Dishing out rhymes at Pigtown's Yabba Pot

On Nightlife

March 09, 2006|By SAM SESSA

The wooden storefront of the new Yabba Pot on Washington Boulevard is painted black and pock-marked. Though it's well after sundown, the four gooseneck lamps hanging above it aren't turned on.

This kind of drab shell is common in Pigtown but couldn't be more deceiving here. Inside, the vegetarian shop bursts with color and culture.

Screaming shades of neon green and pink coat the walls. One Monday night late last month, the dull thud of a bass drum seeped out onto the sidewalk. Downstairs was empty, but upstairs, a handful of local MCs were about to pass around the mike in the first of what I hope will be many Season the Microphone Mondays.

Founded and hosted by the Unison Collective, the event is half open-mike and half scheduled performance. I didn't expect to see many people at the first one (a little more than a dozen came out), but this level of talent won't go unnoticed long. Last time, almost all the MCs spat fast, hot and smart. The next one is 8:30 p.m. Monday.

"Greetings, people," said Tislam the Great, aka Timothy Gregory, at 9:20 p.m.

Tislam is one-third of Unison Collective, whose other members are EQ, aka Ezechiel Quiroz, and Mzery, aka Chantee Williams. Tislam used to help run Spitfire Mondays at the 5 Seasons before the place moved to Guilford Avenue, he said.

"We actually had a good crowd," Tislam said. "It was kind of like a foundation for a lot of MCs in Baltimore."

Yabba Pot owner S. Skai Davis contacted Tislam about six months ago and offered him a spot every other Monday at the Washington Boulevard location, which opened in September, she said. There's also a Yabba Pot that opened about three years ago in Charles Village, Davis said.

The Pigtown Yabba Pot also hosts a live samba and soul performance called Dende every first Saturday and a hip-hop and African drumming show called Love Peace Project at 10 p.m. tomorrow.

Things really got moving with Season the Microphone Mondays about two months ago, and the biweekly series officially launched Feb. 27.

DJ Face (Sean Armstrong) spun the whole night, keeping the beats smooth and seamless throughout. DJ Face and the rest of the gear were set up at one end of the upstairs eating and lounge area. Tables, chairs, a small fountain and a plant lined the walls, but the middle of the space was left open. About 20 minutes after Tislam's brief introduction, the first MC took a turn at the mike, and the night was under way.

Tislam walked up and spewed a five-minute freestyle, waving his free hand to stress his words. Some of it was vicious, but never stupid, and it was not weighed down with curse words.

A couple other MCs had their way with the mike, then DJ Face spun for 15 minutes before Bex, aka Theodore Baylor, took the floor at 10 p.m.

For the first few songs of his 30-minute set, Bex's stage presence didn't match his lyrics. He kept closing his eyes or staring at the ground - way too wooden, considering his heated lines and beats ("biting off me is dangerous and deadly").

When Bex finished, it was back to DJ Face for a beat. The Unison Collective started about 10:40 p.m., with Mzery leading one song and then several collaborations with the trio. All their rhymes were more poetic than thuggish - more Atmosphere than Lil' John. In one verse, Mzery said, "My heart started racing like adjacent freeways."

After Unison Collective finished, they gave the mike to anyone who wanted it, then DJ Face spun a J-Dilla tribute set until midnight.

Since the Yabba Pot doesn't have a liquor license, there was no alcohol on hand, but there was plenty of $2 homemade limeade and free water to go around. My only real contention was the overloaded speakers, which popped and crackled. DJ Face could have turned it down some and still kept the beats loud enough.

At first, I thought the lack of people would keep the night from getting too energetic. Everybody was on their feet for the featured performers, and when the MCs called for hands in the air, hands went in the air.

Some of the city's best talent plays in little pockets like this all over the city. Finding them is usually the hardest part, but the search is always well worth it when you do.

"We're just trying to get something started," Tislam said.

The next Season the Microphone Mondays is 8 p.m. Monday at the Yabba Pot, 771 Washington Blvd. The featured acts are Ogun and Abrock. For more information, call 410-962-8638 or visit theyabbapot.com.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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