“Sooner or later, it comes about,” said Jon Malone. “You find that everybody ain’t built for this.”
Malone, better known by his stage moniker DJ Supreme, was seated at a table at Carrigan’s Public House with Randall Turner, recording the first of what would become a four-part history of Birmingham and hip-hop for the Vulcanite Radio podcast.
He was referring to the circumstances that led to the dissolution of his first hip-hop group, Joint Effort, in the mid-1990s — he would strike off on his own to “try to find the scene here,” he said — but he could have just as easily been referring to any number of ephemeral hip-hop artists that had come and gone from the city’s music scene over the past two decades.
But Malone is not one of those unenduring musicians, and neither is Turner. Both have been integral parts of Birmingham hip-hop since it ostensibly began in 1990s. In fact, Malone is often credited with single-handedly establishing the scene.
“You were essentially Lewis and Clark,” said Turner to Malone, laughing. “I don’t know who Clark was, but you were Lewis. It wasn’t time for you to find [the scene]. You were going to establish it. And that’s what you did.”
“What Was Really Poppin’”
Hip-hop as a genre dates back to the early 1970s, when it spawned from a larger cultural movement of minority communities in the South Bronx — but it has taken decades to establish roots in Birmingham. Even now, amidst the city’s much-touted cultural renaissance, it remains an underdog of a genre, defined as much by its struggle in establishing a cohesive, thriving community as by the dedication of its practitioners.
Even Turner, speaking several months after his interview with Malone, is uncertain of hip-hop’s place within the city’s cultural landscape.
“Is there a hip-hop scene in Birmingham?” he asks, shrugging. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
That ambiguity comes from the fact that Birmingham does have several major hip-hop acts — Shaheed and DJ Supreme, Nerves Baddington and Turner’s own group, The Green Seed, are perhaps the most prominent examples — but Turner worries that the scene that spawned those artists has since fragmented.
“You have these factions and these groups, but when it comes down to real success, that’s when everybody stops supporting one another,” he says. “Early going, there is [support] because everybody thinks there’s this pie that you’re fighting for. But as soon as you start to break away, that’s when the support stops.”
Turner found a supportive hip-hop community in Birmingham in the late 1990s, when he discovered a flyer that featured the image of a tongue going into an ear. The flyer was for the Eargasm, a weekly event held at the High Note bar at which hip-hop artists — mostly DJs and emcees — could hone their skills and engage in friendly competition. Malone was the event’s organizer.
“[The flyer] instantly made you feel like, ‘Wow, somebody else is out here believing in what the future could hold for us,’” Turner says. “‘They’re out here grinding. I’ve got to go connect with these people.”
It was a difficult time to be a hip-hop artist in Birmingham. Most venues in the city were unreceptive to the genre. “Good luck dropping your demo tape off at the Nick,” Turner laughs. “In ‘99? Around here? Please.”
Ryan “Inkline” Howell, who started participating in Eargasm soon after it started and now performs as half of the experimental hip-hop duo Nerves Baddington, has a similar memory. “Back when Eargasm first started, there were no venues that were willing to show the hip-hop scene any kind of love or support,” he says. “That was a huge obstacle. Whereas now, there’s so much more opportunity. There are more venues. The scene is constantly progressing. Back then, you just had the High Note, and that was it.”
Malone had started Eargasm after spending time working at local radio station 95.7 Jamz. His position there was initially market research: “I used to call people at all times of the night and ask them about their radio listening habits,” he says in the interview with Turner. That research, though, helped attune him to “what was really poppin’ in Birmingham.”
He also started researching which venues would be receptive to hip-hop; by 1999, he had settled on the High Note. “They were the only place in Birmingham that would take a chance on doing hip-hop and having a hip-hop night,” he says. “Prior to that, [hip-hop shows] would be in dive bars and things like that.”
Malone’s goal for the Eargasm was “to be unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed… the artists are going to be treated like artists,” he says.
There were growing pains; in the pre-social media era, promoting the event required a great deal of organization. “It was a lot of grinding, a lot of footwork,” Malone says. “Remember, there was no social media at this time. So you’ve got to really beat your feet up against the concrete and put those flyers inside those windshields.” Eventually, a dedicated collective of rappers and DJs began to form around the Eargasm.
