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Nashville Scene Spot On

Local urban/hip-hop/poetry showcase celebrates two great years

By Jim Ridley

JULY 5, 1999:  The room was bigger. The crowd was bigger. The emcee was different. But in other respects, the second-anniversary edition of The Spot was much the same as the night it first started, June 22, 1997, in the tiny performance space above Bongo Java. For three-and-a-half hours last Sunday night, at The End on Elliston Place, the small stage was crowded with open-mic poets and daredevil rappers, with booting funk bands and a cappella harmonizers.

As volunteers passed through the crowd, lighting candles at each table, host Jon Royal warmed up the room with a round of The Spot's game-show segment, "Name That Groove." Two players were drafted from the audience, and while the house band cooked up classic funk riffs, the contestants competed to guess the song first. On this night the winner was John Kilcrease, even if Royal and the crowd groaned in mock dismay when Kilcrease misidentified Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" as "Superstition."

At more than 150 people, the audience was larger than at The Spot's original shows. But when regulars such as performance poets Rahz and K-Love took the stage, they were greeted like returning family. What's most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that this family has been together for such a short time: Two years ago, there simply wasn't an outlet that encouraged collaboration between urban, hip-hop, and spoken-word performers. That so many people showed up to celebrate The Spot's anniversary says much about its galvanizing presence in the local music scene.

It's hard to imagine, based on Sunday night's attendance, just how difficult it has been for local African American artists (apart from multi-racial rock bands such as Jack Johnson and Dreaming in English) to get regular club bookings. "If you didn't have a track record of selling beers, no restaurant or bar or club would take the risk," Spot cofounder Kimberly Steger says.

A Nashville resident since 1992, Steger had coordinated an urban-music night for the NEA Extravaganza in '97. At the same time, local alliances like the Society of Black Artists (SOBA) were attempting to unite the many strands of Nashville's urban-music scene. Steger and Christopher Davis, a.k.a. DJ cool.out, came up with the idea of a regular free-form showcase, not just for hip-hop but for poetry, soul, jazz, and "anything else with an urban aesthetic," Steger says. Davis came up with the name "The Spot."

Ken Bernstein at Bongo Java After Hours was the first to offer The Spot a home. The first evening featured a solo turn by Jack Johnson's lead singer, Kurtis McFarland (now Nadir Omowale), along with folk/hip-hop vocalist Iayaalis and poet Keisha Rucker; a sizzling house band composed of Mark Nash, J.C. Teasley, Melvin Brown, and Percy Person backed singers and spoken-word artists alike. Steger and Davis spent weeks getting the word out, even getting bounced from Starwood when they tried to distribute flyers. But when the doors opened for The Spot that Sunday night, 94 people packed the den-sized room. Two weeks later, the crowd had swelled to 121 people, and dozens more who were turned away stood outside listening to Count Bass-D and singer/poet Jeff Carr.

Over the next two years, The Spot became a magnet for what Steger calls "Nashville's urban progressive culture." It only grew more popular after the release of the movie love jones, whose romantic vision of an African American bohemian community subtly changed the technique of The Spot's freestyling verbal performers. Open-mic segments began drawing a core group of "house poets" such as Church, Rahz, Ara, K-Love, and Shellie Warren. The showcase's focus widened to include jazz combos, turntablists, hard rock, visiting authors like former Real World cast member Kevin Powell, and even the deranged shock-theater troupe Holtzclaw, who climaxed one show by leading the entire audience in a chorus of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane."

At the same time, the spoken-word content became charged with social comment, as when Keisha Rucker and Anthony Cunningham hushed the crowd with a piece called "I Got the AIDS." As The Spot resurfaced in newer, bigger venues, its audiences grew more varied. At one show on Lower Broadway, the predominantly African American crowd was joined by groups of German tourists. In all that time, the showcase never missed a show date--even when tornadoes ripped the city apart in April 1998.

Since moving to The End last December, The Spot has undergone a few changes--the most notable being the departure of cofounder and longtime host DJ cool.out in February. Last Sunday, however, The Spot was what it had always been: an exciting cultural collision point where anyone could feel welcome. The unpredictable singer/bandleader/producer Bo electrified the crowd with songs that welded Josh Burns' dazzling acid-rock guitarwork to funk grooves and irresistible glam choruses. And despite stiff competition from crowd favorites K-Love and Ara, the poetry challenge was won by a first-timer: a Pakistani poet named Masood Raja.

"I've never even been here before," enthused Raja, a Vanderbilt student. "My friends brought me." After two years, The Spot continues to prove that in Music City, the city limits extend far beyond Music Row.

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