When people discuss the arts, images of theatre, classical music, ballet and paintings often dominate the conversation. For many, however, hip-hop does not even enter the dialogue. The genre, which is actually a complex hybrid of music, poetry and storytelling, arguably has a bigger crossover appeal and global cultural impact on fashion and style than any other form of creative expression. Still, hip-hop is somehow perceived by some as being too grimy and gritty to be classified as art.
That perception is dead wrong.
We have often heard the expression “art imitates life.” Nowhere does that expression ring more true than in hip-hop. Although the media often portrays the whole of hip-hop culture as a violent, promiscuous, misogynistic enemy of society, the vast majority of its practitioners are no more ruthless than, say, insurance adjusters. They are merely storytellers, using their words to paint vivid pictures on the canvas of our minds that display the realities – some unpleasant, some explicit, but all very real - of the world we live in. Those of us who grew up in the hood that hip-hop hails know that it’s just home, nothing more, nothing less. It is not a place to be feared or disdained, and though we all long for a safe, prosperous quality of life, nobody worth their salt wants that life at the expense of abandoning who they are. We all want and need something in our lives that reminds us of our roots and keeps us grounded. That’s exactly what hip hop provides to those of us who love it. It is our heritage. It is the tales of life in the hood, best told by those who have actually lived in it and are articulate enough to convey those experiences to others in a skillful, entertaining manner.
A week ago I wrote about my experience at Urban Roots, taking part in The Vine Open Mic Poetry Night which is held there every Tuesday night. This week, I wanted to branch out and explore another arena. Still fueled by the adrenaline of finally performing a poem I had written and memorized long ago in front of a room full of receptive spoken word enthusiasts just eight days before, I learned about an event simply called “THE MIC” at Ice Event Center and Grill.
THE MIC, held every Wednesday night, is a forum for hip hop artists and aspiring artists, whether MCs, rappers, singers or producers, individuals or crews, to show their stuff and be heard. I would be among those heard tonight. Like the week before with my poem, I had a couple of dated rhymes locked away in the recesses of my memory, longing to be released into the atmosphere. Again, the mic was open, and I felt I had to represent before I could report. I was really going to get on the mic and flow. Hard. I might even battle someone, who knows?
Visions of 8 Mile and 106 & Park filled my head. It was about to go down, I told myself. I wasn’t nervous or anxious. I was pumped. I had never been to Ice Event Center and Grill before, but with a name like that, it had to be a sprawling entertainment complex. Although I wasn’t really nervous, I felt my gear left something to be desired. After borrowing my 17 year old son Austin’s $125 Nike KD sneakers – one of the benefits of having a son who wears the same size everything but has fresher kicks – I was on my way. Before heading out the door, I asked Austin, who already previously declined, if he wanted to accompany me and hear his pop flow. Still no. I jokingly asked if it was because I’m 45. Yes, he replied. It was. I told him “when I come home tonight signed to Young Money, don’t ask me for nothing.” He laughed. I left. He knows I can flow. I do it all the time at home. I’m not one of those dads who tries extra hard to be cool either. I AM cool. For real. Still, this was something different. Everyone flows every now and then at home, right? Trust me, it’s not the same thing.
I headed to the heart of the city for this week’s showdown at Ice. Google Maps didn’t find the name of the establishment, so I called Dacia Hooks, Culturocity’s co-managing editor (and my human backup GPS whenever I’m lost in OKC), who was to meet me there later. She guided me using my description of landmarks and her knowledge of the East side, where she spent much of her youth. After a few turnarounds, I arrived at the dimly lit parking lot of a very low-key, un-cosmopolitan plaza on Northeast 36th Street that housed Ice Event Center and Grill. The plaza is also home to what looked to be a dozen storefront churches, a couple of which appeared to be having Wednesday night Bible study. Most visible was a large vacant grocery store. Next to it was a modest, nondescript looking establishment at the end of the strip.
That would be Ice Event Center and Grill.
My old man Young Money aspirations instantly quelled by the sight of my humble surroundings, I was back to reality and could focus on the real reason I was there. I had come to find out what was behind THE MIC, why it was so vital to the community, and what Oklahoma City hip-hop culture was really all about. I went inside and found a small group of middle aged singles and couples taking swing dancing lessons, one of the many other events that regularly takes place at the establishment. I was early. Way early. THE MIC didn’t start until 10pm, and it was barely after 8.
