by Chloe Collyer (words and photos)
The clock just hit 7:00pm at Othello’s Café Red. Besides me and a guy in a sweatshirt sitting on a corner couch and epitomizing Seattle laidbackness, the place is completely empty.
The small coffee shop across from the Othello light rail station hosts weekly open mics, a board game night, and hip-hop shows. The latter’s on the docket for this particular Friday night- an album release party for South End rapper Esai -and sweatshirt and I are clearly the first to arrive.
But our solitude ends almost as soon as my drink order arrives. Cued by a sip from my hot cider, young black and brown bodies swarm through the doors bringing in the cold air with them.
A drum set is quickly assembled at one end of the space and warm beverages are poured into paper cups. Packing into the venue, the gathered all appear to know each other. Every time Café Red’s front door open, the newest patron is greeted with an “aayyyy”. As I start to mingle amongst the swelling crowd, I realize I’m surrounded by mostly high school students.
In an area of the city with few hubs for young people to routinely showcase their musical talents, they’re here to support one of their own.
“I saw them perform at Nikkita [Oliver]’s events” says Beria Heyman when I ask her what brings her to the show. “I go to school with Esai,” she says.
Heyman and tonight’s headliner both attend Rainier Beach High School, as did all of the members of Esai’s rap crew, the Munk Bizz.
The crew is in attendance to both perform with and support Esai, who they’ve helped nourish as a musician and person, explains one of their founding members.
Original Munk Bizz member Wish Baby remembers discovering Esai at a middle school talent show. “He went to my little brothers school, and my little brother had a recital where he played the bass. I saw Esai there doing (the song) ‘Bi*ch I’m a mutha f*ckin goblin’ and this was before I ever knew him. A couple of months later, he comes to the same drug prevention place which is WAPI FASA” (now WAPI).
Counting myself among the uninformed, Wish also provides me a breakdown of his crew’s moniker. “Munk Bizz is for anyone […] that would randomly slam your head into the wall, because that’s what turnin’ up makes you do. Munk Bizz is telling a random joke about yourself, like monkey business you know? That’s what it’s all about”
The oldest members of the group, MAVO and Wish Baby, graduated in 2014 and 2015, meaning they are the only ones who have left high school and entered the 21+ scene. Esai, who was once the newcomer to the group and is only 17, is now debuting his third album this year.
The person of the hour, tonight Esai’s wearing what has become his signature style, tiny pigtails with ballpoint pens sticking out at all angles. Intoxicated girls try to hang on his arm, but the young rapper stays focused on preparing for the show and supporting his fellow artists.
While I’m busy processing my inclusion in the oldest age bracket in the room, I notice a young man in a green bomber jacket and short natural curls grab the mic. It’s show time.
Rappers take the stage one after the other in back-to-back sets of music pulsing with as much raw energy as the small venue could contain.
One act has a live drummer, while another dedicates their set to the recently deceased rapper Lil’ Peep, and at one point, sweatshirt guy- my fellow early bird to the concert- gets off the couch and spits relentlessly on the mic for 20 minutes. His vocal style was like a spoken word artist screaming punk lyrics, all while dancing intensely on a makeshift stage.
It was a shocking and impressive departure from his wallflower vibe earlier in the night.
Throughout the concert, Esai stands on stage with his friends and fellow performers. Never taking up too much space, or attention, he stays near the back serving as hype man for whoever is on the mic. His body sways and head nods in the way only a hip-hop fan can appreciate.
Stepping outside during one of the few breaks in the night, I meet one of Munk Bizz’s original fans. “They’re the 21st century Wu-Tang.” He says. “Each has his own thing going on and brings something different… I could listen to them all separate or together.”
Separate or together, each of these young artists are representing the next generation of the south side of Seattle. It was the future of Emerald City Hip-Hop, and you had to be there to see it.
Listen to Esai’s music here: http://www.soundcloud.com/esai206