The room is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with upstart MCs, verbose managers, and chatty tarts in miniskirts. It’s quarter to midnight on Wednesday at Lush in Hamtramck, a time and a place that has slowly become the nucleus of Detroit’s hip-hop underground. You can’t turn your head without catching a snippet of “… my album that’s about to drop …” or having a flier for an upcoming show thrust into your hand. There is a sideshow of networking hustle, social climbing, and shameless self-promotion.
At center stage, Ike Love has the booming command of a prizefight announcer.
“The rules are simple,” he bellows. Drink orders stop; conversations pause midsentence. Every pair of eyes in the room go to him. “When we call your name from the list come to the stage and kick your freestyle, kick your verse, do whatever it is that you do. When we tap you on the shoulder it means it’s time for you to pass the mic. Let me say that one more time: When we tap you on the shoulder it’s time to pass the mic.”
But Ike Love and his co-host, Kontact, are running the show center stage. They read names off the list and a parade of potentials comes across the stage, each using the two-minute make-it-or-break-it spotlight to take humorous jabs, vent angry rants or simply boast about their skills. The beats change with almost every performer. This is short attention-span theater for Detroit hip hop.
“This is the belly of the beast right here,” says Nina Da Pimp. Dressed head to toe in white terrycloth and capped with a fuzzy pink visor, Nina is every bit as disarming one-on-one as she is in front of the crowd. A regular to the scene, she takes the stage with charisma and confidence, rhyming her drink requests to potential buyers and flashing a coy smile. “Either you are going to get chewed up and spit out or they are going to take you in and digest you and welcome you with open arms. This is the heart of underground hip hop in Detroit. If you want to test your skills, if you want to see how the crowd is going to accept you, you come here. This is the revolution.”
The revolutionaries on the list tonight are a mix of newcomers and regulars. When they wield a microphone it’s easy to distinguish the inexperienced from the expert, and one after the next the motley parade progresses. A skinny guy in dreads rhymes with blinding speed about his string of bad jobs. A guy in his mid-20s inspires perplexed looks when he claims to be “Detroit’s only white MC, the original.” Notable groups in Detroit’s underground, like Wolf Pak and the Almighty Dreadnautz crowd onto the stage en masse, waving raised hands in time to the throb and passing around the mic. The crowd’s reaction is vicious and sincere — if you’ve got it, they love you, if you don’t, the shoulder tap comes pretty quick.
“You come here, you get your shine, your recognition. If you’re wack, you know it. If you’re hot, you’re hot,” explains host Kontact. He speaks of the weekly nights at the Lush with the glow of a proud father. With Ike Love and two other partners, Kontact founded the multifaceted local hip-hop promotion and management collective, In the Mix, four years ago. The group has had a residence here for three years, building the night from scratch into the local magnet that it is today. The night remains undiluted by crowds of suburbanite invaders; its intent is pure, offering young artists a platform to make a name for themselves with feedback from a discriminating audience.
Kontact explains the purpose behind In the Mix: “It’s a movement from four brothers who love and grew up on hip hop. We had an idea to promote local, Detroit hip hop that the world doesn’t know about. Detroit has so much talent just walking down the street, but Motown came and it left and now we have to get it back. We got the whole world of Detroit hip hop on Eminem’s shoulders. I love Eminem, but this city is so much more than that.”
That’s the gospel that In the Mix has been preaching since day one. Their determination has done well in re-creating the same kind of incendiary musical proving ground as the Hip Hop Shop, a now-defunct Westside club that has become a thing of lore where a young Marshall Mathers passed out mix tapes. The scene at Lush is poised for the same history-making notoriety. A number of the night’s regulars like Obie Trice and D-12 have matriculated to national audiences and a crop of others, including King Gordy, the Dreadnautz and Marvwon of the Fat Killahz, are on the same trajectory. The night and its performers attract camera crews, reporters and documentarians on a weekly basis. Next week the cable channel Showtime is coming.
“It’s getting big here. In the Mix has seen artists come and go,” Kontact says. “Some have gone national right out of this spot. Artists like King Gordy and the Fat Killahz. He started at the Lush. I remember when he first came to the Lush and he ripped on the first night.”
Tonight is a first for 22-year-old white MC Vishiss. He has signed up for the last slot of the night, a 15-minute feature performance. Word has circulated about the rapper from Downriver. He has never performed at the Lush before and the crowd here usually meets first-timers with unforgiving ambivalence. But Vishiss is different. A few weeks ago he signed to Dreamworks, one of the biggest record labels in the world. He’s here for the street cred.
As the last open mic participants leave the stage, Vishiss’ introductory backing tracks start booming over the sound system. Quick as a wink four security guards in black flak jackets clear a path and the blond-coifed MC enters the spotlight with his entourage.
He sports an oversized black and green jersey. Under the shadow of his side-cocked baseball cap his face is pale and sweaty. His bare-knuckled introduction shows he has something to prove.
“Where the fuck are the Lyrical Assassins?” he screams into the microphone. Apparently, there’s a bit of tension between Vishiss and the local Lyrical Assassins. “Where the fuck are the bitch-ass Lyrical Assassins faggots?”
The security thugs eye the room for a response. When Vishiss finally launches into “Detroit 9000,” a slickly produced tribute to violent Detroit street life, the place explodes. Even if Vishiss isn’t a Lush vet, his well-planned debut is impressive. And it isn’t hard to spot his family members around the room, shiny-faced and beaming with pride.
He works though his short set with raucous enthusiasm, spitting sure-footed braggart rhymes at a dizzying speed. Watching him perform you can imagine the chorus of record execs cooing of the next Slim Shady, “We’re going to make this kid a star.” His performance concludes the night with furious attitude.
Out on the sidewalk afterward he is engulfed by his security, a camera crew from a local TV station, and a team of managers and friends. People pour out of the club and spill onto the street. Four plainclothes cops have showed up. The place is chaotic and Vishiss is in the eye of the hurricane. “It’s like this every week,” one bouncer says, shaking his head.
“I’ve been locked up my whole life and I’m a fuckin’ white boy,” Vishiss says to a camera crew from the local WB affiliate. “What can you say to that? You ain’t used to no white boy like me. I’ve had bullets fly by over my head and I’ve been shootin’ the bullets over people’s heads. That’s how I get down.”
When the camera crew packs up and things settle down, his story softens. “I’m just trying to make in and tired of struggling,” he says, under the close supervision of his manager. If he’s being a little too honest, it could be that this is one of the first interviews he’s ever done. “I’m doing what I do best and the deal with Dreamworks saved my life. This might have been the first night that people have seen me here, but people are going to be seeing me everywhere.”
There is an edge in his voice; it’s obvious he believes every word, but at 2 in the morning its hard not to be desensitized to grandiose proclamations. This night belongs to Vishiss; next Wednesday it will be the same story with different characters. While the bouncers lock up, three guys remain on the corner in front of Lush freestyling come-on lines to two girls.
“I’m kind of drunk and it’s late, but I’m tryin’,” one of them says with a clumsy rhythmic delivery. The girls walk away laughing, leaving the guys without an audience. There’s always next week.