Representing in the Gate City: Hip hop and other constituencies
The rapper Celinski shares a couple things in common with former Greensboro mayor Jim Melvin.
They’re both veterans of a sort: Melvin of the messy business and political arena that propels this New South city; and Celinski of the Gate City hip hop scene, which boasts some prodigious talent and some respectable indie production resources but has so far struggled for notice in a wilderness of apathy between the bright lights of Hotlanta and New York.
Both are proud boosters of their respective realms. Melvin takes pride in the bobblehead doll sold at his beloved First Horizon Park. As a force behind Action Greensboro he revels in the downtown resurgence that could never quite be accomplished in his six terms in office. Celinski meanwhile is watching the Greensboro hip hop scene come of age and gain some proper respect.
And just as Melvin was once mayor, Celinski aspires to be mayor.
The 27-year-old Celinski, whose real name is Douglas Rankin, carries his hulking physique with a suffer-no-fools countenance, a personality that is reserved, even solicitous until the point of explosion when he emerges as a hard-rock rhymer.
His rap partner Ethemadassassin, AKA Erskine Hawkins II, remembers when he first heard Celinski as a first-year A&T student doing an internship at 90.1 FM.
‘“I met him when he was sixteen, still in high school,’” Hawkins says. ‘“I thought he was a lot older. We was always freestyling in the parking lot.’”
With three albums under his belt and a fourth on the way, Celinski has observed the ebbs and flows of the Greensboro rap scene. After he started seeing rap package shows with artists like Run DMC, LL Cool J, Whodini and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, he started selling his freestyle tapes at high school. He got a song played on Power 97 at the age of 15, and one of his groups opened the first SuperJam in 1997.
‘“One of the biggest reasons that our area hasn’t blown up is people didn’t stick together,’” he says. ‘“Now it’s becoming a movement. Everybody has talent. We’re gonna make this a place of music. You’ve got Brandon D, Gav Beats, Othaz and Ill Position ‘– a lot of people supporting each other trying to stand together. We’re fans of each other.’”
The quality of the rap output these days is forcing lyricists to step up their game, he says, as he sits at a booth at the Blind Tiger before the sound check for his showcase in front of the Kaos Mathematics DJ collective. He notes the excitement of hearing his song, Brandon D’s song and a track by P-Wonda and Ricco ‘– all local artists ‘– in straight sequence on 102 JAMZ on Labor Day afternoon.
In this late era of artistic saturation and major label concentration there are two models for success: cutthroat competition or collectivity. Celinski sees a rising tide lifting all boats, and he would like to be both the boat and the tide.
After a sweaty performance wraps up at about 1:30 in the morning with the bartender swooping up stray bottles, he puts it this way: ‘“It’s a family affair. We all gonna support each other. That’s how we’re gonna get over.’”
Following the sound check, Celinski disappears. Like any savvy politician, he creates a sense of anticipation and mystique by his absence. Round about midnight he calls Top Dawg, who’s opening the show, on his cell phone to see how the room’s filling.
‘“I ain’t gonna lie to you,’” Top Dawg says. ‘“There’s about fifty people here.’”
But the room does fill. A lot of the crowd are other MCs selling their CDs, promoting their own showcases, and showing support to their fellow lyricists. Two DJs from the Kaos Mathematics crew, SK and Special Guest, are spinning records, mixing smooth R&B, electroshock and the Beastie Boys on the turntables.
Rod Johnson, the 102 JAMZ DJ who goes by the rap name Skivo, revs up the crowd with a patter of toasts, going back to the early years when the DJs were the main attraction and the rapper literally was more or less the master of ceremonies. He shouts out the other MCs in the house ‘– B-Star, Mr. Rozzi, Ghenghis Khan ‘– a list that seems to never end.
Sitting on a stool on the side of the stage, he chats on his cell phone and periodically throws out PSAs: ‘“We’re gonna start the show in about five minutes, y’all’… Bringing Top Dawg to the stage. Top Dawg! Blazing it up for you. Hot joint’… I need Ethemadassassin and Celinski to come to the stage right about now. The people are ready for you’… Celinski got a song called ‘At the Bar.’ That’s where they’re at’… Celinski’s on a campaign right now, if you don’t know. He’s running for mayor. Ethemadassassin is his running mate. He’s doing it for the ‘boro. He’s doing it for NC.’”
For the record, Celinski for Mayor is the name of the artist’s next album.
When Celinski and his crew hit the stage, they tear it up like lyrical fists, like an unrelenting storm. Celinski drops a brutal sequence of rhymes in his booming voice, as the voices of the other MCs in his crew ‘– Ethemadassassin, Metaphor and Trail ‘– swirl furiously around him. A female MC called Juicee sits on the stool vacated by Skivo, biding her time.
They cover about an hour’s worth of material, throwing down a party, and lyrics that are mainly lost in the mix. They hit Celinski’s ‘“How Will I Know?’”, a song that in typical fashion enunciates the strange moral compromises of survival and defies the ever-present specter of hopelessness.
‘“I tell the fiends it’s diesel even though it’s mostly cut,’” Celinski observes wryly. ‘“I’m at the corner posted up or at the bar toasted up/ Drinking ’til I throw it up/ They say Celinski’s dope is f*cked. But I’m broke as f*ck.’”
If Celinski’s message is not the most progressive for the polity he hopes to represent, credit him at least for a sense of self-awareness and empathic poignancy.
Towards the end of the set Celinski and crew launch into the riotous ‘“At the Bar.’”
The narrative begins with the rapper noticing a stripper, acknowledging his desire while suppressing his feelings: ‘“I see you swinging on that pole/ I’m really trying to get that, Shorty/ I got some money in my pocket/ I’m really trying to hit that, Shorty.’”
Then it switches over to a warning to rivals who might upset the party, with: ‘“I got my killas in the back/ Trying to hurt something/ You say they’re talking about Celinski/ They ain’t worth nothing.’”
Then he declares: ‘“You got a beef with me? I’ll be at the bar f*cked up.’”
Near the end of the song, Juicee ‘– who by day cuts hair under the name Deon Siler at Headlinerz Barber Shop on Randleman Road ‘– leaps off the stool and jumps into the fray, swinging a mic in one hand with a beer bottle clutched in the other.
Spitting lines that Celinski wrote for her, she raps: ‘“You want to get behind a chick so you can blast off/ Next thing you know you hit the asphalt.’”
Then she throws out the songs delicious retort: ‘“I’ll be at the bar drinking ’til it’s last call/ You need me?…’”
And the crowd roars back: ‘“I’ll be at the bar F*CKED UP!’”
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