James “Cash” Woods used to watch movie and television titles appear and disappear on the TV Guide Channel. After about two years of practice, he could improvise punch lines that incorporated the names of the shows, sometimes even the content of movies that he had seen.
Cash and his brother and collaborator Kasheem “Sheemo” Luna don’t represent the norm in New Haven rap. While most New Haven rappers try to gain fame by competing in battles for money, Cash and Sheemo focus on recording tracks. It’s not that they lack the skill or wit to freestyle competitively; during our interview Sheemo proved his lyrical prowess to me by rapping about words that I shouted out every few seconds. The reason for focusing on albums stems more from a desire not to be unconfined by one set genre and style.
“People look at it like one aspect. ‘Oh, they rap. That’s rap. That’s gangster rap,’” Sheemo said. “In New Haven, a lot of us know that you just being one way is not gonna sell.”
I heard the same mention of musical flexibility from Jay-Quan “J-Dice” Dixon, the de facto rap battle champion of New Haven. “I’m real versatile, I could be an aggressive rapper, I could be a smooth rapper,” J-Dice said. He even mentioned that he had recently worked on two rock songs, one of which “was kind of heavy metal.”
J-Dice is a well-known name in New Haven, especially in his home town of Newhallville, or “The Ville.” A video of one of his most famous battles, against New York City rapper Cortez, has over 78,000 views on YouTube. The battle is full of whimsical wordplay, including such lines as, “You wanted beef,/Now you’re surrounded by shells,/You’re a taco.”
J-Dice’s battles reach audiences not only through YouTube but also on Cuzin Twiz TV, a show produced by Twan “Cuzin Twiz” Singleton, or as he describes himself,the “go-to guy if you want to be exposed.”
Cuzin Twiz gained publicity after a video he filmed known as “Rap Battle Turns Crazy” was featured on truTV.
Here in the New Haven rap scene, he’s seen as something of a guru. He moved to New Haven from New York in 1989, and spent years as a drug dealer before he launched Cuzin Twiz TV, which he operates from a photography studio on Dixwell Ave. called Fun City. Twiz views rap, and music in general, as an alternative to more dangerous lifestyles—“an outlet to release the beast,” as he calls it. “What they call me is an O.G.,” Twiz said. “My job is to encourage some of the brothers to stay in school, put down the gun.”
Twiz has seen the musical consequences of neighborhood quarrels over the years, including one key rivalry between crews from The Ville and Kensington Street Incorporated (KSI), a crew from the area south of Whalley Ave. MCs from KSI and DJ Bink B of the Ville put out weekly battle mix tapes, which Twiz describes as “classic music.”
But the bickering has also hindered the rap scene. Though the neighborhood quarrels have quieted down in recent years, Sheemo and Cash recalled a time just a few years ago when Cash, from The Tre (a community on the south side of Whalley Ave.), was unable to attend shows or battles in Sheemo’s neighborhood, The Hill (the area surrounding Howard Ave.).
Currently, Robert “D-skee” Hofler hosts most of the local battles at Exclusive Styles, the hip-hop clothing store in Amity, Conn. that D-skee manages. He was inspired to start hosting battles in Mar 2010 by a rapper named Clint-Gee who was looking for a battle venue. D-skee’s next monthly battle is this Sunday night, Jan. 30.
Before the battles at Exclusive Styles, though, Jimmy’s Hip-Hop in West Haven was the rap battle venue of choice. After BET’s 106 & Park’s Freestyle Friday and a rap battle video series called the Smack DVDs raised hype around the rap battling community, Ismael Melendez, the store manager, resolved to seek out local talent. “I would make sure the guy was credible,” Melendez said. “If he sounded hot and had a crew behind him, I would say, ‘Okay.’” Melendez stopped hosting battles when he couldn’t find any talented rappers willing to battle J-Dice.
Most people involved in the New Haven rap scene don’t seem to think the city has one definitive style. “Battle rapping has a similar style altogether,” Melendez said. “I don’t think there’s anything different unless the rapper himself is different.”
Sheemo and Cash agreed, adding that New Haven rappers exemplify a defined East Coast style. “We’re more about lyricism,” Sheemo said. Cash explained this differs from the typical Southern artist “who’s just gonna give you a nice hook and a nice beat and make you want to dance to it,” Cash said.
Even if New Haven does not have a distinct style, the city’s features, including Yale, often make their way into local rap lyrics. J-Dice described how many battle rappers visiting New Haven don’t know that much about Connecticut. “When they do know Connecticut, they think Yale.”
For Sheemo, the connection to Yale is even stronger, since he works in the Morse College Dining Hall. In fact, Sheemo and Cash collaborated on a number of tracks with Jason Chu, MC ’08. Chu is currently in Beijing and working on three separate rap projects, including one bilingual collaboration, under the name Grand Master Chu.
Chu described how, as an Asian American Yale student, he preferred to work with rappers on a “man to man basis” and not battle at venues like Exclusive Styles. “It’s not an equal opportunity playing field,” Chu said. “Hip-hop is not mine.”
While some of the battle venues are further than many Yalies will travel, even Toad’s hosts frequent hip-hop showcases featuring local talent. J-Dice will be performing at Toad’s at a showcase on Wed., Feb. 2. New Haven hip-hop is also accessible online; the extensive collection of New Haven rap battles on YouTube is a gem for any hip-hop aficionado.
The rappers mentioned here are really only a few of the major players in New Haven. Names such as Wiley Don, STR, Mook’n’Fair, Tone B, Young Blake, and Gage consistently pop up in discussions with local hip-hop experts. With so many talented artists around, it seems strange that perhaps the only New Haven hip-hop artist who has enjoyed great commercial success is Stezo, who tellingly titled his most recent album “C.T. (The Lost State).”
One rapper, who wishes to remain anonymous, feels that the reason New Haven artists have so much trouble achieving commercial success is the lack of a proper venue. According to him, the demolition of the New Haven Coliseum was a major blow for local rappers, since they can no longer open for mainstream counterparts without a performance space to attract these big name acts. Cuzin Twiz, Cash, and Sheemo all claimed that the best route to prominence at this point is unity and letting neighborhood bygones of the past remain bygones, thus allowing the best artists from all over the city to collaborate on tracks.
“We have to stick together in New Haven first,” Cuzin Twiz said. “Once they believe it’s here, then you’re making noise.”