The crowd stood in the center of the room and turned as the lights came on, shining down on the bone-white horns. Wearing a red leather bull mask, complete with a disturbing complexion and horns bending out from the sides, Philadelphia rapper Torito’s preprogrammed beats billowed through the speakers as he laid into his fast-paced rhymes. The mask, complex lyrics and experimental beats are what make up Torito’s self-described live performance: a deluge of multi-syllabic wit, absurdist imagery, personal musing and societal reflection.
As the one song finished, the lights were killed and the crowd turned again, facing another performer as the lights came on. This was the beauty of the show; eight acts who played one song each, rotating from stage to stage as the crowd gathered in the center, unknowing of where the music would be coming from next.
Delurk Gallery in Winston-Salem hosted the Rap Round Robin on April 28. Put on by local hip-hop duo Speak N’ Eye, the show featured three rappers on tour from Philadelphia and five based in the Triad. The unique concept and show formula of the round robin — where each performer plays one song and then the stage shifts to the next act — was originated by Dan “Height” Keech, and has its origins in Baltimore.
“It all started when the Wham City collective (Dan Deacon, Keech, Nuclear Power Pants, etc.) wanted to do an interactive show that focused on audience participation,” Aaron Brookshire, who raps under the moniker Emceein’ Eye, said in an email to Triad City Beat. “The idea was for several bands to set up their own sound systems around a room in a circle, and do one song at a time complete with lights and all. After taking it on a tour and doing it for a few years, Height became overwhelmed with the time, energy and preparation it took to do it with full bands. So in 2008 he decided to start doing an all rap round robin every year instead.”
Brookshire said he helped Keech take the show on tour, specifically with shows in North Carolina. After 10 years of performances and tours, the torch was passed to Brookshire, who now holds the event annually in the Triad.
Brookshire and his brother perform under the name Speak N’ Eye. The two mix a unique, experimental style into their rap. With their opening song for the night, the duo brought a wild explosion of energy to the small underground art gallery, drawing the audience closer and closer. But as the act ended, the lights dimmed over Speak N’ Eye and suddenly illuminated OG Spliff as the audience turned around.
Based in Winston-Salem, Clifford Owens’ (aka OG Spliff) remarkable stage presence and smooth rapping blend R&B-styled beats and instruments with a vocal style reminiscent of Mos Def and Earl Sweatshirt. Wearing a red-and-white striped bandana under his hat, Owens stunned fans with a grooving vibe to somewhat mellow mini-sets for the night.
“We had him play at last year’s Rap Round Robin,” Brookshire said via email. “At that point, that was his very first show ever. We’ve had him on three shows this year and every single one he’s been 75 percent responsible for the crowds there. Spliff is the future of this Winston-Salem rap game, and I couldn’t be more excited to be helping him along and taking him under our wing for the moment.”
Other acts for the night included Philadelphia rap duo Darko the Super & ialive as well as VISITOR10, an experimental hip-hop artist whose occult-themed performance and tightly woven lyrics give a dark twist to the genre. Charlotte hip-hop artist Dallas Thrasher opened the night, followed by Greensboro rapper Grant Livesay, a member of the collective called Fella. Livesay performed with his latest project, Thin Product Shun.
The crowd cheered for more as attention shifted from artist to artist, and their thirst was quenched as the night wore on. The show format allowed for small bursts of music and amazing performances, bringing hip hop into the limelight of the Triad music scene.
“The plan is to do one show every year in Winston from now into eternity, granted I can keep doing it for that long,” Brookshire said, laughing. “I might have to pass the torch on to someone else in the future. And as you could see from the show, it’s something truly magical.”