The local hip-hop community celebrates a big milestone Saturday, when the Grassroots! concert series celebrates its 10-year anniversary at the Dragon’s Den. Lyrikill, Chels, Thaione Davis, Marcel P. Black will perform with resident DJ Def D and founding host Truth Universal.
Grassroots! has been crucial to the underground hip-hop scene in New Orleans. It began in 2002 at a time when Cash Money and No Limit Records‘ mainstream rap dominated New Orleans, and provided not just a space for alternative performances, but a model for the future. “Grassroots! has created a trend of unity and togetherness within New Orleans hip-hop,” says Lyrikill, who has been involved with Grassroots! since its beginning. “Events like Writer’s Block, Soundclash, Uniquity and Certified NOLA are all influenced by the local showcase-themed events that Truth Universal and Grassroots! brought to life ten years ago.”
In the early 2000s, booking concerts was difficult for underground rappers. “It just seemed like we weren’t being taken seriously,” founder Truth Universal wrote via e-mail. “I personally remember letting some talent buyers know I was interested in some concert openings, and it was one excuse after another, or no response at all.”
By hooking up with other like-minded MCs and DJs, such as Raw Poetix, Nabii na Dada, DJ Redd Slick, and DJ E.F. Cuttin and Psychoward, Universal started playing shows at whatever venue would book them. “I was really influenced by an excellent band called Soul Remedy,” Truth Universal says. “They had genuine initiative and an untiring grind ethic. I adapted those things. I was already a part of the Konscious Party collective. I helped Nabii Bastet and the Kuumba Academy camp with that weekly. We did that for a while at the Warehouse on Earhart.
Once he started playing gigs in other cities, though, Truth Universal noticed the weekly and monthly series that had cropped up in places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Milwaukee to support their local hip-hop communities. Many even had radio shows, local access TV shows, and publications devoted to local, underground hip-hop. “[New Orleans] had most of those things,” says Truth, “but not really working together. I wanted to do it all, but I thought the best use of energy would be to contribute with the “Grassroots!” showcase series. I had this vision to link a lot of the existing showcases in other cities as a touring circuit.
“I had heard that Neighborhood Gallery on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. had an auditorium next to its gallery. I went to check it out. It was perfect! I hit it off instantly with Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker, who owned the gallery. We started the next Saturday I think!”
The early days weren’t easy. Needing equipment, Grassroots! would rent a P.A. from the New Orleans Music Exchange. “No one but maybe E.F. [Cuttin] knew how to work that thing. The sound would be horrible until he would mix it.” Several shows stand out as special though. One was an album release party for Euphonetiks, a group of Dillard students that included Lyrikill. “The place was PACKED!” Truth says. “It was like the whole Dillard campus came. [Euphonetiks] had an outstanding set as well.” Other standout shows were the frequent performances by Psychoward, who were consistent contributors to Grassroots!.
One memorable set by a non-local group was from Bay Area duo Zion I. “There were a lot of children in attendance,” Truth Universal remembers. “Most of them had never really been to a hip-hop set like that; it was their first time being exposed to something like that. They absolutely loved it. One of my good friend’s children, who is in high school now, still remembers that.”
Like so much else in the city, Grassroots! struggled to continue after Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, Truth would host occasional Grassroots! shows and would hang its banner at his own performances, but momentum didn’t pick back up until late that year, when Willie Noveck and David “BRX” Kubicki (a.k.a. DJ Proppa Bear) took over management of the Dragon’s Den. They were familiar with Grassroots!, and were glad to make the Dragon’s Den the new venue for the series. In February 2007, the second half of Grassroots! life began in its new home, and they’ve been going strong ever since.
In the years since, the work has become easier for Truth Universal, both from his experience and help from Holly Hobbs and DJ Def D, who comes to town each month from Atlanta for the series. What’s still difficult, though, is the struggle to spread a conscious message in hip-hop. “Those artists who make it a point to overtly address social issues are the minority in most places, and that’s the case here. I can still count those artists on one hand. But in addition to that, people who are exposed to adverse conditions, as a lot of us have been here, have a desire to affect change by addressing issues and conditions with their music. The more dire your circumstance it seems that there is a greater opportunity to become more politically astute.”
Here’s to Grassroots! for nurturing that political opportunity.
Grassroots! celebrates its 10-year anniversary Saturday, February 4 at the Dragon’s Den. The show starts after Krewe du Vieux has passed. Tickets are $5. More info.