male, mixed-race crowd of fledgling emcees with backpacks, some of whom could accurately be called "disciples." He paused, searching for a useful analogy. "It's like football," he finally offered. "There's a lot of good people that might never get drafted."

In fairness, last year's class had more draft picks than most. It included erstwhile "It" girl Kreayshawn, former YouthSpeaks prodigy Rafael Casal, expert battle rapper Richie Cunning, and Interscope signee LoveRance. Most of them garnered fleeting attention from mainstream audiences, even if their popularity was short-lived. Only one Freshmen 10 pick, Pinole radio darling IamSu, has attained real longevity since KMEL DJ Amen launched the first Freshmen 10 iteration in 2010.

Big Rich
  • Big Rich

About half of the 2011 laureates showed up to the showcase at Brick & Mortar, which was also crowded with older members of the Bay Area scene -- among them Fillmore rapper Big Rich, who took over for the original host, San Quinn. (Quinn apparently had a family emergency.) Wearing an oversized "BR" medallion, Rich announced that he'd retired from hip-hop at age 30, having vowed to "not still be rapping at 31." That said, he wasn't above hosting a Freshmen 10 event, or advertising the new single he'd cut with a few other Bay Area rappers (They'd evidently finished before his thirtieth birthday.)

Mid-level hip-hop showcases tend to be slapdash affairs, and this one was no exception. Helmed by a self-made mogul named Em Dub -- who turned out to be Matt Werner, a clean-cut white guy with a "Thizzler on the Roof" blazer -- it started off with a group cypher featuring Cunning, Casal, and Mike-Dash-E, which was actually the highpoint of the show. Cunning wore a trench coat and knit cap that gave him the aspect of a low-class criminal in a French gangster movie, but he delivered a fuselage of perfectly-timed rhyming couplets. He's clearly one of the best rappers in the local scene, though he may never get his due.

Young Bari and PlaneJane
  • Young Bari and PlaneJane

Most of the audience members appeared to have some sort of mercenary interest, be it promotional (many people were handing out fliers and CDs) or carnal (there were also plenty of adoring "sweethearts"). Several people toted video cameras or documented the event on iPhones, a practice that's particularly conspicuous in hip-hop -- no other genre is quite as compelled to mythologize itself. In large part, the attendees had come to glad-hand and/or muscle their way on stage, which might explain why the event was so top-heavy with "surprise guests."

Werner, who started Thizzler on the Roof as a blog but transformed it into a well-intentioned "platform" for the hip-hop community, seemed remarkably tolerant. The long, deafening, mid-afternoon set by East Oakland rapper Stevie Joe, the rather unceremonious absence of San Quinn, the dissolution of a much-anticipated freestyle battle, and the rather prolix speeches of Big Rich -- which often devolved into shout-outs - all came as last-minute surprises, he said.

Still, Werner was pleased. He said he's changing the direction of Freshmen 10 by making it less beholden to mainstream radio -- in past years, the grand prize was mention on KMEL and a few spins on the station's "Home Turf" show -- and turning it into more of an "exclusive club." It's not clear how he's going to accomplish that, but he seems to have a good goal in mind.

Matt Werner, aka Em Dubious
  • Matt Werner, aka Em Dubious

"Home Turf is great," Werner said in an interview after the show. "But it's not proportional to the actual amount of talent here."

He managed a wan smile. After four hours of trotting around in a suit coat, trying to corral rappers and keep the showcase from veering into chaos, even the most bright-eyed of rap boosters couldn't help looking a little beleaguered. But he still had time to patiently explain his philosophy. "What it all comes down to is infrastructure," Werner said, adopting a tone of smug superiority. "As it is now, it's a little bit like the Wild West."

The Bay Area has never exactly been awash in hip-hop infrastructure, but Werner thinks he can rectify that, if only by imposing a sense of order and a regime change. Judging from the Sunday cypher, that might be a long time coming.

But Stresmatic has faith it'll work. He came at Werner's behest, after all.

Critic's Notebook: Matt Werner, on getting his picture taken: "I need to look like a drug dealer. That's the only way people will take me seriously."

-- @RachelSwan


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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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