Soon after they turned 21, a small group of hip-hop musicians playing in living rooms and at parties moved their show to the Alaskan Hotel & Bar and called it Monday Night Raw. Now, three years later, the group is throwing down for the last time in Juneau and moving out of town.
"I'm sorry to see them go. I knew this day would come and have been trying to take advantage of these guys for as long as they've been in town," said KXLL-FM program director Andy Kline. "It's gonna leave a big hole, but these guys need to get out to a bigger market. They need to see what they can do in a bigger place, 'cause they're that good."
Monday Night Raw regulars are DJ astronoMAR (Marlon Lumba) and DJ smAcK (Scott MacKinnon), and MCs AV (Jake Good, formerly known as Konsept), and Gift (Gabe Nyholm). Their last show at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar is May 19.
Kline features hip-hop from local artists on his radio shows and uses their tracks under voice breaks and station identifications. He's a fan of Monday Night Raw and recently helped organize an event, the Monster Mash-Up, featuring some of Monday Night Raw's musicians.
"There's a lot of hip-hop in Juneau, a lot of a musical scene that revolves around these guys," Kline said. "It's one of the places where new music is happening ... These guys that created Monday Night Raw have really created an outlet for hip-hop where there was none before."
DJ astronoMAR, 24, developed an interest in music while attending the gifted and talented programs in elementary school. Through skateboarding he became acquainted with the hip-hop culture and by age 17 was spinning turntables. He got the idea to make and sell mixed tapes from watching his friend, DJ Judo (John David), do it at the skate park.
Since then, he's mastered the technique of laying down music and beats for his friends to rap over - something that helped keep him off the streets and out of trouble when he was growing up.
"Around the time I started DJ'ing was when a lot of my friends were into drugs and stuff. So staying home and playing with my turntables got me away from that whole bad scene," astronoMAR said. "It kinda saved me from that aspect of life."
He went on to cofound the group Animatronics Stage Show, host a local hip-hop radio show, produce albums and win the prestigious Juice DJ battle in Anchorage three years in a row. He's performed throughout Southeast Alaska, including at the HomeSkillet Festival in Sitka and a Billabong-sponsored snowboarding event in Haines.
"Mar has this amazing tactile ability with his hands to be able to really transform the turntable into these incredibly unique and exciting sounds. He can turn a normal beat into something that's really fascinating and interesting," Kline said. "Great musicians in any genre find great things about songs - great chord progressions, great lyrics, great phrasing ... all those things that would describe any great musician. That's what DJ astronoMAR does with what he's doing."
AV, 25, became interested in the arts as early as second grade when he discovered he had a talent for drawing. "I got a sense of pride from that that I hadn't really felt from anything else, so I stuck with drawing and art," he said. From that he moved into graffiti and eventually into hip-hop.
"I was always really drawn to graffiti art because it's on its own. In the hip-hop realm, B-boying (break dancing), MC'ing and DJ'ing, it's all around the music element, the party element. Whereas graffiti is this whole subculture that doesn't have anything to do with the late night parties and the music elements," he said.
Eventually, AV moved into freestyling (improvised rapping) and writing lyrics to recite over the beats his DJ friends were laying down.
Gift, 25, grew up in Juneau and hung with the same crowd. He moved into MC'ing largely as something to do in Juneau.
"Basically we started because we were bored ... We just played wherever we were - our house, or parties, or inside the hotel. A lot of times we'd just rent rooms," Gift said. "Marlon was the first to get really, really serious about it and he kinda gave our group structure, more or less."
DJ smAcK, 23, came into the scene later. He was hanging out with astronoMAR and Gift practicing his skills before he was old enough to go to Monday Night Raw. He grew up playing drums in elementary school, which he says affected the way he spins.
"I started drumming in fourth grade, so I would definitely say that a lot of my patterns stem from drumming," smAcK said. "That helped me pick up on the turntables because it's about the beat. Mixing is all about bringing two beats together."
