On the John presents…
An evening of hip-hop with Chicago’s Young General
Part II published, May 28, 2010
Click here for PART I
4. Halftime… a question concerning dress codes… nearly left behind…
It is 9:30 when we leave LaSalle. Watson has sweat through his clothes; we are returning to HQ for an overall refueling.
JD has been there since leaving the Enclave sound check. With him is DMD, a hip-hop trio made up of two members of the Watson clan and one close friend. DMD will be mini-opening for Watson at Enclave.
“Good show, good show,” Watson says as we pull away. “I’d like to play at a time when kids are asleep, but other than that, good show.”
What is your mindset going into [the Enclave show] as opposed to going into [the LaSalle show]?
This one was more of an organic experience as far as the rhymes, everything you’re saying, your delivery, your ability to clean up mistakes – if you forget something or begin off key, you can always just go around one more time and pick back up where you were supposed to come in. But when you do a show that is track based or off a CD, you need to be pretty on point. It’s a different crowd, too. This first one was a live music crowd. But Enclave is a little bit more of a club. Even the music you perform tends to be more club-oriented. For me right now, I’m shifting my mind from a live performance – a band, organic experience – to a highly-technical, precise, club bang-em-out late night radio experience.
It’s a lot of verses to remember. (laughs) A lot of songs to remember for one night. Half hour set at LaSalle, which is technically about five or six songs. You figure three verses a song, that’s 15 to 18 verses. You’re going to go do another five songs at Enclave. Roughly three verses a piece. That’s 30 16-bar verses in one night. Precise. Precision.
Most important thing with a “jam band” is to really feel the vibe of the audience. To make sure you’re targeting their needs. To make sure they’re having a good time. That’s what’s nice about being able to improv with the band. You can push their limits and have them do something we may not have rehearsed. Improvisation is where the mastery comes in music. It’s where you’re able to say, “Okay, we’re going to do this real quick in improv.” And because I have four extremely talented, very professional musicians as my band, it’s not a problem.
Hip-hop songs, the beat per minute tend to be slow, unless it’s a really amped up party song or something. But when you do live performance, the BPM’s creep up. What I’ve had to learn is to change the tempo of my flow. The cadence. The syncopation of the flow you’re using. When you think about a rap, in terms of your limit, you stay on your four bar: (claps out beats) bah, bah, bah, bah. Bah, bah, bah, bah. When you have a live band, you can jump into some of those different gaps. (claps out faster beats)
For me, the band was definitely a challenge, because all the verses I had were too fuckin’ slow for what the band was trying to do. They’d be like, “Hey man, you gotta crank that up a little bit, because our hip-hop’s a little faster paced,” as far as the hip-hop they’re playing with a live drummer instead of a drum machine.
The energy is different. If you think about the actual number of guys who are on stage, who are participating in the music… You feed off the energy of those other guys. My favorite part is just the glances we exchange on stage. The eye contact. Stuff that may be funny tomorrow at rehearsal because we made a mistake that nobody else noticed.
If you realize somebody’s having a good time, or if somebody’s in the zone… Tonight, Marcus – you know, there was one point where I was gonna cut him off at 8, but I let him go 16 because he was in the zone. You kinda gotta feel it out. That’s the difference: every day is an adventure with the band.
Watson grabs a 5-hour energy from the gas station near his apartment. He has little over an hour to rest, so we decide to order some pizza before we leave and grab it on the way out…
But when we get upstairs, JD is in a tizzy over Enclave’s dress code.
“I am telling you.” He is talking to Dre, one of the members of DMD. “They will NOT let you in with Nikes. Dress shoes. Classy.”
JD is wearing black pants and black leather shoes, with a black YOUNG GENERAL t-shirt. DMD are all in nice pants and dress shirts – Watson and I have obviously walked into the end of a longer discussion. Everyone has already changed, but there is still resistance. Dre begins to object and JD interrupts him.
“Look, you go do what you’re gonna do.” Dre again attempts a protest, and JD shakes his head. “I told them I was performing, and they DID – NOT – CARE.”
Heads suddenly turn toward me and my blue jeans, ripped Pumas, and zip-up hoodie. I’ve gotten into it before with Enclave over dress – I’ve only been there on business with people who know people, and yet there are always the briefest of hold-ups when ripped Pumas try to enter. Especially on a Friday night.
I decide it’s not worth even the slightest risk of damaging the story, so I rip out of Young General headquarters and dart to my place to change. “Rob!” I yell into the closed bedroom door. “I’m running to my place to change, then scooping pizza, then coming back here.”
“Get me pepperoni!” the voice yells through the door.
At home, I go the whole nine: slacks, shoes, dress shirt, sweater. I phone in my order to Santullo’s Eatery on North Ave., double park, hustle in, hustle out, and am pulling up in front of Watson’s apartment at 10:45 when I suddenly think to myself, Uh oh. What if they left? I spot Watson’s Jeep, still parked, and sigh relief…
…and then the lights turn on as I am parallel parking and the Jeep pulls away.
