Wisconsin Sound #10

by Joey Grihalva

Freespace inspires the next generation

All-ages venues are a key component to a healthy music scene. While Milwaukee’s music scene is the most vibrant it’s been in decades, a dearth of all-ages venues limits its potential. Much of this is due to our antiquated, restrictive liquor laws, which could be changed. (Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.)

Last year saw the demise of three important Milwaukee all-ages DIY spaces: the Cocoon Room, Lucky Cat and Borg Ward. However, 2015 also saw the rise of Freespace, a monthly, (mostly) hip-hop showcase and interview series featuring up-and-coming young musicians and established artists. It was recently featured on FOX6, WUWM’s Lake Effect, and in the Journal Sentinel.

Freespace is the brainchild of high school English teacher Vincent Gaa and hip-hop artist WebsterX (Sam Ahmed). It provides an opportunity for youth to learn from and interact with professional musicians, as well as their peers. In its first year Freespace brought in renowned artists like IshDARR, Wave Chappelle, and Lili K., plus youth artists like Vital E$$ence, Riqo, and LeanBeatz.

The Freespace team also includes KaneTheRapper (Darius Briggs) and artist Janice Vogt. In September the organization celebrated its one-year anniversary. The week after the Presidential Election Freespace welcomed Chicago’s Malcolm London, CrashPrez (Minneapolis by way of Madison and Maryland), and 17-year-old local Juxt Dame.

Gaa began the evening by informing the audience that the next few Freespace events would each have a theme. The night’s theme was social justice and the artists were “people who are critical of the world they engage in and promote a positive message.” In his intro Gaa referred to bell hooks, Paulo Freire, as well as the principles, rhetoric and tools he learned from this punk rock roots. He closed his intro by asking the audience, “What compels humans to care?”

High school student Juxt Dame was the first featured artist. Dame has been at almost every Freespace event, including the first one (“Freespace beta”), which he heard about through KaneTheRapper. When Dame brought up his friend X (a teenage girl) and the two traded bars over a lush, laid back track it gave me goosebumps.

“I like to help people. And I like meeting new people. Music ain’t nothing but a connection. And you’re responsible for the connection you make with people,” said Dame during his interview with Gaa.

CrashPrez (Michael Penn II) holds the rare honor of receiving a scholarship to UW-Madison for being a rapper. He is a graduate of UW’s First Wave Hip-Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community program. Originally from a suburb of D.C., Penn is a published writer and critical thinker. After encouraging the crowd to check out the new album  Shade Trees  from Madison based rapper Trapo, Penn said, “Half of the tightest artists from Madison don’t even have projects out yet, so don’t sleep.”

When asked about his overall message to the youth, Penn stumbled for a few seconds before dropping knowledge.

“It starts with educating yourself and realizing that your activism is literally whatever you are best at. You don’t have to be in the streets. You can be the lawmaker. You can be the police, if that’s what you’re into. You can cook somebody some food that’s down on their luck. You can offer your couch. Activism is a spectrum. Everybody has something that they’re capable of giving other people. Focus on you and when you got the resources help everybody out, because that sh*t really goes a long way. A full stomach goes a long way. A good night’s sleep goes a long way.”

Malcolm London began by praising his Amtrak ride up from Chicago. The train trip gave him an opportunity to write poetry and journal. He was impressed by the Freespace community, which reminded him of the open mic series he runs in Chicago with Chance the Rapper.

London discussed his experience speaking at the United Nations, meeting Angela Davis, being inspired by WebsterX, and how the creative process can also be a healing process. Though London was dealing with strep throat and started his set out low-key, he became increasingly energized, echoing some of his words of wisdom.

“Celebration can be a very political act. Motherf*ckers like Donald Trump, like some of these cops in this city and in my city, they don’t want to see you alive. They don’t want you to be in a space like this, radically re-imagining the world and loving each other. So celebrating can be a very political act.”

Last week Freespace were co-recipients of the Humanitarian Award at the 9th Annual Radio Milwaukee Awards.


Learning to love the Midnight Reruns

At the end of 2015 I wrote a “Best Of” article that included the best Milwaukee releases and live performances of the year. I was derided in the comment section for not including Midnight Reruns’ Force of Nurture. The rock and roll quartet’s fourth release was critically acclaimed, but not by me.

The first and only time I saw the Reruns was opening night of Summerfest 2015. My girlfriend and I were going through a rough patch and I wasn’t in a good headspace. I disregarded the Reruns brand of classic-meets-garage rock because I initially didn’t like frontman Graham Hunt’s voice. I also wasn’t a fan of the band’s cover-heavy Summerfest set. As a result, I never gave the album a chance.

Fast-forward eleven months and the Reruns are playing UWM’s ‘MKE Unplugged’ series at the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts. Accompanying the band’s regular members are Ian Olvera on keys, Sahan Jayasuriya on percussion, and Treccy Marquardt-Thomas providing additional vocals.

“We haven’t played an acoustic show in two to three years,” Hunt admits as he picks up his guitar. “This may be the last one, depending on how it goes.”

Midnight Reruns
Midnight Reruns

Hunt also announces the band has been working on a new record and will preview some of those songs. The Reruns open with a new one and I can dig it. By the third song I’m totally on board. The guitar player is fantastic, the drummer is talented and entertaining, plus the band has great chemistry. The gang choruses are heightened with the extra singers and Hunt’s voice has won me over.

“We’ve been a band for about six years almost to the day. I wrote this next song walking around UWM and here we are,” says Hunt before playing a song off the band’s first EP.

The ‘MKE Unplugged’ series has been around since 2013. It was founded by Randall Trumbull-Holper, Director of Facilities for the Peck School of the Arts.

“I was trying to bring in more community and tap into a new audience,” Trumbull-Holper tells me before the Midnight Reruns performance. “I wanted to bring some of the great local talent to campus so the students wouldn’t have to go far to learn about what Milwaukee has to offer.”

‘MKE Unplugged’ is free to the public, thanks in part to Trumbull-Holper’s ability to generate revenue by renting certain UWM properties. At ‘MKE Unplugged’ there is a bar that serves wine and beer. 91.7 WMSE has broadcast each session live since the beginning. The series started with Trapper Schoepp and has featured the likes of Lex Allen, Soul Low, Buffalo Gospel and more.

“We do have a group of core followers but for the most part seeing different people in our building every month is great,” says Trumbull-Holper.

There are three ‘MKE Unplugged’ performances per semester. Trumbull-Holper also has a partnership with UWM’s finger-style guitar program that does two or three dates a year, bringing in international finger-style guitarists.

Later that week Midnight Reruns were the surprise headliner at a Club Timbuktu show that also featured The Fatty Acids, Sat. Nite Duets, and Antilia Raid. While the additional vocals, percussion and keys were somewhat missed, Hunt’s electric guitar sounded fantastic, their choice of covers were awesome, and the four-piece was as tight as any band I’ve seen in a long time.