COVER- Encore? Did a violence-free Jay-Z show just save local hip-hop?
It may not have been obvious to those in attendance, but the Jay-Z concert at John Paul Jones Arena on October 25 made history.
For the first time, JPJ officials had booked the University of Virginia's plush $130 million arena for a hip-hop show. Not only that, the 11,000 people in attendance composed the largest audience ever assembled for an African-American entertainer in Charlottesville.
In a town where officials shut down the public schools rather than integrate them 50 years ago, a show with mostly white UVA students coming together with mostly African-American Jay-Z fans from outside the university had the potential to be a momentous event in Charlottesville's sometimes troubled racial history.
There was just one problem. Given last year's two incidents of gunplay following hip-hop concerts, the event also had the potential to be a night that could end in violence.
The last time a big-name rapper came to Charlottesville was April 12, 2007, when Slick Rick played the now-defunct Satellite Ballroom. Toward the end of the show, the legendary MC performed one of his biggest hits, "Children's Story," about a boy shot dead after a botched robbery. It finished with the lyrics, "This ain't funny, so don't you dare laugh/ Just another case 'bout the wrong path/ Straight 'n narrow or your soul gets cast."
Apparently, some people didn't get the message.
As fans filed out to their cars in the crowded parking lot behind the Corner venue, two men exchanged 10 shots. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but the incident was scary enough for hip-hop to experience a months-long exile from Charlottesville.
Finally, a year ago, one club decided to try again. In late October of last year, the Outback Lodge began "Underground Hip-Hop Night," an event the club hoped would be a weekly Wednesday night showcase for Charlottesville's hip-hop scene that was beginning to thrive on the Internet via file-sharing and social networking sites like MySpace.
That hope was dashed in less than a month.
On November 15, 2007, one of the five bouncers on hand for the show reportedly ejected a man whose hand had been cut in a fight– or, as the man allegedly claimed, from broken glass.
Once outside, despite the presence of a police cruiser, the man waited gun-in-hand to settle the score. By 1:50am, a 20-year-old Louisa County man had a bullet in his leg.
In the year that's followed the Outback Lodge shooting, local venues have enforced a de facto ban on hip-hop. Except for an occasional show by young upstarts from the Dave Matthews-sponsored Music Resource Center, no act promoting itself as hip-hop has been able to get in the door of any local venue.
That changed in a big way on September 29 when the John Paul Jones Arena announced it would host Jay-Z, the first time it had booked a hip-hop act. (In 2007, the UVA Student Union booked Chicago rappers Common and Lupe Fiasco at the arena for a floor-only show, as well as a show by Danville rapper King of Kings.)
How big is Jay-Z? To date he's sold 50 million records worldwide, including a domestic total that's bigger than Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Buffett, Nirvana, or Frank Sinatra. In 2003, he sold out Madison Square Garden in 10 minutes. In 2004, he persuaded Paul McCartney to perform with him at the Grammys.
Last year, Jay-Z's American Gangster continued a streak of seven consecutive albums of his to reach #1 on the Billboard chart. If his forthcoming The Blueprint 3 continues the streak in December, he'll tie the Beatles for the record.
So with thousands of fans coming to town to hear music of the type that some say has touched off violence in Charlottesville, arena officials and local police were not about to take any chances.
Charlottesville police declined to release numbers, but clearly they deployed far more officers than were visible at the Elton John concert just a week earlier. Security guards at the door patted down each concertgoer for weapons, and they used metal-detecting wands to catch anything they may have missed– a measure that JPJ security has implemented only four timesamong the dozens of events it's hosted (the two Dave Matthews Band shows in 2006, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and King of Kings in 2007).
The security conditions seemed ripe for fan irritability, as concert-goers had to wait in uncomfortably close quarters for 20 to 30 minutes in 50-degree weather outside the arena.
