Pooh Bear and Yummy are killing right now.
The mixed-race crowd of 10 or so people huddled around them in front of George's Union Station is digging every insult and anecdote Pooh Bear and Yummy sling at one another. There's hardly a moment for the two men who, combined, come in at around 600 pounds to breathe between their riffs.
Not long after Pooh Bear is berated for somehow looking like both a retired football player and the child of former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, Yummy throws on more salt. He launches into a set about the time his mother chased a young Pooh Bear out of the house by trying to roundhouse-kick him.
Pooh Bear jokingly hangs his head in shame as the crowd bursts into an uproar.
"You can't let him play you like that!" another friend, Big Noah, yells at Pooh from a nearby chair.
But Yummy again reacts before Pooh.
"It's a little fat-on-fat crime," he explains matter-of-factly. "It's all good."
Yummy pats Pooh on the back as the crowd again bursts into laughter. Pooh nods. No offense.
The show's over. Yummy and Pooh step down from their imaginary stage and rejoin the rest of their crew in small talk.
At the center of this tight-knit group sits Dominick Garcia, a light-skinned 28-year-old who is quick to say that he doesn't even know his racial background. His arms are crossed, and he's smiling proudly.
These are his friends, his family. And tonight's event the hip-hop battle that will begin on the bar's stage at 11 o'clock is his, too.
As time goes by and the crowd outside the bar grows, it is Garcia whom the newcomers consistently approach first. They hug, handshake and high-five him, exchanging quick pleasantries and paying their respects before moving to the rest of the jovial crowd. It seems to be an unspoken but anticipated even expected practice.
Still, the mood is light. There's no tension in this crowd. No worrying. No fear.
Everyone seems to know everyone else if you're not a brother or cousin or nephew or uncle of someone already here, you probably played football with someone in high school, or met someone back when they could barely walk. Given as much, it's an affable, hospitable bunch.
Yet these are also the people that the Colorado Springs Police Department might call some of the city's most dangerous.
On July 11, CSPD released a statement to local media outlets, expressing worry over the local hip-hop nights taking place at downtown bars and nightclubs.
"A number of downtown establishments within Colorado Springs have "Hip Hop' nights at least one night per week," the statement read. "Within this genre of music, there are artists that glorify criminal behaviors with a style of music commonly called "Gangsta Rap.' This style of music has the tendency to attract gang members which often results in criminal activity requiring a police response. We urge parents to be aware of these concerns and do some screening as they see appropriate in terms of where their children are allowed to go as it relates to teen nights and concerts."
Lt. Skip Arms, the CSPD public information officer who released the statement, explains the reasoning:
"When we say "to serve and protect,' part of the protecting is getting information out so people can protect themselves, and that may be through making choices of where to go or not."
The release specifically called out Eden Nite Club for its hip-hop night, which had been involved tangentially in two recent deaths that the police are still, in some shape or form, connecting to the hip-hop scene.
On April 18, Terry Lee Wilson on April 18 was killed by a stray bullet as he drove a cab near the venue's 217 E. Pikes Peak Ave. location. Then there was the death of Diontea Jackson-Forrest. While the police have yet to determine if Jackson-Forrest was at Eden that evening, they have concluded that the suspects in that case were involved in a tiff that started at the club and later moved to Memorial Park.
They're not wholly isolated events. On Dec. 15, rapper Dat Boy O was killed in a rented room at the Chief Motel; though the incident was unrelated to his hip-hop ties, it remained a blow to the community. And then, on May 28, Anthony Michael Grimaldo was shot and killed at a liquor store not too far from the gang tension-filled Memorial Day hip-hop concert he had attended earlier that day.
For the CSPD, the two Eden-related incidents were enough reason for the department to contact the club's managers and dissuade them from continuing their hip-hop events.
"They may only [play gangsta rap] a little bit over the course of an evening," Arms says. "But generally, the clientele that the gangsta rap attracts or the message that gangsta rap sends out is the message that we feel is an issue.
"The thing that we wanted to make clear," he continues, "is that we were not broad-brushing hip-hop as being bad."
But that wasn't the message received.
An ugly subtext
On Aug. 4, the Gazette ran a front-page story on the local hip-hop scene and its response to the police department's press release. While the article skimmed the surface of the scene's troubles, the response shed light on some other feelings in the Springs at large.
Dozens of people logged on to gazette.com to discuss the story in the article's comment section.
"Hip hop is not a culture!," wrote commenter Shocked. "We call [it] a GANG!"
