By Joey Grihalva
For the bulk of its existence, hip-hop has been a culture and a music championed by youth, much to the chagrin of parents. This paradigm is shifting now that hip-hop is nearly a half century old. As I discovered talking with young Milwaukee hip-hop artists, many of their parents love hip-hop and some are even performers themselves.
“When I was young my mom played so much Mos Def, I just wanted to be as smooth as him,” says the magnetic Taj Raiden, 21, during an appearance on 91.7 WMSE’s Those Hip-Hop Guys.
On December 23, 2016, I had the pleasure of organizing a benefit event for Freespace, the monthly, all-ages, (mostly) hip-hop showcase housed at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. There I witnessed powerful performances from artists who have not yet reached legal drinking age.
Taj Raiden — who was performing at another benefit event later that night — came out to support the young emcees. She even took the mic — after some encouragement — during the community cypher, blowing the crowd away with her ferocious brand of hip-hop.
On January 18, Taj was a feature performer at Freespace’s annual “Femmespace” event, which takes place the week of Riverwest FemFest. Katie Lafond (Siren of New Age Narcissism) hosted the event. Lafond pointed out that while Taj is a “sweet little angel baby” offstage, her onstage persona couldn’t be any different. As Taj explained, the stage is where she releases her emotions and energy. This need to release is what got Taj started doing poetry, then making music.
Taj is aware of the double standards set on women. She questions the notion that if a woman is confident onstage that means she’s going to be stuck up in person. Taj understands the importance of male support, citing male friends who gave her confidence when she was starting out. But she also says that women should be wary of men who might try to dictate their artistic path.
Strength in numbers
While the first hip-hop act to gain national attention was The Sugarhill Gang back in the late 1970s, solo rappers became the norm in the the late 1990s and into the 2000s. The last decade has seen a resurgence of the group dynamic. Though Taj Raiden often performs solo, she is also a part of Team Ugly, which includes members YL64, Wolf tha Man, and Will the Glide.
The group dynamic was on full display during the Freespace holiday benefit when A.D.H.D. (“Adolescent.Devious.Harmonic.Dominance,” members Josh Jenkins, JalenG, Liv, and G-Gifted) took the stage.
As I spoke with A.D.H.D.’s Josh Jenkins, 19, I learned the group shares core values about hip-hop culture — the propagation of lyricism, community activism, and addressing social issues. Though the group is just out of high school, A.D.H.D. already has its own business cards.
“Hip-hop is very universal, so I enjoy performing in front of diverse crowds,” says Jenkins.
Jenkins first rapped onstage at a Juneteenth event when he was just 7-years-old. His father is also a rapper, singer and guitar player.
“It’s an exhilarating feeling to be able to do something I’m passionate about and have loved since I was a kid,” he adds.
While all the members of Phat Nerdz weren’t able to make the Freespace holiday benefit, Marquise Barnes (Young Epic) represented well for the crew, who are also just out of high school. Barnes stage presence and command of the mic showed skills far beyond his years. Like Jenkins, Barnes became involved with hip-hop at an early age.
“We loved how beatboxing and beatin’ on tables sounded, and how all the chaos in the class or lunchroom stopped and people would sit around and listen to us,” says Barnes.
“For me, that was big. Knowing that the vibrations of music and the sounds of instruments and our voice can attract people or at least grab their attention for that moment. After that I was just like, ‘I want to do music,’” he adds.
Thanks to his mother’s penchant for the Fat Boys and Biggie Smalls, Barnes — who is related to B.B. King on his father’s side — was inspired to incorporate the old school slang term “phat” into his crew’s name. Young Epic is joined by Myndd, S.I.N.P., Vimmy-T, Mayyh3m, and Captain Martian in the Phat Nerdz crew.
Not your average basement party
Phat Nerdz budding career got a boost when they started going to True Skool, an organization in downtown Milwaukee that “uses urban arts as a tool to engage youth in social justice, leadership and workforce development.” In the lower level of the Grand Avenue Mall, Barnes and company learned how to network and meet people outside their circle of friends. This led to a busy 2016 — opening for Lorde Fredd33, performing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and appearing on the radio.
True Skool is a common thread among the younger generation of Milwaukee hip-hop artists. Jenkins and the A.D.H.D. crew, as well as Taj Raiden, have all spent time at True Skool. At the beginning of the year Barnes threw a holiday party at True Skool, inviting Team Ugly, A.D.H.D., and others to perform.
“I decided to kick it off with an open mic, because the party wasn’t just for us. It was for the city and the fans. It was a way for all the people who supported us in 2016 to come express themselves and enjoy the fact that we’re all coming together for one reason, and that’s to show love,” says Barnes.
Even though he is technically still a teenager, Barnes is already thinking about the kids that will come after him.
“I’ll be honest, I wanted to quit making music so many times. But in my mind I kept reminding myself that I’m putting in work now so the next generation, the kid who is like me and looks up to me, I’m doing it so they won’t give up,” says Barnes.
“I want them to feel like they can do anything in the world. That’s what I represent, the fact that even when the odds are stacked against you, you can become and do whatever you want in life.”
A.D.H.D. performs this Thursday, February 2, at Club 200 in Walker’s Point. They will also play a Valentine’s Bash on Friday, February 17, details forthcoming…
Phat Nerdz will open for The Fatty Acids on Friday, February 24, at Anodyne Coffee Roasters in Walker’s Point. Stay tuned for another show announcement the week of February 13…