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"Being a black kid that skateboarded, I was breaking serious ground in a lot of people's family traditions," says Paul "Gnu" Jennings. "I'd show up at my friend's house, and there's never been black people in that house. The whole family is like, 'Holy shit, there's a fuckin' nigger here,' you know? But you kill those misconceptions that they may have, and that's how it goes, man."
All that might've gone down a long time ago, when Jennings, a transplanted New Yorker fresh in South Florida, was a teenaged skate punk and hip-hop head. Fifteen or so years later, on a recent Wednesday night in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Jennings is still killing misconceptions.
Like: There's nothing underground happening on Himmarshee. Like: The funk will never fly at the Poor House. Like: There's no cohesiveness within the local creative community.
Jennings has killed them all. For the past four months, with the help of Hashbrown guitarist Duncan Cameron and hip-hop scenemaker Jasper Delaini,he's turned the Poor House's grimy, rock 'n' roll-stained confines into a live b-boy art gallery.
As much a state of mind as a dance party, "The Art of Moving Butts" is a monthly showcase of hip-hop, street art, and positive attitude, an oasis of high-minded, true-school hipness set amid the booze-fueled currents in mainstream Fort Liquordale.
Held since this past January on the last Wednesday of every month, each AMB night has seen a truly beautiful commingling of characters, all moving to the footloose funk of the reunited Hashbrown, plus a rotating cast of guest MCs and open-mic vocalists. The crowd is far more stylish and colorful than the usual black-clad rocker regulars at the Poor House, not to mention more diverse in ethnicity and outlook. Hearing the sounds of hip-hop, soul-jazz, and funk in a venerable blues bar is a welcome surprise.
"We're fully winning fans in that sense, but we're also pissing people off," Jennings says. "Those rockabilly kids, all the little punk kids, whatever all these kids that think they know what it should be. But I've known Jay [Hemple, co-owner of the Poor House] for a long time, and he don't care he's all about the dollar."
For better or worse, each night has also coincided with the death of a famous black artist like Richard Pryor or Lou Rawls; by default, AMB has been made into a tribute of sorts. This past Wednesday, rather than the usual live-band format with Hashbrown tag-teaming with turntablists Stevie B and KNS, a slew of producers and DJs from all over South Florida put on a rhythmcentric clinic in honor of Jay Dilla, the esteemed hip-hop beatsmith who died last month. Miami studio vet Tony Galvin busted out an as-yet-unreleased track he created for T.I., Cincinnati maestro Jahsunwent wicky-wicky over homemade beats, and Broward MC duo Fresh Air Fund busted out a bangin' impromptu set.
By midnight, the crowd was dense, diverse, and dialed into the action onstage. In a rare showing of hip-hop solidarity, white-T trappers bobbed side by side with backpackers actually wearing backpacks. "We attract people that are on the frontiers and edges of things," Cameron says. "They might not have the commercial sensibility, for the better. They're more tending towards the artistry instead of the MTV aspect. That's what we like."
As the PA cut out a problem that Jennings and Delaini say has persistently dogged the night Earthworx, a pair of Miami MCs, erupted in frustration and threw down their mics ("Don't do that shit," Jennings warned later from the stage. "This is a grassroots thing; I gotta pay for any shit you break.") During their set, Fresh Air Fund MCs Butta Verses and Raw Filth took advantage of the busted sound for some a cappella freestyling.
Grassroots is the only kinda thing Jennings believes in. In the mid-'80s, and in his midteens, he drummed up content for his self-published zine, Grind Life,by promoting skateboarding competitions; he built the first indoor half pipe at Atlantis Skateway in West Palm and rewired power from a Winn-Dixie meter room to a neighboring parking lot for all-day competitions. During a soul-searching trip to Brooklyn in the early '90s, he was a street-level observer of the Crown Heights riots. "I was a happy-go-lucky kid up to that point," he says. "But once I saw how the cops treated us, how the media ranked people out there, it woke me up to a whole different thing."
Reenergized, Jennings returned to Florida and started his Counterpoint Garments clothing label, designing T-shirts with politically charged slogans and images of great revolutionary thinkers. Citing several instances of police profiling and outright racism experienced in Florida and New York, he uses the clothing label and the AMB nights as a means to battle stereotypes and divisiveness through art.
"Let's say you got Young Jeezy at Revolution and you got some rockabilly next door," he posits in a very likely Himmarshee scenario. "Those are two very different crowds. It's almost like rats inside a laboratory, where you got the white rats on one side and the gray rats on the other and they're not interacting at all. I see that, and I feel that tension, because I wanna go through both of 'em. I don't care."