Five years ago, a collective of local friends and citizens banded together to give Akronites something they couldn’t already find in the city, something many people didn’t realize was wanted.
Keepers of the Art was spearheaded by President Ismail Al-Amin, a mental health specialist with Minority Behavioral Health Group and an adjunct professor of Pan-African studies at the University of Akron; and Vice President Donavan Rogers, a youth worker for the Urban Minority Alcoholism Drug Abuse Outreach Program. They approached city leaders with the idea of an annual Hip-Hop Showcase that would highlight artists from the genre’s “true school” era (roughly the late ’80s through the mid ’90s) at Lock 3 Park for a fun and family-oriented afternoon of classic and local hip-hop.
“It’s five years and I don’t feel uncomfortable saying that we’re proud of ourselves that we were able to pull this thing off, bringing hip-hop downtown,” Al-Amin said.
“I remember when we walked into the city government offices and tried to convince them that hip-hop would work … educating them on what true school is and what hip-hop culture is in general. And who would have thought five years later we’d still be here?”
To celebrate the anniversary, the group — which also organizes and promotes the Keeper’s Lounge series of neo-soul and underground R&B acts at the Stage Door at E.J. Thomas Hall during the winter and spring — has brought together a few of the era’s standout artists, with co-headliners De La Soul and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, along with Special Ed, Jeru the Damaja, and globe-trotting Cleveland DJ Mick Boogie for a fifth annual showcase Sunday at the Akron Civic Theatre.
“De La Soul kind of reassured people making hip-hop music that it was OK to be yourselves,” Al-Amin said. “Especially when all that gangsta rap hit the scene. De La was that group that stood up and said, ‘You know what? Everybody doesn’t have to be on that. Everyone’s not a thug, everyone’s not a gangsta or a killer. Some of us are just regular good people who love hip-hop and embrace their individualism.’ ”
The trio of Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer), Dave (David Jolicoeur) and Maseo (Vincent Mason) hit the scene in 1988, when gangsta rap groups such as N.W.A. were courting controversy and selling millions with songs full of sex, drugs, misogyny and violence.
De La Soul’s first single Plug Tunin and album 3 Feet High & Rising were released in 1989, and its P-Funk-sampling and individualism-celebrating hit single Me, Myself and I immediately made it stand out for its nonaggressive postures, unusual rhymes and schemes, and subject matter that didn’t rely on violent ghetto fantasias. The album was refreshing to many fans and pundits, made the Billboard 200 Top 25, topped many year-end best-of lists, and in 2011 was added to the registry of the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
De La Soul never quite matched the crossover hit of Me, Myself and I, but subsequent albums, including De La Soul Is Dead (1991) and Stakes Is High (1996), are considered classics by many. De La Soul is also the only group on the bill still active, having released the mixtape Are You In?: Nike+ Original Run in conjunction with Nike in 2009.
Earlier this year, emcees Posdnous and Dave teamed up with French production duo Chokolate and Khalid for the concept album First Serve.
Pete Rock (Peter Phillips) and C.L. Smooth (Corey Penn) are best known for their tribute song They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) and the album from which it came, Mecca and the Soul Brother, released 20 years ago. Rock’s smooth head-nodding beats, built mostly on obscure samples from old jazz, R&B and rock records, were the perfect backdrop for C.L. Smooth’s honeyed voice and fluid flow.
Lyrically, they dealt in the standard brags and boasts, but in songs such as Ghettos of the Mind, they touched on social issues. The duo had a falling-out in the ’90s and the two don’t tour or record together anymore, so corralling both on the stage of the Akron Civic Theatre is a bit of a coup.
Brooklyn emcee Special Ed’s debut album Youngest in Charge brought two hip-hop classics, I Got It Made and The Magnificent. He was also a member of the Crooklyn Dodgers supergroup that came together to record Crooklyn for Spike Lee’s 1994 film of the same name.
Many view Brooklyn’s Jeru the Damaja as a one-hit wonder for Come Clean, but the album The Sun Rises in the East, released in 1993 and produced by DJ Premier, is still considered one of the quintessential East Coast true school records.
In addition to the show and in keeping with its mission of using hip-hop for educational outreach, Keepers of the Art will be holding an interactive, multimedia-driven panel discussion at 9 a.m. today at Buchtel High School on how pop culture, the criminal justice system, and family dynamics affect violence in urban areas.
“We want to give the kids some alternative information and challenge them to be better people and to be more responsible in their communities, and do their part to help eliminate and curb some of the violence in their communities,” Al-Amin said.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.