Portland outside hip-hop nation
Fans say racism dooms the local music scene in spite of its popularity
David Jackson, a hip-hop disc jockey who uses the stage name O.G. One, used to make between $1,000 and $1,200 a month from gigs at the now-canceled Luv Jonz music and poetry event.
Starchile, a performer and DJ known for his weekly Sunday night show on Jammin 95.5 radio (KXJM), is doing fewer gigs and, to his dismay as a fan of the music, has seen the number of hip-hop shows dwindle.
While the emergence of such performers as Eminem and Nelly have elevated the hip-hop music form to a popularity acme nationwide, local purveyors say several factors could send Portland's scene Ñ despite its many backers Ñ into a vacuum.
Among those factors: alleged efforts by authorities to shut down shows, the perceived racism driving those efforts and, hip-hop backers concede, the genre's supplementary violence.
Foremost, the hip-hop community believes Portland police and Oregon Liquor Control Commission agents keep a more vigilant watch over hip-hop events than on other musical performances. And, they argue, club owners who schedule hip-hop events face strict punishments.
The tactic's root, they say, stems from underlying racism.
'This is an important issue as to what type of city Portland will be,' said David Parks, president of 110 Weeks Productions. 'Will it be just a town for young whites, or will (nonwhites) get to share in it?'
The latest hip-hop setback came Wednesday, when the OLCC proposed canceling the liquor license held by mainstay venue Stephanos, 1135 S.W. Washington St.
'Closing Stephanos would be a major blow,' said Starchile, whose real name is Idris O'Ferrall.
Portland police and the OLCC insist they don't target hip-hop venues. However, they're concerned that many incidents, including a recent shooting outside a show at Norse Hall in Northeast Portland, may be related to the music form.
'It's not that we're watching them more closely,' said Sgt. Neil Crannell of the Portland Police Bureau's gang enforcement team. 'But we do have to go there whenever we're called to pick up the pieces.'
Portland hip-hop lovers are addressing the myriad issues in several ways. Starchile wants known-troublemaker patrons banned from all shows for one year. Hip-hop proponents also held a late-October forum at Portland State University, with, among others, representatives of the OLCC.
The event marked the first dialogue between the two groups. Since then, OLCC spokesman Jon Stubenvoll has signed on to act as the agency's hip-hop liaison.
OLCC goes where trouble is
The hip-hop culture contains four primary elements: MCs, who rap along with the music; DJs, who spin and mix records and host the shows; break dancers; and graffiti artists.
It's a culture supported passionately by groups such as the Rose City Roundtable, a group of DJs, promoters and club owners who have blasted OLCC for micro-regulating hip-hop music venues.
Yet OLCC reports suggest that several venues offering hip-hop have a history of alleged drug dealing, frequent donnybrooks and noise-related complaints.
'Our role is to regulate establishments that sell liquor,' said Paul Williamson, an OLCC agent who attended the October hip-hop forum. 'We're not the music commission. We go where the problems are regardless of what kind of entertainment is there.'
Whether driven out by the OLCC or not, hip-hop events clearly have vanished from the city's landscape. Since January, venues including Jezebel's, Tiger Bar and Satyricon have either eliminated or drastically reduced their hip-hop offerings. A new club, 13th Floor, features fewer hip-hop events than fans had expected.
In March, Balzer's, a top hip-hop spot, closed after repeated clashes between owner Ernie Bighaus and the OLCC. The commission threatened to cancel the club's liquor license over what it alleged was incessant fighting and illegal drug activity.
Then came the shuttering of the popular Luv Jonz, held at the club Ohm, after an Aug. 30 brawl.
'The show was shut down instantly with no kind of explanation as to why, when there had never been any occurrences like that at Luv Jonz before,' said Alan Wone, a local hip-hop poet.
Finally, there's the cancellation threat against Stephanos. Some who believe the club is being singled out point to failed efforts by Stephanos' owner, Westcoast Wholesale LLC, to receive a liquor license for Rockafella's, an all-ages hip-hop club at 424 S.W. Fourth Ave.
OLCC spokesman Tom Erwin said the Rockafella's license was denied partly because the agency has had problems Ñ related to intoxicated patrons and fighting, among other things Ñ with Stephanos.
Cecil Gill, Westcoast Wholesale's attorney, said his clients have yet to decide whether they'll appeal the OLCC's Rockafella's decision.
A gang magnet?
The hip-hop community believes such developments signify a bias. Crannell of the Portland police counters that hip-hop shows simply tend to draw gang members.
'It's a magnet for them,' he said. 'We've had a number of shootings in hip-hop situations.'
Asked if more incidents seem to happen during hip-hop shows than other music events, Crannell replied, 'Oh yeah, yeah they do.'
Rose City Roundtable participants retort that an OLCC memo sent to Bighaus last year urged him to 'change the style of music' played at Balzer's.
'I've never heard anyone focus on the type of music format' offered at clubs, the OLCC's Williamson said. 'That's not to say other people here haven't said that, but it's not a theme at OLCC.'
Art Hendricks, crime prevention program manager for the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, noted that OLCC usually acts at the bequest of neighborhood groups.
'When there are chronic problems, be they from hip-hop clubs or rock clubs, the police typically get involved when they get repeated calls from neighborhoods,' he said. 'It's a complaint-driven process.'
Another driver is that hip-hop events often draw massive crowds, a testament to the music's popularity. And it doesn't help that some in the crowd carry weapons.
'That's a reality, but to me, the police need to know how to best handle those situations,' said Parks of 110 Weeks Productions. He organized the October forum in part to discuss violence prevention at hip-hop events.
While many argue that the local hip-hop scene is shifting to such suburban outlets as Beaverton's Ricochet nightclub at the Raccoon Lodge, Portland has seen some recent rays of hope. For instance, newer nightspots such as Bookie's, 736 N. Lombard St., and Madame Butterfly, 425 S.W. Stark St., have begun holding regular music and poetry events.
Still, as O.G. One put it, 'I've gone from doing four nights a week to one a week in the past three months.'
Which makes performers like Starchile a bit anxious.
'I walk, talk, breathe, write, record, promote, live and die for hip-hop,' he said. 'Hip-hop music is what I am. And hip-hop people are just like everyone else. We put on our pants one leg at a time. We just like those pants to be a little baggier.'