hip hop lures NY hopefuls
NEW YORK, Mar 26: Mighty Mike C, a veteran rapper at the age of 42, recalls the days when he used to tap electricity from street lights to set up the music for street parties in Harlem back in the early days of hip hop.
Now he's got a day job working for the city and he takes tourists on a ''Hip Hop Pioneers Tour'' that passes by the landmarks of a genre now so mainstream it's getting a place in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.
''All you needed was a street pole and a table with some turntables on it,'' Mike C said as he showed tourists from England, Japan and Germany the Graffiti Hall of Fame, a wall of colourful murals at a Harlem high school.
''If you look at the early rap records, it's about partying,'' he said, describing how he got his start in the music business in an era of family gatherings in the park and artists who earned peanuts compared with the stars of today.
Mike C, whose real name is Michael Kevin Clee, was a member of the Fearless Four, the first hip hop group signed to a major record label. Their biggest hit was ''Rockin' It'' in 1981.
He still likes to take the microphone yesterday night in the Bronx, but his brand of rap, known as Old School, has given way to more sophisticated beats and rhymes and the business of hip hop has become a billion-dollar industry with clothing lines, books and movies in addition to music.
Stars like Jay-Z, Eminem and Snoop Dogg are household names and hip hop is so much a part of the landscape that that New York University offers a class on it and last month the Smithsonian launched a search for hip hop artefacts to create a planned exhibit.
As the potential rewards have grown, so have the ranks of those with ambitions to make their fortune in hip hop. But for many, the route to success is a hard grind.
IT AIN'T EASY
Tawayne Anderson, a 27-year-old father of two who goes by the name L.A, has made seven rap CDs in the past year and has just completed a ,000 video for a song called ''Ain't Easy'' about trying to succeed as a rap star.
''I'm not focused on bling, more on my future 'cause practice makes perfect,'' he raps in the video, which shows him in a luxury white car, wearing gold jewellery, or bling, and with the kind of entourage associated with rap stars like 50 Cent.
''I need a big deal 'cause I'm damn well worth it,'' L A raps.
''Who else you know that deserve it? Y'all don't know how hard I work ... I want my face on posters, vans and shirts.'' L A, who describes himself as the ''class clown'' in high school, met his future wife at 17, shortly before his mother died. ''My brother was incarcerated so I had to become a man then,'' he said.
He has held regular jobs include working at a group foster home for teens, but he has been rapping since he was a teenager.
A year ago he found a backer in family friend Eugene Henderson, a retired public health worker and musician who had dreamed all his life of going into the music business.
Henderson founded his own record label, H-Town Records, and paid to install the latest high-tech recording equipment in L.A's Long Island home in a tiny studio under the eaves. ''When people hear about rap, the first thing they think about is the violence, but that's not me,'' L.A said, adding that he doesn't use profanity or language disrespectful to women and he doesn't rap about drugs or violence.
''A lot of people like to talk about that kind of stuff because it makes them look bigger than they are, but the radio is not going to play those songs,'' he said.
H-Town has produced 7,500 CDs of each of L.A's seven albums at a cost of 40 cents a CD, all of which are handed out for free as promotional material at gigs he plays locally and as far afield as Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia.
''I remember when we put out our first CD, just giving it to people was like pulling teeth,'' L.A said, recalling the days when he pounded the pavements handing out CDs in New York.
Henderson said his strategy was to spread buzz about L.A through touring colleges, advertising, playing the video on public access television and word of mouth. By the summer he hopes to put an album in record stores.
L.A -- who says his initials stand for ''Long Awaited'' or ''Lyrical Assassin'' -- knows he's up against thousands of other would-be rap stars, but he exudes confidence.
''I can take a crowd anywhere,'' he said, adding that fame won't spoil him. ''Two or three years from now, when I'm on the top of the world, I'm still going to be the same person.''
FROM IOWA TO KOREA
Though hip hop started a black genre, it's no longer just young black men like L.A who see it as their calling.
At a recent hip hop history class at New York University where white students outnumber African Americans, one of the visitors in a ''show and tell'' segment at the start of the class was Matt Bar, a 24-year-old Jewish folk-rapper from Iowa City who performed a song about his blend of folk music and rap.
''People act like it's something when in fact it's nothing. I just add rap and suddenly mad cats discussing me, saying 'cause he rap he wanna be black,'' Bar raps as another student improvises a hip-hop beat. ''You're the cat who thinks rap's exactly that, when you haven't even chatted with the kid who's black. Dog, you don't know rap... it's the folk who rap.'' Later in the class a hip hop breakdancer named Quick Step takes a dozen students through an improvised android routine.
Students are encouraged to get out and experience hip hop on the streets and the Pioneers Tour is one they can win extra credits for attending.
Sammy Kim, a 20-year-old from the class, won a round of applause for performing a rap in Korean on the tour bus.
''You've got to admit, you may not have known what he said but it sounds good. That's hip hop,'' Mike C said.