The idea for Monday Night Raw came about when Luke Metcalfe, 25, bartending at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, wanted to bring his friends in to spice up an otherwise slow night.
"We'd been into the hip-hop scene - me, Marlon, Jake and, at that time DJ Judo, John David," Metcalfe said. "I was working (at the Alaskan) Monday nights and basically lobbied for them to come in and play ... It made the bar a lot of money and so the management saw the potential in it and it kinda took off from there and it's been going ever since."
astronoMAR remembers approaching the bar's manager about the idea. "I turned 21 and later that winter I was like, 'Hey Scott Fry, can we do a hip-hop night here?' And he was like, 'Maybe.' So I wrote up a cheesy resume and made a little promo mix and he was like, 'Yeah.' And so we started doing it from there," astronoMAR said.
Over the years Monday Night Raw has provided a venue for DJs and MCs to develop their skills and bring in new people. On any Monday night, people from many of Juneau's cultures - including Tlingit, Filipino, African-American, Hispanic and white - are represented. Turntablists and rappers share the stage, taking turns spinning or vocalizing on the mic. Rap battles bring people together to banter back and forth in good fun.
Tlingit rappers John-John (John White Jr.), 25, and Chief (Jeremy Peterson), 29, have often MC'ed on the Monday Night Raw stage. They recently formed the Tlingit hip-hop group Northkut Wolf Pack and have used astronoMAR's beats under their lyrics for their own albums. The group sometimes incorporates local themes into their raps - like references to Gold Medal, the glacier and rainy weather.
John-John has been rhyming since he was 15. He agrees there will be a hole in the scene when Monday Night Raw ends this month.
"Somebody's gonna have to pick up the slack when they're gone. I don't know who it's gonna be," he said. "I give credit to astronoMAR and them now that I see a bunch of high schoolers rapping. Back when I was in high school I was alone, I had to teach people to freestyle just so I could freestyle with people ... Most of the other rappers were older and from out of town and there were times when I felt like I was the only one here who could speak the freestyle language. Yeah, someone's gotta pick it up," John-John said.
When astronoMAR, AV and smAcK leave Juneau at the end of May they're going to Seattle where they plan to couch-surf until they find jobs and can ease into the northwest hip-hop scene.
"I just needed some space to grow personally," astronoMAR said. "I've been here my whole life ... I'm planning to go to Seattle and live life, get out of Juneau and see what happens."
"I'm leaving to become more engaged and networked," said AV. "I want to meet other artists. I like doing my own thing, but I find inspiration from other people and I want to go somewhere where the culture is thicker."
"I'm not gonna set my goals too high," smAcK said. "I know there's a lot of competition, but I'm gonna stay focused and try to do what I do and not expect too much, but have goals that are fairly reachable and keep working and see where it takes me."
Now that the momentum for hip-hop in Juneau is established, most believe it is likely to continue. Though no one artist has stepped forward yet to take over the Monday Night Raw slot, the scene is not likely to disappear.
"I don't think hip-hop is gonna die out because DJ astronoMAR is leaving. I think he put a good print in Juneau, Alaska to keep hip-hop alive," said Chief. "Hip-hop's a way of life, it's not just something you do, you know, it's not a hobby, it's a way of life. It's a positive thing when you're able to express yourself musically."
On a recent Monday night at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, I talked with some of the DJs and MCs featured at Monday Night Raw. I asked them to explain some of the mechanics of hip-hop and go deeper into the cultural aspects. These are some of their comments.
The art of freestyling
Freestyling is improvising, or making up words and rhymes off the top of one's head. Sometimes MCs freestyle and other times they compose pieces that they memorize and recite over the beats laid down by DJs.
