KEXP Presents: Equalizer Showcase, Darkroom, Chicago 1/3/08

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words by Mike Turner
photos by Brent Kado

“Dope Rhymez” check, “sick beatz” yep, “deep cutz” uh-huh, “mad skillz” I would have to say yes, and by my estimation they were good enough to pay the “billz” as it turns out. If you thought that KEXP’s Equalizer Chicago was only for whiney hipster bands who look like they are dressed by anorexic ranch hands and live with their mothers then you my friend are what we call “wigity-whack!” Actually, that is what Kriss Kross would have called you circa 1995 but that’s also about when my “urban” slang halted its development. However, I hear everything is coming back now so, much like my insistence on the relevance of the word “rad” which I successfully clung to for so many years (I told you all!) I’m sticking to what I know. On a side note, in my first draft of this article, I tried to replace every letter “S” with the letter “Z” hoping that it would help assert my street cred, but I abandoned that plan about half way through because I was shot nine times. Yeah, in my living room... it was so weird! So, I hope you’ll forgive my lack of consistency with the “lingo” but when I’m done here I’m going to get to work on securing my health drink endorsement deal. Fitty, you are going down!

This Thursday’s February 7th Equalizer sponsored by The Chicago Reader and 312unes.com was off the chain crack-a-lackin’, yall! Equalizer’s first hip-hop lineup ever featured Chicago rising star and self-proclaimed “best rapper in the history of life” Hollywood Holt, the zany dynamic duo Yea Big and Kid Static, and the psychedelic instrumental grooves of Meat Number 5. As always, DJ’s Johnny Kesh and Mikey Dance Panther were on hand to keep things moving and cause trouble, but this Thursday they were also joined by special guest DJ Trew, who easily made them both look like amateurs... well, mostly just Mikey Dance Panther looked like an amateur (a really, really good looking amateur) but what else is new? Yes it’s true, people! Chicago is in fact at the epicenter of all that rocks in this ghost ship we call a modern music industry, and that includes (gasp!) rap music! For every Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco or Twista who catapult their way out of Chicago’s vacuum-sealed cultural biosphere, there are dozens of hardworking hip-hop heads that continue to energize the socially embattled genre in this city with killer shows each week. Thursday night was no exception, but it was certainly a special event and the energy of the crazy pumped up crowd proved it.

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Apparently, this event was even special enough to warrant a visit from the ultra elusive Charlie Dance Panther. Rumor has it that although Hollywood Holt and Charlie Dance Panther were once best friends, an altercation over who borrowed whose skinny jeans caused a rift and Charlie ran off to lead a rival moped crew to Hollywood’s “Murder Club.” Charlie’s “Kissing Klub” rode for a while until he was framed for assassinating the Shogun of Wicker Park. His Vespa gang was picked off one by one on the way back to their home turf due to the massive bounty on Charlie’s head. Ultimately, he vanished into the urban jungle only to reemerge years later covered in terrible tattoos as a disguise. Soon after, he helped form The Fucking Dance Panthers as part of his cover. Thankfully, on this night it looked as if the two had put the past behind them and both of their jeans were skinnier than ever. For those who had never heard the sordid legends and myths surrounding Charlie DP and Hollywood Holt, it was simply a rare opportunity to see The Fucking Dance Panthers (Mikey and Charlie) in the same room together outside of their quite literally underground residency amid the charred and shadowy ruins of old burned down Chicago. It is said that they perform nightly in those catacombs for the Morlocks.

My apologies for the digression... now back to our story. Meat Number 5 was first to rock the darkroom stage with a dreamy groove oriented set of instrumental jams featuring live drums played by Ricky Ropesack and additional beats, hooks and samples spun by DJ Onceamonth. Meat Number 5 are a mysterious and cagey duo... nearly as mysterious as the music they create. Not much information is available about the group and their approach to their tight-as-a-military-school-bed-sheet stage show is all business, as they let the jams speak for themselves -- a stark contrast to the Hollywood Holt hype machine. On their website Meat Number 5 list their influences as “American Meat Science Association, American Meat Institute and the Beef carcass quality grading system.” Likewise they compare themselves sonically to “the ultimate in tenderness, juiciness, and flavor.” So, yeah... not real helpful there; the funny thing is though, it kind of makes sense when you see them live. At one point, Kid Static even joined the duo on stage slinging some impromptu freestyle rhymes that sparked a flurry of break-dancing at the foot of the stage. The break-dancing was fucking good too! Thankfully, it was about as far from embarrassing drunk wedding party “break-dancing” as possible, which sadly is about all that most of us are exposed to these days when it comes to this lost art.

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While standing in the circle at the center of the dance floor clapping around a whirling human dradle (okay, weird reference but it paints a picture), I could see what inspired my fellow rhythm-less cracker Charlie Ahearn to shoot that whole movie “Wild Style” exploring this phenomenon. Before I got too excited though, my tongue found that ancient chip on the inside of my right canine tooth and I recalled the time in college when I tried to do “The Worm” at a party in some frat house basement. I slipped in a huge puddle of light domestic beer on the floor and instead of catching myself with my hands like you’re supposed to I smacked my chin on the concrete. Along with that chunk of tooth that went missing, I also bit through my tongue... the tongue at least healed. Anyway, that memory sort of took me out of the moment, so I went back to the bar and ordered another drink, and it was NOT a Hams.

