YDH in This: How Rapping Creates Community by James Love I called Joe Woods, one of the members of YDH that I know pretty well. I am calling to ask him if he would be able to make it to the spit session tomorrow night because I would be interviewing the group after the session ended. “Yeah, I’ll be there,” Woods said. I didn’t believe him. He was in Florida. The session was tomorrow. But I accepted his words and hung up the phone. I was excited to get a chance to cover these guys. YDH is a group of rappers in Burlington, NC, that have these ritualistic spitting sessions where they come together for one reason: because it’s natural for them to *spit and rip beats for hours. YDH, which consists of rappers Dead Mike, Bill Molo, Joe Woods, and Steve Merle, spit every chance they can throughout the day. Whether they are getting local produce from the market or heading to the bar for brews, YDH doesn’t believe that spitting is prohibited anywhere. Whether they are all together or separated, they spit. They walk around, living their lives, working their jobs, learning from their schools, all the while spitting. But their religious gatherings are where the magic is made, and I am attending the ritual the following evening. The day arrives. I pull up to a huge mansion-like home, tucked away on a road in the city of Burlington that few travel. This has got to be the Manor, I thought as I parked my white Altima. I called Dead to be sure this was the spot. “Come around back,” he said. I grabbed my pen and pad, got out the car, and did as I was told. I walked around the side of the house and to the back, walked into the door, and before I could greet the rappers, I hear Dead command, “take your shoes off before you step on the floor.” It was like the burning bush telling Moses to take off his sandals. The manor may not be considered holy ground, but YDH, as a group, look as if they are preparing themselves for confession. The microphone is their priest. The room we were in reminded me of a college dorm room. The smell of strong weed and waffles acted as incense. Beer bottles are on the table, and
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paper and pens. A cat named “Cat” and a small, furry, black puppy named “Magnus” wrestle on the carpet. An instrumental is blaring through the computer speakers. This is what I call cool. “We’re taught to think too much in school,” Steve told me. We were eating waffles while Bill, Woods, Mike, and Merle had a spit cipher on the other side of the room. “Here, at this creative space, it’s cool to not think so much,” he continued, “this is where we find freedom. This is a place for making sick lines. It’s artists making art.” Steve gets up and goes to the microphone, ready to spit, hyped from lines he heard in the cypher. His eyes are closed and his body is rocking. With each word he spits, he moves his hands and body to match the rhythm of his delivery. I find a moment to ask Dead why the group seems to deliver such intense rhymes. "It's iron sharpening iron," Dead Mike, who lives in the Manor said, "you spit what you got, we spit what we got, and we feed off each other's energy.” As the night goes on, I began to see what Dead was describing. I noticed that the lyrics that were popular evoked sizzles, moans, and at times, prompted people to walk out of the room. I learned from Dead that the tradition of spitting started at least seven years ago. Dead tells the history of the spit session, or as much of it as he remembers and knows, quietly as Steve spits. "It was me, Bill, and Steve at this apartment I had just moved into,” he explains, “I think I had asked them if they listened to the Cool Kids. They did, and I was like well, do y'all spit? We kicked some lines, and that's how it began.” Woods, overhearing Dead and I somehow, despite Steve’s spitting and our talking low, says “I jumped into the spit circle after having a debate with Steve about whether or not Marijuana is a bad thing for the country. I remember him and Bill bringing up the idea of going to Harris Teeter to get some free cookies. Me, Steve, Bill went to Harris Teeter, sat in the parking lot, and spit for hours. We smashed them cookies too!” Steve finished spitting and took off his headphones; dissatisfied with the lines he just spit despite the group telling him that the lines were hot (and they were), he asked Blink, an awesome producer within YDH, to *“run it back.” After the session was over, the atmosphere was filled with this energy that
