Is Milwaukee Afraid of Hip Hop?

Update: Check out Shepherd Express response to this question.

Also check out The Onion’s response to this question.  This has been an amazing and honest discussion, and I thank everyone of their different point of views.

Read the Examiner’s response to this question as well.

A very interesting question.

Yes I know that there is an amazing local hip hop scene here, and people do go out to shows, but let’s look at the bigger picture.  Last night on air, I talked about the Mos Def and MF Doom show in Chicago, and how I was upset that it seems Milwaukee rarely brings any national hip hop artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli (which seems only to come to Summerfest), Zion I, Wale, etc.  Don’t get me wrong Kid Cudi was here. It is rare.  Even artists such as Erykah Badu will probably never grace a stage here (I hope I’m wrong).  If Mos Def played at the Riverside, not only it will sell out, you get people travelling to Milwaukee from all over Wisconsin instead of Milwaukeeans travelling to Chicago.

Maybe I’m spoiled. I have lived in over 10 cities including Minneapolis, which is now a major player in producing Hip Hop and bringing in amazing shows. These shows are mostly all packed.  Some people in Milwaukee tell me that booking hip hop will bring in a ‘certain’ element and they don’t want that image.  Which I say to that, untrue (I wanted to write something else).  Hip Hop sales and shows are usually dominate by the suburbs, middle class, and college students, and that is a fact across the country. Take a look at Minneapolis, which the minority population is smaller than Milwaukee  and has embraced Hip Hop.  You can see Hip Hop at almost every venue in Minneapolis including First Avenue.  Even Madison brings some great shows.  Again I hear the excuse that Madison is a college town. Again, a lame excuse.  I lived in Atlanta, and about the same distance away as Madison is Athens, a major college town.  Last time I checked Atlanta get a substantial more hip hop shows than Athens.  Plus what are Marquette, UWM, Alverno, MOSE, MIAD, MATC?  Chopped liver?.  Does these students at these schools have different tastes than other colleges in the country? I doubt it.

As I mentioned before Milwaukee has a very talented Hip Hop scene, but it seems segregated to me. Which I think that plays a role in this problem.  The local seen not only needs to be supportive of each other (you don’t have to like the music), but work together by doing shows together, and collaborating on music.  There are some artists that are doing it, but there needs to be more.

So what is it about Hip Hop in Milwaukee?  Is it fear?  Milwaukee just doesn’t like hip hop? Is it a race thing?  I want to start a discussion and hopefully start to change this, so maybe we can bring artists like Mos Def to Milwaukee.  I believe once Hip Hop is a major part of the Milwaukee arts scene other music will follow such as Electronica, Dancehall, etc. and the city will just be a better place for it.

The following are emails from listeners on their perspective on this issue:

Hey Tarik, I overheard the tail end of your comment about Mos Def playing in Chicago and not Milwaukee.  Of course I would love to see him here in my hometown, but I understand why it’s not happening.  At first glance, some might see him as a sell-out with the acting gig and the clothing line, but Dante is a vital force in the socially conscious hip hop arena (and a true artist expressing creativity in dynamic ways).  He’s not set out to play ever major U.S. city.  People who like his music will buy it (or get it by donating to Radio MKE like I did! 🙂  and true fans will travel the 90 miles south to Chi-town to see him concert.  I’m grateful that he’s playing this close to home.

I was saddened when I played the Ecstatic CD in the car for my 12 year old little sister from Big Brothers Big Sisters and after a few songs she requested that we turn the radio on instead.  Mos Def is mos definitely not mainstream among our urban youth, but I have faith they will catch on.  I’ve used a track off the Black on Both Sides album to present a visual art project while in college.  I’ve used KRS-One songs in my 5th grade classrooms to spark discussion about social injustices and to motivate students.

I’ll make the 90 mile trek to Chicago and I won’t view it as an inconvenience; it will only make the show more special.


Believe it or not, it has a lot to do with the crowds that come out. Sure, I would like to believe that Mos Def would have a sold out show at the Riverside or the Pabst. However, given the state of Milwaukee’s Hip-hop scene & how it’s becoming increasingly “stale”, the Milwaukee Hip-hop Heads aren’t backing the good shows when they do come.