"You can freestyle about anything, really," John-John (John White Jr.) said. "There's five elements of freestyling. There's one, the real basic is just to rhyme anything that rhymes. As long as it rhymes, it's good. And there's another and that's where you visualize it in your head. You've heard the term 'third eye' right? It's like you close your eyes and you see everything. It's like a movie goin' on in your head and you describe it. Another way is that it's just pure emotions, you know, you're just emotional, you're just feelin' the intensity of it all, something like the spirit, you feel the spirit and you're just freestylin' stuff that just comes outta nowhere. And then the fourth way is the punchline, like, you'll think of the punchline ... you know how those track people run hurdles? It's like that, you're jumping over punchlines. Right when you do a punchline you think of another one. And the fifth element is the flow. Like the flow, the rhythm ... you can say it fast or slow or you can just change it."
Process (Ross Sparks) said freestyling is good for speaking your mind and getting things off your chest.
"Most of it's personal experience and tied in with personal opinions on whatever happens to me that day - whatever is on my mind when I come to the bar," he said. "My way of freestyling for awhile was I would just look up at the ceiling and just try to think of whatever came to mind that would rhyme and try to make sense of it, try to stay on the subject. But after a while, after I got confidence, I would start looking out at the crowd and I would look at one of my friends and make eye contact and I would have a vision, or memory from that day, or from awhile ago and I just talk about whatever comes to my mind," Process said.
"It's just anything that's off the top of your head, like, freestyle is straight off the top of the dome, it's not written," Gift (Gabe Nyholm) said. "But you can take freestyle and turn it into a written rap by writing it down."
"Basically it's hard to lie when you're freestyling because it's coming so quick that it's hard to lie. Sometimes you'll even say something that you don't want to and you're like, oops, and have to back-paddle on it," Gift said.
"Usually it's just for fun. An MC is supposed to be an entertainer, so you point out people in the crowd," Luke Metcalfe said. "(Freestyle rap battles) are just basically a trash-talking contest and they can be very entertaining if everyone does it right. No one's feelings get hurt, it's just all in good fun ... If you wanna battle you have to be prepared to be made fun of. It's who can be the wittiest and influence the crowd. It'll draw a lot of people, usually, just because conflict usually does. A little drama played out on stage."
The art of DJ'ing
DJs, or turntablists, use two turntables to mix sounds together into musical compositions. Today it's common to use direct drive turntables that are more durable, have a quicker pick-up and are designed for heavy-duty use with all the back and forth, speeding up and slowing down.
"If you have two different beats that are close in tempo, you use pitch controls on the turntables to speed 'em up or slow 'em down, whatever you need, and basically you want to make it sound like it's two songs that are one song, so it flows seamlessly," DJ smAcK (Scott MacKinnon) said.
smAcK and astronoMAR (Marlon Lumba) use the computer program Serato, which allows them to manipulate digital MP3 files through the turntables. The program incorporates special time-coded records that tell the computer where the needle is on the record.
"There's a bunch of little features you can do, like cue points, looping, speeding up, slowing down. You can even play without turntables if you want, which astronoMAR takes advantage of sometimes," smAcK said. "It's definitely a helpful tool. A lot of people when they first hear it think, 'oh, it's cheating' or whatever, but it still takes the same skill ... you just have your whole library closer to you so you can pick out whatever."
The Juneau hip-hop scene
People representing hip-hop in Juneau say Alaska has its own style, different from the urban styles more popular in the mainstream down south. At any Monday Night Raw, people from all walks of life and from many cultures come to listen and participate.
"I think that the younger people in Juneau really feel like hip-hop is one musical form that they listen to that is really for them. It's not their parents' music. It's not even possibly very accessible to other people besides them. They speak the language, they know it, they know the beats that are coming in, they all recognize, 'oh that's a Woo Tang beat that he's using,'" KXLL-FM program director Andy Kline said. "And this generation of 20-somethings right now is maybe the first generation that really grew up on hip-hop, where hip-hop was something that was in their childhood and they're listening to their whole lives."
