Artists can live a fruitful and artistically significant career entirely in the underground. One of the best examples in hip-hop is the late legend MF DOOM, who, outside of hip-hop, has some recognition, but is highly revered within the right circles of the genre. DOOM influenced more than one generation of rappers and producers, and other legends such as J Dilla helped shape an entire musical movement from the underground.
Today, the underground has branched out into its own subgenres and movements, even spawning mainstream talent. The line between the mainstream and underground gets blurrier all the time with widespread dissemination of music easier and cheaper to accomplish. This has given rise to artists that the public may never have had access to without deep research and being in the right groups of people. Among such artists can be found Quelle Chris and Open Mike Eagle, whose thoughtful, inspired styles have created excellent records over the last decade plus. They work together often and came to perform at Open Mike Eagle’s headlining show at Songbyrd Music House in Washington DC on December 4, 2022.
First up was rapper, producer, DJ, video creator and sewing enthusiast Video Dave. Video Dave introduced himself with a song and, unsurprisingly, a video to go along with it, displaying the lyrics he was rapping in a rapid, animated presentation. In between songs he let the audience get to know him better. First, he explained that he had made a video for a business that ended up getting in legal trouble. This led into a song that sampled the replacement video he made to “take over” the business, working a humorous, low-budget commercial sales pitch into the beat of his song. More of the set continued like this, using video samples in song to get the crowd listening and watching closely.
When he had the crowd in the palm of his hand, Dave spoke of a quarantine hobby he picked up, sewing. He showed dozens of sewn creations, which started to embody morbid themes by the end, full of wonderfully sewn coffins and skeletons. Video Dave explained that these were created in the summer of 2020, a period marked with protests over police brutality committed against minorities in this country. This led into a song about “what’s it’s like to get pulled over” as a black person in the United States. A powerful performance from Video Dave ensued. The audience was fully enraptured by this and the rest of Video Dave’s more lighthearted parts of the set. At one point, Video Dave also brought out Ari the Indigo, a rapper who is going to school in DC and works with Dave frequently, to energetically rock the stage.
Next up was Quelle Chris, a prolific and eccentric emcee and producer from Detroit who has dabbled in nearly as many genres and styles as he has projects. Marked by excellent sample work, his beats are unique and mesmerizing. As Quelle Chris took the stage, the crowd immediately cheered and tuned in, since this is the exact circle where the name Quelle Chris means a lot.
The set was long but welcomed by the audience. He played a smattering of songs new and old, sometimes sitting on a stool sourced from the audience, at other points standing or even running around the stage. He took plenty of time to speak to the audience. At one point Quelle Chris had everyone choose a spirit animal in their head, and then make the noise that that animal made out loud at the same time. “On the count of nine!” he said, counting up and triggering a cacophony of animal noises from the crowd. He also toasted the crowd, even those without a drink or with just water. Quelle Chris’s set had plenty of fun throughout, but the emotional core of the set was the music. From tear jerkers in the middle of the set like “How Could They Love Something Like Me” to bangers like “Obamacare” at the end, the set was structured in a satisfying arc for the audience.
Last was the headliner Open Mike Eagle. Joined by Video Dave as his chosen DJ for the evening, Mike performed many songs from his new album A Tape Called Component System with the Auto Reverse, as well as older ones from throughout his catalogue. Impressive beyond his performing ability, Mike used a sort of tablet to control the beat cutting out and coming back in. He did this throughout a handful of songs, while he was performing his more than intricate rhymes. This could almost be missed if you weren’t paying attention to Mike’s hands, you could think the stops and starts were worked into the instrumental itself. Open Mike Eagle’s stylings were exactly what the audience wanted, with the laid back, but attentive vibes strengthening throughout the set. There was also an MF DOOM tribute in which Open Mike Eagle played his own DOOM tribute song, followed by a verse from Raid, the Madvillainy classic.
Throughout the crowd there was head-nodding, some light dance-like movement, and a little bit of mouthing along to the raps. The audience was not an intense one, but a passionate one. There was a bit of everyone throughout the crowd, demographically, proving both the diversity of the DC area and the universality of the power of this and, frankly all forms of hip-hop. The show ended with a freestyle session between all of the rappers that had performed, and a few more in Open Mike Eagle’s camp that the audience hadn’t heard from that night. The refrain of the freestyle was “…we got some shoes that you should try on first/we’re freestyling now, but really y’all should buy our merch” highlighting the reality of independent rap shows like this. Despite a passionate audience, it’s not an enormous one, so the support from shows and merch are the real income for artists who cannot rely on a predatory music distribution system to pay their bills.