'95 'TIL INFINITY: A Personal Narrative of Hip-Hop and Place in Iowa City

Features: March 2010 – Where they were from was just as important as what they were saying, almost from the beginning. To be down was to be in the house. Location in Iowa City was and is the same—while rappers can and will rap anywhere, and come and go, it is the places that get Master-locked into memory, chain-linking Iowa City and hip hop inextricably. Time and place bind up together. People are attached to where they were when others heard them play, heard them rap, not to where they disappeared to. Here’s a little story that must be told.

It is 1995 and the Tallboy and I are nuts about hip hop. We learn quickly that rappers will rap anywhere. These kids Scott, Dalton, Ronell and Dave would get loose in the back of the Tallboy’s Toyota minivan, a hilariously ugly shitbox on wheels that we called the Toastervan. We were 18 or 19, and we’d run from party to party, with two or three kids in bubblegooses in the far back, trading rhymes and long exhilations of hot smoke, one beatboxing when the other was spitting. It was the first time I’d ever heard cats rhyme up close and personal, first time I heard, “Yeah/my n**ga Dave on the beat/BJ and Clance in the front seat.” I got chills, knowing instinctively what off the top of the dome meant. Me and the Tallboy would trade a stunned look when we got out of the van, half-ripped and half-amazed: people could really make up verses as they went along?!?! We listened to a lot of rap in the Toaster: Funkmaster Flex mixtapes, Nas albums, some G-funk, unreleased Dogg Pound albums we copped off Daz’s girlfriend’s brother. But none of it matched the intensity of freestyle sessions on wheels, fellas trading jabs live and direct. You couldn’t help but be addicted after that. In that same van we first heard Tack Fu’s debut tape, The Supplement. Ronell rapped on it under the name Panic. The van drove us to shows, drove us to apartments. The Tallboy drove me to the old KRUI studio for my first chance to play beats on the radio.

The old studio was across from where the law school is now. I went to appear on a rap show hosted by this goofy kid we knew. His knowledge about hip hop seemed encyclopedic. His on-air name was The Big O. I played some beats, and for the part where I was supposed to talk, I made it about two sentences in before he cut my mic-–I had jokingly referred to the little studio with two dorky kids in it talking rap as “The Cracker Barrel,” and after that it was a while before I’d be talking about it on the radio again. The Big O was a forgiving mensch, though. The night Aquemini dropped, he had the Tallboy and me up to the BJ Records backroom to listen to the album again after the midnight sale, talking beats and regionalism, marveling at “Spottieottiedopealicious” through a cloud of Garcia y Vega. BJ Records was a second-story goldmine, in its final incarnation, right above the Deadwood. Hasn’t been there for years.

When we weren’t in the van or the record store or studios around town, we found hip-hop in the tiny apartments that seem to come at mercenary prices in this town. The first time I met Juan and Auto of the Bad Fathers, they were still the Committee, still had a crew strewn between Iowa City and Des Moines, still rocked a little place on Broadway. They played me a Richie Heller beat that sampled the Dynasty theme. I had producer’s envy. I had it worse when I first saw Tack Fu’s setup over on Mormon Trek. He had this big beast of a board, tons of records, stacks of CDs. Tack’s musical fixation took over most of his living room. We sought him out after hearing The Supplement. Tack became infamous in this town. He released Yen and Slang, featuring rappers like K-Smooth and D.N.A., and then raised the bar higher with Chained Reaction, then went left-field with the 85 dB Monks, his production super-group—I had a track on that album, my first real release. Now rappers drop albums pretty regularly here. Now Tack makes a PATV show, laces somebody with a beat sometimes. Now members of Bad Fathers are somewhere in LA and somewhere in Iowa, after changing their names, getting a live band, dropping a few releases.

