Once a month, the sounds of locally created hip-hop music drift out of 734 Brewing's open doors during a new event series that gives audiences a front-row seat as local producers create, compete, and collaborate.
The event, called "The Plugin," invites producers to create a brand new song from the same short sample of music. A panel of judges picks the best resulting work, and its creator receives a cash prize.
The event started off small in May, but word spread quickly. On July 13, the group of competitors had grown to 17, and the audience barely fit into the brewery and its outdoor beer garden space at 15 E. Cross St. in Ypsilanti.
The Plugin's name was inspired by the many electrical plugs available at 734 Brewing, but it also refers to a chance for hip-hop content creators to "plug in" to the local music scene.
The series is the brainchild of Roderick Wallace, who in his day job serves as director of Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Upward Bound program. On the side, he's also active with several music-related groups, including serving on the advisory board for Grove Studios and founding Double Negative People, a group of content creators, business owners, and artists looking to promote positivity and use hip-hop to address equity issues. Grove Studios and Double Negative People are co-sponsors of The Plugin.
Wallace is also working on a Ph.D. degree at EMU on the intersection between music and STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).
"I began my Ph.D. program to do more research about knowledge and creativity and how valuable creation of arts is in terms of teaching self-sufficiency and self-awareness," Wallace says. "I asked myself what I could do to give a forum for producers to create, network, and have a good time."
Grove Studios co-owner Rick Coughlin says The Plugin aligns with Grove's mission and interests, and it was a no-brainer to co-sponsor the series.
"First and foremost, we're fans of hip-hop and electronic music in general," Coughlin says. "One thing we're trying to do at Grove is provide affordable access for young people to use professional gear to make music and engage in activities around the creation of music. It just felt like a really good partnership."
Wallace says that many hip-hop producers are "introverted to a degree" and often spend a lot of time creating on their own. The Plugin is a chance for them to share their knowledge and participate in the local music scene.
So far, the event has been structured as a "Dirty 30" competition. Competitors pay $10 each to participate. Each new tune is played for an audience, and a panel of judges picks the winner, who receives a cash prize generated from the entry fees.
Drew Denton, an Ypsi-area hip-hop musician who sometimes performs under the name Druzi Baby, won the first Dirty 30 "by default" because there hadn't been much advance publicity for the event, but he says he hopes to see the series grow.
"It's a chance to get producers together, nerd out, showcase our music, get bragging rights, and see what other people are doing," Denton says.
Wallace is also a member of a nationwide group of hip-hop producers who love old records and call themselves the Dirty Ol Men (D.O.M.). The group visits a different city every year to make a record and put out an album. In the past, the group has visited San Francisco and Chicago. This year, Wallace invited the group to gather in Detroit and to drop by the July date for The Plugin, where they made up about half the group of competitors for the month..
One of the D.O.M. crew members in attendance at the July Plugin was Aaron Sowell, who goes by the stage name DJ Widebody. He traveled here from Putnam County, Fla. Sowell says events like The Plugin are an important opportunity to connect and network with other music producers. He notes that modern technology eliminates distance as a barrier to collaboration.
"I just did a project with a guy in Washington, D.C.," he says. "It's very possible to meet someone you click with who can sing or rap (over my beats), and then send files through the internet. It's a beautiful thing."
Brett Fullerton, who has been making music and participating in beat battles in Detroit for many years, showed up to compete in the July event.
"It's a good chance to meet and link up with new people, and maybe down the line I'll get to collaborate with some of them," Fullerton says. "... Everyone that participated had a different style and everyone chopped the sample a lot differently than the last person. I was surprised because 30 minutes isn't a long time, but everyone accomplished the goal of making a beat and I heard a lot of good music."
Wallace says the "Dirty 30" has been a fun format, but he's hoping to mix it up at future events. He says that at some point he'd like to try a networking-style event that would be a bit like "musician speed-dating."
Fullerton says he appreciates the networking opportunity that The Plugin represents and hopes to connect some of his Detroit beat battle friends with the Ypsi event series.
"I would recommend it," he says. "I'll be at the next one for sure."
The Plugin will take a hiatus in August, but it will return in September with a back-to-school bash theme. Anyone interested in seeing video clips from past events or attending future dates for The Plugin can keep an eye on the Grove Studios Facebook page, Wallace's Instagram, and the Double Negative People website.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.