Elzhi performed at Stonefly for ONLY 25 PEOPLE almost a year ago…only in Milwaukee, my dude. I will also point the finger at the CLEARly garbage CHANNELs that do nothing but blast the constant absurd, bass-heavy, one hit wonder (why) but wouldn’t play a Mos Def (much less, DOOM) cut unless the 12-19 age range flood their phones with the request.
All in all, I’m more than happy to pack up the car with “true heads” & make a road trip to see MOSDOOM. (So long as their manager gets the dates correct…*chuckle*)


What are your thoughts? I would love to know.


21 Responses

  1. If people worry and think that independent hip hop or non mainstream won’t work here, Atmosphere sold out the Riverside a couple of years ago.

  2. Great blog Tarik. I think any scene needs to be supported from the ground up, starting at the club level. If you look at any of the bands that eventually play Turner/Pabst/Riverside, most of them have played clubs in the city prior. There really is none of that support at the club level for hip hop acts. Plus, it seems that whenever a great, regular club night becomes established, it gets canceled just as quickly as it started. Reasons being grafitti, fights, etc.. Now obviously this is a problem. If I were a club owner, I would love to have hip hop a regular part of the musical fabric, but if I had to paint the walls of my bathroom after every show, I may become a bit reluctant.

    I remember Thursday nights at the Stork Club (currently Nessun Dorma) as some of my fondest musical memories of living in Milwaukee! They’d have open mic night and mc’s would get up throughout the night and have their moment on the mic. It was amazing! I would love for something like that to pop up again. That could go a long way in re-establishing a new scene that’s nurtured from the ground up.

    This is a very interesting topic and I hope more people chime in…

  3. Thanks for your input. Rock clubs like First Avenue and 9;30 club have grafitti before there was hip hop. Kids will be kids no matter what show they go to Rock, punk, techno.

  4. Very true, and I wanted to mention that point as well. I guess it goes down to the fact that unfortunately, we have no clubs like the 9:30 or First Ave. here in Milwaukee. That’s very much a part of the problem. Our club seen needs to be diversified a bit to support more genres.

  5. YES, Milwaukee is afraid of hip hop. I’ve been saying for years that we missed the bus. Along with many other factors related to the music scene. In Minneapolis, you can stumble upon great shows and venues around every corner. I think a main difference is Minneapolis made a classy scene out of Hip Hop, and here it just never developed. The clubs here downtown make me throw up in my mouth as soon as I walk in the door. If we could create a scene, people would jump on the wagon, but starting it is the hardest thing.

  6. I also think the radio stations (even us), local jouranlists, venues, artists, promoters, and bookers can do more to help the scene.

  7. 88.9 is doing a good job of that in my opinion.

  8. Milwaukee as a whole isn’t afraid of hip hop, but the venue owners sure are… and therein lies a big part of the problem.

    I saw Common with GangStarr and Floetry at The Rave in March 2003 after I had just moved back to Milwaukee. PHENOMINAL set, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way I wanted to because of the hostile way the staff greeted me at the door and treated the crowd throughout the show. I have to think that if the staff would had actually bothered to familiarize themselves with the music of these artists, they’d have known that the way they were acting was not necessary.

    It wasn’t too much longer before I found out the way they treated us was pretty par for the course at the venues throughout the city. To this day I don’t go to too many hip hop sets at the larger venues in Milwaukee because it’s just not worth dealing with the harassment. I know I speak for a lot of other people as well, and unfortunately, that’s probably done wonders to suppress the appetite for hip hop in MKE.

    Another problem (that’s not necessarily limited to hip hop) is MKE’s proximity to Chicago. For artists (like Mos) that don’t do large-scale tours and have a finite amount of dates, it’s just more economical to head to Minneapolis or Detroit from Chicago. You rarely see national artists play Baltimore AND DC or San Fran AND Oakland for the same reason.

    It’s probably gonna take until someone within the local hip hop community either opens a larger venue or at least starts doing bookings for one for things to change around here. Sadly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  9. Great comment. I can relate to your treatment. The show you went to was not like a 50 cent show or Lil’ Wayne show. I’m lived in DC and both DC and Baltimore get the national acts. Both of their scenes have evolved just like Minneapolis, and Seattle. So why does Madison get more indie hip hop then Milwaukee. People say it is the school, but Milwaukee college population is bigger than Madison if you count all the colleges here.