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After the DJs had traded some cuts and Mikey Dance Panther blundered his way through an introduction, screwing up everyone’s names and definitively stamping himself as the whitest person in the room by pluralizing the word rap, i.e. “this next group makes some of my favorite raps! Please welcome Yay Meat and Kid Hollywood!” Yea Big and Kid Static gracefully ignored him and began. This was a set not to be performed on a stage, however. Rather, Stefen Robinson (Yea Big) and Moses (Kid Static) opted to place the mics on the dance floor where they could spread out because well, they needed the room. The groups myspace bio describes them thusly: “Yea Big + Kid Static are a comic book style action figure for all ages, ready to destroy the plastic casing and blow up the spot with the power and skill of 47 stuntmen wearing Mylar battle gear. Be prepared to duck.” I couldn’t have put it better myself and that’s why I’m quoting. One quickly realizes that the pair’s bio isn’t much of an exaggeration.

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Yeah Big performed super human leaps and mid air contortions clad in brightly colored 1970′s ball hugging workout gear a la Richard Simmons, and Kid Static engaged each and every audience member individually by weaving through the room to party in hyper-drive with everyone until more break-dancing ensued and the barrier between performer and audience melted away entirely. Remember that scene in The Blues Brothers (fine! cliché to reference Blues Bros. when talking about Chicago -- just chill out) when they go into that Baptist Chapel under the El tracks and they discover this crazy revival where people are doing handsprings and back flips and just flying through the air all over the place while the choir is going nuts? Well, apparently under the right circumstances that shit really happens in Chicago. Bartenders were pouring drinks while ducking air-born bodies sailing spastically across the room and ricocheting off of walls like rubber bullets while others twirled like centrifuges, popped, locked and bounced all over the place. It was as if Yea Big and Kid Static had some kind of magic hip-hop pixie dust that just made the laws of nature take a seat for a while. When the team finally concluded their assault on standing still, darkroom was strewn with collapsed and heaving bodies soaked in sweat and twitching like junkies in withdrawal. It was a grim site as the far-flung audience panted deeply in unison from where they had fallen like a giant living iron lung.

DJ Trew peeked his head up over the shelf of the DJ booth with a look of bewilderment on his face and slowly put his headphones back on. It seemed that for now there were no more human missiles to hide from and I supposed he thought it safe enough to place another record on the turntable and attempt to revive the injured. Thankfully, it seemed to work and soon the exhausted partiers were picking themselves off of the floor, ordering more 312 beers and mopping the sweat from their brows. Mutterings around the room were overheard such as “Wow, Jeff, I really had no idea you could jump that high!” and “Yes, that was just strange, I’ve never done that before, Bill.”

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As volunteers worked to put back together the decimated KEXP, 312unes.com and Chicago Reader tables, it looked like things were going to be ok, but I must admit I was worried. This set had nearly killed us and the piece de resistance of the evening still loomed. What would happen? I wondered. Was there enough party left in here to keep going or do our final exuberant moments draw nigh like an unsuspecting elder congressman lying dead and smiling in a motel room after an all night gay meth orgy? An all too familiar tale in government, I’m afraid, and the kind we all look to for inspiration in times like these. You’ve gotta know when to say when but nobody at darkroom was saying it that I could see, so we sallied fourth.

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A lot of people say a lot of things about Hollywood Holt; in fact, if you want to read more specifics you can take a look at his feature article in this week’s music section of The Chicago Reader, but one thing people don’t say about Nigel AKA “Hollywood” Holt is that he can’t rock a crowd. For a small guy standing a diminutive 2ft and 1¼ inches the man is packed with more potential energy then Chernobyl and he unleashes it with impunity in explosive bursts of boastful party rap flow that I dare anyone to resist. As soon as the words “MUTHA-FUCKIN’ HOLLYWOOOOOD HOLT!!” Left Mikey Dance Panther’s lips the packed house went bananas. Hollywood bounded on stage like his legs were springs and blazed through rhymes about everything from mopeds to sunglasses or just rapping about rapping, and when he finally slowed down to introduce his DJ, Million Dollar Mano as “the backbone of all music,” the crowd was looking like a bunch of toddlers on a sugar high who just saw Santa.

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Whether by nature or by calculation, Hollywood Holt has hit on a winning style formula. He packages all of the swagger, attitude, intensity and braggadocio of gangsta rap with the sense of humor and mischievous fun of throwback party rappers like the Fat Boys and Run DMC. Hollywood’s rhymes won’t shed any light on the plight of the homeless or our foreign policy or sexual politics in America and they aren’t likely to incite any riots or raise Charlton Heston’s hackle, but they will probably make you laugh a lot and say “Oh snap!” and they might even make you want to buy a moped and “throw a kit on that bitch.” Hollywood is an expert trash talker to be sure and as an integral part of his hustle this skill has served him well. If his boasts and his local success are any indication, then it is entirely possible that Chicago has a new hip-hop star on its hands. Rumors that he is currently working on tracks with Lupe Fiasco and even Joel Madden of Good Charlotte only serve to bolster that claim. He was certainly a star inside darkroom on Thursday night and the audience bought every bit of it, jumping in time with the music so enthusiastically that the entire venue shook.

That was Equalizer, kids! We’ve made it through eight of them so far without a single rock induced fatality. How long will this train roll!? What will happen next!? Tune in and find out but be warned!

Mike Turner and his partners at darkroom produce KEXP’S “Equalizer Chicago” a monthly showcase of on the verge Midwestern artists. Mike has consulted in the music industry nationally for 6+ years and currently resides in Chicago as a practicing social critic and sometimes DJ.

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