Most musicians thrive on companionship. The camaraderie of bandmates can make even the bleakest gig worth it. But many rappers toil alone at their art—not unlike novelists—in lonely rooms, staring into computers, composing beats and/or laying down vocals. Venues have rarely existed in New Orleans where aspiring emcees can interact with a crowd and experiment with their fledgling rap performance. But the multi-media hip-hop artists involved in the Soundclash beat battle series have helped New Orleans’ underground rap scene flourish as of late, in part by providing more than a few solo acts with a compassionate community.
Founded by Chuck “Lyrikill” Jones, his Eupham media and music company, and rapper Truth Universal, the Soundclash is a three-round battle between music producers who sign up and hurl beats at each other from disparate hip-hop styles. The crowd chants clever heckles, the host cracks wise, but all in fun. Better-known local rap artists judge the winners and losers, and in the case of a tie, the crowd makes the final decision. The champion takes home around $300 and time at the Soundclashaffiliated Hut Studios. Every Soundclash begins with an open-mic hour for green emcees, and the three rounds of beat battles are broken up with performances by seasoned rappers (all backed by DJ DefD, Truth’s brother,), but it was designed specifically to give producers face-time, critique and most of all, support.
“It seemed like there was a negativity in the rap scene before Soundclash,” says El Williams. He and partner Larry Legaux formed On Point Media, which handles promotion, marketing and web design for Soundclash. “In certain spots in the city I wouldn’t feel safe,” he says. “At Soundclash, people feel safe because everyone’s in it together. In almost a year and a half we haven’t had one incident. We even discourage booing. There are enough obstacles in the world, so when you’re up there performing, we want to keep that obstacle-free. I am not going to say it’s like family, but it’s a lot more positive when everyone in the room is working on the same goal.”
Truth Universal—a hip-hop fan and solider in the movement since an inspiring Lakefront Arena package tour featuring Clark Kent, Dana Dane, Heavy D, Public Enemy, and Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince—agrees: “The local rap scene is healthier now than I’ve seen it since the mid-’90s days of Mac and Storm, and Psychoward. There is a unity that wasn’t here before. The media coverage has definitely been different, and the artists’ initiative is greater. There are a lot of hip-hop things I’ve tried to do in this city in the past that would have gone over much better in this particular time and place.”
Truth cites the Tygah Woods crew’s Uniquity events, rapper and Nuthin’ but Fire record store owner Sess 4-5’s Industry Influence networking night, DJ MC Microphone’s regular Off The Dome emcee battle, plus recent national hip-hop shows featuring headliners Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, Jay Electronica, and Kidz in the Hall. In each case, around 500 people have packed a club on a weeknight. But Soundclash is different in that the number of performers and other duty-bound attendees on the first Saturday of every month can alone fill the Howling Wolf’s new smaller club, The Wolf Den, where the battle has lately taken place.
“We were one of the first hip-hop movements that realized we had to involve everybody,” says Jones. “Most rappers just want as many people to come out and watch them rap as possible. But I say to them: if you haven’t built up a buzz to make me interested in hearing you rap, then how about we make an exchange? I listen to you rap, then you listen to me rap, and each one of us can have a function here. Also, if you made beats, it used to be that you’d sit in the crowd while your friend rapped over your beat. But now you can get a little recognition. Plus, in the crowd will be 16 other producers, people from a photography company, four different groups of rappers. You go to a big House of Blues rap show and your function is to just sit there and watch, but at the Soundclash almost everyone has an important function.”
After attending a beat battle while displaced in Atlanta after Katrina, DJ DefD suggested that Truth set one up in New Orleans. Truth had seen videos of other similar battles in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. “Then Chuck and I attended the ‘Red Bull Big Tune’ touring beat battle from Seattle, and that was Chuck’s big inspiration,” he says. But Soundclash also grew out of a big group of hip-hop artists’ frustration at not having venues. “Collectively we felt like we deserved more opportunity,” Jones recalls. “We weren’t being given opening slots at big House of Blues rap shows, or even at Howlin’ Wolf. And since, at any of these big hip-hop shows, about 75 percent of the crowd are rappers, singers, producers, studio engineers and promotions people, we decided to get all these people together to start building up their stuff, our stuff, so the big clubs would have to respect us. Now we all support only those who support us.”
Jones, originally from Delhi, Louisiana, moved here in 1998 to take part in New Orleans’ “totally different culture.” Truth Universal was born in Trinidad and came to New Orleans at the age of four. Since 2002, Truth has also spearheaded the Grassroots! MC open-mic event, which he says has informed and aided the Soundclash movement while benefiting from the beat battle’s broader popularity.
