Hip-hop is ‘reborn’ in Rangos

The lead singer of the band Formula 412 sings to the audience. The band played hip-hop music at the concert. (credit: Nicole Ifill | Photo Staff) The lead singer of the band Formula 412 sings to the audience. The band played hip-hop music at the concert. (credit: Nicole Ifill | Photo Staff) Jasiri X pumps his fist in the air, and calls it the “universal symbol of rebellion.” His performance was very unique. (credit: Nicole Ifill | Photo Staff) Jasiri X pumps his fist in the air, and calls it the “universal symbol of rebellion.” His performance was very unique. (credit: Nicole Ifill | Photo Staff)

While warming up, the mood was mellow. The band was jamming as the lights and sound swirled around. Last Thursday in Rangos Hall, the Activities Board and Uplift Promotions partnered with the Arts Greenhouse to sponsor a fundraising concert called “Rebirth.” The Arts Greenhouse is an outreach program run through the Center for the Arts in Society (CAS) at Carnegie Mellon.

Students showed up early and were sent to Skibo Café while waiting for the sound check to be over. At the café, Sean McMillan, a.k.a. DJ YS, a junior social and decision sciences major, was spinning on one turntable. As president of the CMU Turntable Crew, he is quite adept on the Technics — a popular brand of turntables — and although one was malfunctioning, he made do. Amos Levy, a.k.a. DJ Thermos, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, serves as the outreach program coordinator in CAS. He founded the CMU Turntable Crew in 2004 with other another alumnus, John Wang, a.k.a. TSoul. When asked about the legacy he left behind, McMillan is ready to respond. “Amos is a brave dude, one of the few people trying to turn his passion into a profession,” he said.

Back in Rangos, the band Formula 412 fixed some feedback issues, while some b-boys — boys devoted to hip-hop culture — practiced over the heavy bass of the beat. Intelligent lighting was installed above the massive speakers on opposite ends of the stage, and the drummer was quite dexterous on his set. After the sound check was complete, Luqman Abdul-Salaam, the coordinator of the music education program at the Arts Greenhouse, introduced the crowd to Jasiri X, the first special guest of the evening. A Pittsburgh native, Jasiri X had an especially poignant song dedicated to Debra Lee, the CEO of BET Networks. He also noted that the black fist is the “universal symbol for rebellion” and encouraged members of the crowd to “put [your] fist[s] up and beat down hatred.” Luqman came on stage after Jasiri X’s performance and performed the next act. A professional poet, recording artist, spoken-word specialist, and community activist, he leads the semester-long series of supporting workshops on hip-hop at Arts Greenhouse, a program that fosters the creativity of teens from Pittsburgh’s Hill District through music education. Students are allowed open studio time on Saturday afternoon, where they receive free instruction in workshops and classes. Using the pre-production equipment, they make beats and record a compilation CD under the supervision of J. Armstead Brown, professional beatmaker and bandleader of Eviction Notice.

Formula 412, a band native to Pittsburgh, followed, consisting of six members: one DJ, a keyboardist, an electric guitarist and bassist, a drummer, and a vocalist. The band started its show with a go-go-inspired beat, singing “The police see us as targets/that’s why we heartless.” The vocalist had some clever lines, including “We been gents and ladies since the ’80s.” Playing rousing and roaring riffs on the guitar in their first few songs, they all switched instruments on a track called “Loot Crative,” while the vocalist delivered smooth verses and rough refrains. They ripped their set, performing with fervor and intensity.

Next came Queen GodIs, a featured female singer and lyricist from Brooklyn, N.Y. Her clever use of words wowed the crowd when she explained, “I sent Lucifer to Hell because he thought he was the hottest.” She was the only artist who stepped off the stage, performing among the people, creating a personal atmosphere and intimate setting with just the crowd and her microphone. She seemed to have this internal glow, and the audience was attracted to her like a moth to a flame.

Finally, Invincible took the stage. A female MC from Detroit, this girl exposed the horrible housing conditions and corruption in her city with a visual projection behind her, portraying some impactful images of foreclosed homes, abandoned lots, and bulldozed buildings. She also showed personal footage from a trip to Israel, where refugees had been sequestered to settlements and shacks. She wanted to “show how our struggles are connected,” and “that the people united will never be defeated.” Her rhymes expressed her frustration with the “cookie-cutter condominiums” contractors construct in her community and that if they are not stopped, there will be “nothing left between us and homelessness.” Invincible’s social message did not drown out her natural skills, and on the last song she pulled words from the crowd and freestyled like the famous rapper Supernatural, known for taking random items out of an audience and rhyming about them. Invincible’s message was one of hip-hop and hope, and the title of her last song empowered the crowd, “When You Feel Like Giving Up, Keep Going.”

After Invincible’s set, Queen GodIs emerged from the crowd and the two old friends began an impromptu collaboration with a beat boxer, meshing melodies, emceeing, and mouth-music together in an impressive display of harmony. Afterward, Levy made some final comments. “All the artists gave exceptional performances and I appreciate everyone who came out to support,” he said.

This event brought some amazing socially conscious artists to Pittsburgh. “CMU needs to have a lot more events like this. Advertising for this event alone exposed some people to their first dose of hip-hop. This is an element we are missing, and it creates [a] great social and collaborative atmosphere for students,” Derrick Walker, a senior electrical and computer engineering major and co-founder of Uplift Records, said. Paradise, a hip-hop legend from the controversially Afrocentric and militant group X Clan, spoke about some other elements as well. “All the elements of true hip-hop were here: rapping, DJing, and b-boying. It is refreshing to see so many intelligent, energetic, and beautiful young people of all colors come together for the true purpose of hip-hop: peace, love, unity, and having fun,” he said, quoting verbatim lyrics from DJ Afrika Bambaataa’s song “Peace, Love, Unity, and Having fun.”