Hip-hop fans and talent abound in Cedar Rapids. So why hasn’t the scene exploded?

Rahlan Kay, a.k.a. Rowland Gibson, and imperfekt, a.k.a. Rick Noggle, inside Noggle’s throwback shop, 20 Years Awesome. — Sofia DeMartino/Little Village

If you start asking around about the hip-hop scene in Cedar Rapids, you’ll hear the same answer repeatedly: “What scene?”

Of course, there hasn’t been much of anything happening the past year-plus, due to the pandemic. But although most can manage to drop a name or two, the general consensus seems to be that whatever scene there once was has faded. The further you dig, the less you find. Only a handful of names show up on a Bandcamp search. Facebook pages like Hip Hop Roots Cedar Rapids, Iowa haven’t seen activity since 2014. It’s something of a ghost town.

Now, I don’t claim to be omnipotent. I hope like hell that I get a slew of emails schooling me on all I missed. Y’all would tell me when I fuck up, right? Yeah. I trust you. So I hope you trust me: CR is a city that’s just waiting to break.

Years ago, I saw Schäffer the Darklord in a tiny bar where 1st St SW meets C St SW; it’s probably changed hands three times since—a diner called Lucita’s is there now. It was by a large margin the most packed I have ever seen a show in Cedar Rapids at a legitimate establishment. The fans are there, so why isn’t the music?

When you start asking around about hip hop in the city, two names will come up again and again: Rahlan Kay, a.k.a. Rowland Gibson, and imperfekt, a.k.a. Rick Noggle. They’ve been playing out in the city for decades, often driving engagement and creating practically from scratch. These are both hometown boys, born and raised in the 319, with deep ties to the community, both professionally (Noggle owns a hip hop inspired vintage clothing store downtown, 20 Years Awesome; Gibson works with youth) and in their music.

The video for Rahlan Kay’s latest single, “Music Is Like Breathin’” (produced by his brother, EJ Swavv, who he also performs with in the group Sons of Mack) is a love letter to the city, showcasing the crucial spots of his youth, including McKinley Middle School and Washington High School, and shouting out influences and peers in the text across the bottom of the screen.

“I think there are individuals who have an interest,” he says of up-and-coming performers, “but I don’t see what I saw 10 years ago, 20 years ago. … I could be far removed from the scene. But there aren’t many places in Cedar Rapids to perform. … You’ve had these good pushes, but not enough momentum for it to really blossom.”

Rahlan Kay has been on the hip-hop scene in Cedar Rapids for 30 years. He was the first hip-hop act to play the McGrath Amphitheater, for Uptown Friday Nights, and he managed the hip-hop stage for 319 Fest. He was first inspired to perform by a local group he saw take the stage at McKinley when he was a student, Magic Motion.

“I’ve always been musical, playing instruments or being in band, being in orchestra,” he said. He’s played upright bass, saxophone; he’s sung in choir, done theater. But when he and his friends saw Magic Motion, they thought, “Oh, we could do this too.”

They called themselves EM3: Educated Music to the Third Power. In addition to Magic Motion, he named Cedar Rapids influences Soldiers in Command, Sonny Butler, Maybelle, DJ Commando (who’s still active) — and he remembers rushing home from McKinley in the afternoons to see Yo, MTV Raps.

“That was the only visual that we would see of hip hop, because it wasn’t like anybody was coming through town to perform. I think the biggest show they had here, I was in high school I believe, was Hammer. We weren’t going to see all the nitty gritty acts from back then.”

After high school, he went to the University of Iowa, where he got a taste of (and heavily influenced) the Iowa City scene, performing as Genuyne until he got the tip that someone else had a slightly stronger claim to a slightly different spelling. In Iowa City, he had access to occasional BET and a hip-hop show on campus radio, and the clubs were welcoming — but the talent was transitory.

“[There was a] real strong push, but we weren’t able to sustain it,” Rahlan Kay said. “I would say because of three things: not really being supported, Cedar Rapids not choosing to support; Iowa City, moving; not having a real bona fide radio station that catered specifically to hip hop. … It’s hard to build and maintain a scene without having some of those channels.”

“Here we never really had a place where you can just show up with a CD and put it in a CD player and rap into a microphone, it just never was a thing,” imperfekt said. “So we would always just have to figure out a little dive bar we could go into.”

From 2006-2012, imperfekt ran the monthly Super Fresh Saturdays at a series of venues in Cedar Rapids. It started when his mother, who worked at the Blue Collar Lounge, encouraged him to hold a show there. It exploded fast, with acts from as far away as New York City looking to book with him, and eventually grew into Super Fresh Culture Fest, a festival that ran three years in Cedar Rapids, from 2012-2014.

“The legal capacity of the Blue Collar Lounge was 49 people. … We would have nights where 100 people would pay five bucks at the door,” he said.

