Hip-hop fest breaks through

Boston Globe, August 4, 2005

The year was 1989, and in the cities of the East Coast, hip-hop was happening. MCs squared off on street and stage, mixing wisecracks and social critique to the cutting and scratching of DJs and acrobatic moves of breakdancers in matching outfits and high- top fades.

Countless records on fledgling labels offered witty takes on inner-city life. Big Daddy Kane spun tales of dealers and dropouts who end up “Calling Mr. Welfare.” Brooklyn’s Special Ed, 16, boasted, “I’m kind of young, but my tongue speaks maturity.” A no- nonsense MC Lyte burnished her credentials as “the dopest female that you’ve heard thus far.”

This Saturday Kane, Ed, and Lyte anchor a lavish lineup of national and Boston talent, including local heroes Ed O.G and the Perceptionists, at a concert on Boston City Hall Plaza. The show includes the final of a breakdancing invitational hosted by Boston’s Floor Lords, featuring teams from as far away as Chicago and Florida.

The event is part of a quiet rediscovery of “conscious” values amid the violence, materialism, and misogyny that reign supreme on major labels and commercial radio.

“It’s 360 degrees full circle,” says Boston rapper Byg Sev. “Hip- hop hasn’t been good since 1996. But now a lot of old-school artists are coming back, and the kids are starting to see the fundamentals behind the music.”

It hasn’t been easy for the veterans, largely shut out by an industry that’s ever in search of the next platinum hit. But what they possess is experience and maturity.

Special Ed, for instance, has a new album on his own label. Now based in South Florida, he shares his energy among club promotions, a radio show, real estate, and his family. “It’s urgent now,” he says, “because there’s more and more negative messages being sent out. It’s just very blatant. And that’s not what you want to teach the kids.”

Positive events that showcase the diversity of hip-hop expression are on the rise, Ed says. “But this is one of the few actually backed by a city, put on by a city, and that’s something I respect.”

The weekend program which starts with tomorrow’s “United Styles” in the South End, featuring MCs, DJs, graffiti artists, and the first round of the breakdance tourney is the fruit of a partnership between the mayor’s office and the Floor Lords, a respected breakdancing crew founded in 1981 that performs nationwide.

With members age 12 to 38, the Floor Lords are a regular presence in Boston’s inner-city schools and community centers. In 2003 they formed a nonprofit to run after-school and summer programs, teaching not just the hip-hop arts but also design, promotion, and entrepreneurship.

“They’ve done a lot of work all over the city with young people,” says Michelle Baxter, Boston’s director of performing arts and outreach. “Particularly with young people who are sort of lost in terms of how they see themselves in the community, the neighborhood, globally. They bring all of this together in a positive way, so the kids understand that they do have a place.”

The education project was a vision of Floor Lords founder Lino Delgado and David Crump, a youth worker and hip-hop promoter with roots in rural Texas and Brookline. They met in 2002 at the Martha Eliot Health Center in the Bromley-Heath projects, where Crump was an outreach worker and Delgado had previously worked.

“You’re talking about two men who’ve been in hip-hop from the industry side and see it for what it really is,” says Crump. “We’ve worked with a lot of these artists. So we want to bring the truth of that to the kids and tell them, `It’s not what you see on TV.’ “

This summer the group has held residencies in Mattapan, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain, in partnership with the city. Their reputation in Boston hip-hop circles means they can bring revered local artists to help deliver the message.

“A group like the Floor Lords is very powerful because they can hold a diverse audience of young people and parents,” says Larry Mayes, Boston’s director of human services.

That family energy permeates this weekend’s program and choice of artists. The Saturday show is free; the Friday event is all-ages and alcohol-free. Proceeds benefit the Floor Lords youth program, which is planned to move this fall into the Strand Theater.

Challenges abound. Corporate sponsors, quick to advertise on commercial radio, have been scarce for a grassroots, positive event. And some artists grumble that city promotion has fallen short of what is done for non-hip-hop shows.

Still, all agree that the city and Floor Lords are breaking important new ground.

“I remember battling the Floor Lords back in ‘84,” says Boston’s Ed O.G, who performs Saturday with his new group Special Teamz. “To see them working with the city and true hip-hop is a blessing. The mayor and city have opened their arms to positive hip-hop.”