A Captive Audience for Subway Hip-Hop

Hip-hop musicians and fellow artists have organized twice-monthly takeovers of New York City subway cars to perform. The audience members are not exactly volunteers. How do they react?

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

It's pretty hard to surprise New York City subway riders. They've seen just about every sales pitch and performance imaginable. But they've never seen anything like the group of young rappers that's taken to the trains in recent months.

John Kalish, a - hmm - a middle-aged reporter who wasn't terribly fond of rap music, went along for the ride and came back with a new appreciation of the hip-hop scene.

JOHN KALISH: For those of you who don't necessarily consider yourselves residents of the hip-hop nation, let me lay a little beatboxing on you.

(Soundbite of beatboxing)

KALISH: Those percussive sound effects are coming from just one guy, a 33-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur who calls himself Kid Lucky. He does have what hip-hoppers refer to as a government name, Terry Lewis. And he has a company, Beatboxer Entertainment, that works with major corporate advertisers, including Google and Verizon. Ironic then that Kid Lucky is among the hip-hop activists who feel things have gotten too commercial. So twice a month or so they pile into a New York City subway car and rap for the riding public.

KID LUCKY: All right. What's going on, everybody? My name is Kid Lucky. We are on the Hip-Hop Subway Series. We sorry to be disturbing y'all.

Unidentified Man (Subway Conductor): Our next stop is Roosevelt Avenue...

KID LUCKY: Roosevelt Avenue is the next.

(Soundbite of door closing)

KID LUCKY: Well, what we're going to do is give you a dose of hip-hop. Yo, Poe, drop it like it's hot.

(Soundbite of beatboxing)

KALISH: The beatboxer known as Poe happens to be a 25-year-old Thai man currently in New York for an internship at a bank. These subway performances regularly draw rappers of both sexes, all races, and many parts of the globe.

RAINMAN: And I'm Rainman, like I'm Dustin Hoffman, Chance Kangis rocks on and he rocking often. And he's off the meat rack and off the radar. And I slay hard. Word, at half-mast, I quasar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KALISH: Chance Kangis is a college student from Minnesota and one of the better free-stylers in the bunch.

RAINMAN: (Unintelligible) He got his ass chewed and it went pass through the back and got the last rude point; original, not subliminal, getting so critical. I did a lot though it's a little though.

KALISH: There was a 22-year-old female rapper, a journalism student named Erica Caine(ph), who was spitting some mean ones, as the hip-hop put it.

(Soundbite of beatboxing)

Ms. ERICA CAINE (College Student): (Unintelligible)

KALISH: Sample all the rappers, including Sister Caine here, used words that are not usually spoken in polite company, like the captive audience in this subway car, which included young children. I confronted a number of the rappers about that. Organizer Kid Lucky says he doesn't advocate censoring rappers.

KID LUCKY: It's freedom of speech. You know what I mean? And I don't make those kinds of decisions. I let off on a tirade myself, if I feel like it, you know. So...

(Soundbite of music)

JON KALISH: In addition to letting loose with the occasional expletive, these young rappers are something of a shock when their subway car pulls into a station. There are times when the doors open and subway riders expecting another humdrum ride are confronted with a few dozen 20-somethings rocking the house, dancing on the seats.

When this rolling hip-hop car pulled into the South Ferry stop on a recent Sunday evening, I approached a woman and her young son who were exiting the car and asked her what she made of all this.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's interesting. It makes New York New York.

KALISH: I told her that the rappers were going to continue the show on the ferry.

Unidentified Woman #1: We might not sit too close.

Unidentified Man #1: But it's cool right, it's (unintelligible), right? We're doing (unintelligible) because you know you've got to choose it. It's the universe (unintelligible), we ride on the ferry, we it with no fear because the fear (unintelligible) is right and now, every town to town. We're rocking on top of the water because we know we get down. America, fear not; fear not America. Fear not, fear not, America.

KALISH: A number of the older folks who came within earshot of the hip-hop performers seemed open to these young people rapping in public, even if they didn't necessarily like what they heard. Sheila Rowan(ph) rode the ferry with her two granddaughters.

Ms. SHEILA ROWAN: I think it's a great idea because they have something to say.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) man and loves him oh so deep that the mention of his name made me want to go sleep so I could dream of him. Chocolate-brown skin that made me sing at the touch, the smell, the taste. Damn, I loved him so much.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: The thing about these communal gatherings that really struck me was the almost trance-like communal vibe these young rappers created in subway cars and other public places. It was an a-ha moment for me because I remembered back to a time 30-odd years ago when there was a generation gap separating those who dug Frank Sinatra from those who liked rock and roll.

The hip-hoppers perform within something called the cipher. It's a circle of beatboxers, dancers and rappers, or MCs, as they're sometimes known, improvising freestyle, rhyming on their feet.

Mr. BABA ISRAEL(ph) (Rapper): I'm 32-year-old, Baba Israel in the place.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Baba Israel is a teacher and performer who spent years in ciphers. Israel says public ciphers have fallen out of fashion in New York City since the late '90s. He's pleased that this hip-hop subway series is bringing them back, even on a limited basis.

Mr. ISRAEL: Skills are built in this setting, and also you get to rhyme with people who don't necessarily have the same ideas. There's a lot of MCs here I don't necessarily agree with their lyrics, but we get to build an exchange, and it's not just me with the same old heads, and that's what makes it nice. It's a public experience.

We've had a few times where MCs who didn't even know about it just jumped in the train and brought a whole different vibe to it.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: And that vibe may be spreading. Hip-hop activists in San Francisco, Toronto and even Tokyo hope to start underground rapping in their cities. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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