“I was fortunate to get my start on the hip-hop scene in Birmingham in 1999/2000 by spitting at the Eargasm,” says Shaheed Tawheed, now a member of an eponymous duo with DJ Supreme. “I was actually underage and was not supposed to get in at that time, [but because of an affiliation with DJ Supreme’s then-group] I was allowed to get in and perform.”
Tawheed recalls those nascent stages with nostalgic fondness. “The scene was so pure then,” he says. “It was the place where real emcees, DJs and B-boys [breakdancers] came and represented the art and culture of hip-hop. It was the first of its kind.”
The event’s popularity soon began to grow. “When we were at our peak, we were at our peak,” Malone says. “It was lovely… It was all word-of-mouth, and it just caught on out of nowhere. One Thursday we’d have 20 people, and then the next Thursday [we’d] turn up and have a room of 200 people. Those were some great nights. We were really feeling, ‘Yo, hip-hop is really being represented’.”
Malone started organizing all-night recording sessions following the Eargasm. “After the show, the real show would begin,” he says. “We were inspired by each other.”
Howell describes a close friendship that developed between participants. “Like, for instance, a lot of the Eargasm family went to Atlanta to see Common,” he recalls. “It was great. We went as a family, as a unit.”
As Eargasm’s popularity increased, so did the willingness of venues in the city to book hip-hop shows. “In the beginning, we had zero venues, and [by 2001] we’ve got five or six that are onboard,” Malone said. One show at Five Points Music Hall, he says, sticks out in his mind as an indicator of growing acceptance for the genre.
“They really treated us like artists and we actually got to feel what it was like,” he says. “We didn’t have a rider or nothing like that, but they set us up in a green room, they gave us drinks and everything. We got good and nice before the show. I think I gave a motivational speech and everything. I was like Morpheus up in there. It was a great feeling, and [then] we all covered the stage and it was all togetherness and love and hip-hop.”
“Hip-Hop Was Dying Off”
Eargasm events stopped in 2004; the community’s pillars were getting older and were pursuing their respective solo careers. Birmingham’s hip-hop scene mostly languished. Some major local groups, like the acclaimed Red Light District, disbanded.
Then, in 2009, Rashid Qandil established an event — occurring monthly this time — that Turner describes as a turning point for Birmingham hip-hop.
Qandil, an organizer for Secret Stages who had been “feeling the lack of hip-hop in Birmingham [and] not really getting the sense that there was a lot of interest and support anymore,” decided to stage a small hip-hop show for his birthday at the now-defunct Speakeasy bar. He planned to DJ along with some of his friends; Shaheed, DJ Supreme and the Green Seed were slated to perform as well.
But something unexpected happened.
“The word spread like crazy,” Qandil says. “Over 100 people showed up. I thought of this like six days before it happened… and all these people showed up. People I didn’t know got the word that there was going to be a hip-hop party.”
The venue asked him to organize another, similar event, and LOBOTOMIX was born.
“I just started working towards trying to create an environment where people would come together just for the sake of hip-hop and try to give [them] a venue,” Qandil says. “[After Eargasm ended] there wasn’t anything going on where people could come out, test themselves and try and refine what they’re doing. Hip-hop was dying off and I felt it needed [reviving].
“I realized that for things to happen that I wanted to see happen, I needed to make them happen,” Qandil says.
LOBOTOMIX provided a venue for a new generation of up-and-coming Birmingham rappers. Local four-piece K.L.U.B. Monsta got their start at LOBOTOMIX in 2012. One of the group’s members, known simply as Joshua, calls the event “a great place to find great hip-hop in Birmingham.
“Sometimes as artists you need an opportunity, whether it’s big or small, and LOBOTOMIX gave us that opportunity that night,” Joshua continues. “[It gives] a lot of artists those opportunities to present their brand of music to the people.”
Howell agrees. “I believe what Rashid does is important for not only the Birmingham hip-hop scene but these artists and their dreams, providing that outlet for these young and hungry artists. That’s something there could always be more of, but when you see someone doing it, it kind of gives you that optimistic, warm, fuzzy feeling.”
