So what is a community? I’ll spare you the full Webster’s definition if you’ll not roll your eyes when I talk about the local hip-hop community. It may not be very big or especially organized, but it meets at least one criterion of a community: that of a social group with a set of shared assumptions and interests, possibly one that perceives itself as different in some respects from the society in which it exists. Whoops, so I did give you a full definition. But only one definition. There’s like nine of them in there.
Is hip-hop big in Missoula? Sure is. No other genre gets its own 11-hour chunk of local FM radio daily, like the one provided by the Wild Boyz of 107.5, and that’s just one index. Big pants waste precious fabric; high school boys wear throwback sports jerseys and call each other “G,” “dawg,” even “bitch,” sometimes ironically and sometimes not. How many days has it been since you heard a car stereo pumping enough bass to rattle the license plate? What, like two? And what was playing? Thin Lizzy? Primus?
Nope. It was hip-hop. And it’s like this everywhere. Hip-hop has been outselling pop and country in the United States for years now; the apparent influx of urban culture in Missoula—as evidenced in modes of dress and speech, mannerisms and gestures and bowel-rattling bass response in car stereos—only mirrors national trends. It’s a hip-hop nation. What, if anything, is unique about Missoula’s corner of it?
That’s what I wanted to find out.
The pink elephant
We’ll start, treacherously, with skin color.
Alex “JACo” Kast is a blond, blue-eyed white kid, but you’d never guess it if you only heard him on the radio. He doesn’t do his own show on KGBA anymore, but sometimes he covers for his friend Jimi Nasset on Wednesday nights. He finds that his listeners are constantly taken aback when they meet him in person.
“I speak with a hip-hop accent,” Kast shrugs. “I get stopped pretty much every day by someone asking about it, or I’ll meet somebody for the first time who tells me, ‘You sound like a 30-year-old black man.’ Granted, I do. I’ve accepted that fact. But I’m not really sure how I undertook the accent that I’ve taken.”
Kast is a co-partner, with Nasset, in Hungis Productions, and arguably the individual who has done the most to put Missoula on the hip-hop map. In the past three years, Hungis has put on more than 50 hip-hop shows with touring and local acts in Missoula, an average of one show a month. Nasset insists that Kast was the guy who got the ball rolling: He called Nasset’s KGBA show looking for help in promoting his first show, for a hip-hop consortium called Living Legends. Nasset, too, was surprised to learn that Kast was white.
Kast doesn’t use a lot of hip-hop slang. He doesn’t speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called Black English, the language—more accurately, the dialect—that novelist Toni Morrison has declared the “lingua franca” of black Americans in the United States. Transcriptions of my interview with Kast read about as Black English as a box of wheat bran. Still, he says, almost every time he meets somebody new, the subject of why he doesn’t look like he sounds is the proverbial pink elephant in the room.
Hazarding a guess, the Detroit native suggests that listening to hip-hop from an early age probably had a lot to do with it. Public Enemy is his all-time favorite group, and he says that ringleader Chuck D’s drill-sergeant bark made a deep impression on him. Furthermore, samples of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on Public Enemy records got him hooked on powerful black speakers and inspired him to learn more.
“I don’t know what it is,” Kast says, “but when I hear Al Sharpton talk, I think he’s one of the most moving people. And he’s always got a good answer!”
Just like there are all manner of epithet-laced terms for the music that radio programmers skittishly describe as “adult urban contemporary,” there’s a nasty word for white kids who emulate black music and culture in a very outward way, who appear on the face of it to be “acting black.” It’s what linguists call a portmanteau: a blend of two words, in this case “white” and “nigger.” No one’s come right out and called him a wigger to his face, Kast claims, but he’s dealt with his share of credibility critics.
“I can understand why people would use that word,” he says. “It does describe a certain type of person, but I would never use it because I think it’s stupid. It’s basically calling somebody a nigger—same word, just for a white person.
“I get that sometimes,” he continues, “people thinking I’m fake. But I don’t try to be black.” He tugs at the baggy seat of his threadbare jeans. “Look, I sag, but that’s about it. If I tried to change my accent, I don’t even know what I’d sound like.”