"Alaska as a whole definitely has a different feel of hip-hop," smAcK said. "I think a lot of it has to do with how cut off we are. I mean we hear a lot of stuff and then we just kind of take it and do our own thing with it ... Everyone in Alaska is doing totally different things than what you're hearing on MTV."
"It's definitely different because we're not saturated with the culture," DJ astronoMAR said. "We have to make it happen ourselves. We can't just sit back and spectate, we have to make it available to people."
"Juneau is a different lifestyle. We don't have the gang life, we don't have the big city urban style. It's more secluded here and what I try to do with my lyrics is I try to bring out what I see every day in life and what other people are doing in their lives - put it in my lyrics," Chief (Jeremy Peterson) said. "Hip-hop in Juneau, generally, or in Southeast Alaska, is startin' to come together. DJ astronoMAR did his thing with the Monday Night Raw and he did such a good job that there's a lot of people responding to hip-hop. It used to be 'hip-hop's nothin' but violence, hip-hop's nothin' but negativity.' But now we've got a positive hip-hop scene and everybody's starting to expand."
Native hip-hop in Juneau
Juneau hip-hop group Northkut Wolf Pack features Tlingit rappers John-John and Chief. One of their pieces, "Holla Back," uses Native themes in a Southeast Alaska context: "Juneau-on't know, but Hoonah hell cares, Ain't-goon-ah do nothin' about it ... It's that Tlingit Apache rap from Yakutat to Prince of Wales Island, you can catch a Native like me, precisely, playin' ball or freestylin' ... I'm cool as a glacier, with water runnin' through, so hagoo (come here) with me down the yellow brick road, it's a Native with the sick flow." The chorus offers a call and response asking the audience to answer back with the traditional Tlingit "hoo-hah."
Though the group has been successful in blending traditional and hip-hop elements, they are careful to respect the traditional rights of ownership.
"We have to be careful about what we say in our language because our Tlingit culture has been commercialized and sold in the gift shops and stuff like that. So we try not to commercialize our culture," said Chief. "We try to incorporate our language in our lyrics, but we're very careful about what we say and how we say it."
"One of our main objectives is to influence other young artists that don't know that they're artists yet, but when they hear a Tlingit rapper on the radio, they're like, 'wow, okay, that's a Tlingit rapper right there,' and maybe he'll be influenced to either become an artist himself or be aware of (his) own culture, like 'wow, okay, our culture is alive, it is out there, it is to be heard," Chief said.
The value of hip-hop
"The reason I think (hip-hop) is valuable is because there's not a whole lot that's valuable here for people that are young," AV said. "I feel there's a lot of kids in this town messin' with bad drugs, not livin' right and it's easy to not live right when you don't have any other way to live because you live in such a tiny-ass town. I really feel like hip-hop to the right person can be a really a productive thing. You can find some kid that's getting into trouble and stealin' stuff ... and give him hip-hop. I'm not sayin' he's gonna do better, but a person that wants to do good, it's a good medium to work with."
"I think it's good because it helps you focus on one thing and you can attribute that same kind of focus to anything you want to do with yourself in your life," astronoMAR said. "It's like a good, positive, creative outlet, just as playing any other kind of instrument would be."
"Myself personally, it's kinda like counseling. You go into the studio and basically I'm talkin' to the mic and I'm letting other people know about it and it feels better, instead of holdin' stuff inside," said Chief.
"Certain rappers are out there that are making violence, it seems like they're pro-violence. But it's not what its about. It can be about fishing in Alaska, like, I rap about hunting in the woods and stuff," Gift said. "Hip-hop is all about individuality and it's just your own style and however you live is pretty much how your style is gonna come out."
"They're musicians. They play turntables. That's what they are, they're musicians," Kline said. "(Hip-hop) has value like any art has value - which is the way people express themselves. And it's a very valid way."
• Teri Tibbett is a writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at www.tibbett.com.