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Knocturnal is Charlotte's go-to event for hip-hop

Monday Mayhem


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"If this isn't a joke, I'm gonna shit my pants!"

That was one person's reaction on Facebook after it was announced the Geto Boys would be playing Knocturnal at Snug Harbor on June 8.

The announcement was almost unbelievable — a legendary group that hasn't made music or toured together in years, with one member that's been facing deportation, is playing a weekly party at a 150-person venue?

Yep, it's happening, and that's not all Knocturnal has in store for the near future.

Knocturnal is a hip-hop party that's been popping off every Monday at Snug Harbor for almost three years. I'm proud to say my husband, Scott, and I assisted with its creation back in September 2012. We've had nothing to do with it since its second year, other than watching it continue to grow.

It started as a dance party with showcases for local breakdancers, DJs and rappers ­— and it still is — but it's also become a venue for some of the best hip-hop tours in the nation. Tours that would've passed right through Charlotte three years ago on their way from Atlanta to Chapel Hill or Carrboro.

A three-week run of shows starts on May 25 with Charlotte-native Supastition and Rhymesayers' o.g. Blueprint. On June 1, West Coast legend and Blackalicious frontman, Gift of Gab, will perform. The Geto Boys are the following week. This is an impressive calendar for a small venue.

The man at the center of Knocturnal is its founder and resident DJ, Justin Aswell (Blackwood — full disclosure, he's my brother-in-law). Aswell says his motivation for presenting these shows is twofold: "One, because I want high quality hip-hop shows to come through Charlotte and two, because when we bring this caliber of artists, the event becomes more well-known. So far, it's worked well."

"I've always loved hip hop," Jason Michel, part-owner of Snug Harbor, says. "I'm a rapper myself, and I was very excited to work with the Blackwoods building a night that celebrates what that community has brought to the world. We couldn't be happier that it's grown to this level and Monday nights at Snug are now a destination for the best in the genre."

The variety of acts Aswell and Snug Harbor are willing to invest in is uncommon. For instance in the past, they've brought in top-rated international b-boys to dance with the locals at the beginning of the night. Showcasing hip-hop's diversity is a priority.

"We bring artists like Blueprint because he represents the innovative indie side of hip-hop. Gift of Gab represents the West Coast underground sound. Geto Boys are the original Southern rappers," says Aswell.

Knocturnal has also brought slick-tongued new school rappers like Homeboy Sandman, old-school East Coast pioneers like Slick Rick and nerdcore darlings like Mega Ran. They've had DJs spinning trap, breaks, future bass, EDM and world beats. "Pretty much anything you can dance or nod your head to," Aswell says. "I think the best thing about Knocturnal is the openness of what's considered acceptable in hip-hop. Everything goes. If it had to be just one style, I wouldn't do it."

Spend one night at Knocturnal and you'll watch a b-boy windmill to James Brown, hear emcees battle over Wu-Tang instrumentals, see girls twerk to Lil' Jon and join the rest of the crowd in a sing-along to Prince. Walk out back after last call and you'll see house dancers getting down to a different beat.

The crowds have a tendency to get amped up during high-energy performances — jumping, crowdsurfing and slinging beer through the air. I've seen both shirts and pants come off on occasion. Touring artists don't normally expect much from shows booked on a Monday night and they're often taken aback at the intensity and turnout.

"Mondays work great for us. There's not much else going on in the neighborhood. It's a good night for service industry employees to come out. Also, nobody ever wants to book international acts on mondays, so they give us a good rate. It's mutually beneficial because we're able to afford the show and they get booked on a night they'd normally just be spending in a hotel." And how do their desk jockey regulars feel about the party being on a work night? Well, "Fuck Tuesday!" is a phrase often shouted intermittently throughout the building, if that's any indication.

Both the Plaza Midwood and Charlotte hip-hop communities play a major part in Knocturnal's success. Aswell says he's never had to advertise the event. "We've only done physical promotion for one show. Everything else has been through word of mouth."

This has created a strong family vibe, especially among the dancers. "Knocturnal has given us a place to grow and call home," says Matt "Ryu" Sanchez, a b-boy and regular.

Aswell says he'll likely begin to market the event more in the coming year.

"We have to have fresh blood to keep the energy level up," he said, "but We want to get those wide-eyed people who've never seen a headspin before or never heard an emcee battle. They bring that excited energy. There's also people moving to Charlotte all the time that love hip-hop and are looking for it. If they don't know someone in the community, they won't find out about it and I don't think that's fair. Weº can welcome new people into our family without losing the drama-free vibe we've carefully curated. I don't ever want to lose the feeling of a family."


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