Hip-hop comes to the Hippodrome

Celebrating art form’s 50 years as a ‘culture-defining superpower’

George Copeland Jr. | 7/20/2023, 6 p.m.
Local rapper Ant the Symbol remembers when he first connected to the sound of hip-hop. He was 2 years old ...
Ant the Symbol

Local producer Ant the Symbol remembers when he first connected to the sound of hip-hop. He was 2 years old when he heard “Bonita Applebaum,” a song by New York-based rap group A Tribe Called Quest.

“The fact that I remember that far back and still love that song, this far down the line, is an indication that this love for hip-hop was pretty much ingrained in me from the moment I was lucid,” said the producer, whose given name is Anthony Gillison.

Born and raised in Richmond, Mr. Gillison attended Virginia Wesleyan University. After balancing music and work in the theater, he later began producing rap artists.

Since then, Mr. Gillison has built an 18-year career in hip-hop that includes several albums of his own music, as well as with legendary rap crew Public Enemy’s Chuck D of Public Enemy.

Mr. Gillison will further tap into his years in the industry during the RVA Rapper’s Delight event 6:30 p.m., Aug. 11 at the Hippodrome Theater in Jackson Ward. The event, named after one the first rap songs recorded by The Sugarhill Gang in 1979, will feature local rappers Nickelus F., Radio B. Cane, Noah-O and others.

“One thing that I wanted to do is really spotlight Richmond hip-hop,” Mr. Gillison said. “Over the years it’s become such a great movement; there’s a lot more unity now than I’ve ever seen.”

The event also will showcase hip-hop.C.I., Royal Sound Crew and Richmond’s pioneering radio station WKIE, one of the first radio stations to consistently play hip-hop.

DJ Mike Street, the event’s host, believes Richmond’s role in the genre has long been under the radar, as other parts of Virginia have had greater attention through artists such as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, the Neptunes and Pusha T, who hail from or grew up in Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

As a result, Mr. Street wants to ensure pioneers aren’t forgotten and that new artists are able to appreciate the legacy built by others.

“Whether it was MC Rockwale or Royal Sound, it’s been here the whole time,” Mr. Street said. (Daniyel Willis, also known as MC Rockwale, recorded “Cooley-Tee,” which is acknowledged as the first recorded rap song with radio airplay within Richmond’s hip-hop community), according to Soundcloud.

It’s been a big party for hip-hop this year, with concerts, parties, film screenings and over events celebrating the anniversary of the genre nationwide.

Three weeks ago rapper, producer and music mogul, Jermaine Dupri led a celebration of 50 years of hip-hop at the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans.

A week earlier, the 2023 BET Awards celebrated 50 years of hip-hop with tributes to the genre’s earliest voices, late legends, and new talent during a show packed with spectacular performances that consistently felt like a party.

And two days ago, The New York Times, which describes hip-hop’s evolution as a “new art form to a culture-defining superpower,” featured interviews with 50 of the genre’s most influential voices such as Kool Moe Dee, Eve, Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Cardi B.

Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary comes as recent album releases have been less lucrative and new singles struggle to reach the top of the Billboard charts for the first time in years.

Matthew Oware, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Richmond, studies gender, race and social consciousness in rap, and teaches a course, “The Sociology of Hip-Hop.”

Dr. Oware

Dr. Oware

Dr. Oware believes the genre has grown in meaningful ways, with artists such as Lizzo, Lil Nas X and others joining longtime figures such as Mary J. Blige, known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and Missy Elliott in challenging and expanding who can be a celebrated part of hip-hop.

In Dr. Oware’s view, this change is meaningful for a genre that has its roots in the marginalized groups. Amid a growing interest in an effort to examine the genre, critically and academically, hip-hop has clearly evolved from its origins into a unique form, he said.

“I think the 50th anniversary looks quite different than what it was at the 20th Anniversary ... and what it was at the 30th anniversary,” Dr. Oware said. “That is part of the growth of the genre — understanding that it’s expanding, that it’s growing, that it’s changing, and that it’s looking inward by having new voices.”

This evolution and expansion of the genre also is illuminated by Missy Elliott’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year in May, becoming the first female hip-hop artist to receive this honor.

Rapper’s Delight’s organizers also want to build on the ideas and interest around Rapper’s Delight and hip-hop’s 50th anniversary in general. For example, Mr. Street plans to present a more in-depth tribute to Richmond’s long history in the genre, and Mr. Gillison hopes to see more celebrations featuring breakdancing, emcee-ing and graffiti art.

“We don’t want anybody to feel that their side of hip-hop is being left out and in fact, it doesn’t even have to be for an anniversary,” Mr. Gillison said. “This is definitely something I’d like to do again before another quarter of a century passes.”

Tickets for RVA Rapper’s Delight are $30-$35. For more information, please visit shockoerecords.com.