America’s largest independent hip-hop gathering falls victim to economic and internal pressures. Will this king of Midwest festivals rise again?
Summer 2009: For the first time in its 13-year history, Cincinnati’s Scribble Jam, one of America’s largest hip-hop festivals, was cancelled. The event had become a Midwest institution, featuring both independent and internationally known artists while representing all aspects of hip-hop culture including graffiti art, DJing, break-dancing and audio production. For performers and fans, the event was a chance to participate in hip-hop as a living, breathing culture.
Minneapolis-based Scribble Jam organizer Kevin Beacham, 39, still gets excited when asked about one of the festival’s most notable emcee battles. In 1997 the second annual Scribble Jam was taking place in the parking lot of an East Side Cincinnati nightclub called Annie’s. Scribble Jam’s emcee battle was the festival’s most famous attraction: a place where rappers challenged each other in head-to-head matches and spat improvised rhymes until the superior wit and creativity of one of the competitors drove the crowd and the judges to declare a winner.
Beacham hosted and judged the event at Annie’s. That year, hundreds of artists signed up for the battle. The semifinal round consisted of just four rappers that would later become giants in hip-hop – MC Juice and Rhymefest from Chicago, Doseone from Cincinnati (now a core member of Anticon Records), and an almost completely unknown rapper from Detroit who called himself Eminem.
Doseone performed remarkably well, but was ultimately eliminated. Fans were puzzled when Rhymefest disqualified himself in the finals, refusing to battle his longtime friend from the Windy City, MC Juice. It all came down to Eminem and MC Juice. The competitors seemed almost evenly matched, with the battle too close for both the judges and audiences to call. “They go like, six or seven rounds, and we just cannot pick a winner,” Beecham recalls.
The competitors moved from the club’s parking lot to the indoor stage. It was there that MC Juice eventually toppled Eminem with merciless, rapid-fire punch lines. Juice went home with the trophy, prize money and bragging rights.
Eminem later recalled his feelings on a DVD of the event distributed by Rhymesayers: he was crushed. He hardly ever lost battles. But his mood probably improved over the next couple years after he signed onto Aftermath Entertainment and produced the multi-platinum selling album The Slim Shady LP with Dr. Dre.
The Drawing Board
Initially, Scribble Jam was just a launch party for the first issue of Accurso’s graffiti art publication, Scribble Magazine. Accurso asked Dibbs to showcase his famous turntable skills at the celebration. When Beacham arrived at Annie’s parking lot looking for Mr. Dibbs, he was amazed by what he saw. About 50 people had assembled, some painting graffiti, others break dancing, and still others freestyle rapping over Mr. Dibbs’ beats. Beacham says he’d never seen anything like it, except in movies like Beat Street–all hip-hop cultural elements were thoroughly represented. “I definitely wanted to be a part of it,” he recalls.
Scribble Jam’s trio of organizers started to take the event more seriously and planned something bigger for the next year. Beacham became deeply involved in attracting artists from Chicago, where he lived at the time. Co-founder Accurso, 34, says Beacham became the growing event’s biggest asset. “He pretty much made sure it stayed true to hip-hop,” he says.
Accurso continued to handle the graffiti art component while producing videos documenting the event (which would later become globally distributed DVDs). G-Fresh, with his connections in the music industry and business sense, booked acts and made agreements with the venues. Mr. Dibbs provided name recognition and drew crowds for his unusual turntable performances while Beacham brought in artists from other regions and eventually began managing the emcee battles and music headliners.