It's Friday night. The Cavern is packed for the Fresh party that happens once a month. The room seems oddly bright for 11 p.m. on a party night, illuminating the flushed, pleased faces that float just above a layer of gauzy ciggy smoke. You can see all this from the door, and if you crane your neck inside, you can see the small stage packed with a band led by a female singer. At first, it's not the kind of band you'd think would be any good; their bearing indicates the group is one of those generic Portishead wannabes. But as they ease into a new song, it's clear they've got something. Though a little raw, they shine up the ol' wispy-voiced British electro-jazz pop that's been tarnished over the years by over-sincerity and people who mistake aura for hooks. This group, called M'Giddo, is not too original—though they have their moments—but they're different.
Which is great, except the night was billed as a hip-hop freestyle battle.
A conversation with the early-middle-aged lady stamping hands and taking cover charge at the door reveals, yeah, there's a battle on the way, but this band—this very white band—must finish its set. She doesn't seem to mind, nor does the crowd, which roars in a way jaded Dallas denizens rarely do, with sincerity and downright delight. "Thanks," the singer says shyly into the mike. "This is our first ever show."
In the corner next to the bar, a large black dude with a huge smile and medium-length dreadlocks grins his approval. He doesn't just glance at the band while he preps his DJ equipment—he pays 100 percent attention. Neither he nor the crowd seem to be just friends of the band, cajoled, begged and bribed to pack their first show, there out of politeness. Nope, he and the crowd are here because they are digging this scene and digging this band's groove.
Turns out, the lady at the door explains, the dreadlocked guy is her son, Big J, from the Dallas hip-hop collective Clever Monkeys. He's also a promoter, and he's responsible for the impending battle and for Fresh. He's also responsible for M'Giddo. And he doesn't see the juxtaposition as a strange one.
"I love every kind of music, from rock to funk to hip-hop to reggae," he says affably. "I try to mesh everything together—an easy-going band and a little art and hip-hop."
Big J does just that every month at Fresh. The idea behind the party is a loose one, reflecting Big J's laid-back, inclusive personality, but the general thought is to blend the zing of on-the-spot art, the friendly linguistic martial art of freestyle, the groove-saturated fun of old school hip-hop and, frankly, anyone who catches Big J's ear. He's known the crew from M'Giddo for "a very long time," he says. When asked why he chose them to play this particular show, he says simply, "They're good."
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It's really no surprise Big J's got such an ear for the good stuff. At 29—to him "old as dirt"—J's iPod is overstuffed with influences from before he was born, from Quincy Jones to James Brown to rare, old-school hip-hop. "And I mean, real old-school," he says. "I mean, like, 1978, the oldest of the old shit." It's a genre and a time J loves so much, he spins that old shit along with well-known local MC Schwa every Monday at the Cavern at their Cool Out party.
So he's got the DJ and promoter bases covered, but that's not enough: J is also one-third of the Clever Monkeys, an MC/scratch trio that practices the ancient (in hip-hop years) art of combining razor-sharp scratching skills, a smattering of conscious sensibility and dexterous rap ability into one big party. "We've really been pursuing our dreams," he says of the group, which has been together about three years. It's paid off: They've opened for underground badasses Gang Starr and Kool Keith and this week travel down to Emo's in Austin to open for Phat Lip from the Pharcyde.
When asked what his ultimate dream would be, where he wants to land in the rap game, J's goals start out humble, then grow a bit: "If I could have anything, it would just be opening up for big-name underground hip-hop groups," he says. Then he thinks a minute and continues, "I mean, I'd love to be headlining for huge DJ parties, just rocking, having fun, enjoying my life. Having a blast."
Sounds like he's already gotten there. And judging from the arms in the air and the smiles that crack the faces at the Cavern as the battle starts, he's bringing the rest of us with him.