has funk in its soul. Originally formed by Parliament Funkadelic drummer Guy Curtis 20 years ago, the performance space reopened its doors last March with the help of Curtis' longtime friend and sound engineer, Herb Haynes. Haynes, who has been working with artists like Paul Simon and Tribe Called Quest for the last 30 years, now finds himself in "the underbelly of the arts community."
NowChild, as it's commonly known, is a boxing gym on a gritty block of East Preston Street by day, but every Thursday night it becomes Judah's Jukejoint, a different kind of training ground, where local MCs sharpen their lines and tighten their timing. Judah N. Walton, after whom the night is named, invited Bangla (of Bangladesh Project), OOH (of Brown F.I.S.H.), and Tiffany Welch to co-promote the night at an Artscape after-party last year, and this June's Big Ass Cookout was their biggest turnout to date.
"The night is very spontaneous and very organic, so we stay in the moment with the music, honoring the original traditions of hip-hop music," Bangla says. "Everyone who comes has a genuine love and an appreciation for musicianship, lyricism, and music, and it's reflected through the artists and the crowd. NowChild is a multi-purpose center that grasps the heartbeat of the community."
On a recent Thursday night, the smells of smoke and hot leather still hang in the sticky air at 9:30
, when the public is allowed to enter the gym. A few fighters still linger, shadow-boxing or hitting the speed bag. Familiar faces are greeted like family, and house band seeWeed begins setting up and tuning their instruments. SeeWeed is made up of MC OOH, keyboardist Bangla, bassist Ramadan, lead guitarist Santandrix, and drummer Supaman. Bangla's father is sitting in on the rhythm guitar as a special guest.
Santandrix's warm-up riffs bleed together with Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Who Gon Stop Me" played by house turntablist, DJ Kyle, as the sign-up board for open mic slots quickly fills. OOH jumps on the mic, introduces the band, and explains the format to any newcomers. Performers can provide their own beats or have seeWeed accompany them. The only rule is that open mic performers must ask the crowd, "Can I get another one?" in order to do another song.
"Now, I start every night with a coin flip, and if it lands on heads we go through the open mic list front to back, but if it lands tails, I get to pick whoever the hell I like to come onstage," OOH says. He tosses the coin.
"It's tails," a woman in the front says.
"That means I can do whatever the hell I like!" OOH says and calls for the first performer. A shirtless rapper full of bravado follows, spitting, "Ask your girl if you ain't know," over trap beats. This first act foreshadows the usual themes of sex, drugs, money, and murder that most MCs cover. As the performers flow onstage, one after another, music pours through the speakers and rain leaks through the old gym roof onto fan blades whirring overhead.
Lightning finally strikes as Lady Bug grabs hold of the mic. "Everything you see is a result of planted words/ First you thought it then brought it to pass/ Living out your verbs." With seeWeed backing her, she flits and buzzes from soulful melodies a la Jill Scott to a sing-song rap in the mode of Ms. Dynamite and ends up delivering informed rhymes in the vein of Lauryn Hill.
When she leaves the stage, her floral dress swaying as the crowd cheers, OOH moves on to the features of the night, who were chosen for their dedication to the event and for their talent. The first, Reggie Redd, wearing a red button-up and holding a Red Stripe beer, comes out the gate strong with a call-and-response rap, "Let's Get It." "My wordplay is bulletproof/ y'all niggas can't murder me/ if hip-hop is dying, then I'm performing surgery," he says. He ends his set with an inspired a cappella freestyle that earns him his stripes with the artists in the crowd.
The BGB's, a vocal-centric five-piece R&B group, follows as the second of four features. They start off scatting and singing "please, this mic on" to calm the restless crowd of about 45 people standing around in the dark, sweaty space, sipping beers as Haynes prepares extra microphones on stage. Once all five voices can be heard, they immediately command the attention of everyone in earshot with their cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Cheers start to sweep through the building like the Holy Ghost in a Baptist church. Then they step into original material and their message deepens as they sing "Love is you" in pitch-perfect unison, the breakdown speaking of corruption, consumption, and pollution. The message, "You must go underground," resonates in this deeply underground space.
Jay McGraw, a NowChild regular, has been arduously working to get his shot as a feature. As he rambles through hustle-hard braggadocio lyrics, it is clear that he still needs polish. The crowd starts to thin as his set drags on, but the remaining supporters fill in the empty front-row seats and start singing along to his popcorn rap.
Team F.L.E.X., two MCs and one DJ, attempt to distinguish themselves from the others by rapping over electronic dance music and free-form jazz-inspired beats, but the MCs have a hard time gaining their footing. It isn't until they drop the beat and go bare bones with drums and bass that you see their passion. "My word is my mission, its foundation is bars," they scream in a play on words that shows the glimmer of authentic lyricism shining through their final song, "Kaleidoscope."
Not every act is a success, but that's what NowChild is about. The MCs serve as sparring partners in this training ground built among the abandoned houses and littered streets that loom outside its warehouse walls. The hunger and the work ethic of these artists and promoters is evident in the sweaty bodies all around. All that's left to see is if any one of them can step into the ring and out of the shadows of obscurity to stand toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of rap.
Judah's Jukejoint Night is at NowChild Soundstage, 409 East Preston St., every Thursday, starting at 9:30