Sound Check: EPMD headlines Akron’s Keepers of the Art’s last hip-hop showcase

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop culture writer

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Legendary hip hop duo EPMD (from left: Erick "E-Double" Sermon and Parrish "PMD" Smith) will headline The Keepers of the Arts Music Showcase Saturday at Lock 3 Live Park.
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For six years, the local hip-hop fans and community-minded folks that make up Keepers of the Art have been putting on the Akron Hip Hop Showcase at Lock 3 Park.

The group has brought in acts from the “True School” or “Golden Era” of hip-hop (roughly 1987-1995) when artists such as the incendiary, political-minded Public Enemy and the positive, head-nodding Tribe Called Quest sold records alongside the equally incendiary, violence-, anger- and marketing-driven “gangsta” screeds of N.W.A.

But the folks at KOA made a point to stick to the more positive-minded artists and innovators in the music and culture, bringing emcees with the idea of bridging generational gaps among hip-hop fans and reminding people that hip-hop culture is more than just bars about possessions, sexual prowess and the things exotic dancers will do for money.

Because of the showcase, Akron hip-hop fans have grooved to legends including KRS-One, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Special Ed, Brand Nubian and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth — all in downtown Akron. But that doesn’t mean there will be no more hip-hop at Lock 3 Park.

“Our plan is to maintain a working relationship with the city of Akron and Lock 3 and to use the formerly Akron Hip Hop Showcase weekend as a way to expand the Keepers of the Art brand and to fuse neo-soul music with true school hip-hop,” said KOA President Ismail Al-Amin.

For several years, KOA also promoted the Keepers Lounge, bringing neo-soul acts such as Eric Roberson, Clevelander Conya Doss and Philly-based auteur Bilal to the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall’s Stage Door.

For the sixth and final Akron Hip Hop Showcase, now officially rebranded the Keepers of the Art Music Showcase, the KOA crew has assembled another good lineup of influential New York-based artists starring EPMD along with Grand Puba (an ersatz make-up gig, since he was unable to make the Brand Nubian performance a few years ago), Masta Ace, emcee/producer J-Live and New York radio/disc jockey legend Kid Capri.

EPMD

EPMD (short for Erick and Parrish Makin’ Dollars) are emcee/producer Erick Sermon (the “E-Double”) and Parrish Smith (PMD, Parrish Mic Doc) who first hit the scene in 1987 with the 12 inch of It’s My Thang.

The duo became national rap stars a year later with its surprise hit album Strictly Business featuring Sermon’s thick, funk-based grooves and samples on classics, including You Gots to Chill and the title track built on sampled loops from Zapp’s More Bounce to the Ounce and Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle, respectively.

The then-unique beats, Sermon’s mush-mouthed delivery, PMD’s deadly serious tone and lyrics that tended to stick with variations on the traditional brags and boasts, immediately grabbed hip-hop’s attention. EPMD had a good three-album run of No. 1 Top R&B/Hip Hop and gold-selling albums and singles including So Wat Cha Sayin from Strictly Business, Rampage (Slow Down Baby) featuring LL Cool J, and Gold Digger (yes, 15 years before Kanye West told everyone it was cool to sing racial epithets in arenas) from 1990’s Business As Usual.

The group broke up in 1993 but has periodically re-formed for albums and tours. Sermon went on to have a solid solo career as an emcee and producer.

Grand Puba

Grand Puba got his start in the mid-’80s with the Masters of Ceremony with his conversational, clever, complex and often humorous smooth flow already fully formed.

When Masters’ debut album failed to gain commercial traction, he joined up with Lord Jamar and Sadat X to form Brand Nubian. That group’s debut album, One for All, featured the hit Slow Down built on a sample of What I Am by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians.

The album, which mixed group members’ controversial Nation of Islam-based, pro-black, Five-Percent Nation politics, was a hit in the hip-hop community and on hip-hop radio, but didn’t match the growing commercial heights of the gangsta rappers who were PURPOSELY spinning violent, misogynistic, drug hustling-fueled tales aimed at exciting the suburbs.

