Rodney "Skinny Suge" Thomas was a fixture of the Baltimore rap scene, with his own record label and numerous hip-hop DVDs, long before he became the central figure of a national controversy. And even after one of his less music-based DVDs, the notorious Stop Fucking Snitching, made headlines for its threatening messages toward police informants, in 2004, he continued appearing on mixtapes by local artists such as Comp, Ace, and Dirty Hartz, even occasionally rapping himself. So it was no surprise that when Thomas, who pleaded guilty to an assault charge in early 2006, recently finished a two-year prison sentence, the local hip-hop community greeted him with open arms, throwing a welcome-home party at this past Monday's Hip Hop 101 event at 5 Seasons.
Although Thomas was billed as a co-host for the event, for which he requested performances from some of his favorite artists, he ended up keeping a low profile throughout the night, as Shaka Pitts and 92Q personality Squirrel Wyde handled hosting duties and continuously dedicated the night to "Skinny Suge." And the man of the hour's legacy of distrusting law enforcement was a consistent talking point throughout the night, even with the usual patrol cars lurking not far outside the venue. The first performer, Ogun, debuted a new track with Rockwell, using the instrumental from Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" and repurposing the song's title to refer to the blinking blue lights on Baltimore Police Department surveillance cameras.
The bill ranged from more established MCs like Bossman and Comp to lesser-known artists like Slick Geez and 100 Grandman. And since no one hit the stage until well after midnight, leaving DJ Jabril to spin records and keep the party going until then, the dozen or so acts all kept it short and sweet, most with only a song or two apiece. In a way, it's an underrated format that flatters the performers. B.O.M.B. effectively promoted his new Testers EP by just performing its two best songs, "Let's Get It (Pocket P.C.)" and "Lean," and Comp made a big impact with just one explosive song, "Whole Lat," from his forthcoming mixtape The Man With the Hand 2, which has become a live favorite in recent months.
One MC who hung out onstage for the entire show, patiently waiting his turn, was Verb, the Dirty Hartz frontman and one-time Best of Baltimore honoree. When Verb finally took the stage for the night's final performance, things were winding down, and he made clear his displeasure about performing at the end of the show for a dwindling audience. But while he vowed to get an earlier spot next time, the fact is that Verb's a great choice to close a gig; his legendary freestyles can go on forever uninterrupted, and it's more fun to watch him go off without someone waiting his or her turn to grab the mic. And after a long string of acts, not all of whom were memorable, it was refreshing to have one of the best saved for last.