Just a few years ago, Lawrence was a rock town. Period.
Sure, there were those with hip-hop visions, but they weren't to be found on flyers nor on stage. Not yet.
As late as the mid '90s, one of the few hints of the coming hip-hop hype was a Saturday night show on the student radio station, KJHK 90.7. The summer of '98 brought "Breakfast for Beatlovers," a five-day-a-week forum that allowed a scattered hip-hop community to coalesce on-air.
Then The Pool Room opened its back-room doors to hip-hop shows, unleashing the scene as it is today.
"Before The Pool Room was really established, local hip-hop shows did not play in venues like The Bottleneck" says Jon Allen, director and producer of "Looking For Today," a recently released documentary on local hip-hop. "Back then, people like Approach would have to play house parties because no one would give them the time of day."
Allen unveiled his 36-minute documentary in late May.
He got the idea for the project in the fall of 2000 when he lived with Miles Bonny. The pair was inspired by Archetype, a young hip-hop trio who they knew from Hashinger dorm. Bonny would later focus on his own beats and go on to form SoundsGood with lyricist Joe Good.
Allen, on the other hand, put his eye to the lens and never looked back.
"I just started to see this potential, (this) blossoming scene and I thought it's the perfect time to document it -- right in the beginning," says Allen, a recent Kansas University graduate. "They were about creating a scene and they have. It's inspiring to any artist."
After taping several shows in Hashinger, Allen set to work on what became a first-draft of the current documentary. He put together a short film about bands featured on Lawrencehiphop.com, a site started by Bonny with fellow KU students Andrew Giessel and Kevin Greene. By spring of 2002, Allen had immersed himself in the budding hip-hop scene, attending as many as three shows a week and interviewing individual artists.
Allen cited the SoundsGood CD release party that took place at The Bottleneck last September as one of the standout events he attended.
"There were so many people there," he says. "All the artists know each other. They're not necessarily competing; they're all helping each other out. That's why I wanted to make the film, because it's a rare thing to see that kind of community."
No place like home
That kind of community didn't come together overnight. Among the prominent themes in the short film is the struggle of independent hip-hop artists to find places to play.
"Something that became clear to me is that hip-hop is put on the sidelines," Allen says. "I think it's a secondary choice for a lot of venues."
Allen cites the willingness of The Pool Room to promote hip-hop shows as a sea change in the attitude of local venues.
Another facet of the local music community highlighted in the film is the willingness of artists to record albums with or without a record deal.
"An important part to get across to any kind of independent artist is: Look what you can do all by yourself, look what these guys are doing all by themselves," Allen explains. "They're creating a scene without the support of a major label, with just the support of some local people who believe in them."
However, the lack of record company support mentioned in "Looking For Today," may soon be a thing of the past. Approach is returning from a recent tour in California and has been signed to Coup d'Etat records, a New York label that features artists such as MC Paul Barman and J-Live.
Other Lawrence hip-hop artists are catching their stride as well. Archetype's album, which was self-released last year, still enjoys consistent air-play on KJ's "Beatlovers"; SoundsGood has planned a tour through the Midwest; and Mac Lethal is returning from performances in Boston and Chicago.
Mac -- a 2001 Scribble Jam finalist known for his battle rhymes -- is featured in one of the film's five artist segments in a visually enhanced live performance scene. Allen says the effect, in which the rapper moves in red and blue tracers that look like a 3D film viewed without the glasses, was designed to make Mac's segment stick out.
"I think it fits his personality," Allen says. "The images he uses are really surreal. The other night he said something about chrome-plated spiders. I just see it as a comic book kind of imagery."
Allen says the film tries to shine the spotlight exclusively on the artists.
"They're everything in it," Allen says. "I tried to exclude myself. I made editing choices, but the raw material -- the real deal -- is all them."
-- Lawrence.com writer Luke Wetzel can be reached at 838-7913.