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The art and soul of hip-hop

The urban art exhibition Art, Beats + Lyrics hopes to inject new life into a troubled art form

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Hip-hop music sucks these days.

Surely you've noticed the lack of quality that plagues the rap game; tune your radio to 96.1 The Beat or Power 98 on any given day, and you'll hear an unrelenting stream of wackness. And when you grab the clicker and flip over to MTV or BET, rest assured that you will be tortured by a deluge of ear-raping artists.

Come on -- you know who I'm talking about: no-talent rappers like T-Pain, Shawty Lo, Young Berg, Baby Bash and Soulja Boy, among other sucker MCs.

But it wasn't always this bad. Hip-hop started out on the streets of New York in the late 1970s with forward-thinking guys like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaattaa and Grandmaster Flash, who created the art form from scratch. And the torch was later passed to groundbreaking cats like Eric B & Rakim, who added an intellectual and almost literary feel to the music's presentation. Fast-forward to 2008, and hip-hop is pop; as a result, the music is a product designed to appeal to the lowest common doo-doo brain. So instead of rockin' to the complex rhymes of Rakim's "Mahogany" ("Each mic is a mineral/Poetry's protein/Verse is a vitamin/Affects like codeine"), we get to do the Superman dance to Soulja Boy's lyrically anemic hit "Crank Dat" ("Soulja Boy off in this hoe/Watch me crank it/Watch me roll").

Oh yes, the times they have a-changed.

Granted, you -- dear reader -- may actually like some of the rappers I've described as "no-talent." (Well except for Young Berg. Nobody likes Young Berg.) You're probably thinking, "What's wrong with T-Pain? He makes my favorite ring tones!" All art is somewhat subjective ... I'll give you that. But be honest: When was the last time you said something more than "It's got a good beat" when referring to a hip-hop tune? Think about it. I'll wait.

Of course, not all contemporary rap is crap. Artists like Common, T.I., Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and The Roots (who'll perform Fri., April 25 at Amos' Southend) still record quality records that break new ground in terms of lyrical flow. Moreover, with songs like West's "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" (which talks about the "conflict diamond" trade) and Kweli's "Eat To Live" (focusing on America's poisoned food chain), there are a ton of MCs expanding the scope of rap's subject matter. But for every hip-hopper pushing the envelope, you've got, like, 20 idiots rapping about the same crap: iced-out earrings, cars, women, money and other superficial B.S.

Which brings me back to my original point (say it with me): Hip-hop music sucks these days. Capice?

That being said, hip-hop is a culture that's about more than just music. True aficionados know that hip-hop is comprised of four "elements." Hell, it's even on Wikipedia: "The four main aspects, or 'elements,' of hip-hop culture are MCing (rapping), DJing, urban-inspired art/tagging (graffiti), and b-boying (or breakdancing)." See?

So while the music may sound like feces at the moment, the other areas of the culture aren't in such bad shape.

The dance side of hip-hop, for example, is alive and well. B-boys live, breathe and create innovative dance moves all over the world. And in America, you can see damned-good breakdancing just about everywhere: in nightclubs right here in Charlotte and even on the idiot box (specifically on the hit MTV show America's Best Dance Crew).

And when it comes to the visual art side of the culture, things really couldn't be better. Hip-hop-inspired art has evolved far beyond cheap paint splattered on dank alley walls (although that does still exist). Nowadays, you can find hip-hop-flavored artwork hanging in galleries next to high-priced pieces by dudes like Warhol or Pollack. Seriously.

But don't take my word for it. This Friday, the urban art exhibition Art, Beats + Lyrics hits the Q.C., and it's bringing a ton of work to illustrate the dynamic range and power of hip-hop's eye candy.

Now this may be the first time you've heard of Art, Beats + Lyrics, but the event ain't new. ABL was launched in 2004 and features photographs, paintings, illustrations and other visual art pieces created by more than 20 artists from across the country.

The very first ABL took place at The Five Spot, a small restaurant/live music venue in Atlanta, and was attended by nearly 400 people. After its inaugural event, the exhibit quickly moved to the ATL's acclaimed High Museum of Art, and attendance shot up to more than 1,000. The event transformed the sometimes-stodgy High -- known for its extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art -- into a veritable party with DJs spinning bass-heavy rap classics, b-boys poppin' and lockin' in the foyer and paintings of the Notorious B.I.G. adorning museum walls.

ABL's appearance in the Queen City this week marks the first leg of the show's first national tour, which is sponsored by Jack Daniel's.

Jabari Graham, the founder of Art, Beats + Lyrics, visited Charlotte a few weeks ago to firm up some last-minute logistics for the event. But when I joined him for a tour of the Q.C., he didn't talk much about ABL; Graham, a resident of Atlanta, was too busy playing tracks by some new, unsigned rap crew from the "A" whose sound is reminiscent of OutKast's Andre 3000.

Graham flipped through the songs quickly on his iPod and then suddenly switched playlists so I could hear an unreleased album by D'Angelo.

"You ever heard this?" he asked. "It only came out in Europe I think." Graham is one of those cats who always gets his hands on the new-new before anybody else. (Marketing gurus would call him an "early adopter.") But, exuding an ultra-mellow, soft-spoken energy, he's far from pretentious.

