Big Music Issue
Knights of the Round Robin
Baltimore’s offbeat hip-hop underground expands its inner circle
Published: July 13, 2011
“It’s not like a collective,” rapper Dan “Height” Keech says of the nine hip-hop artists assembled in his living room in Hampden on a recent Friday night: rappers OOH, Mickey Free, the Plural MC, and Emily Slaughter of the group AK Slaughter; Sterling “HY” Warren of the group Disturbed Individuals; and Matt Frazao and Jon Birkholz of the group Soul Cannon. But next month, they’ll all be performing together in an unusual configuration called the All Rap Round Robin, along with Mania Music Group, P.T. Burnem, Bob Jones, Rapdragons, and Secret Weapon Dave.
This large extended family of hip-hop artists of all stripes is far from a unified front or hivemind, but it was born out of one. In the late ’90s, a few high school friends, including Keech, Free, and Jones, formed a rap group called Wounds. The group disbanded in 2001, but each continued writing rhymes and forging solo careers. “It’s been like 15 years of working together,” Jones says over the phone a week later. “Obviously as you get older, I think we all started to kind of go off in our own ways to develop our own styles and be a little unique, and not have as much of a group mentality anymore.”
In 2007, that core of lifelong friends banded together for the first All Rap Round Robin, spinning off of the deceptively simple concept that had been recently popularized in Baltimore by the Wham City collective: Musicians surround the audience on small makeshift stages and take turns going around the room, playing one song at a time. Height had participated in some of the Wham City round-robin shows, including the 2008 national tour headlined by such diverse acts as Beach House and Dan Deacon, and he saw how useful the format could be for his little corner of the scene.
“It works particularly well for rap,” Keech says. “I feel like at rap shows there’s just so much time just wasted, or the people don’t know what’s happening. It’s such a natural way to have a show, I think, to just do your favorite songs, and watch other people do their favorite stuff, and it never stops.”
More than that, it turned out to be a perfect vehicle for his old crew to keep banding together while remaining distinct entities. “I think there’s a point before that where we realized that every show we play can’t be just all of us, because it’s so insular,” Keech continues. “And I think we’ve all realized that we’ve all gotta go out and expand the horizons..” The first All Rap Round Robin, held at the Current Space, also featured AK Slaughter, the Plural MC, and a Richmond, Va., rapper named Rasul the Knowbody who holds the distinction of being both the only out-of-town act ever featured at the event and the only Rap Round Robin artist who hasn’t returned in subsequent years.
Over the next two years, more acts joined the fold, including PT Burnem and the groups Food for Animals and Rapdragons. The second year, at the Annex Theatre, Emily Slaughter experimented with more showmanship in the stage arrangements. “Emily did a bunch of set stuff with some other people,” the Plural MC remembers with a laugh. “An ice-age set, a space set, an underwater set. It was serious. I was on the stage with the abominable snowman that had a saxophone strapped around him and we had a fog machine.” The proceedings moved to Load of Fun for the third year, and then to Floristree for the last two years.
All the while, Keech has kept an eye on preserving what has made the All Rap Round Robin great while expanding the spectrum of hip-hop it covers from just the down-to-earth beats and rhymes of the Wounds alumni. Reaching out to elsewhere in the Baltimore scene has proved easier said than done, however. “I’m definitely not naming any names, but in past years it’s been really hard to get new people,” he says, noting that many rappers don’t seem to understand the seemingly simple format, or just aren’t accustomed to the concept of sharing the spotlight equally. “They wanna demand to be headliner.”
“We have to explain that there is no headliner,” Slaughter adds, shaking her head and laughing. “And also, ‘Can we make this much more money than everyone else?’” Some also confused the Round Robin with a rap battle. “People always seem to think that what we’re goin’ for is this competition thing,” the Plural MC says. “A lot of people seem to have that automatic assumption, but I always have to explain that it’s not like that.”
This year, Round Robin will be expanding in a big way, from nine to 12 acts, and for the first time will include live bands. Local hip-hop veteran OOH, of the group Brown F.I.S.H., will be bringing his solo material and new backup band SeeWEED and eardrum-shattering hip-hop band Soul Cannon is sure to be a standout.
Soul Cannon guitarist Matt Frazao has never seen the show before, but isn’t intimidated by the logistical challenge of chopping the band’s usual set into three-minute slices. “There’s no use in worrying about it,” he says. “We’ll just show up and hope for the best. I’m gonna have fun, the format is bonkers.”
In fact, all the new acts are intrigued and excited about the Round Robin concept. “When they were talking to me about it, I thought it was quite fascinating,” OOH says.
“I’m interested in seein’ this shit in action,” Kane Mayfield says over the phone a few days later, speculating that the fast pace of the format will work in his favor: “If I mess up, they’ll forget it.”
“I think there’s still a lot of Baltimore rap that is not in the Rap Round Robin—there are whole sectors,” says Sterling Warren, who played the show with Food for Animals in previous years and will perform this year with his new group, Disturbed Individuals. “So maybe in future years, if there’s still big sectors that we’re not getting groups from, it might be good to get them in the mix.”
This year’s show will still be by far its most varied and diverse to date, though, ranging from introspective to triumphant, from political to lewdly sexual, from catchy and commercial to abstract and artsy. And yet there remains a shared mind-set of keeping things relatively simple and focused on beats and rhymes, and more than ever it’s important to do that in under four minutes per song to keep the show moving smoothly.
“Me and Dan have talked about this before—the commonality among all of us has historically been a general desire to just do your thing with as little as artifice as need be,” Free says. “We all do different stuff, but there’s probably some stuff, some people that this venue wouldn’t be right for, because they wouldn’t know how to come, they couldn’t project their whole steez fully. But this is, we can just get up there and do our thing and pass it on to the next act.”
Although all of the involved artists play shows separately throughout the year and most release albums on different labels (or self-release them), some thought is being given to expanding the All Rap Round Robin brand to recorded output, starting with a cassette compilation of this year’s performers that Jones is planning to release on his own new label. “We didn’t expect to keep doing it five years when we started,” Jones says. “So it’s kinda like taking a little bit of perspective, to acknowledge the fact that it’s been going on for that long.”
> Email Al Shipley