It’s a white male thing, dawg
Forty years ago, similar accusations of cultural appropriation—though not exactly playacting—were leveled at British musicians, chiefly the Rolling Stones, who borrowed liberally from black American blues and made a lot of money doing so. At this remove, that controversy seems almost irrelevant. Hip-hop, too, has been appropriated, bleached and assimilated by Caucasian America, but certain romanticized features of inner-city culture seem a strange fit with white suburbia. As it happens, they’re the aspects most talked up and bragged about in the virulent strains of gangsta rap: guns, crime, vendetta, sex, drugs. There’s a rich lexicon for describing them all. Is there a relationship between hip-hop and the casual observation that, even 10 years ago, kids playfully shooting each other with finger-pistols still did so with their thumbs pointed skyward, not 90 degrees inward, gangsta-style?
Skin color as a basis for musical credibility is less of an issue now than it was in the late ’80s, when white rappers like Third Bass’s MC Serch—and let’s not forget Vanilla Ice—took it in the shorts from all sides. Still, I can name at least 10 tracks from the last five years in which black rappers make fun of white rappers, and I’m no connoisseur of hip-hop. Double standards like this abound.
In Missoula, though, any such discussion just seems kind of silly. True, we have the biggest and most international university in the state, but population figures still don’t quite bear out Missoula’s cherished image of itself as Montana’s global village: Census records show that in 2000, Missoula County had the same or less than the statewide percentile of all self-identified racial minority groups except for Asians. Montana is 90 percent self-identified white overall; Missoula is 94 percent. What the city has might better be termed a convergence of tolerant attitudes that are seldom put to any real test, and even that’s pretty subjective. It’s hard to believe anyone from Billings or Bozeman would tell you differently about their cities; narrow-mindedness and a yen for homogeneity rarely figure into civic platitudes.
But with regards to hip-hop, what we’re really talking about is the presence of blacks, right? Yellowstone County reported a higher percentage in 2000: 0.4 percent to Missoula’s 0.3 percent. Demographically, these statistics are almost irrelevant: We’re talking about a difference of a few dozen individuals out of a statewide black population of fewer than 300. The population of Montana is more than 900,000. Obviously, hip-hop in Missoula is going to be a predominantly white thing.
Can girls play, too?
“Hip-hop worldwide is a predominantly white thing,” echoes Alex Kast. “The majority of people who buy hip-hop records—80 percent—are white. You’re not going to get anywhere in the music industry if you don’t appeal to white boys between 15 and about 30. That’s who buys hip-hop records.”
And, predominantly, that’s who MCs and DJs and puts on hip-hop shows in Missoula. Missoula hip-hop’s prevailing whiteness might just be circumstance, but how to explain the dearth of female artists in town? Kast is hard-pressed to think of any women currently MCing or DJing on the local scene. Can girls play, too?
Audiences also tend to be predominantly male. In fact, the closest I get to finding a female MC or DJ currently active in Missoula is a terse mention by one of the young women at the recent 2 Live Crew show auditioning for the Wild Girlz, a promotional outreach of sorts that one of the Wild Boyz of 107.5 tells me is essentially a better way to drum up interest for upcoming shows than simply distributing flyers. The same prospective Wild Girl also gets defensive when I ask her about what I perceive as the marginalized role of women in hip-hop (“It’s my own free will,” she says petulantly, “It was my own decision.”), then proceeds to tattle on me to one of the Wild Boyz just for asking. Listen, lady, I’m not judging you. You’re the one getting publicly pawed and ogled as part of your tryout; I’m just trying to figure out why there aren’t more female DJs and MCs in Missoula. And I asked nicely.
Wild Girlz notwithstanding, Kast confirms that female involvement in Missoula hip-hop is largely limited to spectatorship, and even then it’s pretty selective. The biggest female turnout at a Hungis Productions show so far, he says, was for Minneapolis-based Atmosphere, featuring rapper Slug.
“[Slug] is known for having sappy songs about women, how he’s flustered about the situation he’s in,” Kast explains. “That appeals to people, I guess. Especially women.”
Generally speaking, Kast claims that the brand of hip-hop Hungis brings to town sends a more positive message to women than some of the alternatives. It’s the kind of hip-hop he likes most himself, what he calls the “intellectual” kind: lighter on the bitches and the bling-bling, more like hip-hop as a framework for political, personal and spiritual ideas.
“Hip-hop is kind of unique in that pretty much any Joe Schmo can go on and try to rhyme. The mere idea of that, I like, because you have different thoughts, I have different thoughts. What I will rhyme about will be different from what you rhyme about—theoretically, anyway. Hopefully. To get insight from someone, that’s very powerful for me.”
