Mickey Free | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam
The Baltimore Round Robin Tour is perhaps the local indie music’s greatest gift to the world of live performance: having several acts set up on small stages in one room at the same time, and take turns playing songs, is such a brilliant idea it’s a wonder it’s not more commonplace. There’s no waiting around between sets, no “opening act” pecking order, not even a front row because the center of attention keeps changing, just one long blitz of back-to-back performances. And the third annual All Rap Round Robin, held last Friday at Load of Fun, may have been the most ideal execution of the concept to date.
Friday’s show consisted of nine acts spread around four stages, but there was no missing the multiple crossovers and collaborations of the incestuous little micro-scene of eccentric indie hip-hop that birthed the event. The live lineup of Height with Friends included Mickey Free and Emily Slaughter of the group AK Slaughter, who each had their own slots in the round robin, and other performers included Jones, King Rhythm, and P.T. Burnem, who all contributed beats to Height’s latest album, Baltimore Highland. Even newer groups such as Food For Animals and Rap Dragons from outside that fold fell right in place with the rest of the bill, and received some of the night’s most enthusiastic responses.
In spite of the love-in of all the friends and collaborators, there was a pretty impressive variety of musical approaches on display. AK Slaughter’s frank and clever relationship rap that opened each round was miles away from P.T. Burnem’s apocalyptic sci-fi vibe, as was the Rap Dragons’ hard-hitting tag-team rhymes. But there was still something of a vague unifying sensibility-for the most part, everyone was spitting short, concise songs over laptop beats while wearing jeans and t-shirts. It’s interesting that in the age of “hipster rap,” when even platinum MCs are trying hard to wear the edgiest outfits and be as artsy as possible, the hip-hop coming out of the notoriously weird-for-weirdness’s-sake Wham City orbit is unpretentiously utilitarian and focused, admittedly in its own weird way, on old-fashioned beats and rhymes.
The show was not without peaks and valleys. The Plural MC came off a bit anonymous and never quite connected, and while many of the acts came off as nerdy or reserved but still charismatic, Jones was so relaxed and deadpan that his performances came and went without much notice. Still, that made for just a few dry spells out of four rounds, totaling 36 performances in the space of a couple hours that were raucous and fun far more often than they were dull or annoying. Clearly, the All Rap Round Robin is a tightly knit circle, given that seven of the nine acts this year were at the first event back in 2007. But hopefully it will continue to expand, without sacrificing its unique character.
The overwhelming majority of Baltimore hip-hop would clash terribly with the Round Robin scene, but there’s also a myriad of underground MCs of all stripes in the city that could mesh well with it. It’d be interesting to see the Round Robin crew reach out to some mavericks from different corners of the scene, such as Labtekwon or Born King or the Unstoppable Nuklehidz, and see how they’d fit into the mix next year. But even if they just do the same show with the same people all over again, it’ll be a hot ticket.