    I remember playing a show there with High & Mighty a long time ago and the promoter totally lost money big time and got accosted by the performers after the show. He escaped to promote again, but didn’t pay the headlining act what he owed.

    I am guessing that to bring a big show like Mos, you need the money to back it up and local promoters might not be willing to loose their ass es on shows just to support the scene, na’meen…

    This happens happens a lot of places. KC gets skipped over for STL or Lawrence Kansas. Jacksonville FL fans have to drive over to ATL to catch some dope shows too, or even up to Savannah.

  11. Also, I been looking at small market cities and I’ve notice a trend in bringing the hip hop acts that bypass Milwaukee. From Salt Lake City, to the Tallhassee’s seem to see the value in bringing diverse music.

  12. Yeah. I’m graduate of Howard. I spent two month back there this past summer. The shows are crazy now.

  13. I think that goes back to what I said about the owners of the local venue being (ridiculously, IMO) ignorant when it comes to hip hop. I’ve heard a few stories (albeit, second-hand) of independent promoters wanting to rent venues to bring national underground artists to MKE, but after all of the extra security and added costs the owners insisted upon (after hearing they were hip hop sets), they would no longer be able to pay the artists.

    Just out of curiosity, I checked Mos recent and upcoming tour dates and Chicago is the only one that’s not on the east coast or in Europe. And it looks like in 2009 he only did a handful of shows that weren’t in those areas or the west coast. I’m starting to think maybe he just doesn’t like the Midwest and Chicago is the only city in this part of the country big enough for him to feel like it’s worth coming out to.

  14. Marquette brought in Talib a few years ago (2008 I think). It was an amazing show and definitely drew a crowd. I’d love to see more hip hop in Milwaukee. I feel like all we get are a few shows at summerfest. Doesn’t carry the year.

  15. Thank you. We are doing what we can.

  16. “I also think the radio stations (even us), local jouranlists, venues, artists, promoters, and bookers can do more to help the scene.”

    Agreed, though perhaps Radio Milwaukee could also do a better job of reaching out to other local organizations that promote local music instead of acting like it’s the only thing in town trying to promote local music.

  17. There are definately some issues for sure…but the past few years has seen much more effort to build together…I credit the Miltown Beatdown for this. Part of the issue as you’ve pointed out, is that maybe people aren’t aware of each other because of the “lines” in the city of Milwaukee…but people are crossing them for that event. Also, more and more camps are starting to work together and less of the talent is isolating itself to it’s own efforts. Is there fear? Of course there is…but with every positive event, concert, promotion, etc. that happens….the more confidence those outside of the scene will have in it. I know that I’ve been to non-hip-hop events in Milwaukee that ended much worse than any hip-hop event I’ve ever been to. You can walk up and down Water Street on a Fri/Sat night and watch the Frat boys duke it out Jersey Shore style almost every weekend but they get to keep their liquor liscense. Positive things are happening in the scene, and I know you are on the pulse of that sir…it’s just been a slow change that’s finally really starting to heat up.

    That’s my .25 cents. Thanks Tarik for asking the question.

  18. If you know of organizations that we could partner with, please let us know.

  19. JC Poppe. I completely agree with you on the Miltown Beatdown. It truly unites a scene together, and the fact that it is getting bigger every year is indication that the scene is growing, and evolving.

  20. Great discussion…my friends and I often discuss this very same topic. Happy to see those with an outlet to generate a community-wide discussion have gotten the ball rolling.

  21. Hip hop is not only limited to Talib Kweli..Mos Def..etc…Hip hop is an umbrella of Rap artists like Lilk Wayne…T.I….Black Eyed Peas etc…and over the past four years there have been multiple hiphop concerts thorughout Milwaukee..hosted at the Bradley Center…U.S. cellular Arena..and Milwaukee theater..So I definately don’t feel like Milwaukee is afraid of Hip Hop..Maybe Hip Hop is afraid of Milwaukee, because there’s no profit being made her in the hip hop industry.

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