On a compilation CD and on stage, local hip-hop and R&B performers will have a chance to exhibit their art at this year’s Indiana Black Expo. Saturday, July 19 at the Cultural Arts Pavilion Music Lounge, local acts like Justice League, Rusty, alpha. and Tara Michelle will perform, with each performer allotted a 15-minute set for a busy showcase scheduled from 2-6 p.m., four hours packing in 16 performers.
Many of the artists performing Saturday are featured on the Summer Celebration Summer Hits CD, a compilation that highlights local musicians selected by fans through a Myspace contest earlier this spring. All tracks can be heard at myspace.com/ibesummercelebration.
alpha. kicks off the Summer Hits CD with the song “On Star,” on which he serves as tour guide for a trip through Indianapolis, stopping by local businesses and popular sights, mixing in ambient noises of traffic and urban life. This collaboration of life and music is exactly what alpha. strives for when creating new music. With a lively taste that ranges from Frank Sinatra to Mos Def, he says he’s all over the board.
“I love genre-bending, hard-to-categorize music. It’s so fresh and original, and so not-the-norm,” he explains. “I just really love music! And I love live instrumentation and mash-ups.”
alpha., 27, says his role as Smokey the Bear in a kindergarten play inspired his love for the stage, with numerous roles in local theater to follow. After settling in Indianapolis with his family at age 12, he began to turn his poetry into songs and raps. In high school he began competing in MC battles, the young gun among many elite MCs in the area. He jumped into a bigger pool of talent after graduating high school, regularly battling at Melody Inn despite being too young to actually enter the room.
“I’d watch through the window, the door guy would walk me up to the stage, I’d spit my bars, then I’d have to wait back outside,” he laughs. “It was called paying dues and, boy, did I ever.”
After playing with several groups, alpha. took some time away from performing to regroup and develop himself into the more confident musician he is today. His current work, including a mixtape and tribute track to Barack Obama, can be downloaded at alphaisforever.blogspot.com.
While alpha.’s songs take shape through written poetry, live performance and recitation give them a physical presence and bring out subtleties and moods not indicated on the page.
“I’m an organic, visual writer,” he explains. “I want the listener to see, to feel, to be a part of what I write, what I perform. It all depends on the mood of the track and my mood at the time.”
In addition to performing Saturday at 3:15 p.m. at the Cultural Arts Pavilion Music Lounge, alpha. will host the second annual Music Industry 101 seminar at noon the same day. The seminar will feature a panel of experts speaking on topics including major labels, music technology, digital marketing and social responsibility. The event is free with paid admission to the Convention Center.
“This is just my way of giving back to our community of artists,” alpha. explains. “I was taught that you’re a part of the problem if you’re not a part of the solution, so I’m just trying to do my part, as best I can.”
Local funk band Blackberry Jam’s song “Cookies” is also featured on the Summer Hits CD. BBJ bass player Poncho Hendrick describes the song as “kind of political with a not-so-serious feel musically.” “Cookies” casts President Bush as a curmudgeonly old man, slamming the door in the face of a Girl Scout trying to sell her wares, his head filled with stratagems of Iraqi invasion. Hendrick says that a handful of BBJ’s songs have political or social themes, including interracial relationships and Hurricane Katrina.
“Then again,” he jokes, “we also have a song called ‘Get Your Drink On,’ which is obviously just about drinking. We aren’t trying to sell our views, but if we make a statement, so be it. We just want to make funk songs with substance that are still danceable.”
Many of the band members grew up admiring bands who performed with matching costumes and tight choreography. While BBJ does not dress to match, they do strive to put on a fun, entertaining live show reminiscent of those old school groups.
Since their first show in 1996, BBJ has hit up a variety of clubs around town, most frequently at Locals Only and Birdy’s. Hendrick describes their usual audience as a very diverse demographic, bridging cultures and age groups.
“We like an audience we can show off in front of a lot,” he says. “The best audience is one that can accept us for who we are.”
While Blackberry Jam won’t be playing a date at the Music Lounge, they are playing the Vogue Aug. 1.
After serving on the IBE Music Lounge Committee in 2006-’07, DJ MetroGnome was promoted this year, given the honor of mixing and arranging the Summer Hits CD, crafting seamless transitions between local and national tracks recorded under very different conditions.
DJ MetroGnome started spinning in 2002, teaching himself how to scratch by watching DJs like local DJ TopSpeed and one-time Bloomington resident Wu Shu. His career took off in 2006 when he began playing weekly gigs.
Since then, he’s played at events for Red Bull, Scion and Cornerstone Productions, while holding down weekly gigs at Coaches Tavern, Urban Element, The Connoisseur, The Front Page and Morty’s Comedy Joint.
DJ MetroGnome had worked with alpha. and Blackberry Jam before he mixed their tracks for the CD.
“alpha. and I are constantly throwing fresh, exciting events and shows so that the community can come together on a variety of fronts,” he says. “As for Blackberry Jam, they’re definitely a force to be reckoned with in the city. Everyone should do themselves a favor and check them out.”