Heavy beats slam through the room like war drums. The crowded nightclub is thick with cigarette smoke, booze, a trace of weed — and adrenaline. Here at Full Moon Saloon in Ybor City, well past midnight on a Wednesday, local emcees are engaged in rap battles — face-to-face put-downs built on improvised rhymes. Umbrella Corporation, a Tampa hip-hop collective that's changing the landscape of the 813 underground, calls the venue home. Tonight their artists dominate the congested stage.
A lanky young man in a long red T-shirt stands isolated in the back of the club. His lips move as he rehearses. Impromptu rhymes are the rule in these verbal smackdowns, but it's well known that many emcees spit written verse. A murmur grows when the unknown kid gets on stage to earn his props. He stands firm: one leg poised in front of the other, right arm bent at a sharp 45-degree angle, a big hand clutching the mic tightly.
And then he spits ... gibberish.
The unknown's initial composure crumbles. Three mumbled lines into his performance and he looks like a petrified fifth grader forced into a school play. Umbrella Corporation founder Aych (pronounced "H") fires back with a dazzling verbal barrage that defies the old adage about words hurting less than sticks and stones. His victim probably would rather be knocked cold by a left hook than endure one more second of this humiliation. "There's a highway to heaven and a subway to hell," Aych raps, burying the newcomer. "Look at you standing there with nothing to tell."
His flow — bold, relaxed, melodic, on beat — is as important as the actual lines.
"Oh, no, there he goes," responds a young woman wearing a form-fitting dress that barely covers her backside. Dressed-to-impress women crowd the edge of the stage. They squeal, slap their hands together, shake their heads in disbelief and smile, making flirtatious eye contact with the performers.
The other Umbrella artists on stage — Jersey, Larcen, Infarel, Neece and Supa Man — nod in approval and laugh at the defeated emcee. The men in the audience lift their drinks in a sign of respect as Aych unleashes a torrent of clever, smoothly delivered boasts and taunts. After the beat-down comes to a merciful end, the pummeled wannabe rapper sprints to the bathroom, locks himself in the stall and vomits — his gut apparently rocked by an unsavory mix of strong drink, high anxiety and shame.
Tampa Bay's hip-hop scene, which seems perpetually stuck in neutral, has never seen anything quite like Umbrella Corporation. And there isn't exactly a national precedent for this D.I.Y. hip-hop model, either. Usually, the template is one star rapper and his sidekicks. Or a crew of emcees that divvy up the verses, like Wu Tang Clan. Umbrella Corporation is a loose collective that includes music makers but also managers, promoters, photographers and graphic designers. They've joined forces on the creative and business fronts. It's "not a group, it is not a label, it is a union between bosses," Aych says.
Umbrella currently includes 15 emcees, two DJs, seven producers and three people involved more in the business end (including Creative Loafing Marketing Director Durium "Deacon" Jones, who helps with artist development and promoting shows to local media). They aim to put the "813" on the map and create a scene here that rivals that of Southern cities like New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta and even Miami — places that enjoy the attention of record-label suits and million-dollar sales figures. Ultimately, everyone in Umbrella wants to get paid for doing something they love. Something that's legal. Something that doesn't require a college degree, putting on a uniform or busting ass in the Florida heat.
"For me, Umbrella Corporation is an opportunity not only to sharpen my craft as an artist and performer," rapper Jersey says, "but to give some knowledge to the other less experienced people.
"Umbrella Corporation is not even so much about the music but being able to get the music heard," he continues. "It's about getting the music to other people, building a name for our organization. That's why it's comprised of not just artists, but producers, promoters, people in every aspect of the business."
Umbrella's motto is "We get results." And they do — at least on a local level. The robust Wednesday turnouts at Full Moon are an anomaly in the Tampa Bay original-music scene. Local indie rockers might draw 60 or 70 people to an occasional multi-band show at, say, Ybor City's New World Brewery. Aych's open mic regularly draws around 150 — on a night not known for pulling big crowds to Ybor.
Aych calls these regular showcases Da Cypher. The name is a term for the free-style rapping the takes place on street corners, a common practice in northern cities like Philly and New York. Members of Umbrella sharpen their skills at Da Cypher, usually by butchering aspiring rappers (the "unknowns"). Aych calls it Umbrella's "training ground."