Among the pioneers of hip-hop in Columbus, few stand taller than S.P.I.R.I.T., the group that will reunite Saturday to headline the Polar Entertainment Showcase at 83 Gallery. They were everywhere in their heyday, but a 2012 appearance is rare.
“Haley’s Comet,” said DJ O Sharp, who will also perform Saturday to celebrate J. Rawls & Casual’s new album “Respect Game or Expect Flames.” Many Columbus hip-hop all-stars will convene — Copywrite, P. Blackk, Liquid Crystal Project, King Vada and more — but S.P.I.R.I.T. helped pave the way for them all.
The group debuted in 1992 at the Coming Home festival, which longtime producer Storm9000 dubbed “the black ComFest.” But their origins stem to 1983, when the Willoughby family relocated from Atlantic City to Columbus.
In the gang-riddled King-Lincoln District, brothers Carnell and Kenyatta Willoughby won respect as breakdancers. Their brother Malik, a poet, met Ray Calloway through creative collective the Self Esteem Team. With friends Monty and Rahmel Hinkle, they worshipped local rappers like Another Fresh Creation and absorbed a stream of East Coast records from the Willoughbys’ older brother.
By ’92, Monty Hinkle suggested the friends rap together as Soldiers Poised Infinitely Reinforced In Truth, or S.P.I.R.I.T. for short. Backed by DJ Superman Top Notch, they began wowing crowds.
“If people remember S.P.I.R.I.T. for anything, it’s our performance,” Malik Willoughby said. “Even when they don’t remember our lyrics, they remember, ‘Oh, they crazy.’”
S.P.I.R.I.T. played everywhere from 10TV’s multicultural Unity Festival to bars like CNS Lounge. They opened for OutKast, KRS-One, Common, Mobb Deep and Flavor Flav. They were the first rappers on the ComFest main stage and the first at Columbus Arts Festival. They performed for universities, corporations and politicians, including then-governor George Voinovich.
The Hinkles eventually departed amicably over creative differences; the remaining members spent most of the past decade focused on other pursuits. Saturday they’ll reunite alongside later generations they directly or indirectly influenced.
“We kind of burped some of them and taught them how to do a show,” Malik said.