Mo money, mo problems
Where the Wild Boyz—as promoters, performers and radio DJs—deal more in mainstream hip-hop, Kast generally prefers underground sounds on independent labels. Underground hip-hop, he contends, is hip-hop without a mile-long list of producers and more to say than just bragging about how great it is. It’s more about the group and less about the production team, more about ideas and less about cashing in. Kast qualifies this, though:
“Being underground doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be good. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be intellectual hip-hop. In the same light, being commercial doesn’t mean you’re going to be shitty, either.”
But even bringing underground acts to Missoula can place a financial strain on a promoter. On average, Kast says, Hungis has to put up at least a $300 guarantee for visiting performers. Atmosphere required $4,000. And the same act that costs $600 to bring to town the first time can cost five times that much just a few months later if its fortunes have improved in the interval. As Kast explains: “You’re underground so that you can go overground.”
The problem as he sees it is that big on the national hip-hop scene doesn’t always translate to big in Missoula. A $20 ticket in Seattle might be a $12 ticket here, and people are still going to complain about it. It’s not even that the student population in Missoula is poorer, Kast says—it’s the native aversion to paying more than $5 to see live music in bars: “Everybody knows somebody, and if they can get into the show for free, they’re going to do it.”
Furthermore, he says, it’s a wonder that some acts are willing to perform here at all, “considering that they don’t have to.”
“It’s not like playing Missoula will gain them any real recognition, aside from in the city of Missoula. With a lot of artists, you get the feeling that it’s almost like a charity event. In the middle of nowhere, where the closest big city is 400 miles away, you get that feeling.”
But Kast’s Hungis partner Jimi Nasset thinks that Missoula’s relative isolation might eventually prove to be a selling point. Echoing a long-held belief of Missoula’s rock community, he says that the city is the only really happening stop for 2,000 miles between Minneapolis and Seattle. The more people start associating the name Hungis with good shows, the bigger the boost to Missoula hip-hop, performers and showgoers alike. And with imported acts pricey and sporadic, he’d like to see Missoula grow more of its own.
Any whiter and they’d be clear
Another big problem right now, musicians and promoters agree, is that Missoula hip-hop is currently a community without a community center. The disappearance of three live-music venues in roughly a year has left a lot of local music, not just hip-hop, looking for a place to hang its hat. Punk rock, Nasset and Kast agree, at least had a physical and spiritual home in Missoula for 10 years: Jay’s Upstairs. Neither of them ever big Jay’s patrons, the two men speak with respect of the kinship and camaraderie that have clearly outlasted the closure of the punk rock clubhouse last fall. Nasset, who also DJs and MCs under the alias Nasty, suggests that hip-hop was starting to get settled in at the Ritz when that venue, too, closed earlier this year. The management would let him arrange shows on very short notice, he says; bartenders made good tips and audiences generally behaved themselves. Now everyone not playing bluegrass or blues seems to have ended up at the same place: The Other Side.
One of the very few hip-hop acts, local or otherwise, to perform at Jay’s Upstairs on a semi-regular basis was Neato Bandita Frito. Members Kyle McAfee and Austin Valley, now 21 and 22, respectively, started playing shows at Jay’s while they were still teenagers. Now it can be told: They did it as much for the free beer and the bar’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell drinking policy concerning underage performers as for reasons of personal expression. That group broke up two years ago, but Valley and McAfee are now the MC core of the four-piece iNHUMANS, a newer group with a similarly sardonic approach to hip-hop. Reminiscing about their Neato Bandita Frito days, Austin and McAfee say that humor was a big part of their hip-hop plan from the outset.
“We were always honest about how goofy it was that we were even doing it,” McAfee explains. “Always self-effacing, always making fun of being white boys. We had a cheesy keyboard—it was all really simple. We started off freestyling to these preconstructed beats, and it was always just for fun and for laughs, never to talk about the struggles of life or anything like that. As for how the audience saw us, we thought, well, either they’re taking us seriously, which is hilarious in and of itself, or they get what we’re trying to do and they think it’s funny.”
Did they ever think about taking it a little more seriously?
“We were going toward it with the last several songs we wrote,” says Valley. “We had some relationship songs, which was new for us. But even in the serious songs, there were lines that were supposed to be funny. Just in sticking with the Neato Bandita Frito thing.”
And iNHUMANS, says McAfee, is not “night and day different.” “We definitely still have comic elements and lots of sarcasm. But our rhyming has gotten way more complex and we’re building all our own beats. We’ve got better technology. We’re doing songs about dreams, the environment, Twin Peaks, stuff we’re absorbing on a daily basis. And bitches.”
