Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
No one loves the 518 like its hip hop community. At the 2018 hip hop kickoff at The Low Beat Friday night (Feb. 9), love for the region was thrown into songs, set intermissions and dialogue with the audience as performers prompted the crowd to chant “518” along to DJ Siroc’s beats. And they did so proudly–grinning with their fingers pointed in the air or filming themselves among the crowd. The energy in the room was almost palpable.
The kickoff show stacked up a dozen performers, ranging from seasoned artists with a back catalogue of mixtapes as well as those with a massive–and growing–fanbase to up-and-coming young rappers.
They took the stage to tell their stories: rapping about society, romance, hate and violence, lost loved ones, hardened egos, growing up, moving on, taking on the spotlight and having a damn good time doing it. Some bars hit you like a speeding train and some rhymes crack you up. And while there were some shaky performances, an overwhelming amount of talent gripped the mic.
Artists like Digga and Puhcaso built up the momentum of the night. The two rappers took the stage together in a powerful back and forth with tracks like “All Yours” that had the crowd screaming for more.
The charismatic, Troy-based Johnny 2 Phones swept up the crowd in a roaring sing along with “Go 2 Phones”, waving his hands and swaying back and forth with them like a snake charmer. “A Beautiful Death,” off of his latest EP Lotus Eater is a rowdy party track full of pop hooks that thickened the crowd with dozens of frat rap fans and when he prompted the audience to jump, the room began to vibrate and shake. He had built up a static momentum that didn’t give out until AirlineJay wrapped for the night.
Hank Stackz joined 2 Phones on stage for a couple tracks including a broken-hearted song of his own–about a girl, as one audience member shouted out, he is better off forgetting. “I’m about to change the mood, this is some sad ass shit yo,” he said, asking for the lights to be dimmed. “From the heart shit,” added 2 Phones.
It was an emotional performance, detailing a rough breakup and post-turmoil that left him wiping away tears as he and 2 Phones rounded out their performance chanting “Free Suave” with the crowd, a homage to their close friend and fellow artist Suave the Don who is currently behind bars.
After a brief intermission, Promise The Unbreakable stalked across the stage like a lion surveying his prey. Silence fell as he spat out his acapella opener, going over each rhyme with a methodical ferocity. His stage presence was unparalleled. When DJ Siroc called on him to “blow it up” for the audience, he smiled at the challenge as the beat built. “I have no equals!” he screamed. It seemed to harness every ounce of power in his body.
When he invited Chris Cool Peeples to the stage, the rolling tension fell off like a curtain. “I’m just here to bring a vibe,” Peeples said, rolling his shoulders back and diving into his unreleased track. He was an absolute hype machine, grinning and popping his eyes open with each bar and his performance had audience members and fellow performers climbing, dancing and jumping on stage to get alongside him and scream along, “NRA! / They shoot us” until Peeples closed it out with a mic-drop worthy, “so shoot for the stars.”
Albany’s Ozymandias, affectionately introduced as “the Lord” by Promise the Unbreakable, was all power and speed. He spit out high-energy bars with ease and seemed to be radiating with light.
Entreband followed suit, pulling all the girls to the front of the stage like a magnet as they put the spotlight on Souly Had. He worked through a few rhythmic, hip-hop hits like “Crush” and “Deja Vu.” The group has an interesting boy band vibe. They rounded out in a semicircle, bouncing in and out for tracks like “Royalty.” Throughout their set, they couldn’t stop grinning.
Clear Mind took the stage with another commanding acapella opener, kicking it off by directing the crowd to shout along with him, “Fuck fake friends and white supremacy!” as he launched into his set. He had artists jumping back onstage to dance along with him as he peered out from under his hat, pointing out to the crowd, “It’s the beginning of an era / they ain’t ready for it.” He played a comparably short set, adding a sense of importance to the couple of tracks he chose to perform.
Next up was headliner NBHD Nick, decked out in round sunglasses and fluid movements, radiating confidence as he belted out bopping “Don’t Get It Twisted” and grooving “Stick and Move” from his EP Electric Roses, emanating love for his faith, family and personal growth.
AirlineJay closed out the show with style, pulling NBHD Nick back on stage to perform their latest track “Cop A Benz” that dropped mid-January. He ran through a number of songs from his latest album Black Denim that had audience members waving their phones and mouthing along like “Old Bitch New Bitch” and the R&B tinged “Demons” — a song the artist said he wrote while multitasking at work. “That’s how much I love music,” he said before starting it off.
There’s a spark that’s been lit here–not in terms of talent, these artists have been building themselves up for years. But the local hip hop scene as a whole has plenty of space to grow. It’s a scene known for its divisiveness but there was little evidence of that on Friday. Instead they were hype teams and support systems, hanging out on stage for their favorite tracks and dishing out embraces and praises. They gushed about the packed out venue and hinted at upcoming projects. This community is buzzing, antsy and ready to pop off.
2018 Hip Hop Kickoff Show at The Low Beat, Friday Feb. 9.