It's Saturday night at Tony V's Tavern, formerly Alvin's Cafe, on Cass Avenue in Detroit. The energy in the bar's commodious back room is building as the Detroit Drunken Historical Society gets ready for its October event. But tonight is a departure from the usual discussions of bearded 19th century dudes, machinegun-toting gangsters, and Hamtramck beer halls. This evening, the audience will be treated to a history of Detroit hip-hop.
By any standard, the event is a success, and it's clear what the draw is; a lonely couple sits at the bar in the front while the back room is jammed to capacity with a crowd that's an unusually representative mix for "Midtown": male and female, black and white, young and old. The evening will prove so successful, as more people crowd into the room, that the speakers will go from sitting to standing as their chairs are appropriated for customers.
Before passing the mic to moderator Khary Frazier, historical society organizer and self-described "hip-hop head" Brian Mulloy tells the crowd that the events are normally "all about Irish jigs and reels and a little bit of Polish polka," but he's "delighted to be learning about Detroit hip-hop today."
After a warm round of applause, Frazier leads a discussion featuring Mr. CliffNote, Sterling Toles, and Nick Speed. If it seems odd to discuss "history" that's 10 to 25 years old, it's in the perfect place for it. Frazier points out that he's on the same stage where, back in the day, he saw some of the best performances from Proof, the hip-hop figure he calls "the center and the glue for all Detroit hip-hop as far as I'm concerned." (He adds that the stage is "a lot cleaner now.") He notes the recent death of Proof's mom, whose funeral was Oct. 2, the anniversary of Proof's death, and proposes a moment of silence to their memory.
What follows is a fun journey down Detroit hip-hop's Memory Lane, with lots of references to that old-time Detroit rap: Bo$$, Smiley, Awesome Dre & the Hardcore Committee, Motsi Ski and his Detroit's Most Wanted, Prince Vince & the Hip Hop Force, MC Breed. Then comes the second wave Detroit hip-hop that largely came out of Detroit's own Hip Hop Shop — Fat Killahz, Guilty Simpson, Baatin, Insane Clown Posse, Eminem, Proof, J. Dilla, Big Herc, and DJ House Shoes. They're asked if they like the relatively newer generation of hip-hop artists, Sheefy McFly, Danny Brown, Dex Osama. (One woman yells, "Hell, no!") But they don't just like them, at least one of them has worked with them. It's a tight scene.
What set the city's scene apart? Toles points out that Detroit hip-hop "has always had an affinity for funk," because "we all grew up with those funk records at backyard parties." Toles compares being a funk-addled kid finding that rare funk-friendly scene in the midst of a scene crowded with gangsta rap to being "like punk kids" when they found each other down on Broadway. They're not dissing the stuff from the coasts, but they agree it was a mind-blowing experience, as one speaker put it, "to hear the language I was hearing in the street, in my neighborhood." They weigh the heavies they heard when they were coming up, which artists were able to straddle the divides between the east and west sides, between hip-hop and party music.
And many of them, Frazier explains, are gone. Maybe the observation is a little serious, but a drinking event like this certainly presents the perfect way to toast the departed, if not pour a bit out for them.