2018: Everything Happens At Once

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This was originally a long recap of a long year; all of that has been scrapped. Instead, this is a look at How and Why 2018 was the busiest, best year that Vermont’s hip hop scene has experienced so far. Along the way, there’s a playlist of twelve tracks I was bumping at the time.

This is both very long and completely unnecessary. Enjoy.

JANUARY

Back in January, this website didn’t even exist yet. Since then, I’ve managed to rack up over 150 posts here, which reached twelve thousand unique visitors. Which is cool. I did not expect to be breaking 10k the first year. Curiously, more than half of that traffic is coming from outside of Vermont.

One thing about having real web analytics instead of Facebook numbers is that it makes it easy to see who’s got a real fanbase and who’s … well, I hope you’re fooling yourselves, because you’re not fooling me.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that artists like Es-K and Jarv have serious juice. You’ve heard of 99 Neighbors by now, too. Overall, the most popular interviews this year were Pro of the Aztext, HANKNATIVE, DJ SVPPLY, Fattie B, Selfish Presley, and Yung Breeze each of those had over 400 unique readers this year. The most popular post was the Top 10 Albums list, which is predictable and sad.

Vermont Hip Hop Dot Com is a one man operation and it will remain that way, but obviously I owe a profound debt to the hundreds of artists who are covered here. Special thanks to Rico James, whose photography is frequently featured here, and Garrett Heaney, who designed the site’s clean layout & look.

The VTHH Reader Survey is still live for the rest of the week, and I’ve collected some of the best ideas here. There is a lot more work to be done covering the scene. Become the media. It’s easier than you think.

FEBRUARY

We’ve got a generation of young artists coming up taking a lot of opportunities for granted. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s also the result of decades of hard work, plus a couple of lucky breaks.

First off, Burlington is a college town that loves alcohol, and this supports a ton of venues. Those venues are mostly run by open-minded liberals who are happy to book rap shows. Even after two late-night shootings right downtown, one of them fatal, nobody is associating “rap shows” with “potential violence” around here. Artists in many US cities aren’t that lucky.

Better still, we’ve also got a lot of competent, hard-working bookers and promoters. There’s nothing like a Leedz Edutainment style monopoly in Burlington, it’s a diverse ecosystem. New artists have a lot of opportunities to get onstage without having to buy their way in.

February, despite being a short, frozen month, was packed with awesome shows. DJ SVPPLY and company celebrated Dilla Day at Sidebar, Slaughterhouse legend Joell Ortiz played Social Club and Lounge, and the Perceptionists rocked a sold out Monkey House. Art rap luminary Milo came through Arts Riot, which has been making space for hip hop ever since they opened.

There’s also been remarkable work at the margins, with DIY house shows (props to BadArt and Zesty Boi), dinner hip hop shows down at Sherri’s Place in Springfield,  and a string of outstanding shows by Red Handed Records, a local music collective turned tastemaker x promoter. The Switchback Taproom hosted a late afternoon show by Mister Burns and Jarv — a treat for the working stiffs, and something that should happen more often. Finally, Swan Dojo hosted Building Blocks 2, their second blowout “block party,” charity fundraiser and breakdancing competition.

This is not a complete list and it’s not intended to be. The point is that these opportunities get created by artists and fans just like you. The point is that you’re got a much bigger network of opportunities — and mentors — than you probably realize right now. Reach out.

MARCH

March marked the first release from Equal Eyes Records, one of 2018’s most important developments. We’ve seen plenty of small imprints before, but a label on this scale is something new: they’re dropping releases every month, they’re reaching outside their circle & crew, and most importantly, they’ve got physical products onto store shelves and into the hands of the fans.

There are levels to this shit,” as Conway always reminds us, and Equal Eyes Records is the first time Vermont has seen a hip hop label operating on this level. Their debut was Tired of Waiting for Rappers Vol. 1, an instrumental collaboration featuring label co-founders ILLu and Rico James. Since then, they’ve racked up eight more releases, most recently Teece Luvv’s funky and personal LP !PLEH.

They’ve built a distinct brand, which is essential. Record labels aren’t a public service, after all, these operations rise or fall on the strength of not just their product, but their vibe. Nobody is checking out Rhymesayers for new trap records just like nobody expects Griselda to sign Talib Kweli anytime soon.

That means there’s still room in the pond for other labels, if anyone reading this is feeling frisky. It’s demanding, it’s expensive, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

APRIL

One of the reasons that young artists have so many opportunities here is Mister Burns. He is a humble beast and a non-stop worker, and from his Lynguistic Civilians days to his solo career, he’s always been spotlighting -- and mentoring -- new talent. This year he celebrated his 1000th show at Foam Brewing, along with his new live band lineup, The Hounds. Since his 2016 album Raised Right, he’s been drawing on his experience and his network to pave a tour circuit for independent hip hop in New England.

