Outside of 2826 Arnetic in Deep Ellum, a small crowd has gathered near the door, casually conversing. Not far off, maybe 20 feet down the sidewalk, a young man paces — not frantically, but with a sense of purpose.
A towel hangs over his shoulders as he stares at a point a few inches in front of his feet, still pacing, while he repeatedly and barely audibly practices a rhyme. The laughter and banter coming from the nearby group seems far off, distant to the practicing performer. He looks nervous, like something heavy depends on this night.
This scene comes from the Hip-Hop Open Mic Night that takes place at Arnetic on the last Tuesday of each month, just as it has since April. But this is not your traditional coffee shop open mic or spoken word poetry jam. Some of the most talented independent hip-hop artists in the metroplex show up here, testing out new material.
Not long ago, the event, thrown by CoffeeMusicHub.com and hosted by Jesse Porter, was held at Mokah Coffee Bar, also in Deep Ellum, less than half a mile away. But the scene quickly necessitated the environs of a proper music venue.
But how? How did Porter and his crew turn an open mic — something that there has been no shortage of in the area hip-hop scene over the years — into a bustling hot spot for local DIY hip-hop?
The answer may just be in the format.
The Hip-Hop Open Mic boasts a tight format that allows the audience to see many artists in a small window of time, while still giving each artist room to showcase his or her talents best. On stage resides the house band — really just a live drummer and a DJ. Whoever is on the microphone completes the trio. Each artist must come early to sign up for a spot on stage for the night. Everyone who does gets to spit 16 bars over whatever the drummer and DJ throw at them. Some of the bolder wordsmiths even opt to go a capella here, a daring first impression that has the potential of going horribly wrong.
But here's where it gets interesting: Once your 16 bars is over, the crowd votes on whether or not to let you do another song. If the crowd approves, the artists get to perform one of their own original tracks.
The idea is brilliant. You want a stage and an audience for your music? Well, then you have to earn it on the merits of your 16 bars. In a matter of just a few minutes, any given artist has the potential to wow the crowd in three different ways — with freestyle lyricism, with concert-level stage presence and with the production of the beat that they select to rap over.
Though established as an outlet for up-and-comers, don't expect much in the way of amateurism at the Hip-Hop Open Mic Night. The competition here is tough. Some of the more accomplished local rappers in the scene have taken the stage in recent weeks, among them A.Dd+ and Dustin Cavazos.
The fact that one must earn the right to perform their music is one major factor to the event's success. Another is that it's organized so well: The sign-up sheet and tight format are the antidote for what plagues many failed open mic nights. That is especially true in the world of hip-hop, where egos devolve most such events into tugs-of-war over the microphone, petty and not-at-all-entertaining battle-rapping or — worst-case scenario — actual violence. All of that seems to be absent from the CoffeeMusicHub.com events. And the ample crowds are yet another indication that these guys may just be on to something vibrant in the world of local hip-hop.
Indeed, this may just be the most exciting place to find emerging, DIY talent in town.
Students of lyrical hip-hop shouldn't be altogether surprised at something like this happening. Open mic events have been a staple in the growth of underground hip-hop both in New York and Los Angeles, with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Good Life Cafe serving each of those cities, respectively. The Nuyorican Cafe is where a mysterious rapper with a stocking obscuring his face made his mark, later swapping out the pantyhose for a mask and calling himself MF Doom. The Freestyle Fellowship, Busdriver, Jurassic 5 and many other prominent L.A.-area underground kings cut their teeth at the Project Blowed open mics at Good Life.
Dallas' newest monthly of note seems to be right in line with this tradition, as the majority of the performers at Arnetic are from the more artistic side of hip-hop. Many employ the DIY approach that comes with putting the aesthetics first and making a dollar second. You can audibly hear it when an artist comes on stage with a mainstream, club-type song and a low murmur of disapproval subtly starts circulating throughout the room.
But, while artists with a more underground edge dominate the scene here, it's important to note that a wide range of rap is represented. Actually, what goes on at Arnetic may just equate to a local hip-hop melting pot — a middle ground where performers of many different strata are free to showcase their skills equally.
When Sanjay Raj Shrestha founded CoffeeHubMusic.com last year, the goal was based around the types of musicians who specialized in coffee shop open mics. The plan was to promote their talents by way of events and videos that CoffeeHubMusic.com would produce and publish. But the area has long needed a proper outlet for up-and-coming wordsmiths to ply their trade.
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The Hip-Hop Open Mic Night basically evolved out of that necessity. Artists needed a place to go, if only for networking. In turn, for the first time in a long time, there now exists a local outlet for like-minded artists to meet, collaborate and inspire one another.
And it is inspiring: The talent level stayed pretty high throughout last month's event, particularly during performances from newcomers Jmil Kly and Rulz.
Yep, the CoffeeHubMusic.com cats do it right: Theirs is an active, lively crowd that stays into the acts; their artists are fresh, young musicians who care about artistry; and, most important, their network is a contingent of people committed to making the scene grow free of ego.
For a city whose underground hip-hop culture has been bubbling on the brink of nationwide exposure for the last two-plus years, it's pretty likely that the Hip-Hop Open Mic Night may end up serving as the proving ground for Dallas' Next Big Thing.