Once inside, the opening act, New York's indie darling Santogold, put on a show that looked and sounded more like a post-modern art installation than a hip-hop set, complete with tambourine-playing twin robotic dancers dressed in oversized gold lamé jackets. It might have worked for an indie rock crowd, but fans there to see hardcore rap scowled in silence as she wondered aloud, "I guess you aren't really in a tambourine mood, huh?"
If there was plenty of opportunity for somebody to get upset, perhaps the anticipation for Jay-Z was enough to tide most fans over until his arrival.
"I'm just glad that for the first hip-hop show they booked someone who's straight-up black," said first-year UVA law student Elisabeth Epps. "He isn't warm-fuzzy black like Will Smith. It doesn't get more hip-hop than Jay-Z. It just goes to show that the only color that matters is green."
Local hip-hop producer Tron McAlister agreed. "If you want to know if this is successful, just look around," he said. "Money talks. People want to see hip-hop, and if people pay to see it, they'll book more of it."
One rapper on the rise is Atlanta-based T.I., the second opening act, who has already sold six million albums in his short career.
He also won't fall in the "warm-fuzzy" category anytime soon, if his JPJ set is any indicator. He tackled everything from firearms ("We way too fresh/ Work well with nines, AKs, and techs") to what he'd do to his enemies if he lacked a firearm ("You lucky, ho'/ A couple of years ago, I'da probably cut your throat").
Finally, at 10:30pm, the main attraction arrived. Amid fanfare supplied by his seven-piece band, Jay-Z took the stage and opened with "Say Hello," a song choice that could seemingly have been directed at the very critics who have been wary of hip-hop's presence in Charlottesville: "They say I'm a menace/ That's the picture they paint/ They say a lot about me/ Let me tell you what I ain't."
Both Jay-Z and his audience backed up that preamble for the next two hours. Inside the $130 million basketball arena, he emitted all the street-toughened braggadocio that has earned him the moniker "CEO of hip-hop," but he never once rapped about killing anyone.
Even in the evening's angriest song, "99 Problems," in which he vows not to forfeit his sidearm, the focus was more on strategy than firepower if a cop pulls him over for "doin' 55 in a 54": "I ain't passed the bar, but I know a little bit/ Enough that you won't illegally search my sh**."
All the while, fans were content to loudly, but peacefully, enjoy the music without any signs– save for the occasional whiff of marijuana smoke– of illegal activity.
And finally, as though he'd been briefed on hip-hop's troubles in Charlottesville just prior to showtime, Jay-Z made a stern plea to his audience.
"I need everybody to get home safe," he told the capacity crowd. "You know how they do with rap concerts. I don't want to hear, 'It's that rap sh** again.'"
And so just past midnight, the real test came. Would the night end as calmly as it had begun?
All seemed to be going well for the exit. But suddenly a bloodcurdling series of shrieks rang out from Massie Road. Startled fans walking north toward Barracks Road spun around.
Had one person lashed out and doomed someone else– not to mention dooming the future of hip-hop in Charlottesville?
The answer quickly became apparent, under the clear October sky, and a collective sigh puffed upward. The screams were just those of teenage girls swooning over T.I.'s muscular frame rendered on the side of his tour bus.
Charlottesville Police later reported that the night ended completely without incident.
So what does this concert's success mean for Charlottesville in the long term? Will hip-hop see a local revival, or will the blackout continue? Time will tell, but performers, promoters, community leaders, and the police chief agree on one thing: it certainly doesn't hurt that no one got hurt.
Damani "Glitch1" Harrison
MC, The Beetnix
One of the few Charlottesville-based hip-hop acts that has managed to survive, and indeed thrive, during this bust time for hip-hop has been the duo of Damani "Glitch1" Harrison and Lewis "Waterloo" Johnson, better known as the Beetnix.
In fact, prior to the freeze, the Beetnix became one of the only hip-hop acts to ever headline Charlottesville's premier music showcase, Fridays After Five, at the Charlottesville Pavilion.
They've logged nearly 30,000 page views on their MySpace page, they played to a packed Satellite Ballroom to say goodbye to that Corner venue, and are currently prepping their third full-length album, having already produced a video for the lead single "Citizen Kane" that attracted dozens of bystanders to stop and watch as they shot it on the Downtown Mall in August.