This is going to be important long-term infrastructure. This will create new opportunities outside of “blowing up” and working with the existing label machines. Mister Burns and Jarv have been running laps on this circuit and reaching tons of new fans in the process.

In April, Mister Burns embarked on the Preceding the Warmth Tour, which had Brooklyn legend Masta Ace headlining. It’s one thing to open for a famous rapper, it’s another to buy a verse from them — but going on tour with them, well, that’s a whole separate level of co-sign. That is heavy. That is official as fuck.

He’s also been bringing big names to Vermont (like Skyzoo and Sadat X!) and putting in work for the local scene, like the Waking Windows Hip Hop Showcase, which was a huge success.

What can you learn from this? Always show up & always do the work, for starters. Anyone can book a show, but you’re only getting invited back if you’re bringing in bodies and money. And remember, if you don’t practice your set -- you don’t have one. Pay your dues.

MAY

Over the past two years, I’ve been involved in far, far too many conversations about who was going to be the first to “make it” here in our humble state. Almost all of them were focused on rappers, which completely overlooks the fact we’ve already got Es-K, our very own superproducer. He’s been racking up points, month after month, for years now, and repping Vermont the whole time.

Producers succeed quietly. Part of that is because artists tend to be dipshits who think album credits are optional. (Pro tip: be a professional.) Most of that, though, is the nature of their work — magicians behind the scenes, facilitating and finalizing long-term projects. Es-K isn’t just making solid gold beats, he is an accomplished executive producer with a serious resume.

2018 was an incredible year for our spooky talented instrumental scene. It’s fitting that Es-K himself has been helping to showcase that, too. His Vermont Beat Cypher series has been impeccably done so far, working in collaboration with VMB Productions to deliver two flawless lineups of 802 talent. It’s been a roll call of our very finest: Crusty Cuts, David Chief, Dokowala, Flip Physics, Iman, Jarv, Loupo, Notation, Old Gold, and Somba.

(I have also enjoyed the work of ALXXXNDXR, Elder Orange, SkySplitterInk, Keegan Kilgore and the dark EDM-bap of FATE.)

So while all this means that the standards are high, it also means there’s a big community for new producers to plug into and learn from. For fans, if you’re unfamiliar with any of these names, you’ve got good times ahead. And finally, for emcees, it means there is no excuse for wack beats in 2019. Pay the producer.

JUNE

The month of June saw two huge events going down at the Swan Dojo, a performance / practice space for dancers on Church Street. The first was Building Blocks 3, and the second was a performance by Brand Nubian legend Sadat X. The common thread here is Steve “Wish” Shannon, b-boy for life, dance instructor, and community asset.

A member of the Rhythm Riderz Crew, Mr. Shannon is a good example of the multi-layered hustle it takes to make it in a state as small as Vermont, stitching together part time gigs and temporary positions, juggling hats, job descriptions and small businesses. This is what people do up here, this is how you build a life in the woods.

He’s also been a reliable source of real, blunt, honest feedback. This is true for me, and it’s true for dozens of other artists and hustlers I know. Having a good sounding board for ideas is an invaluable resource.

So while you probably don’t have the same specific set of skills Mr. Shannon does, you can be equally valuable to your friends: just be honest with them. No critic gets the final say. No single take is completely correct. Just the same, you were born the way you were born for a reason — if you’re not feeling it, say so. The world will be a better place tomorrow.

JULY

On July 27th, 99 Neighbors sold out a triumphant gig at Arts Riot: their Open House set the tone for the success story to come. I’ve been listening to rap crews insisting they’re “a movement” for so many decades now that I didn’t appreciate, at first, that 99 Neighbors was telling me the truth.

They have top-notch beats, art and videos because all those awesome artists are part of 99 Neighbors, too. Their internal process involves a lot of voices and a lot of ideas, and it shows in their final product. Their big Arts Riot debut was a feast for the senses, and their new LP, Television, is exactly the same.  This is urgent, exciting music.

So while Sam. and HANKNATIVE are the undeniable gravitational center, and born performers besides, their whole team truly deserves credit. Big props to their manager Cal Rawlings, too. The run that 99 Neighbors had this year is the stuff of legend, a mix of solid strategy and big ambition.

There is no secret sauce in the music business. All these blueprints are open books. Study the artists you respect and think about the logic behind the moves they made. Then get out there and do the work.

AUGUST

This August was dominated by the 5th Annual A-Dog Day, the biggest and most ambitious celebration yet. The extent of Andy’s legacy is nothing less than amazing. Our scene is inter-generational, strongly supportive of one another, and generally just inspirational as heck.