“When Truth started Grassroots! in 2002, there were like 10 people there,” Jones says. “Nowadays these cats can get up, their first performance ever, and take the mic in front of 75 to 100 people.”
Truth, though, is quick to point out the differences in the two productions. “Soundclash brings together people from all styles, while Grassroots! is more a strictly traditional hip-hop crowd,” he says. “Grassroots! has different guidelines. Like, we appreciate if the attendees don’t express misogyny or homophobia. Cats who have that kind of content do come and perform, but they are mindful, and at least do songs that have less of that. We also ask cats not to come perform over finished tracks with vocals.” At Soundclash, Chuck will slyly make fun of you on the mic in front of everyone after you finish rapping over your pre-recorded vocals.
As for Truth’s direct contribution to Soundclash: “It wasn’t my idea, but DJ MC Microphone and I helped secure the venue, and I did have more of the mindset to build something with Soundclash because I was already bringing underground rappers through from Houston, Detroit, Chicago. But with Soundclash, we can offer opportunities to all different kinds of out of town hip-hop artists.”
According to Jones, “That’s our main thing right now, reaching out and networking with people outside of New Orleans. We’re doing this so that our local artists can consistently go to Shreveport, Jackson, Mobile—our own little Chitlin Circuit, so to speak. And because Soundclash is such a mainstay thing, we’ve been able to use the brand to book big out-oftown acts like Big Pooh and DJ PK1, in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.”
For now, the only female rapper in the Soundclash crew, KAMMs the SeKondElement, moved to New Orleans from San Francisco three years ago to attend Xavier University. KAMMs started out as a Soundclash fan and became official photographer and featured rapper. “The networking aspect is the biggest thing to me,” she says on her way to a Crescent City Radio interview at Loyola. “Before Soundclash, I didn’t know about the underground hip-hop and poetry scene going on in New Orleans. But since meeting these guys I got to do the big ‘Hip-Hop Is Alive’ photo shoot, plus the album I just dropped is almost all New Orleans producers and artists. The guy who plays the viola on there, he’s from New Orleans.”
Now that their numbers have grown, Jones and crew are aiming this momentum toward giving hip-hop itself a more positive name in New Orleans. He works for various non-profits and hurricane relief foundations, and the entire Soundclash crew has invested time in charity projects such as cleaning and reviving the St. Roch neighborhood baseball park. “My heart is really in working with the youth,” says Jones, who runs off a list of young artists involved in Soundclash: Ed Nix from ICU, Top Billions, Lyriqs da Lyriciss from Helen Cox High, and the live rap band Floopy Head from NOCCA. But more recently, Jones and Truth Universal began recording an album made by local youths ages 13 to 17. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) first presented the idea to Soundclash partner Skip Coon, a politically charged rapper from Jackson, Mississippi. Coon in turn brought the project to Soundclash.
“SPLC had donors who put up money to study the youth through music,” says Jones. “They wanted us to compare the older generation of music fans to the new generation. First we had the kids go through a dialog with a group of elders, about how the elders perceived coming up through that same age. The students then took that information and created music.” Twenty-five kids split into two groups; one with a guitarist and harmonica player who wrote singing ballads, and the other with Jones and Truth.
“Truth and I were there to help them with the fundamentals and structure,” Jones says, “like how rap music is based on 4/4 time, and 16- bar verses and eight-bar hooks.” After one kid in the class pounded out a rudimentary beat for the class to groove on, Chuck and Truth bucked the unfortunate trend started by Jay-Z and Lil Wayne and had the kids write their lyrics down on paper. “Freestyle to me is totally different than recording music,” says Jones. “I love to freestyle, but freestyle is for live performance. If you’re in the studio, you need to write.
“But at the same time, being raised on the golden era of hip-hop music as we were, we believe that it’s all about self-expression,” Jones concedes. “What was most important to me was teaching kids to be comfortable communicating. Often rather than communicating, they just fight—which is a way of communicating, sure. But if you teach people to really communicate, they won’t turn to fighting or shooting someone to get that point across. If a kid needs 32 bars to express himself, we really tried to help these kids be okay with being different. The criticism every rapper gets in the beginning is, ‘You sound like so-and-so.’ Which is fine, but at that point you should ask yourself, do you want to sound more like Lil Wayne, or do you decide, ‘I wanna be the next me’?”