Once the showcases outgrew that spot, they ran for a while at the Coopacabana, until the flood of 2008. It took several meetings with the owner over two to three months before he agreed to let them do a show there, but eventually, they were staples in the space, and even the regulars in what imperfekt referred to as an “old people bar” were hanging out enjoying the gigs. The venue was one of the few they had access to with both ample space and a stage.

“These places never had stages,” imperfekt said of the dive bars they typically booked, “so we were performing on the same level as the people that were watching us perform. … We just never had that real stage, go there, have a big booming sound system—we’d have to bring our own speakers and everything. We were like the entire embodiment of the show: sound, DJ, booking it, making the flyers — we did all the work. Whereas if we lived in Iowa City and we booked a show at Gabe’s Oasis, all we’d have to do was secure the date.”

Although imperfekt has in the past toured all over, including Austin, Texas and the East Coast, and his crew, the Mic Hand Crew, is made up of rappers from around the region, “Cedar Rapids has always been my heart,” he said. “I’ve always been trying to put on for this city.”

“There’s lots of talent here, and I talk about it quite a bit with some of my other cohorts, how I feel bad for the up-and-comers.” The lack of regular shows and scene support in the city “makes me feel sad for the … young versions of me that are supposed to be coming up and taking my place,” he said.

“Once again it comes down to the fact that there’s not a place that you can go to and just plug a microphone in and rap. If you want to book a show you have to have a full sound system.”

Rahlan Kay and imperfekt have both, over the years, exhibited more than their fair share of hustle. They have had conversations with the bar owners, fought for the scene in their hometown. And they both still perform on a semi-regular basis, or did before COVID-19, and hope to again. But they both expressed that there is a lack of cohesion and a lack of institutional support that prevent what could be considered a “scene” from actually taking hold.

“There’s just not a lot of venues,” Rahlan Kay said. He shouts out the Olympic South Side Theater, Cocktails, and Tailgators, but, “There’s very few and far between, specifically in Cedar Rapids. And I don’t think the community of Cedar Rapids, the business community per se, was really too keen on having people perform live hip hop.”

“There were other spots in town that we always wanted to get into and do stuff, but they wouldn’t let us,” imperfekt concurred. “There’s such a stigma against rap and hip hop being a negative thing.”

Part of that stigma may have to do with the somewhat tense relationship between Eastern Iowa and Chicago. One of the first things you learn on moving to this region is that “people from Chicago” is Iowan for “troublemakers,” and almost exclusively refers to Black people.

“I know that there’s a certain bit of privilege that I’ve had,” imperfekt said. Although he noted that things seem different now, he acknowledged, “I know that being that most of the business owners here were white, and I was a white person trying to come and book a hip-hop show, that it was easier for me than some of the Black guys around town.”

So like a bad real estate joke, it all keeps coming back to finding the right location, location, location.

“Realistically it comes down to a centralized location where people go,” imperfekt said. “That’s where the OGs go and the newcomers go, and the up-and-comers get to come and cut their teeth.”

When he was a teen, he and his friends traveled down to Gabe’s in Iowa City for that opportunity.

“I would go to a show two hours early and stay two hours late, with the hopes that a freestyle session would happen, or with the hopes that we would break dance and battle rap people. … For there not to be anywhere for anybody to go that’s been consistent, it leaves everybody in their own studio at their own house making their own music by themselves.”

Rahlan Kay, a.k.a. Rowland Gibson, and imperfekt, a.k.a. Rick Noggle, outside Noggle’s throwback shop, 20 Years Awesome. — Sofia DeMartino/Little Village

Rahlan Kay sees that isolation as well. And although he notes that other regional hubs, like the Atlanta area or New York, seem to have a more supportive atmosphere than anywhere in the Midwest, he also thinks that it may be a shift in the genre.

“Now in 2021, there’s not that push for having a group, like a Wu-Tang. I think it’s more individualized. And I might credit that to social media. Anybody can be a star,” he said of the new talent making names for themselves online.

There’s a Midwestern lope to the styles of both artists, though, that despite their dissimilarities makes a listener think that a Cedar Rapids “sound” is a thing, even if the “scene” isn’t. Rahlan Kay focuses on message, and imperfekt has a distinct lyrical agility that he centers in his work, but there’s something that’s both focused and casual about their tunes, like an Iowan sitting on the porch watching a tornado roll in: unworried, unhurried, yet also somehow defiant.

It’s enough to allow hope to sneak in that there may be a future for this scattered effort yet. And support is building: Both Rahlan Kay and imperfekt mentioned the Sound Box studio in Cedar Rapids, which also nabbed runner-up in Little Village’s Best of the CRANDIC awards last year. And coming up on July 10, the Iowa Summer Jam is returning, this time to the Olympic South Side Theater. It’s billed as a festival for all genres, but CR rapper Tone Da Boss is producing, through his T1 Entertainment management and marketing group, another key player pushing forward in the city.

“That might be a good indicator of where we are,” Rahlan Kay said of the Summer Jam.

I for one can’t wait to find out.

Genevieve Trainor would just like to say that anyone who didn’t vote for Kendrick in this month’s poll was wrong. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 295.

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