Puba split with Brand Nubian and released his popular, self-produced solo album, Reel to Reel, in 1992 with the hits 360 Degrees (What Goes Around), Ya Know How It Goes and the title track.

Masta Ace

Brooklyn’s Masta Ace seldom reached the crossover crowd, but among the “hardcores” he was one of the most respected emcees for his lyrical acumen and energetic, complex style. He’s famous for appearing on the classic battle posse cut The Symphony when he was part of DJ Marley Marl’s Juice Crew in 1988.

His debut solo album, Take a Look Around, featured Me & the Biz, which oddly didn’t feature fellow Juice Crew member Biz Markie.

His sophomore effort, SlaughtaHouse (1993), featured the ode to car radio subwoofers along with the popular mixtape track Saturday Night Live. Ace hit his commercial pinnacle as part of the Crooklyn Dodgers (Ace, Buckshot and Special Ed) with the single Crooklyn Dodgers from Spike Lee’s film Crooklyn.

That moment continued with his third G-Funk-laced album, Sittin’ on Chrome, which featured another mixtape staple The INC Ride and the Billboard 100 Top 25-peaking Born to Roll.

Ace took a long break but has been active most recently with the autobiographical concept album MA_DOOM: Son of Yvonne released in 2012.

J-Live

J-Live is the most contemporary artist who will appear at Lock 3 on Saturday. He got his start in the mid-’90s with features on others tunes while his supposed debut album, The Best Part, languished due to label machinations. The album was finally released in 2001.

He’s been releasing albums and EPs steadily since then including his 2011 album S.P.T.A. (Said Person of That Ability).

Plans for future

Though this is the final event formerly known as the Akron Hip Hop Showcase, KOA plans to maintain a relationship with city officials and continue to bring hip-hop and neo-soul music to Lock 3 and possibly some other downtown venues. But why stop an event that has consistently drawn folks from around Northeast Ohio?

“Our artist pool is shrinking, Al-Amin said. “Being that we are big proponents of cutting edge and unique entertainment, we always want our stuff to be fresh.

“When you look at Golden Age hip-hop, we’ve pretty much already worked with the pioneers. Maybe Public Enemy, that’s [a group] we’re still looking to bring to Lock 3 in the future, but as of now we’ve pretty much worked with everybody who would be a draw.”

KOA also didn’t want to start recycling acts and is trying to grow the Keepers of the Art brand.

For the KOA crew, working with many of their hip-hop heroes has been a blast, and Al-Amin said he’s learned a few things about the music from doing business with several of its innovators.

“There’s still a market out here for it. Popular radio and television makes you think these artists are no longer relevant, but that’s due to lack of exposure.

“But what we understand is that there is a market in this country — that people are still checking for the classic and Golden Age artist, especially with the lack of variety of mainstream hip-hop. People are still checking for those nostalgic times in their lives when there was more diversity and balance in the messages and content of the music.”

Al-Amin said he believes that besides working with two of the group’s favorite artists — KRS-One and Big Daddy Kane — and having six incident-free showcases, one of KOA’s biggest accomplishments was getting the city to agree to an annual hip-hop show.

That effort included “the process. Sitting down in front of city officials and helping them understand why hip-hop should be downtown. Educating them on True School hip-hop versus the corporate brand,” he said.

KOA wasn’t the first local group to lobby the city to accept and promote a major hip-hop show in downtown Akron. KOA had the benefit of timing (i.e. the city had a big empty venue and a need to draw a variety of audiences to downtown) along with its strong stereotype-flouting proposal.

Al-Amin said the group will be back organizing and promoting shows in the near future, both at Lock 3 and another downtown venue.

“We’ve had some naysayers throughout this process, but we’ve never allowed any of the naysayers to influence how we feel or what we do,” he said. “In the midst of the naysayers we kept in mind that everything we do is for the people of the city — including the naysayers.

“It’s one thing if we were bringing in some corporate agents, but the fact that we kept it all the way real and worked with those artists that we felt were underrepresented in the media [and] pioneers of the culture, we never felt the need to respond to the naysayers.

“We were true to the mission of hip-hop and true to our mission and when you’re true to yourself, there’s no need to respond to negativity.”

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.


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