“YO!” I yell impossibly. I haul out of my space at top speeds and catch Watson halfway down the next block, driving next to him like Keanu Reeves trying to warn Sam the Bus Driver that “There is a bomb on your bus!” Honking, swerving, whole bit. Watson looks over, laughs, and stops in the road. I park and run over to his car, pizza bag in hand.
“I thought you were, uh, you know, JD said we had to move, and, well…” he explains as we get back on the go. “Pizza smells good.”
5. Booty music… the pop star salesman… the Pirates convene…
Enclave’s parking lot entrance is roped off by bank line dividers, those black posts with the black nylon strips that stretch out of one post and snap into the next. Watson is now wearing a different pair of jeans, a black pinstriped White Sox hat, and a green t-shirt with some kind of black and white angel design. He marches toward one of the bouncers and says, “I’m performing.” The bouncer pops open the nylon strip from the post and grants us access.
Garcia and Holden are on the smoking deck enjoying a cigarette when we arrive. We exchange acknowledgment head lifts and meet inside, where the night is already popping. I will say this for Enclave: the crowd always seems to be enjoying themselves. Every time I set foot in their darkened, discoed space, I am impressed by the noisy excitement shared by all.
For a person not naturally attuned to the club life, the key to survival is to identify and stake out your best spot. This works at any venue or gathering not totally Your Scene – I employ it with great success at night clubs, strip clubs, family weddings (during my youth), and Las Vegas. In this case, the Young General Merry Band of Pirates have set up shop in a reserved area to the right of the stage where friend Corey Downing is celebrating his 27th birthday.
The team gathers in the birthday area, carving out a small corner for business near the DJ table at the back of the stage. Garcia has consolidated the merchandise into one box by setting all of the t-shirts on top of the CDs as padding protection. Assorted gear from Watson, JD, and the DMD trio are there as well.
Though the birthday celebration is not yet in full swing, the Pirates are all present and accounted for. Samuels, Bautista, and Holden’s wife Angela are here, as is Yoder and his wife, along with Gatz, Mentor, Schloss (who is on the move the entire night, working the room), Watson’s roommate Lee, and a variety of friends and associates.
One of those friends/associates is Anu Alphonse, a producer/singer/musician who has worked on some tracks with Watson and other members of the extended crew. We have not seen each other in a couple months, and are excited to say hello, but since modulated conversation is nearly impossible, and since it is particularly difficult when standing four feet away from five foot tall sub woofers, our conversation is a goofy mix of screaming whispers deposited directly into the opposite’s ear:
“JACK MY MAN! WHAT’S HAPPENING?”
“ANU MY FRIEND! HOW GOES IT?”
“ROBBIE JUST HANDED ME A BUNCH OF DRINK TICKETS. WANT ONE?”
“I’M GOOD,” I say. “MARV GAVE ME A HANDFUL AT LASALLE.”
“COOL! I’M EXCITED FOR THE – ”
But then I remember: “WAIT! THEY’RE IN MY OTHER PANTS!”
“I HAD TO CHANGE CLOTHES AFTER LASALLE!”
“YES, I WILL TAKE ONE.”
He pulls a ticket out of his pocket. “THERE YOU GO MY MAN!”
And then, less than a minute later, I feel a tap on my shoulder. “HEY, DO YOU STILL HAVE THAT TICKET?”
“CAN I GET IT? I’M TRYING TO MAKE A FRIEND.” He motions over his shoulder to a brunette in a blue dress. I laugh, and hand him the ticket, and he returns to her, victorious.
There are five acts on tonight’s bill: a pop singer named Michael S., hip-hop acts The Richkiddz and J Kidd, Young General, and NaPalm. Michael S. takes the stage first: he is young, thin, snazzy, and full of Heart and Sincerity. He is on stage alone – no hype man, no backup singer, no drummer. Just his tracks on the P.A. and the mic in his hand.
The pop star succeeds because he believes. This is his gift. He believes so deeply in the pop ideals of Love, Hope, and Good Things Lasting For Eternity that if the beat is right and the mood is right and his clothes are right and his wink is right, he can make you believe them too. The pop star is a salesman, and his success is measured in customers.
By that measure, Michael S. is succeeding tonight. This is a crowd interested in rocking out to the right tunes, but not necessarily interested in committing their ocular attention to the source of those tunes. It is up to Michael S., then, to present them with the Heart and Sincerity necessary to earn and retain that attention. He does so with physical gestures (like dipping his right shoulder toward the crowd on high notes while throwing his left hand into the air as if reaching out for God, all with his eyes passionately shut), and with verbal exchanges (like introducing songs with pop singer speeches: “When you find that special someone, you just know…”) I try my best to pluck song lyrics out of the Enclave chaos… some seem to include: “It’s okay to show a little skin,” “Lust, not love,” and “You can’t go out until your makeup’s on.”