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sat against your lightly against my face. It was warm, but intense. It was the sign that lyrical magic had been made, and the rappers were all sitting down on comfortable chairs and sofas. Still curious about the history of the group, I asked if anyone could recall when spitting went from fun to fundamental. Bill looked thoughtfully to the ceiling. He began telling a tale about some lines Steve had weaved together early in high school. “Steve got shit poppin’ with his early lines,” Molo said, “he spit the lines that started our evolution as spitters.” Remembering the lines, Steve spitt freely and effortlessly rhymed, "everythang poppin' and everythang shakin’/ ya bitch steady eyein’/ so ya bitch got taken/ 9 minutes later, yo bitch got naked/ and 9 months later, yo bitch havin’ babies." The lines, looking past the crude language, spoke about the nightclub scene and the reality of women getting pregnant from one-night stands. Those themes were nothing new in the rap world. In fact, they were (and are) realities. Steve was, as he would say, “a product of his environment. Ain’t it funny?” I started to see how the rappers sometimes used their rhymes to describe the realities of their life experiences. “We've grown up, though,” says Steve, “so the lines are more potent and real.” But growing up has also served as a small setback for YDH. Though they were lyrical artists, the men each had to live their respective lives. Bill stays in Maryland where he works as a lifeguard and is learning massage. Steve is in Palm Bay, Florida, still spitting fire tracks, and on top of delivering lines, he delivers pizza too. Joe Woods is anywhere he wants to be. He is cool as long as he can play basketball and make money. And Dead Mike is taking care of college homework and putting together a mixtape. He, and Steve, have music posted to Soundcloud. The group insists that the distance has not kept them from spitting. They tell me that they find a way to record freestyles, text lines to one another, and of course, retreat to the Manor whenever they are in town. “The manor used to not have a microphone. But now the manor has a mic,” said Dead excitedly, “and now we can just come together to make track after track after track, written or freestyled, and tell about what’s going on in our worlds, you know?”
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After momentarily spacing out, staring at a bronze tiger head that sat on a fine wood cabinet table, I asked the group, now that they are a little older, why they spit. You would have thought I told them they were taking a final exam. They all cringed, and a couple of them scratched their heads, a couple of them covered their faces, but Bill was the first to speak. “That's a tough question. That's like asking a bird why it sings or a fish why it swims," he said. Merle called spitting “natural” to them and compared it to visual art, saying, “I think the goal of the artist is to present a visual to express themselves. When we spit, though we use words, we create visuals too—mental visuals.” Steve went on to say that spitting “is the one place you can go to and say whatever you want whether it makes sense or not--you have the freedom to do that." Dead, slightly more analytical in his approach, said that spitting "offers an escape. You spit to relieve yourself of what you feel and think." Woods smiled and said, “It’s what we do, man. I mean, why is Mr. Irving so good at basketball?” All good answers, yet by the looks on their faces, there was a hint of disappoint. They looked as if they had given the best answers that they could have given, but still didn’t do justice to explaining why they spit. They snapped out of their daze quickly, though, and began speaking about the positive unifying power of spitting. They all supported spitting because it brought them together, literally. Spitting is the string that unites them. Their friendship was in many ways created through spitting, and is sustained in many ways by spitting. Spitting is their foundation. But it is the talks they have that come as a result of their being brought together that seem to be just as important. “We’ve had so many in depth conversations after spit sessions where we’ve learned a lot from each other,” Woods said. Processing Woods comment, I understood that spitting was the foundation, but it was also an outlet for the rappers learn about local and worldly happenings. They preferred to learn from each other. Spit sessions were not just spit sessions, I learned, but also a way for them to exchange information, and that exchange has been crucial for their development as artists. Steve added that spitting made him feel like he owned something. “You
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know, we ain’t got a lot right now, you know, in terms of fancy items and owning businesses and what not, but spitting gives us something we can call our own. When we spit, the words effortlessly flow through us. Whether they were recorded or given to the wind, they are our creations. No one can take them from us. We can only give them to the world,” Steve said. A sense of ownership seemed important to him. From how he delivered his momentary, super minimonologue, I could tell that Merle felt spitting was something they were responsible for like how the CEO is responsible for his business. That it was up to them as artists to take responsibility for their art, and to push it as far as they can. Finally getting an understanding of what’s inside of these guys, I ask them what their future plans are for the group. Dead takes a sip of coffee. It is late, 3:40 am, but the spirit is still alive in the room. And I sense that though the group’s attention is waning, they are willing