Sunday night quietly gives way to a clear and starry Monday morning in October. As most of Tampa sleeps off the weekend, I'm strolling east along Eighth Avenue's empty cobblestones, and even raucous Ybor City feels like it's been turned off for the night. But at the end of the dark block comes sudden life. The glow of Christmas lights spills into the street, and with it comes the unmistakable saxophone groove from Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You."
It's Ol' Dirty Sunday at Crowbar. A few seconds on the packed outdoor patio makes it clear that hip hop is alive and vibrant in Tampa Bay, and the Ybor City bar is ground zero. Picture it: artists selling elaborate graffiti pieces just inside the iron-gated entrance; upside-down b-boys breaking in the corner; a circle of bodies enthralled in a marathon freestyle session by the bar; and a DJ behind the modern-day ones and twos (AKA a MacBook), playing a mix of connoisseur-worthy hip hop that the crowd is devouring.
All of the "four elements" that Afrika Bambaataa described at the dawn of the culture — graffiti, breakdancing, emceeing and DJing — were on display that night, more than 1,100 miles and three decades removed from their birthplace in the Bronx. But the Bay area has its own distinction. Transplants from around the country land here, and that mix of flavors gives the local scene a special diversity. Spend a night at Da Cypher, the city's long-running hip hop open mic, and hear East Coast, West Coast and Southern rap influences. It's the reason you can put on 95.7 The Beat on a Friday night with DJ Sandman and hear Tampa resident Dynasty spit New York-fueled fire, or St. Pete native Famous Kid Brick rap in a distinct Southern flow.
National acts contribute to the mix, too. That particular night at Crowbar was a special one. The crowd was filled with scenesters and tastemakers, and the DJ behind the laptop was none other than Talib Kweli. He happened to bring along Mos Def, and they happened to think it was a good night to premiere their new song "Fix Up," three days before its huge world premiere on The Colbert Report. On that night, there was no better city to be a hip hop fan than right here, and it's no wonder that three of the area's most influential locals — profiled below — were there.
James "DJ Sandman" Sandman: Others in the local music scene are quick to call the lifelong Bay area resident a "Tampa legend," and indeed, when he walks down the sidewalk, it's not uncommon for strangers to recognize him and yell, "Hey Sandman!" or stop to shake his hand. Starting on radio at USF in the early 1990s, he became a promoter whose hard work helped make the city a regular tour stop for rap acts, back when those shows were still few and far between. These days, he DJs weekends on 95.7 FM The Beat, where he slips local artists into the mix, and manages tampahiphop.com — a well-updated, digital cornucopia of local talent. As someone who maintains relationships with rap heavyweights nationwide, he's known to make things happen. Case in point: It was his call to legendary producer DJ Premiere that led to local emcee Dynasty collaborating with him on her track and video for "Epic Dynasty."
Hansel "Aych" Wilson: The founder, host and promoter of Da Cypher, Tampa's longest-running hip hop open mic night, is a talented emcee himself. Aych (pronounced "H") gained mad respect after a successful appearance in the "Freestyle Friday" rap battle on BET's afternoon staple, 106 & Park, and for opening on bills with heavy hitters like Ludacris, Wu-Tang Clan and Rick Ross. It's that city-wide respect, he says, that gives Da Cypher its "credibility," and has allowed it to flourish for five years, while other open mics fizzled out. Since moving to Tampa in 2004, Aych has been a fixture at hip hop events around the city, fostering relationships with pretty much anyone involved in music. Those relationships have not only helped Da Cypher to grow (over 400 people turned out for the most recent edition at Club Skye), but made it a viable spot for artists to get serious industry exposure. Recent audience members have included reps from Nappy Boy, Grand Hustle and Maybach Music, as well as super-producers like Bangladesh (Lil' Wayne, Beyonce, Gucci Mane) and Drumma Boy (T.I., Young Jeezy).
Jeremy "Infinite Skillz" Writt: Infinite Skillz believes the fifth element of hip hop is the "entrepreneurial spirit," but as an artist, he quickly learned there's a catch-22 when it comes to booking gigs. "You can't prove to a bar or club or coffeehouse that you can bring people there until they give you an opportunity, but they won't give you an opportunity until you show them you'll bring people in," he said. So with that in mind, the St. Pete resident conceived Homegrown Hip Hop. The annual concert featuring a jammed lineup of Tampa Bay rappers went off for the third time this past summer at The Local 662 in St. Pete. With attendance steadily rising each year, Skillz sees it as a way for local talent to pool their smaller fan bases and lay the foundations for a Bay area hip hop culture. "Hip hop is about connecting with people, and the best way to connect is a live show," he said. "So I'm proud that we're giving that opportunity to these artists." At least one Homegrown performer has capitalized: Laws, from Spring Hill, performed at Homegrown Hip Hop 1, and signed a deal with Warner Bros. last year.