"I hope your kids grow up to be just like those who listen to your trash," wrote commenter the lone Cracka. "Ignorant, useless to society, and a disappointment to you."
"Is it any surprise that hip hop, blacks, and crime go hand in hand?" wrote commenter Clayton Bigsby.
Though members of the local hip-hop community, including people quoted in the article, posted back in defense of their community using their birth names instead of pseudonyms their attempts proved futile.
"Black people commit a lot of crimes," wrote commenter keeping it real, "and where can you find a bunch of black people? At hip hop spots."
"70 percent of blacks make better tree ornaments than productive citizens," wrote commenter Statman.
It was a frightening display of bigotry. And though there was some sense of resolution toward the tail end of the comment-board discussion the issue of racism took a back seat to the music genre's glorification of sex, money and drugs the ugliness that was revealed earlier left a permanent mark.
Dead or alive?
Local rapper Teqnyc, born Carl Brown, admits that hip-hop tends to glorify the bad guy. He even acknowledges the number of gangbangers Crips, Bloods, Sudenos, others within the Colorado Springs scene.
But not everyone is like that, he explains. He offers himself up as an example: He's a 27-year-old Verizon store manager with a 5-year-old child, and he coaches youth football in his spare time.
He also knows that examples like himself are likely not enough; those prone to listen to stereotypes tend to ignore the positive.
"They say actions speak louder than words," he says. "They should have said your actions speak louder than words, unless you're a rapper."
This isn't just a local phenomenon. Brown points to a national scene where the socially conscious rapper is shunned. (Common, whose Finding Forever debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts earlier this month, is a notable exception.)
When radio host Don Imus made inflammatory remarks about Rutgers women's basketball team, the racism debate quickly devolved into another about the influence of hip-hop on modern society. Led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the nation's African-American community questioned support of hip-hop and its glorification of drug-running and misogyny. Sharpton hosted a "Day of Outrage" protest and questioned hip-hop's use of "free speech" in defense of its subject matter.
Sharpton's sentiments were nothing new. For years, even hip-hop leaders Russell Simmons, Jay-Z and Nas have criticized the direction of their craft. Nas, in particular, has been outspoken, titling his most recent album Hip Hop is Dead.
Brown notes the accuracy of Nas' recent damning album title.
"Hip-hop is dying," he says.
And in Colorado Springs, he admits, an affection for gangsta rap is helping kill it.
"It's sad in the hood'
With thunderous clouds gathering above him on a dark afternoon, Dominick Garcia sits at a picnic table on the south side of Memorial Park.
"This is the hood," he says. "There's so much love and family values in this city. But it's not looked at in this part. It's the same here as it is up north."
Yards away is the site of the Memorial Day concert that Garcia, along with promoter James Baldrick and local rap artist Scorp, staged here.
There were evident gang tensions between Bloods and Crips at the event. But aside from some pushing and back-talking, nothing happened on-site. Garcia repeatedly grabbed the microphone to explain that such actions were not what the event was intended for. He even brought local gang leaders on stage to shake hands and quash spectators' concerns. Still, police continue to connect the show with Grimaldo's death that night.
Garcia adamantly argues against the connection, saying he knew Grimaldo and talked with people who had been at the liquor store at the time of his death.
"It had nothing to do with hip-hop," Garcia says. "It had nothing to do with gangs. It was just a couple of guys trying to act tough with each other. And then the young one pulled out a pistol.
"It's easy to say that the problem is hip-hop."
He waves his arm across the scope of the park.
"This is hip-hop," he says. "I am hip-hop. That basketball court over there is hip-hop. It's the urban culture. That's what the rap music comes out of, this urban culture, this environment. That's why the music is so violent. But it's so real."
For 16 years, Garcia aligned himself with the local sect of the Bloods. He freely admits that his rap sheet is long and incriminating. At 14, he was arrested for attempted murder.
Now, though, he speaks about it with an air of contempt. He's out of the game, he says. He wants to see it all change. Things aren't the same as they once were.
"It's sad in the hood," he says with a shake of the head. "The young guys out here, they're quick to shoot, man."
He blames drugs.
"That's what these killings are over, the drugs," Garcia says. "And it's a big fucking problem here. The cops have never been able to deal with it, even when I was a young kid, before they had the helicopters and everything."
Garcia actually invited police to the Memorial Day concert. At least 10 cop cars showed up. That's why he's shocked that the police still consider his event the catalyst for the incident.
"Hey," he says, with a shrug of his shoulder. "You guys were there."
Policing the scene
Lt. Arms says he knows that not everyone who listens to hip-hop is a gangbanger. Still, he worries that a place blasting it from a sound system may attract people who are.