to talk a little more. “We have opened sessions up to other rappers and hope to collaborate with various artists and rappers in the future. We like the idea of collaborating with community artists and local acts with the hope that we together can create something good for the community,” says Joe Woods. Dead adds that the group is planning a black screen community-speaking event. “It’s basically the chance for members of the community to freely express themselves while standing behind a black screen, keeping their identity hidden, but their voice heard. They can read a speech, rap, read poetry, tell a story—whatever they got to do to relieve themselves of their burdens. There are not a lot of opportunities, especially here in Burlington for people to just say what they want, to freely express themselves. No formal talking, or nothing like that. Simple, free expression is what we need, and we need a space in the larger community where that type of expression is praised and encouraged,” explains Dead, “We recognize that part of the reason we turn to spiting lines is to be heard, to be recognized, even if it is recognition from our peers. Times are hard. And people need to have their voices heard!” But the community vision is larger than having a few people express themselves behind a black screen, or collaborating with local artists. It’s about
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directing people’s focus toward the talent they have in their own communities. People are worried about making enough money to earn a living. Few have time to listen to amateur rappers, even fewer are interested in doing so. Why would they be? They'll hear rap on the radio, or listen to mainstream artists, but YDH recognizes that that’s got to change. The group agrees that people have got to start supporting local artists the same way they need to support local farmers. By supporting local artists, money is kept within the local economy, and the support helps develop the community's culture. “Our community needs events like the black screen event. People need to know that supporting local events keeps money circulating within the community. I think a lot of people are tired of their money going in the pockets of some big time CEOs who could care less about the community’s culture,” Steve said, “but if they knew that buying locally and supporting local acts kept money in the local economy and in the pockets of their neighbors, church family, and co-workers, I think it makes it easier on the supporter to give their money.” YDH is on to something. Keeping money within your community through supporting cultural events in your own backyard, so to speak, also benefits supporters who now don’t have to drive miles to bigger cities to participate in great cultural events. Gas is still expensive for a lot of people. YDH seems to be trying to adjust people’s focus to their immediate surroundings. I commend them, and hope their efforts prove to be fruitful. I like their idea of keeping money in the community in order to enrich the entire community. It’s now 5 am. I’m tired. YDH is tired. In fact, Joe Woods fell asleep an hour ago. I figure I’ve asked enough questions and spent enough time with the guys to write a piece on them. I thank them for their time, and they each shake my hand, but not just any handshake. They teach me YDH handshake, which to an observer, looks like a complicated combination of slaps, a fist bump, and a salute. I felt a part of YDH’s, well, movement. These guys are more than rappers. They are artists with an amazing consciousness. I get into my Altima and drive off. I’m on my way to grab some breakfast, but I can’t stop thinking about YDH. Right then and there in my car, I decided to
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give my life to YDH like a Christian would dedicate his life to the church. I decided that, like them, I want to create art and have a positive affect on my community. I decided that, like them, I wanted to be free and natural. I decided that, like them, I was ready to use the talents God gave me to make my community a better place to live. I decided that, like them, I wanted to be a part of contributing to the culture of my community. I tried spitting to myself as I waited in the drive through line at Biscuitville. But I found myself recycling lines that I had heard from YDH’s spit session. It was as if they had casted a spell on my head: a spell that persuaded me to spit their lines, and one that inspired me to improve my community. And as far as my heart, if it could sing, it would croon, as Dead Mike does on tracks, “YDH in this.”
* “Spitting” is freestyle rapping; “to spit” is to freestyle rap; “ripping beats” means to rap amazingly well over an instrumental; “run it back” means to start the beat or song over.
About the writer: James Raysean Love is a freelance writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. He has published a poem “Where I Got My Language from,” an article “Meta Force Be With You,” and plenty blog posts (number89-99.blogspot.com). He is currently exploring, practicing prayer & meditation, and writing daily.