Plenty of rappers from the Bad Fathers/85 dB Monk renaissance are still in town, though; the Big O went on to spit in the group Psychosomatic. Animosity bounced from solo act to collaborations with lots of different groups, eventually landing a plum spot holding down mic duties for funk-hippies the Uniphonics. ‘Mos used to rap with this group I made beats for, which had about seven names in sequence, the longest-lasting being Hellenistic. It was David the Saint (now solo as well as performing with A.V. Collective), johndope (formerly in Dopesicc with Johnny Six) and this kid Tim. Their lineup rotated now and then, drama being what it always is with rappers. One day they showed up to my home, drunk, in the middle of the afternoon, unannounced, while I was in the middle of something important. I answered the door in an unbuttoned dress shirt and boxers. They stared at me, the smell of Five-Star wafting across the doorjamb, and Animosity blurted out the question on everyone’s mind: “Oh, are you crushing it?” Location became a lesson: never let a rapper know where you live–especially if you were trying to have sex in peace.

It was okay to let producers know where you live–they were generally a little more low-key. We used to have regular production meetings, hosted by Helen in her Hawkeye Court hotbox. She just loved the music, wanted to see it grow in Iowa City. It was me, Vince (who still does Noise Radio on KRUI), Tack, Chaircrusher, DJ Earl-e, his frequently collaborator Prose. It eventually moved to Vince’s house near Southeast Junior High, and we met folks like DJ 007, Nate Unique, Hartless, some kids that aren’t around. The meetings were incredible–trading tips and tactics. Playing beats for each other. Vince let me have my first go ever on a pair of 1200s. Sooner or later, rappers smelled our productivity, and started colonizing the meetings. The gatherings got louder, cats who were already eager to say their part jockeying for beats and a spot in the cipher. I met Joe the Juggla, aka Juggla Vein, a killer on the mic, and the meetings stopped soon after. Too much talk, not enough action.

A few years later, Joe and I got into a heated argument in the Little Pink House on Governor Street, lighting up living room one day over what is and what isn’t hip hop–I fell into a more open, liberal camp; Joe was a prescriptivist, a fundamentalist. I might have even called him the Joe-atollah after that. Jos1 was learning to make beats above us, and we heard his sampler stumbling and stuttering through the ceiling. Years later I’d see him accompanied by a live drummer and upright bass at a party behind that same Little Pink House, spitting out ribbons of flow, a shower of phonemes. He was in town for years before I ever made beats for him, and he’s gone west now. The Pink House had me and another deejay living in the basement, a rapper and a producer in the second-story apartment, and it took forever for any of us to work together, a symptom of a scene without a setting.

Hopefully that condition is changing in 2010. On January 15, Public Space ONE looked like a scene happening in a place. It was a live hip hop show in Iowa City, and for the first time in a long time I didn’t know any of the rappers, hadn’t even heard of any of them. They were young kids, and I knew they were serious because the release they were celebrating was on tape. In 2010. It was ]]]]]]]] (who wants you to pronounce it Staples), Earthquake Baby, Yaw-Neez, and Dadacom, who got shouted out as the best producer in Iowa City. I tried not to take it personally; I remembered the first time I saw johndope rap over a beat I’d made, at a show at Gabe’s, and how I whooped and bought extra drinks when he shouted me out the same. These young bucks are enthusiastic and collaborative. Purist just dropped an album at the Blue Moose, and ]]]]]]]] and Mike V’s hardcore rap band Illth opened.

Word about a new mixtape traveled fast: all local cats. Real spit only. I was putting it together for Little Village and WFKU, a podcast that Tallboy and I record every week, fighting through Pabst and mutual antagonism to make a show about rap. Rappers came out of the woodwork, cats I didn’t even know like Wizard, and Kid Philosophy. Game show impresario and pedmall regular Tyrell Spitt volunteered. Cedar Rapids got drawn in, with CR all-stars like Imperfekt and Colorless, as well as Vo and Stookid, stepping up to represent for their town.

The space for creation to happen is important–it’s been too long since Iowa City had the regular dope spot for it to happen. The WFKU recording sessions have been crucial, bringing seasoned vets and new jacks together to trade flows, and live shows and albums are dropping regularly now. But just as important as the physical space is the knowledge that it can happen, that hip hop in Iowa City is not just now, but has been all along, with a real base of experience and history that pin it all down to this area code. The rappers come and go, producers surface and then dive back into their dusty obscurity again, but it’s been happening here the whole time, waiting to be discovered, shared and sampled, re-upped and reloaded, and released into the wild.

FREE DOWLOAD: WFKU/Little Village Magazine Local Hip-Hop Mixtape – 319: We Get It How We Live It

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