Last Friday night at Ohm nightclub in West Palm Beach, I learned a few things: (1) Hardly anyone drinks beer at a hip-hop show. It's all about Hypnotiq, Grey Goose, and good ol' Hennessy with lime. (2) Hats are in. It doesn't matter if it's one of those annoying mesh trucker caps, a fedora, a fez, or a beret. As long as you have the appropriate amount of self-confidence, you can pull off just about anything. (3) A DJ's flow is crucial if the dance party is to continue. At Ohm, DJ 2nen threw out a mixture of old and new jams and a remix of Black Sheep's "The Choice Is Yours" that dropped so much bass, I ended up smacking my own ass on the dance floor. Ain't no shame, ladies. (4) Substance in hip-hop may be watered down in the mainstream, but the flavor was full and robust that night in West Palm. Why was I bumping and grinding with a bunch of strangers and trying to down a glass of Hennessey with a straight face?
It was only fitting that Tha Union, an independent, South Florida-based hip-hop promotion and production company, was throwing a show for Independence Day. Twenty-two-year-old Julio Linares is the company's co-founder and does the graphic design and studio engineering at his makeshift studio in Miami for all of the recordings and mix tapes under his No Espik Inglis imprint. Currently on the roster is Linares himself (who goes by the name Ctraffik and just dropped his debut The Bum Rush), Caliba (who just put out his latest LP, Xperience), and DJ 2nen, who has released various mix tapes. The three met in a recording studio in early 2003, and by the summer, Tha Union was formed.
"It's a three-man operation with a street team of supporters to back us up in the streets from Key West to Tallahassee to Colombia all the way to California," Linares explains. "I pitch in for all the expenses from my paycheck, as do Caliba and 2nen. And my car's in the best shape, so I do most of the driving."
Linares, who's been influenced by Manu Chao, Redman, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Black Moon, Gang Starr, and Dean Martin, also has some critical words for the current status of hip-hop.
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"Hip-hop has gone to the dogs," he says. "You have rappers like Chingy, J-Kwon, Young Gunz, and Cassidy touring and headlining shows. All rappers are sounding and looking the same these days. There is no innovation, no purpose other than to feed watered-down product to an already saturated market. The stylists tell them how to dress, the producers and label execs tell them how to sound, and there are no more artists. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Kanye West are bringing it back, but only time will tell if substance in hip-hop will return to the forefront."
So last Friday night, I trucked on up to Ohm to see whether there was any substance to Tha Union's Hip-Hop Xplosion. The show was scheduled to feature Miami rapper Rick Ross, Caliba, Ctraffik, and SoFla Kingz and was in honor of DJ 2nen and Rick Ross' new mix-tape release, The Future of the South. Tha Union's reliance on word of mouth certainly paid off, because by midnight, the club was bumpin' like something out of House Party, despite the city's recent under-21 ban. DJ 2nen was spinning a funktabulous mix of breaks and crunk to an audience doing the freak nasty (girls were dancing half-naked in cages and on the bar as a sign of their, uh, independence from clothes). In a small, white room (with fluffy white fur walls and white couches) to the side of the main dance floor, several men and women with meticulously coifed hair mixed carafes of cranberry and orange juice with chilled bottles of some sort of liquor, the name of which I couldn't see. When asked what everyone was drinking, a short, gold-toothed fella by the name of Li'l Dirty replied, "That over there is the party." I took that to mean it is the shit. Dirty winked and concurred. My Heineken looked pathetic in comparison.
It was about 2 in the morning before anyone took the stage. And by that time, I was stuck in the white fur room, straining to see the small stage over a sea of hands in the air, people wavin' like they just didn't care. The distant strains of Caliba's infectious jam "Walk It Off" bounced off the kitty-pelt walls as girls did body shots for wide-eyed guys. Feeling claustrophobia set in, I declared my own independence and made a beeline for the club's side door. Outside, Linares was grinning. "The owner's happy," he said. "He's never seen this many people here on a Friday."
As long as Tha Union doesn't try to market its own energy drink, reppin' South Florida hip-hop may be its game.