I decided to remain at the venue so I could observe and absorb the environment. Shortly after I arrived, in walked James Cooper, also known as Coop, a veteran local MC and spoken word artist, and the man responsible for THE MIC. I had become familiar with Coop in the weeks prior, witnessing him work his magic on stage with great ease at a couple of local events, including opening poetry at the stage play “Badu-izms: A Tribute to Erykah”, as well as at The Vine Open Mic Poetry Night at Urban Roots. After the latter, at which I braved the mic, Coop pulled me and a couple of other relatively inexperienced poets aside and gave us some words of wisdom on becoming one with the crowd, taking our time and enjoying the moment, and delivering calmly yet bringing energy with our words. Tonight I would have my chance to see if I learned the lesson.
Though I had only met him recently, Coop was no stranger to me, nor was I to him. It seemed as if I had known this brother all my life. Now, with a bit of time on our hands, I had an opportunity to get to know even more about the man behind THE MIC.
James Cooper has had a long standing love affair with hip-hop. Though born in St. Louis, Coop grew up in Oklahoma City since the 6th grade and has long since considered it his home. One’s geographical identification seems of paramount importance in hip-hop. Coop clearly represents Oklahoma City with no apologies.
He talks about the influence of rap on his youth, dispelling myths that hip-hop is all about negativity. A fan of Public Enemy leader and front man Chuck D growing up, Coop recalls, “here I am 16 years old, and I don’t do drugs because Chuck D said if I do drugs, I’m a sucka.” Now, Coop’s mission is to mentor the next generation of hip-hop artists, teaching them lessons that he says he learned in the same building as a young aspiring MC.
Now 41, Coop might seem an anomaly in hip-hop. Jokes about 40 year old rappers abound in film, television and stand-up comedy routines. Coop is not moved by any of that. “I never fell out of love with hip-hop. Why should I let ageism separate me from my culture? If Willie Nelson can get his old ass out there and still do country music at his age, I can still get on the mic. I love hip-hop. I mean, on an atomic level, I love hip-hop.” When I asked Coop what his aspirations were in hip-hop and if he felt he achieved them, he simply replied “even if they hate my guts, I want them to say ‘he’s dope.’ To a certain level, I achieved that.”
Asked what his vision was for THE MIC: “I want hip-hop culture to have a home.” He explains that hip-hop is segregated in Oklahoma, not necessarily along racial lines, but in the sense that “no one knows each other. … No one is networking.” His vision includes bringing in artists from other areas. Addressing myths about the East side, Coop is crystal clear: “There are no problems here. Our energy is positive. Our intent is good. You can’t be scared of your people.” Coop wants an evening at THE MIC to be “everybody in Oklahoma’s Wednesday,” a vision that will hopefully come closer to fruition in the very near future. The event has only been going on for four weeks, but some signs of growth can already be seen.
Coop is a family man. He actually met his wife, Katrina “Trini” Cooper, 19 years ago – in the same building where we were sitting, before it was Ice Event Center and Grill, when the spot was home to an establishment known as the Glass Key. He describes their 1994 meeting as love at first sight. Now married 15 years, Coop and Trini are the parents of two sons, Julian, 14, and Quincy, 8. He calls his family and his role as a husband and father “the best part of life.”
Coop is also an insurance adjuster.
So much for hip-hop being about a bunch of goons, killers and drug dealers. Coop is an intelligent, articulate, hard working Black man who loves his wife and his sons. He is not selfish with his gifts and seeks a bigger extension of his gifts to pass his knowledge on to others, hence THE MIC. Additionally, he is writing a book and will be starting his own recording project shortly. Being a husband and dad has not made Coop soft on the mic either. He conveys a story about a 21 year old kid who proclaimed himself the best in the city. The kid called out Coop at a local barbershop. Coop defeated him soundly, winning a wager and offering the young man a lesson on why he lost. The young man declined. Coop spent the money on his wife.
As I talked with Coop, Ice Event Center and Grill proprietor Marc Flemon entered the establishment. Despite his entrepreneurial successes and his highly sought after profile as a top-notch videographer shooting music videos for artists who are making waves, Marc was the picture of humility and grounding. At 39, Marc is younger than Coop, but according to both men, Marc is Coop’s mentor. Coop refers to him as a “visionary.” Without Ice Event Center being available, THE MIC would possibly not be happening at all.
