WMUA brings hip hop culture to UMass

By Gabe Scarbrough

Shaina Mishkin/Collegian

On Nov. 29, WMUA 91.1 FM presented “Hip Hop in Renaissance” at the Campus Center, a live event celebrating hip-hop culture. Musical acts that performed at the event delivered solid performances but Chris Wise and Con-Plex, backed by BootyStank, stole the show.

New Jersey native Hokes kicked off the event with an interesting instrumental hip-hop performance. Utilizing just a Roland SP-404SX sampler, Hokes used samples and loops to create the music in his set, giving his performance a very different, more live sounding feel than one would hear from a traditional DJ.

While Hokes began his performance with a Danny Brown verse, his song selection had a decidedly avant-garde style, foregoing straight-up hip-hop beats for more left-field fare. Due to the fact that he was pretty much remixing everything he played on the fly, it was often hard to tell exactly what tune he was sampling, but the vibe definitely would have fit right in at a Low End Theory event and the visuals projected behind him only added to the psychedelic ambience.

What Hokes offered in gritty smoked-out beats was somewhat counteracted by his lack of live experience, however. This was the producer’s first performance and it showed. While his track selection was great, his transitions were often choppy and too sudden. More than a few times, the crowd started getting into the music only to have the beat switch up too quickly, causing them to stop and attempt to gain their rhythm again. As Hokes never took his eyes off of his equipment to scan the audience, he never noticed, which didn’t give the music a chance to breathe.

Despite this, his performance was still enjoyable and he showed that he had potential. When he played his own track “luvableee.” from his “stepnstones|1” EP, it got a great reaction. It will probably just take more experience in front of an audience for this young producer to become a great performer.

Next up was New Bedford-based rapper Qwin Omaru, who took to the stage with a MacBook Pro. Using a remote control to cue up beats on his laptop and act as his own DJ, Omaru ran through a solid set of his own tunes, stopping every now and then to make witty stage banter or kick a verse a capella. While it was undeniable that Omaru has stage presence, the remote control set-up in addition to the frequent pauses to talk to the crowd made the performance feel a bit like a presentation.

Nevertheless, Omaru’s set had the crowd bobbing their heads even if they were still standing a little far away from the stage, and everyone seemed to be getting more into the performance as it progressed. When Omaru asked if anyone liked dubstep, before kicking off the track “Anything for You” from his “The Difference” mixtape, only a few hands shot up but when the wobble bass of the EDM-influenced beat dropped the audience reacted more viscerally than they had at any other point up until then causing a small section of the crowd closest to the stage to begin dancing.

New York-based MCs Chris Wise and Con-Plex delivered the most energetic performance of the night. Literally demanding the audience’s attention upon hitting the stage, the rappers yelled into their microphones telling the audience to move closer. Performing their first few songs to instrumental backing tracks over the PA, the duo prowled the platform barking their lines with such confidence that the now fairly large crowd was enraptured.

The energy reached an all-time high when UMass’ own BootyStank took to the stage to back the duo. Despite only practicing together for the first time that afternoon, the rappers and the band functioned as one cohesive unit with the musicians pounding out funky beats and Wise and Con-Plex giving their rhymes their all. The performance was especially impressive as BootyStank had learned the music to Wise and Con-Plex’s tracks all by ear.

The set had a headliner feel to it. While Omaru had to ask the crowd twice before they obliged and put their hands up, Con-Plex had the audience chanting “Booty! Stank!” in no time with such enthusiasm that the rapper declared “Yeah, ya’ll ratchet.

Throughout the gig, the rappers praised the band and for good reason. BootyStank killed it, matching Wise and Con-Plex’s massive amounts of energy with ease. At one point, saxophonist Ryan McNeice ventured out into the crowd and danced with a female audience member with such fervor that she fell down, causing him to return to the stage.

“It was the first time I’ve ever done something like this,” said BootyStank drummer Andrew Ricketts. “Definitely one of the best experiences of the semester.”

Despite the funk-based beats and rapped vocals, the performance had a punk energy. Wise and Con-Plex often jumped into the crowd and got right into people’s faces or directly addressed audience members. What the first two openers lacked in pure passion, Wise and Con-Plex made up for ten-fold.  It was obvious that hip-hop is not just a hobby for the duo.

“This is life,” said Con-Plex after the show, and the rising MC isn’t exaggerating. With no job and no savings, the rapper somehow raised $1,000 to record his EP “Street Poems,” which he uploaded to his Soundcloud, www.soundcloud.com/streetpoems, the night of the show. Con-Plex is literally a starving artist, going without food at times in order to record his music.

Wise is similarly driven. A former Sports Management major at UMass, Wise dropped out to return home to New York and pursue his passions, which also include his clothing line Black Market Wares, which was a sponsor of this event.

The duo had a five-hour bus ride to the University and Wise was running on three hours of sleep when he took the stage, but one would never know that from the way he carried himself.

“Chris Wise ain’t your average man,” he raps in “Today Was a Good Life,” his take-off of Ice Cube’s classic “It Was a Good Day,” and it is certainly true.

Whether tired out by the passionate performance or just wanting to grab a beer before closing, a large chunk of the audience migrated to the UPub when the set was over, leaving headliners Tiger Speak to perform to about half the crowd.

The remaining audience seemed to be fans as they never stopped dancing to the grooves, but the performance itself was more low-key. Tiger Speak were undeniably fantastic musicians, but their more smooth style of jazz hip-hop felt like a cool down after the raw energy that BootyStank delivered.

The set definitely leaned heavily to the jazz side of jazz/hip-hop. While MC/trumpeter Ryan Easter was a skilled vocalist, the real highlight of Tiger Speak’s performance was when the musicians took solos.

During a particularly impressive mellow sax solo, Easter quipped “I should make everybody kneel,” and the sentiment wasn’t far off. The playing was absolutely impeccable, even if the set felt a little brief. It seemed that despite being the headliners, Tiger Speak had the shortest performance.

“Hip Hop in Renaissance” ended with organizer Dylan Brewer getting on the mic to thank the audience for coming out and receiving some of the loudest applauses of the night. One can only hope that WMUA will put together another event of this caliber soon.

Gabe Scarbrough can be reached at [email protected]