According to Harrison, their formula for hip-hop success is precisely because they don't market themselves as hip-hop.
"We've always promoted ourselves as simply music artists," says Harrison, who used to write for the Hook. "When we first started, we said we were hip-hop, but we found quickly that you box yourselves in in people's consciousness as soon as you do that."
While that lack of label might have first gotten promoters to listen, Harrison says he's earned promoters' trust with the calculated tone he sets.
"It starts with the flyers," says Harrison. "We don't make some glossy flyer that has a big booty girl on it that says, 'Ladies free before 10:30.' Instead, we've got really artistically designed flyers."
The message is reinforced at the door.
"We have meetings with bouncers and tell them to smile at everyone coming in," says Harrison. "We make sure they say, 'Thanks for coming to the show, hope you have a good time,' and really push that idea of setting a positive atmosphere."
That, Harrison posits, is one reason why the Jay-Z show was a success.
"From putting his band in suits to the way his speech is always intelligent, Jay-Z sets that same tone," says Harrison. "If hip-hop is going to grow in Charlottesville, it's going to have to adopt that same attitude of respectability."
General Manager, Jefferson Theater
Before signing with Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw to manage his soon-to-be-renovated Jefferson Theater as Charlottesville's newest fall-to-spring rock club (summer will be reserved for opera), Danny Shea built his reputation by building the town's most popular rock club, Satellite Ballroom.
Building it up out of a space that was once a billiards hall, the Satellite opened in 2005 booking both local and touring indie rock acts, and would soon grow into the go-to spot for such diverse artists as perennial hipster faves Yo La Tengo, singer-songwriter and Decembrists frontman Colin Meloy, tripped out bliss-mongers Of Montreal, and neo-soul fire-starters Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
In his experience, Shea says, the incidence of violence was no more frequent at hip-hop shows than any other genre.
"I've seen violence break out at reggae shows, heavy metal shows, punk shows, even country shows," he says. "It just depends on the amount of people and if it's going to be a raucous show."
Shea says the infamous Slick Rick show last April was plenty rowdy, but only in the best sense.
"There was no sense of tension in the room," says Shea. "Everyone was having a great time, everybody was leaving with a smile on their face."
When the crack of the gunfire pierced the night sky just after midnight, Shea took it personally.
"After everyone left, all of us, including Slick, sat at the bar and almost cried," says Shea. "I knew that was what everyone was going to talk about and what a shame it was because it was in such stark contrast to the vibe in the room during the show."
Still, looking back, Shea's not sure there's much more he could have done.
"Maybe if I had more lighting in the parking lot to the point where it looked like it was daytime," says Shea, "but we took security seriously, and made sure that not only was the show inside safe, but that it felt safe, too."
Still, Shea says that the ultimate reason behind the unfortunate events that night might be the same reason CVS Pharmacy bought him out this past April: location, location, location.
"When you're in the middle of a drunken zoo like the Corner," says Shea. "You're going to get a few knuckleheads."
That may have been an advantage that JPJ promoters had in ensuring a safe environment at the Jay-Z show, but that won't necessarily be the case come next year for Shea, when the Jefferson Theater reopens its doors to the Downtown Mall bar scene. Shea says he's encouraged by how smoothly the Jay-Z show went. He hopes to book a hip-hop act, he says, but adds that he'd have to consider the matter on a case by case basis.
"With any show, you have to look at the liabilities for each event," says Shea. "The goal is always to support shows where people have a good time and aren't interested in hurting each other."
Hip-hop dance teacher, Atlantic Coast Athletic Club
If you happened to have caught your grandmother getting down to Jay-Z's set, odds are you have Matt Steffanina to thank for it. He's the teacher of the popular hip-hop dance class at the Atlantic Coast Athletic Club, which is responsible for introducing an increasingly broad age range to the world of hip-hop.
