There's barely room to move inside Sole Classics. Thankfully, bobbing your head doesn't require much space.
It's Gallery Hop night, and promising young rappers P. Blackk and Fabrashay A are performing at the Short North boutique to debut songs from a collaborative release called "Dukes of Hazzard." Each emcee unfurls a few solo tracks before they join forces with their buddy LxE for the Uncool to pass the mic. DJ Bruni mans the beats from his laptop, looking perpetually chill.
Several of the faces in attendance on this July evening are fellow figures in the rising rap scene that orbits Sole Classics. Jerreau and Swifa from Fly.Union are in the building. So are members of The 3rd. Dez Arnez, half of the comedic rap duo Kreg & Dez, is present as well. If nothing else, local musicians can always count on their peers to show up for support.
But most of the 100-plus people in the audience aren't rappers. They're honest-to-God fans. When Bruni drops the beat for P. Blackk's "Concorde Rollin," they simmer with recognition, and when he turns his mic to the crowd, they have no problem spitting back the chorus. These people are likely among the 35,000 to view the "Concorde Rollin" video on YouTube. Rappers like to front like they've got the ear of their city, but at this point, P. Blackk and his friends don't need to pretend.
Scenes like this one aren't new in Columbus. What is new is how many of them are happening and how vastly different they've become in terms of style and substance.
A decade ago it was possible to sum up Columbus hip-hop pretty succinctly. You could count the number of venues regularly hosting rap shows on one hand. Now the community has matured to the point that it's no longer possible to talk about "the Columbus hip-hop scene" in broad strokes any more than you can reduce "the Columbus rock scene." Instead, countless intersecting subsets and cliques pepper the landscape. Some of them respect each other; some don't. Some work together; some never cross paths.
"It's like high school," said Meechie Nelson, a Westerville native with an extensive suburban following. "If you go into a high school cafeteria, you see the skaters, the preps, the jocks, and they have their own thing going on."
The smart, stylish music coming out of the Sole Classics scene is garnering national attention, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. For one thing, an assortment of veterans (Blueprint, Copywrite), youngsters (Alleyes Path) and those in between (Envelope, The Catalyst, Zero Star) continue to gain traction with rock and rap audiences alike, pairing a grimy old-school hip-hop sensibility with a willingness to push the genre in new directions.
Longstanding collectives such as Omnibreed, RNS Entertainment and Unruly Records have been hosting concerts and churning out hood bangers, as have solo acts like Young Wise and Cridie Mac. On the suburban front, Meechie Nelson spearheads an array of artists, athletes and creative minds known as F.R.A.T. (Family Respecting All Talents).
South Side rapper-producer SupaNatra hosts DJ beat battles, while his Exec Gang cohort Searius Add oversees a revival of the spoken word movement at events like Black Tuesday and Art of Storytelling. Funky, jazzy live hip-hop bands like Liquid Crystal Project and Stretch Lefty intersect with other realms of local music.
Columbus hip-hop is now so spread out that even super-producers J. Rawls and A.U., who seem to have their hands in everything, aren't connected to everyone.
That said, no event sums up local rap's diverse spectrum better than Summer Jam 614. After two years at Skully's, Elevator Music's Columbus rap showcase is expanding to two stages in the Club Icon parking lot for Saturday's third annual installment.
"The only rule of being in Summer Jam to me was you had to have something going on," said The 3rd's Rashad, one of the curators of the event. "We tried to have no discrimination as far as who we let perform as long as you have a product out and somebody supports you."
For local hip-hop fans, Summer Jam is a celebration; for those curious about what's popping off, it functions as an introduction.
"It's just an ode to the hip-hop community here," Rashad said. "It's our day to showcase our talent, kind of show off."
Assembling a cross-section of Columbus hip-hop like Summer Jam 614 is a feat these days, but once upon a time the scene was small enough that just about any gathering constituted a full portrait. If you wanted hip-hop in Columbus in the '90s, there was typically one place to be - first the Short North vinyl shop Groove Shack, then its successor Thieves World, then the Fonosluts' Sunday night hip-hop parties at junky Campus dive Bernie's.
Bernie's had been the first bar to let rappers perform on a consistent basis. By the midpoint of last decade, bars like High Five, Little Brother's and Skully's were beginning to host hip-hop events, including James Bice's successful hip-hop showcases. The internet offered another outlet for anybody aspiring to show their skills.
Meanwhile, distinctions between commercialized gangster rap and socially conscious underground "backpacker" rap began to blur nationwide thanks to figures like Kanye West. Suddenly, getting a handle on hip-hop got a lot messier on a local and national level.
Along with the splintering came a period of building steam, but some important factors in the past two years have culminated in the most vibrant scene in almost a decade.
One of the most important components is Sole Classics' evolution into a hub for the city's brightest young talents. Since buying the sneaker boutique last year, former Ohio State football player Dionte Johnson has fashioned it into a prominent supporter and tastemaker.
"It's hard to keep your lifestyle out of your work," Johnson said. "Hip-hop and streetwear go hand in hand."
At this point, an endorsement from Sole Classics is enough to make you a local star. Paired with adjacent boutique Milk Bar, which sponsors the popular hip-hop parties Get Right and O-Gee, they form the epicenter of Columbus hip-hop's latest wave of talent.
With youth comes vitality, but much of the richness of Columbus hip-hop these days can be attributed to some of the city's most successful talents getting their second wind. Since December, Blueprint, Copywrite and J. Rawls released their first solo albums in years. The 3rd released the best album of their career with last winter's "Nineteen Seventy Nine."
"A lot of the people who were around, they're still relevant and still being innovative," said Jared Young, the ambitious young rapper-producer from Alleyes Path.
Columbus rap is surging, but it's not known as a hotbed on par with New York, New Orleans, Atlanta or Los Angeles. That kind of success depends on somebody scoring a major national radio hit, or possibly through building a devoted following on the mixtape circuit.
One big help in that direction could be a local radio hit. The staff at Columbus rap station Power 107.5 has been highly supportive of the local scene via events, contests and online features, but no local artist has cracked regular rotation.
Another factor could be working key connections. Rashad and LxE are tight with Massillon native Stalley, who just signed with Rick Ross. Fly.Union is endorsed by LeBron James and has appeared on tracks with budding celebrities like Dom Kennedy and Big Sean. Exposure from such connections could be the tipping point for Columbus rap.
When tapped for ideas on how to help Columbus blow up, rappers and deejays across the board agreed on a few key points: Stay consistent, stay united, stay here. That's easier said than done in an industry where inspiration waxes and wanes, egos rule and the media is focused on a few major metropolises. But Columbus seems to be on the right track.
"It's becoming closer to a reality that maybe we don't have to move to New York or L.A. to make something of ourselves," Young said. "I like Columbus. I want to be here. I don't want to move to New York or L.A. to follow my dream."