On a recent Wednesday night, three police cars pulled into the parking lot in front of Union Station. Officers approached and began questioning a man hanging out by his car. Eventually, finding no foul play, they allowed the man to return inside.
Afterward, club owner Randy Kotterer asked the police about their concerns. Their response? According to Kotterer, they showed disgust in his willingness to host a hip-hop event. Kotterer says he return-volleyed with the fact that, for the past three years, he has hosted a version of this weekly show, making his venue's hip-hop event the longest-running in town. He asked the officer to recall a time in recent memory when there had been an issue or phone call related to it. The cop had no rebuttal.
Still, Kotterer says he understands the police's concern.
"The cops aren't just making this up because they don't like hip-hop shows," he says. "There's an association. I mean, it's common sense. The cops aren't dumb. They know. This is what they do for a living."
Kotterer worries that too many clubs are most concerned with "filling their drawers" on hip-hop nights. Because his event is held on Wednesdays, not typically a big night, he says he can host his hip-hop shows without worrying about the bottom line.
That, Kotterer says, allows his staff to set some ground rules. Though Union Station doesn't enforce a specific dress code, its employees will not allow entry to people excessively displaying gang colors or wearing saggy pants. His staff also keeps an eye out for gang signs being flashed on stage or in the crowd. He says his bar isn't a place for people to "represent."
"Colorado Springs is not a violent place," he says. "I was born here. I grew up here.
"It's a couple of apples ruining the whole bunch," he says. "But a good apple rots real fast when it's next to a rotted apple."
A few hours after Pooh Bear and Yummy's comedic offering, the night is in full swing inside Union Station. Though billed as a hip-hop battle, it quickly becomes clear that the term is used loosely.
There's no 8 Mile-esque freestyling officially on the bill. Instead, groups and individuals are pitted against one another in a summer-long tournament bracket format, where they perform a handful of songs from their catalog and move on to future rounds based off crowd response.
Backed by crowd demand, though, it seems as if all the competitions this evening even the not-so-close ones are deemed a tie and put into sudden-death, back-and-forth freestyle competition.
During the evening's second competition, a particularly heated showing between Infinite, of the S Dot crew, and a horde of members from a group known as the Untouchables, there is a debate over how many songs each crew can perform. Infinite does three. The Untouchables only get two.
After a sampling of crowd response and multiple pleas made to Black Pegasus, the local rapper with a national distribution deal who hosts this event, this competition, too, is sent to a one-on-one freestyle tiebreaker between Infinite and Young J of the Untouchables.
The members of the Untouchables whoop it up on the stage as the crowd encircles it. Things start getting rowdy. Black Pegasus and Kotterer plead for only the two battlers to remain on stage, but no one really listens. As the two men each offer up a pair of 30-second improvisational insult assaults at one another, things grow personal.
Young J mocks Infinite's dress and apparent lack of street cred. Infinite mocks the Untouchables' affinity for handguns.
The crowd shouts with glee at every line, or at least the ones that can be deciphered.
When they finish, the split crowd starts screaming its choice of victor. The Untouchables lead their fans in a thunderous chant of "South Side!" as Infinite and his crew retort with shouts of "S Dot!"
Sideways glances and glares shoot back and forth across the stage as the artists continue to whoop it up.
Everyone has forgotten that Infinite and J. Black, another member of the Untouchables, are cousins. And that "S Dot" stands for a neighborhood along South Academy Boulevard. Their battles cries are synonymous, really.
Black Pegasus, Garcia and Kotterer quickly huddle in the venue's back hallway. The crowd wants a decision, but neither Garcia nor Kotterer is willing to offer his opinion. Finally, Black Pegasus breaks the silence, crediting Infinite for his more-impressive technical skills. The other two concede to the emcee's call.
But then Black Pegasus balks.
"Oh, you want me to announce it right now?"
Worried, he shifts his eyes between the two other men.
Moments later, Kotterer is on his mic again. The crowd, again a bit riled up, hushes.
"Your winner of tonight's competition ..."
His words come carefully. No one speaks.
"... will be announced at the beginning of next week's competition."
The crowd boos.
But at least one person loves the idea. On stage, Pooh Bear laughs and shouts above everyone: "That's beautiful!" he says. "That's some American Idol shit right there!"
After the announcement, a circle of S Dot and Untouchables members gather outside, still arguing. It continues until near-closing time, when members of each crew begin hugging to show that there are no hard feelings.
Everyone seems satisfied. For the moment, anyway.