Selling love songs and pop platitudes is a tough racket in this setting, and Michael S. does so admirably. Next up are the Richkiddz, a Chicago hip-hop duo that the crowd responds to with gusto and fervor, followed by J Kidd of St. Louis. J Kidd goes absolutely berserk on stage, thrashing about while spitting lyrics and dancing with a Go-Go, eventually removing all of his above-the-belt clothing in a fit of musical madness. NaPalm even gets up with him for a few verses. The crowd LOVES this act, especially a few ladies in the front row who rub his inseam as he raps for them. J Kidd receives a huge applause and lots of high fives as he gathers his shirt and ambles off stage. Such chutzpah.
Two minutes before he is up, Watson is drinking water straight from one of the large table chalices. He finishes one, downs another, shakes himself out, and is now ready. DMD performs a short set to introduce Young General, and soon Watson is on stage delivering his “highly-technical bang-em-out late night experience.”
Joining him on stage is friend and colleague Jason Gatz. Gatz is a fine rapper in his own right; what makes him indispensable on stage is his ability to engage any audience and incite them to lunacy.
Watson performs four songs, including a drink anthem called “Vodka, Juice, and Henny” and an E-TRAIN produced cut called “Never Love You.” Three days later, “Never Love You” would win a track-off with the Red Eye against another local artist, leading to Young General gaining air time on Cypher Lounge Radio.
On this night, the song is an equal success. Watson introduces it: “Remember the dude Michael S. and his song about finding your true love? Well this song is about NOT finding love.”
Watson is a natural in crowd interaction – during rehearsals at Horse-Drawn, he instinctively interacts with an invisible crowd – though it’s difficult to tell with the Enclave crowd what they are responding to exactly, be it the beat, the music, the noise, the lyrics, the strobe lights, the dancers, the booze, the sex, or even the humans on stage.
6. Back at headquarters… expensive bottles… the legend of Larue…
It is nearly 12:30 when NaPalm is introduced. Watson has now changed clothes for a second time, trading his greenish/brownish angel shirt for a white Bob Marley shirt and a black vest. He is also back to the Michigan State hat, and with the Downing birthday fully launched and the Young General performance completed, it is celebration/party time in the roped off couch corner. Rezak has arrived from LaSalle, just in time to receive a personal vodka shot from Watson, who is pouring shots for all around from one of his handheld bottles… everyone is dancing and rapping and drinking… spirits are high…
Along with the shots, Watson spends his post-show time excitedly distributing t-shirts and CDs. This continues into the parking lot as we make our way out of Enclave, sweaty and tipsy and happy.
Back at headquarters, the Young General crew is gone while the Watson clan remains. JD and DMD are regaling us with incredible anecdotes of near mythic proportions about a Michigan man known as Larue.
As far as I can gather, Larue is the Muskegon, Michigan version of Suge Knight combined with Bill Brasky: a tall and muscular man who apparently produces music, enforces his own laws, protects the weak, and punishes the wicked; a former Arena Football player who possesses the freakish physical power to both “snatch a man off of his bicycle with one hand while the man is riding,” and to snap a man’s neck with a “mush,” as well as the power of will to shut down an entire youth basketball camp, should he deem it necessary.
We are in stitches laughing about Larue. Watson has apparently not seen Larue in many years and is amazed to hear that Larue “has become so out of pocket with it,” and it is agreed among all that Larue is simply “a good person to have on your team” because he “gets it done.”
After twenty minutes of laughter and story telling, conversation shifts to a mini-confrontation that went down at Enclave between Samuels and a few members of the birthday party.
Now, what you have to know about Cherish Samuels is that she matches Watson step-for-step in coolness, toughness, and loyalty. She is a take-no-crap kind of woman. Sweet as can be, yes, but she is Watson’s partner and other half, and if you cross either of them, you’ll likely hear about it from her first.
“She had Letter L scared!” Dre says.
“I had to go change,” says Watson, “but people were ready to party. I had just got done, and to me, that’s the time to bring the bottles out. Everybody can relax and chill. So I told Cherish, ‘Here’s my credit card. You get the Goose, the Henny, and whatever, I’m gonna change, and you just put it over there in the booth for my people and get the party popping so that people aren’t waiting for me.’ The liquor came, and a couple of people from the birthday trolley grabbed it like it was for them. Now, Cherish knows how much bottles at the club cost. And that 100% D-Town came out, and anybody who stepped up got some.”
Whether it’s a mythic enforcer like Larue or a ready-for-anything girlfriend like Samuels, a powerful support system is vital in life, particularly in the worlds of art and business, PARTICULARLY when you plan on combining those worlds to form your livelihood. From Garcia to Holden to Gatz to FiveSTAR to Samuels to JD to everyone else, Watson is surrounded by people who look out for his interests, keep him grounded, tell him when his shit smells and laud him when his music flies. In the words of Sy Abelman, “Most important.”
Copyright 2010, jm silverstein