Searching for homegrown hip hop in Iowa City anymore is like combing the desert for the Yeti. Now, granted, this is coming from a white girl who doesn’t go out much anymore, but Iowa City has seen surges of hip hop elements in these past 20 years that beg us to ask—the month GZA/The Genius graces the Englert Theater’s stage—Where has all the homegrown hip hop gone?
“The thing about college kids is they only want to hear what’s popular,” said Zach Lint, better known as Coolzey and—to townies—as one of the core members of the Sucka MC’s. “I just don’t think any hip hop person in Iowa City is going to be able to have a big draw on a constant basis unless they make a name for themselves somewhere else.”
Ghostface Killahs or Just Ghosts?
The Sucka MC’s were actively performing—with 10 solid members and 20 to 30 “satellite” members—from 1999 to 2003, Coolzey said, before most of the members either got married or graduated.
He doesn’t think of himself as a hip hop artist really, more of an all-around musician who doesn’t like defining himself by genre. As of this printing, he last performed at the Picador in Grism, with Grace Sinclair of Petit Mal and two members of Lipstick Homicide. They had kinda a grunge-punk sound.
It was a far cry from hip hop. The hip hop shows in March at the Picador consisted of local emcee David the Saint (David Santiago Smith) and local producer Clancy Everafter (Clancy Clark) on Wednesday, March 11, and Iowa emigrants the Bad Fathers the following night.
The Bad Fathers—a band that throws rhymes on top of skater spazz-punk—came back to play for a 100-plus crowd that Thursday. It had all the energy of a thumping hip hop show, complete with rafter pull-ups, and left one inebriated female literally jumping up and down screaming for more.
Now, local music-scene history note: emcees Juan Hooks, Austin “Auto” Galante and Justin “Cousin” Cox were the Committee before bringing additional instruments in to form the Bad Fathers, so this history extends to the original incarnation. The band told Little Village by email that it was most active between 2000 and 2006, having left town for a sunnier (and more expensive) Los Angeles in 2007.
“We did really well in Iowa City,” Bad Fathers vocalist Justin wrote. “I know some other bands did too. Iowa City’s central location makes it a really great place to tour from.”
“The people who were receptive to our music took it and ran with it,” added Jeff Rion, a.k.a. Jethro, the band’s producer. “But I feel we hit the roof that most bands of any type—in Iowa—eventually hit. There just isn’t a large enough market or an industry in place to support musicians full time.”
Justin said they moved to L.A. for their careers, the warmth and…because it’s not Iowa. The original members had lived here too long to not succumb to the itch to try something different.
“Many of the interesting people who grow up in Iowa City can’t wait to leave,” said former Iowa Citian and hip hop lover Agon Mizelle via Facebook. “Perhaps [an] urban setting is key [to hip hop’s presence]. There is so much stress in the big city, that one is forced to transform themselves and their environments into something creative, to just stay sane. Perhaps Iowa is too nice a place to live, that hip hop is not needed as an outlet.”
Young Youth Rockin’ the Gold…
The two surges homegrown Iowa City hip hop can claim happened in the late nineties and between 2002 and 2006. It’s impossible to talk about Iowa City’s homegrown hip hop without mentioning producer Tack-Fu. Tack (Timothy Tack) started making tapes in the nineties–and formed the 85 Decibel Monks circa 2002–but is one who hasn’t moved away since.
In the early nineties, United Action for Youth (UAY) supported the hip hop aspirations of then-high schoolers Josiah “Jay” Fields and Agon Mizelle, who weren’t originally from Iowa but moved here and lived with it.
“Iowa was a drag,” Josiah says. He said he and Agon bonded at Southeast Junior High because they were the only ones around that cared about hip hop. Josiah was from California and Agon from New York, he said, so they felt they knew something about hip hop that Iowans were clueless about.
It wasn’t until Josiah–who with Agon was making the Mighty All-Stars of Shit tapes–met the Sucka MC’s–of the Cold Stone Shit tapes–that he saw any sort of scene developing.
“I was buying a lot of underground tapes, went into Record Collector, hunting for tapes,” Josiah said. “The only people seriously doing that were Tack-Fu, Coolzey, Sucka MC’s, Agon and myself.”
He said Coolzey called and said he didn’t like Josiah’s tape until he got to one song, which was enough to invite him to hang out with the rest of the Sucka MC’s.
“Jay was a pretty tireless source in the hip hop scene, threw down so many beats and freestyled all the time,” Coolzey said. “Graffiti, scratching beats…what it takes to make a community is a bunch of people doing that.”
Six-Step to Freedom?
Josiah said that it took a few years after that before other elements of hip hop culture started popping up, namely graffing and breaking. For a period in 2001, a breakdancing crew would battle Wednesday nights at the Sports Column—one of the b-boys worked there as a bouncer.
“I feel like hip hop could thrive in Iowa City, and it has,” Agon said. “I remember sneaking through train yards with graf artists on numerous occasions. I remember freestyling with some pretty serious emcees. I have had more than a few breakdance battles in Gabes, and have seen deejays back-queue records with expert precision.”
The mere presence of these different elements of hip hop culture wasn’t enough to create a cohesive scene, however.
“When you look at the history of Iowa City hip hop, it always had a divide and a slight tinge of bitterness,” Josiah said.
The emcees weren’t in with the breakers weren’t in with the graf artists—it just wasn’t a mutually supportive community.
“I remember going to a breakdance competition in West Branch or West Liberty or something like that, there was a strong sense of community—a lot of Mexican immigrants and poor rural whites, who seemed to really take to breakdancing, and stick to the core hip hop,” Agon said. “Perhaps the community was tight-knit there, and Iowa City has too many students, coming and going, taking only an intellectual interest in the anthropology of hip hop, but going no further. Who knows.”
Hip hop everywhere seems to be going through either its awkward teenage years or a mid-life crisis—depending on the lifespan the cultural movement will eventually claim. RJD2 decided to find his inner pop/rock, and according to a recent MTV.com article, Kanye West needed T-Pain’s help to prevent his new album, 808s & Heartbreak, from sounding like an adult contemporary one. So why should homegrown hip hop in Iowa City buck the trend—the trend of hip hop not being hip hop?
“Perhaps hip hop does not need to take root in Iowa City either,” says Agon. “There is enough culture of its own there.”
Justin of the Bad Fathers said, “Living in Iowa City was a blessing for me—all the funk and jazz jams and such. The poetry readings. I learned so much.”
Is Iowa City homegrown hip hop the victim of the town having too much culture already? Animosity (Derek Thorn) of the Uniphonics is still in town and rhyming, albeit on top of a funk and jazz backdrop. The band plays April 10 at the Picador, for all those interested in seeing the experiment.
Deejays and producers can take liberties the single-instrumentalists don’t have the capacity for, mixing and sampling allowing for much greater flexibility between genres.
“Clancy is one of the most underrated and best Iowa City producers,” Josiah said. “I think he’s phenomenal.” Adding, “If you’re not from one of the major entertainment areas, you can just be yourself…Clancy’s really got an Iowa sound.”
That Iowa sound is not one person’s product, however, and word is that a crowd is stirring. The current elusive tendency of this scene makes that word hard to verify–but some rumors must be indulged. Word is there’s someone named Tyrell who’s talented and still around, looking for the opportunity to again be active, and someone named Mike, who might even be on stage somewhere soon, and maybe–just maybe–Tyrell will meet Mike and Mike will meet Brandon. And they’ll spit, and they’ll throw down beats, and Iowa City will have its new hip hop heroes.