Mid-afternoon, early May 2007. Walking up Avenue A on a leafy sun-blessed Gotham afternoon. Tis a wonderful thing that it warmed early this year, as these NYU co-eds are keeping your boys open. With a more reticent and dignified appeal, this part of Manhattan is one I could get used to. Maybe I'm in the South Bronx and Brooklyn too much, I need to style up. But far from a lolly gag episode of fun possibilities (a shame, because dark haired queen posted up on the corner looks like the one for me. Me and her hand in hand through the park, what!), we head a block up away from the park towards a mob lined up outside a nondescript entrance. White tees and fitted hats, allover print hoodies, bapester and air force one sneaks and a slight whiff of piff. There are a few ladies sprinkled in the crowd but this for the most part is a heavily testosterone scene.
Every Tuesday night at this unassuming location in Manhattan the doors get flung open for New York to get a taste of what's next in the streets. The brainchild of Brooklynite Mental Supreme, the night is billed as Tuesday Training Camp, which also doubles up as the moniker for his nicely quorumed rap crew. Although it's only 4:45 in the afternoon, the sidewalk outside Club Pyramid is owned by these early birds. There will be no latecomers, especially when this is going to be a Tuesday more special than most. When Mental Supreme shows up to take count he only takes those he will see outside into consideration, otherwise you just might have to be really special. Mental's dark suv pulls in at about 5:30. He walks up to the chained doors holding a list, exchanging greetings with all and announces "Aight, who was first?"
In a suprisingly orderly way, the list builds itself. People go out of their way to point out who was there ahead of them. Even those who had been in line but had stepped away and were still missing at Mental's arrival are spoken for. Getting there this late in the game would mean looking at at least 20 people ahead of us, but coming from two hours away on a last minute call-up goes well with Mental. We find ourselves among the first six performers. Once the performances are settled, the crowd melts away to await showtime at 10:00pm.
While there are many similar forums all over the region, Tuesday Training Camp has built a reputation for being a brutally honest rapper showcase. No hoopla about cash prizes, celebrity judges or studio time up for grabs here. Just bring it. If the crowd isn't with it by the time the first hook is done they're obliged to clap you off. Maybe you'll luck up the following week. In a room full of backpacker-like purists and street honed lyricists, their fans, wannabe rappers, highly opinionated people somehow involved in rap music and label execs, the tolerance level is pretty low. We were hoping for a few familiar faces in the crowd but we had left our turf by ourselves, just the two of us, at the last minute scrambling to get out of work to make it there. The crowd that evening was a good mix of suits and baggy jeans, skirts and apple bottom slacks complete with a squadron of boisterous Brooklyn and Jersey dames. Where Harlem at? We make sure we hand out as many cds as possible.
The lights go dim as the DJ fades out his warm-up set of mid-90's boom bap. It's 9:45 but the building is already packed and there is a queue down the street. Mental and sidekick Biggs, who is a leading Training Camp member, get on stage as the Masters of Ceremonies. In the building that evening are executives from G-Unit, Atlantic, Universal and Interscope as well as scouts from D-Block and Def Jam. It's a networking bonanza. Then the reason why Mental had been adamant about us showing up becomes clear: MTV were set up ready to tape the event and there would be a special performance in the middle of the showcase by a brand new Interscope Records artist. The place gets hype. Due to the massive turnout for the showcase that week each act gets to do one song only.
First act, Ancient Scroll, an older, nay, middle aged West Indian with an off beat flow, but tonight he's just off beat and he's offstage in a rush. Act Two launches to the stage with a portable fog machine and polyester outfit like a leftover from an 80's funk band. His love song has an extra long intro and before he even lays into his song he's booed off. Act three is looking jitterish. Indeed, he's forgotten the end of his first verse. Gone. We're up.
Wait. We didn't rehearse, we are about to perform a song that we've never performed before, the crowd has tasted blood and no doubt they want more. Damn, we're up this early? So be it New York. Let's play.
"What up What up....I go by the name Smalls," my partner booms into his mic. "This joint is called Let's Go." With a slight eye cue from me the DJ sets track two off and I enthusiastically plow into my hype man role seeking to quickly find the zone. Smalls goes into the first verse. The crowd watches silently waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Being lyrically deft is a good thing in here and this uptempo club joint has heads bouncing. It seems to be going well with the ladies also. I latch on Smalls' punchlines accentuating them for impact. While Smalls tilts his mic upward rooted to the spot preaching, I venture to roam the small stage casually doing my romp nailing my cues. The second verse is wrapping up and I'm definitely feeling the heat rising from under my shirt, the words are getting throatier, the neck is snapping harder and our posture is confident. I'm channelling Freaky Tah tonight. Smalls is stellar as usual. It's the final stretch now, I spy a girl with a golden jacket and stunna shades getting atop a speaker to the right of us. That's the fuel I need. We've got them. Now we're right on the brim of the stage, words loud, spittle flying, right hand on the mic, left arm in the air body moving in time. "Let's Go!" The music cuts, and the crowd lightly claps. Props never come easy in The Rotten Apple or anywhere in the North East for that matter. And amid the clapping the rant goes up among that Brooklyn bevy, "Bullet! Bullet!" Bless them.
Post-Morterm: Phew... The first survivors of the night. I wonder if it was a good call going up that early, but better that than when the crowd gets weary ten acts in. And this new song we did sounds good live. Good pick.... Damnit Smalls, we forgot to shout out New York. We barely talked to them tonight. Not that it matters. Not as much as when the clapping was happening, as the gunfingers went up in the air, as my Brooklyn darlings saluted us, we proclaimed these words proud. Prouder words still. "Big Up all Africans."
Check out Smalls' brand new mixtape THE BRIEFING available for download.