LOBOTOMIX, now hosted by the Syndicate Lounge, is still a monthly event. But Qandil says he doesn’t have any trouble finding participants. “At first it was hard to find people, but after a while there weren’t enough slots,” he says. “People started coming out of the woodwork. There’s also been a blossoming of hip-hop in Birmingham over the years. Now I wish I could do a weekly show. The monthly show I do now is 36 slots a year, and it’s tough to give everybody their fair shake.”
“Constantly Moving Forward”
The headquarters of Clockwork 247 Entertainment is an inauspicious room in a First Avenue North office building. The label’s office is partially divided from its recording studio by a small, beige partition; the studio is bare save for a few chairs, a microphone stand, and a large computer in the corner.
“We just moved in three weeks ago,” Devin “Deeslim” Collins laughs. “Before that, we operated out of my house.”
Collins founded Clockwork 247 in 2009; since then, he’s built up a roster of five local hip-hop artists. One of them, a 21-year-old rapper named Young Symba, is present in the studio; Collins describes his music and influences as similar to those of acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar. “The way the hip-hop community in Birmingham is receptive to a certain club sound, but my guy right here, he wants to slide in jazz, poetry. I think my starting five have enough to be seen everywhere in Birmingham.”
For Collins, who works for the U.S. Postal Service when he’s not running the label, founding Clockwork 247 has been “a constant headache.”
“I tell everybody this is organized chaos,” he says. “”Every day, we’re constantly moving forward, but we may not know where we’re going.”
Clockwork 247 might be one of the Birmingham hip-hop community’s newest members, but Collins says that he hasn’t been very connected to that community. “I’ve had to fend for myself, mostly,” he says. “I’ve tried to pick the brains of a few guys that have come before us, but it’s been kind of hard…. I wish the slightly older generation would bridge the gap with the younger generation.”
Collins, now 27, manages most of Clockwork 247’s business affairs in addition to making beats and other creative contributions. Venues, he says, are still reluctant to book his label’s artists.
“A lot of club owners and promoters, the first thing they ask is, ‘You’re not going to tear the club up?’ Nah, we’re not going to tear the club up!” he says. “Don’t let the T-shirts and gold chains fool you. We’re nerds. We’re music nerds. You’ve got to be a nerd to build a business doing this.”
The Clockwork 247 offices are just a few blocks away from the headquarters of Communicating Vessels, the record label that’s home to both the Green Seed and Shaheed and DJ Supreme. Collins’ relative independence from Birmingham’s more established hip-hop figures might point to the sense of fragmentation that Turner was apprehensive about, but he’s far from an isolationist. He’ll happily work with artists not signed to his label, he says, and wants to help support a hip-hop community “around the city, for the city.”
“Whatever we can do to help,” he says. “I want to make this something that’s a topic of conversation around the city.”
So how can Birmingham’s hip-hop community come together and flourish? Its members have different ideas.
“I think it will take more love and less hate and more seriousness about the craft,” Tawheed says.
Qandil, meanwhile, believes that the community could be bolstered by boosting public awareness of the city’s hip-hop. “People’s perceptions of what hip-hop is and can be is limited by visibility,” he says. “People will get dragged to a LOBOTOMIX show, and they’ll be like, ‘I didn’t know that this was happening. I didn’t know people were rapping like this in Birmingham.’ The community isn’t really there as far as audience.
“On the creativity side [though], it’s really flourishing,” he adds. “There’s some of the most interesting hip-hop I’ve ever seen in Birmingham happening [now].”
Turner says he’s optimistic about the scene’s future. “This city hasn’t always been for hip-hop and now it’s for hip-hop,” he says. “You start to recognize that you don’t know how good you’ve got it…. Watching the scene grow has been very interesting and continuing to watch it grow is going to be fun, because I’m not fixing to stop. No matter how old I get, I’m always going to [make music] because I feel like I’ve got a voice. I’m still going to push myself.”
For Howell, the potential of Birmingham’s hip-hop scene has an even larger scale. “What I want to see are the acts and entities that I came up with — that have constantly been doing what they love to do — I want to see them on the road, spreading that on a national and international level,” he says. “It’s been interesting to see who has stuck around and stuck with it and is determined.
“That’s what I want to see, and I totally see it,” he adds. “I see Birmingham hip-hop being ready to compete on the national and international stage.”