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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Milwaukee Rappers Bury the Hatchet

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Competition has been one of hip-hop's dominant lyrical themes since the genre's earliest days, and from the Juice Crew/Boogie Down Bridge Wars of the '80s to the Nas and Jay-Z quarrel last decade, rivalries have inspired some of rap's greatest creative triumphs. When those beefs spill over into the real world, though, they can quickly turn destructive, with the violent Death Row and Bad Boy records clashes of the mid-'90s looming as the ultimate cautionary tale. It was with real concern, then, that fans in the Milwaukee rap scene several years ago observed tensions boiling over between two groups, House of M and UMG.

After a dry spell around the turn of the century, the local rap scene was enjoying a renaissance in 2008. More artists were playing shows, more fans were coming out to those shows and, after years of skepticism toward rap music, more venues on the East Side and in Riverwest were booking them. UMG, a loose network of rappers including Prophetic, Ka$h and Yo-Dot, and House of M, a quirky, now-defunct superhero-themed rap collective, were the driving forces of the local hip-hop resurgence. But although they shared roughly the same audience, relations between the two units began to sour in 2007.

“It started over something small—just personalities rubbing, really,” says JC Poppe, a promoter who once represented House of M. “But it grew into something more, as both of these acts got bigger and wanted to be recognized for their talent and their music. There was this competition there, and they started to take it personal. It got very uncomfortable, seeing these two groups exchange barbs online, because threats of violence were tossed around so freely by some people. It's good that it stayed online and never actually turned physical.”

The mere threat of physical confrontation, however, was enough to shake the confidence of promoters and clubs already wary of hip-hop, and by 2008, the UMG/House of M rivalry was creating a spectacle.

“All those daggers thrown back and forth online spilled over into the shows, where the acts were taking digs at each other on stage,” says Andrew Davis, UMG's manager. “Certain parties would go out to the other group's show and try to ruin them. Nothing physical broke out, but there was a whole lot of arguing back and forth, and when there's a group of three or four guys shouting loudly, especially in a small club, all heads get turned and people start talking.”

Three years later those tensions have mostly cooled, but with attendance at local rap shows down significantly, the effects of the feud are still felt.

“It was really a waste, because there were so many people that liked both acts. But the conflict drew this line in the sand, so you couldn't go to the other act's show without fearing some sort of backlash,” Davis says. “It really killed everything that had been built up on the East Side scene.”

In a display of reconciliation, two acts from each camp, Prophetic and Yo-Dot of UMG and AUTOMatic and Raze from House of M, will share a bill at the Cactus Club on Saturday, May 28, called “The Bury the Hatchet Show.” The show is an important step toward unity in the rap scene, and also a showcase of some of the scene's most prominent talent, Poppe says.

“AUTOMatic is gaining popularity; Proph is continuing to steamroll his competition and getting more prominent locally and regionally; Yo-Dot is growing more buzz with each project he does, and Raze engineered six albums last year and put out his own record,” Poppe says. “We have some really important pieces of the hip-hop culture here, and each brings a different style along with them. It's going to be a diverse night of hip-hop, and I know there's going to be a healthy competitive feel, because all these acts are going to want to put on good performances.”

The Bury the Hatchet Show begins at 10 p.m. at the Cactus Club on Saturday, May 28.