Sincerity is not a term that comes up often when thinking about the music business, and in the hard-knock, hustle-heavy world of underground hip-hop it could even be considered a dirty word. Standing inside an unfinished Orange County beauty shop watching backpacked elementary-school kids playing where the all-important hair chairs will someday go, it becomes impossible not to be swept up in the optimism. For now, this is central headquarters for an ambitious grass-roots DVD project called Chocolate City Live, and the inhabitants on this day wear the kind of exhausted faces that can only come from people doing what they love in exchange for sleep.
Headed by Mokah Dimes, a gracious woman who presents herself as something between an overachieving ladder-climber and a daydreaming girl next door, the DVD magazine intends to present Orlando as a legitimate source of the flossing street rap commonly associated with megacities like Atlanta and Houston.
"I used to be an artist myself and I know living down here it's hard, and it's a shame that so many `artists` have to move away outside of Orlando just to gain certain respect," says Dimes, whose real name is equally market-ready: Jasmine Cousins. "It's time for people to recognize that it's not just about Atlanta. Florida got some stuff poppin' too."
There is a tug at Dimes' leg. "Mommy, I need to go to the bathroom," an impossibly cute girl states matter-of-factly. Before Mommy's head can turn downward, the girl is escorted gently to the back by the soft-spoken, dreadlocked Knowa Logic of Orange County's Hit Connect, the first group Dimes has taken on to manage. It's proven to be a perfect fit. Logic, along with Roc Bahdum and J-Still, boasts banging trunk-rattlers on the mix tape On the Grind Vol. 1, a collection of sincerely proud tracks that shout the "407" as if blissfully unaware of the city's unproven record for generating commercial rap.
Likewise, Chocolate City Live Vol. 1 proves eye-opening in its unrestrained, hand-held portrait of the young rap community: grilled-out kids throwing up sets, bored rappers like Lil' Flip coming alive when the glare of the lens hits them and, naturally, girls in tight clothes getting their dance on in the round. It's a display that reads as innocuous, pure and utterly sincere in its love for a culture so often defined by a perceived nihilism.
"I'm into conscious music and that's a big thing too," says Dimes. "There's people from different places that live here, and the sound that's coming out is kind of … mixed up."
"She's covering a side of the grind you don't see," says Logic. "Sometimes you have major artists in these hole-in-the-wall events. She's covering the legwork on both the Caribbean and the hip-hop side, independent and major artists."
Having opened up and settled down for a couple of minutes, it's time for Logic to get his laptop out. Mix tapes don't create themselves, and he's spent long enough away from his grind for the day. Dimes tends to the little ones' snack needs, and the balance between real life and the glittery hip-hop world they are so tauntingly close to is restored for today. Orlando as a Chocolate City may lack certain mechanical requirements (black population majority; blacks holding major government positions; affiliation with the P-Funk All Stars), but as a concept it's a hopeful one. The idea that a Disney town could someday turn heads for its black culture, or that fans could go wild for a major hip-hop act without being singled out as the reason for hip-hop's downfall, is an idea whose time has come. Who better than the sincere to greet it at the firstname.lastname@example.org