On Wisconsin rap and writing our history the right way

Wisconsin hip-hop is on the rise—and we must hold journalists accountable for how they cover it.

Attendees at a packed hip-hop show earlier this month at Lothlorien Co-op. Photo by dhvnsen.

Attendees at a packed hip-hop show earlier this month at Lothlorien Co-op. Photo by dhvnsen.

Wisconsin hip-hop is at a point where the excitement is palpable and the first big stars continue to inch over the horizons with every click. From where I sit—five years spent in the Madison scene, with campus roots and city ties—I never anticipated bearing witness to this new wave. I paced off a plane with my family in the summer of 2011, expecting to see only cornfields. I never even visited UW-Madison before accepting my admittance. My father told me, “You’ll see it when you get there.”

Prior to my touchdown, I tiptoed through my adolescence in auditoriums and community centers all across the DMV area, pawning my first scribblings for the nearest token. I started with poetry slams where I could score the occasional $20 Visa Gift Card if my poem didn’t get edged out by someone singing or doing a Michael Jackson dance routine. Eventually, I began recording myself in my basement, went to Los Angeles to compete with a Maryland team in Brave New Voices, and got my first shows on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. where my peers slowly laid the foundation for the DMV’s new wave.

My first thought, fresh off the plane, at age 17: Why the fuck would I want to live in Wisconsin? My second thought: How the fuck can I be a rapper in Wisconsin?

As I stumble through age 22, both questions are being gently hushed into obsolescence. We’ve found the niche, we’re still finding the people, and the talent we’re surrounded by is no longer hidden in myth, but exposed in a loud and youthful truth. The gatekeepers are no longer necessary, and Wisconsin MCs are exemplifying that in a way that makes me proud as both a participant and documentarian.

Five years in Madison taught me how to lay a personal foundation for a scene to blossom while contributing to a community in ways that extend past the art form. But five years in Madison is more than enough time for me to observe how similar patterns of discourse continue to rear their ugly heads and halt our collective productivity yet again. As the new wave continues to build itself, some talking heads are observing that youthful energy and taking every chance to capitalize on it while the opportunity is ripe for the taking.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a venue impose a year-long ban on hip-hop (and repeal it days later), a bunch of local artists play all-ages DIY hip-hop show with over 300 attendees, and HipHopDX run a feature cataloguing a large array of artists from Madison and Milwaukee in an effort to shine more light on how progressive this culture is becoming. These moments coexist on a timeline that’s reflective not only of the growing pains, but also of the scrambling excitement that permeates any young scene: incidents of violence or tragedy, missteps reflective of larger systemic issues, and responses to the aforementioned in physical and digital form.

Madison-born rapper/freelancer Clifton Beef penned that HipHopDX feature about Wisconsin rap by utilizing his connection to a national outlet in an effort to showcase and celebrate Wisconsin rap’s positive steps in the right direction to taking off. But upon closer examination, the piece is not only plagued by several factual and stylistic errors—claiming that IshDARR was flown out by Atlantic executives to record is Old Soul, Young Spirit EP, skewing background facts about WebsterX and NAN—but is clearly written by an individual who promotes and postures his own brands and endeavors within. On his Basement Made site— which features Midwest artists as well as his own music—Clifton touts himself as “one of the most influential Hip Hop journalists in America, and one of the most popular Hip Hop artists out of Wisconsin.”

After Madison artists Ra’Shaun and Trapo co-headlined a show at the Lothlorien Co-Op on March 18, in coordination with local promotions upstart Strange Oasis Entertainment, local promoter/manager Brennan Haelig published an article on college music blog IndieU titled “Madison Rap Showcase Proves Hip-Hop is Here to Stay.” In the piece, Haelig championed the DIY night as a huge success in light of The Frequency’s ban and the city’s prevailing attitudes about hip-hop being too violent and only causing trouble. Unfortunately, Haelig is also one of the faces of Strange Oasis, which threw the same Lothlorien show he covered in the IndieU story.

Both pieces are opportunities to document the rise of our community, so where’s the problem? Why should you, the readers and listeners, care as long as we’re being mentioned? Because some contributions to the narrative we’re building have been much more genuine than others, and we cannot afford to let ulterior motives and public relations to overcome good, thorough journalism that portrays the work we’re doing together.

In the realm of documenting the rise of Madison’s scene as a city, in the context of Wisconsin as a state, to stand in the national conversation of other hip-hop metropolises—New York, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the like—the citizens who place a premium on continuing to support and foster the growth of our community must maintain a watchful and critical eye on who’s telling our stories and what their motivations may be for doing so. We’re continually being thrust into the archaic canon of Cheeseheads and Badgers when the diversity of artists in our community—queer artists, campus artists, city legends, and community organizers—stretch far beyond the state-school stereotype that many writers attach themselves to.

For the sake of argument, I’ll disclose my own biases here: I performed at the Loth on March 18th as well. I started the #NoMorePartiesOnWestMain hashtag to boycott The Frequency banning hip-hop again. I have personal friendships and working relationships with several members of SOE staff and the artists they work with. I’m an alumnus of the First Wave scholarship community at UW-Madison, which Clifton claims has had “mixed results” in bridging the gap between city and campus artists in Madison. IndieU has covered my music. I’m not on the HipHopDX list.

I’m not without my allegiances and I have my own motivations as an artist and a writer. No one is free of their biases. But for the five years I’ve been here, I’ve learned where and when to bite my tongue for the sake of doing good work that prioritizes thorough, critical, and effective representations of other individuals and communities over my own personal advancement. Even if 10 people in cyberspace read about what we’re doing here, it’s essential that the pieces they find are diverse and accurate, instead of PR jobs on blogs and rushed, jumbled listicles that only put the homies on, reinforce tired stereotypes about women artists (if they’re mentioned at all), and pat oneself on the back without paying attention to what happens outside the computer screen.

It’s no longer a question of who earns the privilege of documenting everyone on the come up; we all have access to the same tools and the same right to tell this story together. This battle will always be subjective anyway—that’s the fun in spirited debate that’s rooted in hip-hop’s DNA, never to die out. My only wish is that the readers, the listeners, and the fans maintain their precious critical eyes on the media that represents them and the people speaking on their behalf.

If we want our spot in the conversation, we cannot afford to skip the homework.

Writer’s note: Here are a few artists I’d love to throw into the conversation: Siren, Zed Kenzo, ME eN YOU (collective), Broadway, Queen Tut, Chakra Blu, Smiley Gatmouth, Sean Avery, Rich Robbins, and Trebino, just to name a few.

Correction: To our dismay—and with some cruel irony—we managed to make an error about someone else making an error. The original HipHopDX error stated that IshDARR was flown out by Atlantic executives to record the Old Soul, Young Spirit EP. Clifton never stated that IshDARR was signed to Atlantic. Both details are incorrect. This has been amended, because we pride ourselves on integrity and correct our errors when we're wrong. We pray our peers will do the same.