James Baldrick, a local hip-hop promoter, is frustrated, though. Not with the events at Union Station, but with the scene as a whole. He doesn't appreciate the way the city looks upon local hip-hop advocates.
Baldrick, for a time, served as Eden Nite Club's main hip-hop promoter and was also instrumental in promoting the Memorial Day show and its after-parties with Garcia. He was immediately thrown into the limelight after Grimaldo's killing. He was quoted in the Gazette's coverage and also acted as one of the music genre's defenders on the paper's Internet comment board.
"I feel like it's a scapegoat [for the city's problems]," Baldrick says. "I see it from the inside looking out. Those who are not really exposed to the culture as much are the ones who are discriminating against it."
None of it surprises him, though. He says there are parts of town where he's harassed for trying to promote his events. That's something he hopes to change. Hip-hop has helped his life, he says. He was in jail once. Now he's clean, and through hip-hop promotion, he has a steady income.
Baldrick sees the recent rise in violence as a "cry for help" from local artists. He's doing his best to answer it. On Aug. 2, Baldrick hosted a "Save Our Sound" concert at a venue on the north side of town, La Zona Roja, to show the positive side of the town's hip-hop scene. He lists media outlets ranging from the Gazette to the New York Times among the event's attendees.
In his eyes, it was a success. Only one fight broke out, he says.
A learning curve
To be fair, Colorado Springs is behind the curve a bit when it comes to hip-hop.
96.1 The Beat, the only hip-hop-formatted FM station in town, came into existence just three years ago. Larger cities, meanwhile, have been broadcasting the genre since the '80s.
The Springs also has had some growing pains to deal with. Since 1985, the city's population has increased by almost 58 percent. Generally, more people means more violence. This year's homicide total, for instance, could break a record. Already, CSPD has counted 19 homicides in 2007; the average is about 20 per year.
Is it just coincidental, that violence has increased here as hip-hop activity has grown?
Yes, says Garcia. But he admits that rappers who stem from gang affiliations do tend to rap about gang culture and that, for better or worse, the two are intertwined.
"Somewhere along the lines, being positive became corny," says local rapper and 96.1 radio personality C-Notesche, whose real name is Marcus Phelps. "It became lame. It became funny. And it became good to be bad."
It also became a big deal to develop street credibility. At least one source for this story called out Phelps for rapping about a gangsta lifestyle wihout backing it up until he was shot twice, including once in the head.
Phelps balks at the notion that street credibility matters in a town like Colorado Springs.
"I don't think anybody here has real street cred," he says.
There's poetic justice on Phelps' end; he gets the last laugh. As host of an hour-long Sunday night show on 96.1 The Beat, Phelps is able to play tracks from his choices as the town's top hip-hop talents.
"I'm in a position now where even people that don't like me have got to put up with me to get on the radio," he says, with a smirk.
The week after the tension-filled battle at Union Station, it's a slightly smaller crowd in attendance. The Untouchables are largely nowhere to be seen. Infinite, however, is in attendance with his own crew, S Dot.
He likes to think he won.
"At the same time," he says, "I'm a realist. I know it's based off of crowd reaction."
He knows the riled-up crowd from the previous week's show was a tough group to judge. Still, he was pleased to see a potentially harmful situation end in peace.
"It shows that there can be a gathering of this hip-hop crowd and it doesn't have to be violent," says Infinite, who was born Bryan Thomas. "I'm just like everyone else. When I go to a show, I just want to have a good time."
After the first battle of the evening takes place, and after a winner is announced in the night's booty-shaking "Pop, Lock and Drop It" contest, it looks as if the event's organizers are ready to announce last week's champ.
Well, maybe. There's still some hesitation.
"We gonna do this?" Black Pegasus timidly asks Garcia over the sound system.
Garcia, sitting on stage in his patented arms-crossed pose, nods.
"Alright, y'all," Black Pegasus says in a rushed voice, "the winner from last week was Infinite!"
The announcement comes with little fanfare. There's next to no reaction among the bar patrons. Infinite just smiles when the news reaches him he was out of the room when the word came down.
It's all a little anticlimactic. There was a serious scare of a fight breaking out last week. And now this? This ... nothingness?
Maybe everyone was making it out to be a bigger deal than it was. Maybe the stereotypes that have been pervading this scene just got the best of the crowd the week before.
For whatever reason, no one seems to care at the moment. Everyone's too focused on having a good time.
Maybe this fleeting moment was seminal for this city's literal and figurative family of artists. Maybe, just maybe, there's no problem within the local hip-hop scene.
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