Bitches, eh? You look like smart kids. Start talking.
“I wouldn’t say we’re hiding behind irony,” ventures McAfee. “No, I guess we are. We’re saying dirty and misogynistic things, and yet we’re not really saying them. It’s still self-effacing. Come on, we’re a bunch of skinny Montana boys wearing goofy costumes on stage talking about how many women we get.”
“And actually,” adds Valley. “It’s more like how many women we want to get. And don’t get.”
McAfee and Valley say they tend to be leery of local rappers who don’t have a healthy sense of irony about their music: “I just don’t understand how you can take yourself that seriously,” says McAfee. “It’s just weird.”
For not taking themselves too seriously, though, the two sure tear it up at The Other Side. Decked out in sunglasses and matching pit-crew coveralls, Valley and McAfee reel off strings of deft, interlocking rhymes while DJ Dylan Valley (Austin’s brother) juggles the ’70s funk beats and guitarist Dennis Ferriter squeezes out a steady stream of porno wah-wah. The stage banter is priceless, too; at one point Valley and McAfee try to lure the Wild Girlz away from the Wild Boyz with promises of health and dental benefits. Compared to iNHUMANS, headliners 2 Live Crew are ploddingly dull—past-it fossils still trundling out the same locker-room monkeyshines that made them My First Rap Band™ to junior high students and summer sleepaway campers 20 years ago.
Valley and McAfee are at least serious enough about their music to be contemplating a move to a bigger city, assuming they can agree on one that satisfies their other interests. McAfee is a bookseller at Fact & Fiction, Valley a filmmaker whose recent projects include a local indie feature and a series of two-minute, direct-to-Jumbotron halftime ad spots featuring Monte the Griz mascot. (Faithful readers of this paper might also remember the two for their sidesplitting stop-motion Star Wars parodies: The Bovine Prophecy and The Empire Strikes the Children with a Two-by-Four.)
Their plans to move are still open, Valley and McAfee say, but they’d like to see some things change in Missoula no matter what they decide to do. There is no core to this scene, they contend: “It’s just so scattered. All we have is what people book and bring in from out of town.” Another venue might help, maybe even an all hip-hop radio station. At the very least, McAfee gripes, more kids need to work up their own sets instead of getting drunk at shows and letting their friends challenge him and Valley to MC battles on their behalf. MC battles are a vital part of hip-hop, McAfee says, but typically they devolve into unimaginative dissing on opponents’ clothes and so forth. Local promoters host organized DJ and MC battles from time to time; the iNHUMANS MCs wish the hecklers would go through the proper channels instead of harassing them during their performances. In any case, such competitions are only one aspect of hip-hop.
“A little less single-mindedness and a little more open-mindedness,” prescribes McAfee. “Even if you’re just freestyling to your DMX records, get a set together and get out there and start doing something. It’s pretty easy to do.”
“It’s getting to be more of a community,” says Jimi Nasset. “I think it could be more so. There’s still kind of a separation between the more commercial hip-hop that Wild 107.5 is doing and the kind of hip-hop that me and Alex do with Hungis, the underground, independent stuff that maybe a lot of people haven’t been exposed to. Also, I guess it’s almost the nature of hip-hop for there to be a certain level of competition. It’s only natural in hip-hop to think that you’re the best MC in town, or the best DJ. That’s just the way it is. How many folkies do you see writing dis-songs about each other? It just doesn’t happen, but in hip-hop that’s a big element of it.
“Which almost kind of almost divides the community,” he continues. “I think it’s coming together more. We’re more of a community, but there’s still that level of separation.”
Alex Kast also senses a community coalescing, but suspects that it’s going to take more than just a new venue or a new radio station to solidify it. He says he’d like to see more cooperation between local promoters to boost attendance at each other’s shows. Not just with hip-hop, but with every type of original live music in Missoula. Mutual support and bonds that straddle genres, Kast says—that’s what’s at the center of the community, or at least ought to be. The music community, of which hip-hop is just one neighborhood.
“There’s a new kind of hip-hop ideology where you just accept everyone for what they are,” he says. “What I think is really unique about Missoula is that we don’t always have hip-hop shows going on, so people are going to go see other shit. They’re going to go to punk shows ’cause they don’t have anything better to do, and I think that’s a great thing.”