But then again, helping others is Marc’s way. Though he initially viewed Ice Events Center and Grill as an investment, he quickly realized it was much more. “We’re located in an area where they won’t even deliver a pizza to your house,” Marc says, conveying the realization that his ownership of the establishment carried with it a responsibility to the community. “When a family couldn’t afford to have a funeral repass, we let them have it here. When a family couldn’t afford to have their child’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, we let them have it here.” Now that Coop was on a mission to do something positive with the hip-hop community, it was a no-brainer.
Marc let him have it here.
Marc Flemon’s support of the community extends far beyond events. He seemed most proud of the fact that he was employing people of this community. As a prime example, Marc’s head cook is able to pay his son’s tuition at Oklahoma State University as a result of his employment at Ice Events Center.
Also a family man, Flemon and his wife Katrina are parents of a two year old son, Harlem. He views his city as an extended family of sorts. “The fruit we bear from the tree is for ourselves and for our city.” Marc laments the fact that there is not more support of events in the inner city of OKC, unlike what is experienced in other major cities who fully embrace their urban culture. Despite his desire to see more people from around the city embrace the East side, he expressed personal satisfaction from seeing “young guys being excited about doing something for themselves” with THE MIC.
Do something they did. I met a host of MCs from the area, each one bringing his own unique style, all representing the 405. Among them (in order of my conversations with them):
- Josiah Eking, 27, a smooth brother who brought some original beats with him and flowed on top of them like butter on a biscuit. Eking recently took the stage acting in Badu-izms and can be seen December 21st as Langston Hughes in “A Christmas in Harlem” at Urban Roots.
- From the Almost Famous label, Mr 405, age 27 of Mustang, and Chaotic, 29, two MCs of the Caucasian persuasion who acquitted themselves admirably on the mic and demonstrated that hip-hop is about diversity, even on the East side. Get with the program.
- Yung Dubble, 28. This electrifying MC right here is one to watch. Dubble blessed me with a copy of his album, Animocity, which you’ll be hearing more about on Culturocity. Yung Dubble has been doing his thing since high school. He cited Tupac as an influence, as did others, and credits “music in general” for inspiring his grind. Along with his crew Loud Noyz, which has been together 13 years, Dubble truly put the Ice in the event center on Wednesday night, even singing a little smooth R&B as he flowed. Loud Noyz also consists of talented, gritty MCs Yolla Montana/Baby J; Truth, 30; Chadd Gaines 20; J-Mal and Dupri.
- Marigz, 27, who has been on his grind since 98 and has been making waves underground. Marigz, who is scheduled to open for Kirko Bangz on Dec 14th, represented himself and his city quite well on the mic.
Mr 405, Yung Dubble and Loud Noyz, and Marigz were featured artists for the night.
Quite a few other rappers came through and freestyled, including Crunch Time and Glenjamin, who both brought ridiculously sick bars with the greatest of ease. Translation if necessary: They were really, really good.
I even got in on the freestyle cypher myself, and later even tried to spit a few bars over “No Church in the Wild”, going by the name Wizdom. I put my work in until I ran out of steam and asked Coop to cut the beat, and was able to emerge with my head held high. I dare not critique myself. I showed up and I worked out. As Coop put it, “this is the gym. This is where Mickey taught Rocky.”
Spoken word artists Shunu Tehu, 40 (who shares the same birthday with Marc Flemon though Shunu is one year older), and J Wigg also came through and showed love and support.
When I emerged from the Ice Event Center & Grill, the time was 1:00 am exactly, on a Wednesday night. All was peaceful and serene on Oklahoma City’s Northeast side. I took the long drive south to Norman, feeling blessed to have both embraced and been embraced by THE MIC.
Now if only the city will come together and embrace THE MIC back, we will give a voice and a positive outlet to the creative genius that is within the heart of Oklahoma City. If I can do it, so can you. Show your love and support for Coop and his vision, as well as for entrepreneur Marc Flemon, Ice Event Center and Grill, and the tremendous hip-hop talent that this city possesses in abundance.
If you dare, come out next week for THE MIC.
Brian C. Scott … aka Wizdom