Not since Harriet Tubman shepherded slaves to freedom way back in the 1800s has the word “underground” had any currency in Indiana. There’s a reason for that. Though Indiana has its charming Midwestern qualities, hospitality to subterranean expression isn’t one of them. Our homogenized suburban ethos is anathema to underground. It doesn’t blossom here, and it generally doesn’t stop by when out on the road. So it was an unexpected surprise when Oddjobs, the Lifesavas, Zion I, and Lyrics Born dropped into Indianapolis and blew the place up.
Although I’d like to say that their detonation of the Patio, the venue they played, is a sign that Indiana is opening up to all things underground, particularly underground hip-hop, I don’t want to be naively optimistic. Even in the relatively counterculture-friendly area of the city where the concert was held, hip-hop’s presence has been a contentious issue of late. It seems that these so-called underground hip-hop acts have just pushed themselves into the mainstream’s consciousness. How else to explain their presence in a place so vanilla that Dairy Queen is ready to begin drilling?
I was greeted at the Patio (which, by the way, did a noble thing by bringing this tour to town—applause) by a wash of cigarette smoke and the clinking of cheap longnecks, as the largely white audience struggled to fill the floor. The first act I caught, Oddjobs (unfortunately I missed the opener, Diverse) came at the audience with a three-pronged rhyme offensive over dark and organic beats mined from old jazz records. Crescent Moon, the MC of prominence for Oddjobs, says that he has been called a “racial smoothie” because of his mixed ethnicity. The phrase could be extrapolated to describe the entire Oddjobs quintet, a New York by way of Minneapolis squad whose tag-team rhymes recall Jurassic 5, while their dark yet affirmative storytelling begs comparisons to their Minneapolitan brethren, Atmosphere. In addition to Crescent Moon, MCs Advizor and Nomi share the mic duties, while DJs Anatomy and Deetalx make the noise. The Jobs exuded a disarmingly youthful exuberance while up on stage. Watching them, you’d think no one ever told them that a mishmash of ordinary, ethnically diverse kids can’t do this thing and make it big. Their set was pure energy drawn straight from the boiling veins of Crescent Moon, who shouted the chorus of “Transparent” off their latest ep, The Shopkeepers Wife, with wounded venom: “We don’t need no mutha-fuckin broke-ass fathers in our life…”
While the Oddjobs were bringing the painful truth, the Lifesavas were all about upliftin’ it. MCs Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbageman are old school revivalists, and like their Quannum cohorts, they’re heavy on positivity. There’s nothing confessional or particularly deep about their message; in fact, it can be summed up neatly: “You are hip-hop, we are hip-hop, and together we are gonna shake our hip-hoppity ass.” Back and forth, back and forth, Vursatyl and Jumbo exchanged rhymes like circus jugglers exchange bowling pins, frequently breaking the flow for some jaw-dropping freestyling, a field in which Jumbo is particularly gifted.
After Lifesavas had the crowd rhythmically resisting gravity for an entire set, Zion I brought things back down a bit with subdued, electronica-based beats and thoughtful lyrics. This isn’t to suggest that their set didn’t move the crowd, because it did; it’s just that Zion and DJ Amp Live make the kind of music that is better suited for headphones than the club. Admirably, they pushed the energy level as far as their tools would let them, hopping all over the stage, playing call and response with the audience, and turning the tables on audience participation by participating with the audience, coming down off stage to motivate the movers and to do away with anyone standing still.
Headlining was Lyrics Born. Let me tell you about Lyrics Born: There is no one who flows like Lyrics Born. Nobody. An Asian, Bay Area, Quannum artist, Lyrics Born has appeared on Company Flow records, Blackalicious records, and his own records (among which is the boundlessly sick Latyrx album, a collaboration with Lateef the Truth Seeker), but his name remains essentially unknown. Lyrics Born took the stage with just a female back-up singer and a DJ, and he ignited every single nerve ending in the house with his deliriously funked-out and deliciously eccentric flow. Lyrics Born radiates unfathomable love for what he does, and to not be affected by it implies a serious deficiency of soul. At one point in the night, he told the audience, “when I first heard I was going to have to go to Indiana, I thought, ‘man, ain’t that some bullshit. What’s in Indiana?’ But you know what?” (the DJ starts the record) “I changed my mind. (cracking a smile, easing into the rhythm) I changed my mind, I changed my mind, I changed my mind.” Okay—so you had to be there. It was cool, though.
Did I mention that the crowd, myself among them, danced and danced and danced, all night long? We were small in number, but the love was large and by no means superficial. There was some deep feeling there for these guys. No minds were changed among us, because we loved it before we walked in the door. In a way, that’s a shame. Around these parts, a few changed minds might be all that keeps us from seeing more artists with the talent and integrity of these four acts, both from the outside and from within.