with Bughead, Arrythmia,
Moonlight After Midnight
8 p.m. Tuesday, May 5
Back Booth, 407-999-2570
Last February, the air at Eatonville hip-hop venue Club K.O.H.A. was thick with smoke and enterprise. The 2009 Urban Music and Film Conference was hosting a talent show of sorts — a "showcase," if you think big — and Orlando's ringtone-rap hopefuls brought their best mean mugs and scantily clad backup dancers, repping their neighborhoods at the top of their lungs ("Mer-saayyy!!" screamed one up-and-comer from Mercy Drive) in an attempt to show an attending A&R rep from Atlantic Records just how 'hood Orlando can get.
Hovering around the back row were two unassuming white boys, sipping conservatively from a single drink they may or may not have sneaked past the doorman. Nelson Stowe, 21, aka the Dirt Merchant, was the first to run to the stage and grab the mic when his duo, which calls itself Not Them, was announced. Rocking a borderline ironic mullet, Stowe is a man of heft in progress; smaller in stature than the typical college brute, but self-assured enough to lay it on the line and puff his chest for respect, something he does immediately this night by asking to "borrow" a competing group's "dancers." His other half, 22-year-old J.C. "Gentleman J" Aviles, a wiry ball of energy with a curly mop of hair and a self-described "Jew nose," quickly joined him.
Theirs turned out to be a much different style than anything else on display at the showcase, a mixture of party rap and B-boy freestyle that's uglier and more country than the Beastie Boys, but more studied and intricate than post-Eminem abominations like Asher Roth (whom they admit to enjoying). Their back-and-forth colloquialisms, self-effacing tales of ramen noodles and clearance sales, and an utterly charming freestyle over a Wu-Tang beat won the crowd over, and they walked back to their car with their heads held high.
Months later it's a different scene. Hosting the Monday open-mic night at Austin's Coffee, Not Them are fully in their element. With no crowds to win over, they're able to relax and simply trade freestyle verses for hours on end, which they say is all they really want to do in life. They proudly call themselves poor party poets, and the CDs they're passing out to the café patrons bear that label as well. As Stowe works the crowd, bringing drinks to tables between songs and greeting some regulars before they can even get in the door, Aviles swigs from a shared two-liter bottle of Publix brand lemon-lime soda. The whole scene is so defiantly optimistic that one has to wonder if the movie playing next to the stage, a biopic of Joy Division's Ian Curtis called Control, is some kind of joke.
"The tape is called Poor Party Poets because that's what we are," says Stowe on a quick break from the proceedings at Austin's. "We like to call ourselves rap chameleons because we can rap on anything."
"We're boring as fuck and broke as hell," laughs Aviles. Aviles lives for these Monday nights. He calls the open-mic night the "stoke of his week," and he and Stowe, who met as film students at Full Sail and currently share a small pad together, have been attending for about a year. For the past few months they've been allowed to host the event.
Getting Aviles to sit down and talk on this night is a chore; he'll settle down for a couple of minutes, but he eyes the stage the entire time, his legs stomping out the itch to bust his next verse. Aviles' inner drive is fueled partially by a long-ago freestyle head-to-head match with local master Madd Illz, a battle Aviles lost. "I wasn't ready," he offers diplomatically.
("You can kind of pick out who is there to compete and who is not," says Madd Illz. "I remember seeing J and pointing him out to my friend, saying, ‘Watch, he will surprise everyone.' Sure enough, J gets up and begins to surprise the crowd. He was doing good but I had the jump on him. … He's a well-rounded MC.")
Although their verbal skills are solid, Not Them's good-time objective doesn't exactly endear them to the hip-hop community. "They fucking hate us, man," says Aviles. "One of them recently told me, ‘Freestyle is a dead art.' I mean, any time we hear any other rap, we get super-stoked, and the way people look at us at shows … shit kind of bothers me. I'm sorry, I gotta go rap." And Aviles is off to let it all out over Ice Cube's "You Can Do It."
"We're not up there talking about the seventh chakra of whatever," says Stowe. "Sometimes you see a hip-hop guy and it's like, ‘What the hell is this guy trying to say?' We make it so the verses have a lot of content but at the same time, even your average Johnny Pencil-dick can understand it."
Stowe's blue-collar method comes from personal experience. His father is a fisherman off the coast of North Carolina and expected his son to follow in his footsteps. "I busted my ass for him ever since I was born. I worked 16-hour days for no pay and not once did he ever thank me. Then I told him, ‘I'm trying to do music, Dad,' and he's like, ‘Fag.' I don't really have any positive influence except for my mom. She's a really cool, down-to-earth lady. But I never got any respect from my dad. I like being an entertainer. I'm an attention hog, I guess."
Aviles, an Army brat who grew up in "redneck central" Valdosta, Ga., describes his high-school experience as a skater kid in Germany as "pretty fucking epic."
Stowe looks at his watch; time to close out the night. He speaks with characteristic hopefulness, but the late hour is allowing for signs of weariness. On his way back inside, the poor party poet knocks over someone else's bottle of Izze Sparkling Juice, which probably cost several times more than his Publix soda. "Party foul, Nelson," laughs a friend. Picking up the shattered glass of his night, Stowe still seems completely at home. "All we want to do is make friends," he says of the duo.
He finally reaches the stage and shares a back-and-forth freestyle — something to do with the Mars Volta and The Neverending Story — with Not Them cohort D. Strange, while another performer who just wanted to be loved, Ian Curtis, only a couple of years older than them, offs himself on the TV. If there's a parallel to be found in the images, these two are willfully ignoring it, and their appreciative crowd follows firstname.lastname@example.org