DJ Pain 1, Amy Alida, K.I.N.G. Kronos, Play Fair Cypher, David Yang, Crown Vic, Riel Prophet and Jesse Lester are among the nominees for the 2014 Madison Hip-Hop Awards.
When local hip-hop producers, artists and supporters gathered in May of 2010 to find a way to celebrate the local scene, they weren't certain the resulting event -- the first Madison Hip-Hop Awards ceremony -- would be a lasting success.
"We didn't have any luck fundraising, so all of us came with a couple hundred dollars in our pockets because we thought we were going to have to settle up with the theater at the end of the night," says Karen Reece, lead organizer of the awards ceremony. "Halfway through the night, we had already broken even. We were all shocked."
From that first event, the Urban Community Arts Network, a nonprofit organization trying to advance hip-hop performance opportunities in Madison, was born. The Madison Hip-Hop Awards, which take place at the Barrymore Theatre on Nov. 8, are UCAN's crown jewel.
Despite stigmas associated with hip-hop shows -- that they draw violent crowds, for example -- the awards show has been joyful and peaceful.
"People have so much fun when they come to the show," Reece says. "Everyone's happy and gets dressed up. We've never had any issues at all."
Many local music fans cite hip-hop among their favorite musical genres, and hip-hop fashions are easy to find on Madison streets. But that's just the beginning. Hip-hop is a way of life for some. When institutions restrict its expression, it can feel like an attack on self-identity.
"To quote the great philosopher DMX, [hip-hop] is how I talk, how I walk, how I dress. It's pretty much everything I am. It's how I think, the confidence I walk with," says Shah Evans, hip-hop promoter and booking agent, manager and UCAN vice president.
Nevertheless, local hip-hop artists struggle to get booked, noticed and promoted, in part because negative public perceptions are pernicious. UCAN strives to address those obstacles by creating performance opportunities, buzz for local talent and well-organized shows throughout the year. The Madison Hip-Hop Awards are the culmination of this effort.
"When I called that first meeting, I didn't expect that five years later we'd still be doing it," Evans says. "When you have to rely on other people, sometimes a good idea can lose steam, but it seems like no matter what, if they shut down venues, if they tell us we can't do something, we push through it."
Organized in association with the Madison Media Institute and Madison Geeks, the Hip-Hop Awards have two rounds of public voting and benefit a local charity like the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. This year's show includes performances by 2013 award winners Jesse Lester, RIP and Mad Town King, as well as the Boys & Girls Club CAPA Kids.
The event kicks off with a red carpet ceremony at 7 p.m., and Evans will emcee the 8 p.m. show.
"I host every year, but this year I'm going all out," he says.
The show promises stiff competition for some of the awards, including song of the year. The nominees are "7 Figure Dreams" by Dash D.U.B., "A Dead End Called Merry Street" by K.I.N.G. Kronos, "Before the Jewels" by Crown Vic, "It's a Movie HD" by DJ Sixteen and "It's All the Same" by Bloodlines 1ofmany.
An especially fun aspect of the ceremony is ciphers, which have been part of the festivities since last year.
"You have a select group of artists and a beat, and the artists will come in and do 16 bars... and it's recorded," Reece explains. "It was a huge success last year, and there's always a cipher that breaks out in front of the building. People go out... and just start rapping."
Though Reece and Evans expect more than 400 attendees this year, they've received little attention from the mainstream media. There's also a growing number of award categories, which means more artists will be in attendance. Reece and Evans suspect the awards haven't gotten press because they've never had a crime incident.
"One thing we've been working hard on over the years, and there's no way to rush it, is meeting with the Madison Police Department, calling together captains and detectives so we can have an open conversation about how to make it better," Reece says of the ongoing problem of mainstream media, community members and venue owners associating hip-hop with crime despite scanty evidence that it incites more violence than many other styles of music.
Thanks to an increasing number of involved stakeholders, including representatives from the Madison Arts Commission and the mayor's office, the conversation is improving, Reece notes. She cites a conversation about "creating a task force around equity in entertainment" and "getting a fair stage for all artists in all genres." She expects this task force to form early next year.
"This is a community problem, not just a hip-hop problem," she says.