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Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014

The Uptowner Puts a Hip-Hop Spin on the Open Mic

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Milwaukee rapper Mic Crawf never signed up to be the host of the Uptowner’s Sunday night open mic. He simply stepped up to fill in when the event’s original host, Scott Summers, didn’t show up one night. That was a year ago this month; he’s been hosting it ever since, proudly overseeing an event he describes as “the most diverse open mic in the city.”

“We draw all sorts of crowds,” says Crawf, who also performs in the rap duo Flo’-Tron. “We’ve had everybody in here from a full marching band that happened to be walking past one night, to a 30-piece drum line that just came in and asked, ‘Can we play?’ We’ve had folk singers, spoken-word artists and comedians.” But the core of the lineup on any given Sunday is made up of rap acts, which separates the Uptowner’s open mic from all the other blues jams and coffee shop stages in the city. It’s one of the few low-pressure environments where Milwaukee rappers can test out new songs or get their feet wet performing in front an audience.

Hip-hop is notoriously difficult to book in Milwaukee. Fear of drawing the wrong crowd scares many venues away from it, and the challenge of keeping lineups fresh and drawing listeners week after week quickly takes a toll on promoters, but for years the Uptowner has been making it look easy with its long-running Tuesday hip-hop nights. The Riverwest corner tap’s Sunday open mics began as an unofficial offshoot of those popular Tuesdays, conceived as a more relaxed platform for showcasing artists.

“Sometimes things get turned up and we party a little, but mostly the vibe is really chill, and it’s always respectful,” Crawf says. “I introduce every night with two rules. Rule number one is to respect the mic, and when somebody is up there you listen to them. And rule number two is to respect yourself. We have a no ego policy. Check your egos outside. When you come in here, you’re family, and after I make those announcements everybody feels comfortable. Everybody is very supportive.

“The Uptowner really is the place where hip-hop lives in this city,” he adds. “I know that’s a big claim to stake, but we say that because of the purity of the hip-hop here. We don’t cater to the more violent kinds of hip-hop. I’m not saying we don’t ever get that kind of rap, because we give everybody a platform, but the mood is always respectful. Personally, I think the rappers that come there are some of the best rappers in the city.”

DJ Moses, of the crew Higher Education Records, has been involved with the Sunday open mics since the beginning, when they were founded by DJ Charlie Hustle (who moved to New York shortly after the first event) and Milwaukee rapper Blax. In addition to spinning before and in between the performances, he serves as the night’s de facto backing band, supplying the music for many performers and supporting some of them with scratches and other assists. He describes the night as a constantly evolving work in progress.

“We’re always trying to make it better and better,” Moses says. “Our new thing is we’ve started showcasing artists now, and we’re working to get more outside artists involved. But when I started I had never done anything like it before. I feel like we offer a very unique experience, and a comfortable, safe environment where it’s all about peace. It’s all about respect and keeping it about the music. It’s one of the only places where a local artist can come through, perform and get experience, and for the community to come together to celebrate the beauty and poetry of hip-hop.”

Sunday open mics at the Uptowner, 1032 E. Center St., begin around 9 p.m. each week.