What you need to understand before we begin is that hiphop is a culture. It’s a theory, a philosophy. But like the Tao, or trying to define exactly what “porn” is, it's hard to nail down. Hiphop incorporates breakdancing, MCing, DJing, and graffiti, but it is not defined by those elements alone. It's a movement that often gets misrepresented and even mistreated by its ostentatious brother, mainstream rap.
It is easy to confuse the two, though. Artists in both forms will sample anything from old funk (James Brown and his contemporaries have been bottomless cups of inspiration) to jazz (see: A Tribe Called Quest) to rock (DJ Shadow's latest opus, The Private Press, sneaks in some rock samples from the early ’80s). Decisions these artists make about their beats and rhymes tell a tale of differing viewpoints.
You may hear P. Diddy on the radio using lifted notes from Sting, or Led Zeppelin, or any of the other artists' hooks he's repackaged. You might think P. Diddy is hiphop, but this is where the line gets blurry. Between hiphop and mainstream rap is the age-old division of art and commerce. In general, hiphop culture is one of thought and skill, of artistry and awareness (Eric B. & Rakim, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Jurassic 5). The stuff that bangs out of your local frat house late on a Thursday night is all flash and cash, usually with no depth (Nelly, Ja Rule, Nelly, DMX, Nelly).
Driving around while listening to the radio, you’ll hear that mainstream rap is in a rut; a very narrow rut of repetitive lyrics and here-today-gone-tomorrow hooks. It's close-minded: a get-rich-quick scheme of small ideas and plastic beats. Hiphop is more open-armed.
"You have to be open to everything," says Chuck Cerankosky, an unassuming, genial kid who flies under the moniker DJ Wagun when he's DJing with Discolobos, a local turntable crew that hosts Java's bi-weekly Full Circle. "There's no rule that we have, like, ‘You can't buy this, you can't play this.’ It just has to be good and it has to be positive."
Poetry readings and live jazz are already staples of Java's week, but Full Circle adds an element that might seem a little incongruous to the coffeeshop atmosphere. But the event makes more and more sense as the evening advances.
Cerankosky and another third of Discolobos, Ben Gonyo aka DJ Brasby, set up a table, two turntables, a couple of speakers, a drum machine for a little extra color, and a microphone. It's the same now as it was when hiphop first established its roots in the ’70s. The drum machines are as different as a Ford Excursion is from a Gremlin, and the turntables are much more expensive, but DJing and MCing remain a perennially accessible approach to making music.
For the first hour, while the early Sunday-evening loungers are finishing their drinks, Cerankosky and Gonyo spin records and homemade beats while the night crowd --- the Full Circle crowd --- slowly shows up. Someone brings a swatch of linoleum and unrolls it on the sidewalk; there will be breakdancing tonight.
The atmosphere is genial and positive; it's nothing like a Tupperware party, but rather a meeting of musicians and ideas. Sure it's clichéd, but these are the kids you imagine as extras in movies about coffeeshops. No one is iced out, no one arrives with an agenda of attitude. This is just a bunch of kids in love with a musical form.
"The real fun starts when the MCs come down," Cerankosky says while trading beats with Gonyo. Gonyo starts a pattern on the drum machine and Cerankosky walks over and smiles, commenting excitedly. The two share Discolobos with Jessie Oakner (D.D. R.E.J.) who has temporarily relocated to New York City. All three spend a good chunk of their private lives working on solo projects, most of which include beats they create after hours of digging through record bins. They meet for the occasional gig and Full Circle. New beats are always shared with pride, and they cheerily poke through each other's latest vinyl purchases.
Discolobos have enlisted Hassaan Mackey as Full Circle’s host MC. Having recently won "best freestyler" at a local contest, it's easy to see why Hassaan stands out. By 10 p.m. enough people have arrived to begin the freestyle portion of the evening, and Hassaan produces rhymes and lyrics with ease and style. At times he incorporates people and sudden events --- friends who have just walked up or the motorcycles that drive by flaring their engines --- into a seamless flow of words.
"It's like a poetry night with beats," Gonyo says.
You're welcome to take the microphone, as long as you can hold your own against the standards of the crowd around you. There's no ill-will, there are no hard feelings. Handshakes and respect are given to anyone who makes his way here. Small-fry MCs who pass the mic quickly after getting lost in their own misuse of the beats are always eager to try again. The best MCs --- Hassaan and a few others --- reappear with the mic in hand and chop away at thoughts and issues relevant to the moment.
Bent over their turntables with headphones hanging like collars around their necks, Discolobos spin a dizzying array of records and drum patterns: anything from their own stuff to Mos Def, D.I.T.C., Large Professor, and The Roots. MCs pass the mic while breakdancers swing their way about the makeshift dance floor. The crowd continues to grow. The usual Java's caffeine junkies have spilled out into Gibbs Street; the crowd of Full Circle onlookers parades about with cups of coffee and lemonade; a high school graduation has moved in from the Eastman Theatre to join the festivities. The heat affects no one. Cerankosky leans over to Gonyo and says, "It's like a party."
The latest incarnation of Full Circle has been around for about a year. "It's almost completely word-of-mouth," Cerankosky says. "Some nights are bigger than others. And some nights it's 9:30 and no one's here, and I get nervous. But then an hour later it's crazy."
"Last beat" is called. It's midnight and Gonyo has to work early in the morning. The crowd begins to break up. Cars lope off. Flyers are handed out. Hiphop disciples bid each other good night. Java's employees are taking out the trash and flipping chairs. It has been a good night, and everyone leaves happy.
The fact that Full Circle happens right down the street from the prestigious Eastman Theatre is not lost. Isn't this what a city's supposed to be like? A symphony hall at one end of the street, hiphop at the other. Rochester will never be New York City. But we should be happy that a crowd this big can get together under the name of hiphop and spread some positivity. See you Sunday.
Full Circle takes place from 9 p.m. to midnight every odd-numbered Sunday at Java’s.