When promoter Moody Fuqua left The Crown & Harp on Lower Greenville to help revive Deep Ellum's RBC club, he lugged the former's hip-hop element along with him. Fuqua wisely delegated Tuesday nights to musical director and bass player extraordinaire Nigel Rivers, who came up with RBC Underground, a themed and semi-open jam led by a dream team of some of Dallas' most distinguished talent.
"I've gone to a lot of open mics. I was trying to be famous," says Dezi 5, one of Rivers' permanent co-hosts for the Underground. "The difference with this one is it's more hip-hop than guitar and singer-songwriter oriented. It has more of a contemporary feel and it's a place where you can kind of get noticed a little bit."
Along with Rivers and Dezi 5, whose poised dance madness makes him the most exciting performer in Dallas, the series' other permanent host is Ashleigh E, an artist signed with Concord Records, whose athletic vocals backed up Ed Sheeran during his performance on The Voice last year. The event is emceed and DJed by Madame Mims, who has worked with George Clinton in the past and currently works with Foley.
Mims wants to meet the would-be performers in person before they send her a sample of their work. "The whole idea behind RBC Underground is networking by showcasing. [By] simply coming up and talking to someone in charge, I'll consider that a submission," Mims says. "You need to utilize the platform the performers are creating for you."
With the help of those core people, the Underground is an event which aims to not only showcase promising unknown performers, but also to deliver an ambitious live show with noted guests. After reviewing submissions from would-be open mic participants, Mims and her co-hosts select the artists who will participate in the weekly jam, eventually playing the elected singer's tracks, unless they're to perform along with an impressive house band that consists of two guitar players, two singers, a bassist, a drummer and a keyboardist.
A bit of a reverse Plato's Cave allegory takes place at RBC's Underground, as those inside the space have a (musical) knowledge that escapes those in the outside world. Rivers' all-star team create weekly buzz as they pick themes like Beyoncé or D'Angelo's music and yet, for all the professionalism, the event has the ease of a party among friends.
There's a book club spirit to the rehearsing of a new album each week. The event started back in January with Justin Timberlake's Justified as the first theme, an album that earned a Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy at the time, prompting Timberlake to whine about how hard he'd tried to make an R&B album. It seems the group at the Underground executed his vision better than his producers, because the record has never been more R&B than when it was performed on that first night. Dezi 5 then jokingly encouraged people to come up and sing. "If you suck I'll take your mic away," he said. "I'm gay, I can get away with anything."
In the course of a single song they'd bring up three or four people, interwoven with emcees rapping faster than an auctioneer. The band's smooth neo-soul serves as the backbone to a variety of genres. Recently after Bowie's death they put on a tribute with some of the city's most popular performers, including Zhora, Rat Rios, Lily Taylor, Ronnie Heart and Poppy Xander.
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What started as a well-meaning variety act has turned into a solid jam. Next week's theme is Bob Marley, while guitarist Mark Lettieri, hot from the Grammy oven with his second win with jazz band Snarky Puppy, will be performing a set of his own unreleased material the same night.
Rivers talks about the importance of establishing a networking community that benefits all artists involved, himself included, referencing a recent session with producer Picnictyme and rapper Bobby Sessions. "That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been here," he says. Dezi 5 agrees: "I hope to be in New York hearing of all the great bands that are coming from the Underground in Dallas," he says with a laugh. "Singers and producers are all getting to know each other. They need each other."
Following the tradition of Dallas open-jam institutions like The Prophet Bar or The Goat, the selected performers aren't hangers-on or underlings hoping for their three minutes of fame (15 is far too long for a song). If you mean to see the strongest contenders, at least those who can hang through the Saturday Night Live-type schedule of learning, rehearsing and delivering new music within the week, this is for you.
"The next step now is to get openers of that caliber, and the themes will be much more elaborate, the set design, visuals," Rivers says, "We proved to people that we can put on a good musical show. Now it needs to be an experience."