This year, it was all about the youngbloods, and it couldn’t have been any other way. DJ Kanganade and Crusty Cuts were on the tables, Jarv and 99 Neighbors and A2VT all delivered killer performances, and the evening saw some serious veterans come through, too — especially headliners Smif-n-Wessun. That is heavy. That is official as fuck.

Loaf Muzik, one of NYC’s most exciting (and talented) new crews, was rapping at the Andy Williams Memorial Skatepark for a crowd of local hip hop heads and skateboarders. That’s not even one of the biggest highlights, just a moment that really sticks with me, months later. It was a sunny day that will, I believe, have an impact for years to come, in ways we can’t predict.

Contemplating the long, complex thread of friendships and mutual respect which made all that possible, well, it should give you pause. Life is incredible and life is fragile, and both facts are too easy to forget. Our traditions make us remember.

SEPTEMBER

September was dominated, yet again, by Above The Radar, the waterfront graffitti art festival hosted by Anthill Collective. This was a huge year for that crew, which saw them traveling and working more than ever, in addition to opening the AnteGallery down on Shelburne Road.

The biggest failure of this website, to my eyes, is the over-representation of rap music in the coverage. I don’t know if I’ve named more than five DJs, breakdancers or graf artists here this year. Changing that is a priority in 2019.

In addition to bringing world-class artists to Vermont, in addition to wrangling sponsors and responsibilities, in addition to taking on a new small business, Anthill Collective has also been the steady hand behind the 3rd Thursdays series at The Monkey House. Our longest-running hip hop monthly has been ground zero for culture-building and artist networking, here and beyond. Huge props a patient and generous team.

One more thing: September also brought the birthday of Brett North, BTV super-fan and scene photographer. Mr. North has been an essential asset for all of us, improving his lens game and helping new artists document & advance their careers. Big props to this hard worker. Tip the photographer.

OCTOBER

Fittingly, the first hip hop artist to “make it” is someone most Vermont artists had never even heard of. Nothing, Nowhere is a hella emo emcee and producer from Massachusetts who has adopted Vermont as his home. (Which is not a knock on the lad; most of you were born somewhere else. We’re all flatlanders to somebody here.)

One of the most popular articles on the site this year was my piece on who would be “Wikipedia Famous” next. My wager was that it would take awhile before that happened, and at least so far, I’ve been right. 2019 will be a real test for that theory, though, and I expect to see Jarv, Jamell NYT and 99 Neighbors make big enough moves to be contenders.

No need to repeat what I already wrote, but I do need to say this: beef gets attention, but attention is fleeting. In the end, 100% of the shit we talk is meaningless. None of it will advance your actual career a single centimeter. Only the work matters.

NOVEMBER

This website basically exists because nobody else was doing this. That’s how all platforms get created: someone decided to start doing the work.

This year, we’ve seen some excellent new experiments come together, and all of them will be a big factor in the year to come. Props to the team at Super Select for curating excellent playlists & content. Props to Big Homie Wes “The Best” for his Straight Outta Johnson show on WJSC — he’s a natural host and he’s been a real advocate for the local scene, bringing artists into the studio for interviews. Props to Colby Stiltz for working with Wes to create the Cellar Cypher Series — a hip hop weekly in downtown Burlington.

Another promising prospect: the Extra Mile Cypher series. Drive is a young emcee from Lamoille county who has been a standout human being this year, both as a rap talent and as a smart, honest kid who’s hungry to learn. His new cypher series, currently two installments deep, is a clever move, and he’s chosen lineups that compliment his style.

A lot has been written about the importance of online video, so it’s important to remember most of that is bullshit. The metrics are fraud, your “engagement” is mostly autoplays that register somewhere between a distraction and an irritation, and your content monetizes about as well as a song on Spotify. However, despite all that, human beings really do love to watch video, and I guarantee these cypher videos are reaching far outside the Green Mountain state.

There are more platforms on the way in 2019, too. A few I know about, many that will surprise me. Now is the time to make big moves.

DECEMBER

Why are Vermont hip hop releases sounding better than ever? In a word, SkySplitterInk. In two words, that’s Zach Crawford, one of the best, and most prolific, recording & mixing engineers in the state these days. He has also been a mentor and coach to well over a hundred of us in the past decade — the scene owes a lot to this man.

He’s moving his SkyLab studios to a new location this year, where he’s sure to continue racking up an impressive, diverse resume. And that’s the biggest thread here: it takes years to really see the results of the work you’re putting in every day. Do it anyway.

There are no shortcuts to any of this. Overnight success stories are myths.

While the internet has made it easier than ever to get your work out there, standards are just as demanding as ever. You need great art and you need great sound quality. Odds are pretty good you’re not qualified to do either one of those things. Hire professionals to get professional results.

Oh, and: Be Excellent To Each Other. I’m real proud of everyone.

Happy 2019. Don’t tell people this is your year. Show them.

Justin Boland