"Most of the people in my class are teenagers or in their 20s," says Steffanina, "but I've got women as old as mid-5os up to 80."
So how exactly has Steffanina gotten your Great Aunt Tallulah into Tupac? He says that it's because the music isn't the focus of the class, only the soundtrack.
"We do the class in a glassed-in room where people walking by can see," says Steffanina. "There's always hesitance from my older clients when they see it on the schedule, but they walk by and see that people are having fun."
Still, even for those who go from participants to spectators, the musical selection can be a stumbling block.
"That's always the hardest thing for people to get over," says Steffanina, "but the music is always clean, none of the nasty or violent stuff. But in most cases, they'll eventually come around say, 'Gosh I never thought I'd like this music, but it's just so much fun to dance to it.'"
And yes, Steffanina says some of his more senior pupils were in attendance for Jay-Z.
"I had several come up to me and say, 'I've got my tickets, do you?'" he says.
Based on his experience of converting 50-somethings into 50 Cent fans, Steffanina says the key for hip-hop's survival in Charlottesville is to bring it out into the open as he has in his class.
"The whole reason people who aren't listening to it already sign up for the class," he says, "is that they see this is just another form of dance, it's just people having a good time, and that this is just another form of music. Something as simple as a free show on the Downtown Mall for a half hour could go a long way toward changing people's minds."
Owner, Outback Lodge
When last year's Underground hip-hop series at the Outback Lodge ended with a bullet in a concertgoer's leg, club owner Terry Martin decided he'd had enough with the genre, and banned it outright.
"I ain't going anywhere near it again," says Martin. "I stuck my neck out and did it at a time when my place already had a bad reputation. We had five bouncers on the floor and two cops in the lot. It hurt me, personally."
Not that this was Martin's first experience with a hip-hop show ending in violence. For this reason, Martin says that hip-hop's troubled reputation in Charlottesville is entirely deserved.
"I've been working in clubs in Charlottesville for 20 years," he says. "I do heavy metal shows, I do punk shows. I've only seen this happen at hip-hop shows. Anyone who tells you they've seen this at other kinds of shows is just trying to cloud the issue."
The fact that the Jay-Z show came off without incident doesn't make Martin any more likely to book any hip-hop shows in the future.
"The only reason nothing happened," says Martin, "is that there were police everywhere. The whole thing is whether the ones who screw up feel comfortable. If they feel comfortable and can take a place over, they won't think twice before pulling a gun. If they feel uncomfortable, they won't get stupid like that."
Not that Martin has anything against hip-hop music itself.
"It's a shame I can't have a hip-hop show, because the money in hip-hop is awesome," says Martin, "but if you continuously have problems, they'll take away your liquor license. I'm not going to risk my whole business to have one genre of music."
Chief of Police, City of Charlottesville
The man who was ultimately responsible for maintaining law and order inside the JPJ that Saturday night was Charlottesville's police chief, Tim Longo. While he and his officers successfully executed that task this time around, Longo says he was wary of the impact the music's thematic elements could have on the impressionable ears.
"I'm no fan of either of the artists that presented at this particular concert," he says. "I did, however, go to a website that contained some lyrics, and I was less than impressed with the language and the potential message that arguably promotes a lifestyle that does not honor family or community values."
It's the sort of moral breakdown that Longo says he's seen ongoing in his decades of law enforcement.
"Many of our youth are struggling through a time when youth violence has devastated communities and families," Longo says. "A lack of self-respect and respect for others has impacted a great many of our youth."
Longo says that among those youth for whom he worried in the audience that night was his own 18-year old daughter.
"I wasn't pleased with that decision," he says, "but I had to trust that the manner in which her mother and I have raised her thus far would result in good decision-making while in attendance."
Still, Longo worries that Charlottesville may not have seen the last of this show's impact, if people in attendance took the lyrics to heart.
"In my daughter's case, I had to trust the values we have instilled in her would serve to filter out the troubling messages that emit from some of the lyrics I've seen," says Longo. "I'm not certain that would always be the case with every young person subjected to such messages."