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The Poor House Gets Mased

Talk about bad form. It was the last Wednesday of August. The Poor House is hosting the monthly Art of Moving Butts, an underground hip-hop night put on by Counterpoint Garments' Paul "Gnu" Jennings. But this wasn't an average night. Not only was local rhyme ruler Butta Verses headlining the mic but the DJ of the hour was none other than Maseo, of the legendary De La Soul. We're talking Native Tongues Posse here — hip-hop that's about positive, thought-provoking lyrics. So when Jennings saw some cat hanging up posters advertising Rick Ross' Port of Miami — an album that's as socially conscious as a gram of coke — he sent the young man packing. It's not like the Top 40 rapper needs the promotion. His album sales are doing just fine. Besides, it's called the Art of Moving Butts, not the Art of Moving Units.

"I told him we don't support that stuff," Jennings said, alluding to mainstream crunk-hop in general. "The thing is, he didn't ask if it was cool to put up the posters. He just went ahead and did it."

Sour grapes? Hell no. Jennings has nothing against people coming by to promote themselves; on a given night, there's always a handful of backpackers handing out fliers and CDs. The difference is that many of them are there to perform — they're contributing something. They're part of the community. Jennings has been working his garments off for the past nine months, trying to make Art hotter with each show. With local DJs like Stevie D, Immortal, K-N-S, Name Brand, doc suS, and UTI, getting the crowd pumped is never a problem. But it's pure grassroots stuff, even with a big name like Maseo on the bill. Getting a decent crowd on a regular basis is only part of the challenge. There's also the education factor — not everyone's hip to the underground hop. Not every MC wants to wax poetic about the size of his bank account. And if you ask Maseo — who's been in the game since the late '80s — that's not the best thing to be focusing on right now.

"Right now, there's an overall state of mediocrity in hip-hop," Maseo said. "Financially, I think it's at its lowest point in a long time. Only the people who love it will be sticking around."

That's the Art of Moving Butts in a nutshell — people who love hip-hop and, in many cases, have been involved for two decades. It's all about maintaining relationships, Maseo noted. And it's how Maseo and Jennings found themselves at Wednesday's event — nearly a quarter century after they first met, as youngsters growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So when Maseo moved to Boca Raton five years ago, it was inevitable that he'd hook up with Jennings. Fate? Nah — just two New York transplants reuniting. Fate is when a neighbor hands you an MC's demo and it turns out to be your biggest project for the foreseeable future. That's how Maseo discovered Butta, whom he signed to his Bear Mountain Entertainment label in 2002.

"Butta's my first official artist that I'm working on for commercial success," Maseo said. "I'm a real fan of his, so I'm ridin' for him. At this point, my career's on Butta."

That's not as much of a gamble as it sounds. When Maseo threw his support behind an upcoming MC named Mos Def, well... he became Mos Def, for crissakes. Maseo knows how to pick a winner, and if it takes a trip to Europe to prove Butta's talent, so be it. Since he signed the Butta Man, Maseo's taken him on four international tours, hitting countries like Germany and Croatia and opening for the likes of Common and John Legend.

"Nowadays, you gotta be a performer — you have to put on a good show," Maseo said. "In the mid- to late '90s, it was about TV performances. Rappers weren't having to do tours like they do now."

And when Butta hit the stage Wednesday night, it was obvious why Maseo's so enthusiastic about him. This is one guy who knows how to work a crowd.

"When I say 'Mase,' you say 'O.' When I say 'Poor House,' you say 'Go!'"

With that, Butta had the amped-up crowd making some noise. Hands raised. Fingers pointed. And yes — butts moved. It was hard not to, what with Maseo acting as Butta's hype man, giving him props and dancing along on stage. During a break in Butta's set, Maseo gave the audience some props as well.

"It's spots like this that make a true community," he said. "There's no intense security at the door. And I like the fact that there's more women showing up for hip-hop. When I used to do this shit at the Lyricist's Lounge, it was a room full of sausages."

He was right. There were quite a few lookers of the female persuasion. And on that note, I headed outside for a smoke break (meaning, I wanted a break from all the smoke). Outside, I met with Jennings, who was reflecting on the Rick Ross poster boy.

"He was a young kid," Jennings said. "He might not even know the difference between what we're doing and what he's promoting. Maybe this will give him something to think about."

Hopefully. Who knows? Now that he's seen the alternative, maybe the kid will be hustlin' his own album soon. If so, the Art of Moving Butts is the right place to try out the rhymes. If not, he could always try giving his demo to a neighbor.

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Jason Budjinski

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