And despite his appearance -- baggy jeans, Vans sneakers, and a funky hat -- the cat is a shrewd dealmaker. He earned a business degree from Jackson State University and after a short stint working at Foot Locker, went on to hold a marketing position with the African-American-owned-and-oriented UniverSoul Circus. The circus hit on hard times and laid him off. But instead of searching for another 9-to-5, Graham used his unemployment checks to stage the debut ABL.

Although Graham created ABL, he mounts the event with the help of his co-producer: the enigmatic illustrator known only as Dubelyoo. Like Graham, Dubelyoo lives in Atlanta, but he grew up in Fayetteville, N.C. -- a city that Dub describes as "a weird military town. A lot of bizarre things happen in military towns. It was cool growing up in some aspects. But if you're not in the military or work for one of the major factories there, you have very few options."

Dub -- an aggressively gregarious fellow who seemingly wears sunglasses 24/7 and rides around town on a low-rider bicycle -- attended Eastern Carolina University for what he claims was "a lengthy amount of time." After graduation, he went to work as a graphic designer for the Fayetteville Observer newspaper. "But I realized very soon that was not the job for me," he admits. So he quit his gig, moved to Atlanta to work for a Web design company and soon started a booming career as a freelance artist.

These days you can see his stylized, graffiti/cartoon-influenced drawings and paintings gracing CD covers and advertising campaigns for companies like Scion, Red Bull, Heineken and many more.

Graham and Dub met up after the ABL's splash at the High and they've been attempting to push the culture in a positive direction ever since. And as they prepare to infiltrate the Carolinas, it's obvious they aren't too thrilled with hip-hop's current condition, either.

"It's kind of hard to get behind a lot of the stuff that's out right now," Dub says. "Cause it's not really a reflection of where everybody is right now. Usually art mirrors the society. And I think sometimes, the art you get is what people are about. So if a lot of the people ain't about nothing, the art's gonna reflect that.

"And another thing," he continues, "usually great works of art and great artists don't come out of a vacuum. If you look at anybody who was great, there were good people around them. If you look at basketball, Jordan was a great basketball player, but he also played with the greatest basketball players of all time. And it's the same thing with music; it's hard to be the greatest MC of all time when everyone around you is weak."

"The media pushes out that bad stuff, but there's so much good stuff that no one knows about," adds Graham. "I guess [the industry] is just too caught up on ring tones and making money."

Despite their criticisms, the duo has made an investment in the future of culture -- literally putting their money where their mouths are. Through ABL, they hope to make hip-hop better. Works on display at the show -- by a diverse group of renowned artists like Gilbert Young (who created the now-ubiquitous "He Ain't Heavy" image), Tindel/Michi and Charlotte's own God City crew -- are designed to both celebrate and challenge hip-hop.

Images at past shows channeled "traditional" graffiti-styled lettering and figure paintings -- while others utilized more graphic forms to depict, comment on and subvert famous and infamous rap superstars (such as Dubelyoo's DJ Drama painting seen on the first page of this story). Mixed-media presentations, digital art pieces and installations that delve into typical (and atypical) topics discussed in hip-hop music (such as drugs, poverty, extreme displays of wealth, misogyny, homophobia and more) have also peppered ABL's exhibition spaces.

In addition, the event will also shine a spotlight on progressive performers who represent other elements of hip-hop -- such as vocal performer Taylor McFerrin (son of Bobby McFerrin), DJ Rasta Root (who's affiliated with Phife of A Tribe Called Quest), the Common Ground Collective (who'll bring live music to the party) and more.

"I want people to be exposed to something they've never seen before," Dubelyoo says. "Many of the people who'll come to Art, Beats and Lyrics won't be going to galleries and haven't been going to the museums. A lot of those images at the galleries don't speak to them. So hopefully we can get those people to come out. And we want the people who are into galleries and museums to broaden their horizons to a culture of people who they probably would have overlooked."

"We really want to promote art like Russell Simmons promoted the music side of things," says Graham. "And we want to do more, like take the artists to art schools. We're not too much older than these students. And if they see someone like them making money and doing what they want to do, that's some inspiration."

While Dubelyoo and Graham have good intentions, they also have their share of detractors. A contingent of art and hip-hop fans who've seen ABL shows in Georgia have leveled arguments against the group, claiming that the event -- with its corporate sponsorship -- suffers from the same commercialism it seeks to squash. Early ABL events received financing from Sprite, and the current tour, as stated a few paragraphs back, is backed by Jack Daniel's. Graham, however, is quick to dismiss the talk of cashing in and selling out.

"Some people who have sponsors sell out," Graham says. "I do have to put [Jack Daniel's] name on the tag, but [the event is] not watered down. If I can make that brand look good and make it make sense for my objectives, too, then why not?"

At the end of the day, it's that quest for the dollar that defines the problems and pleasures of hip-hop. Like Common said about hip-hop: "Looking for cheese/That don't make her a hood rat." The culture's market is larger than ever and begs to be fed. But, just like DJs and MCs jack beats to craft their own rythmic identity, maybe more folks with uncommon messages can snag some stacks and provide a foil for the legion of cookie-cutter, claptrap rap. To that thought, Graham offers one last bit of advice:

"Just be different."

Art, Beats + Lyrics rolls through Charlotte, visiting NoDa's Centerstage (2315 North Davidson St.) April 25 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. To register for this free event, visit www.jackdaniels.com/abl.


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