Beats and feats: Rappers and aerialists collaborate on Hip-hop Circus

MULTIMEDIA: "My mindset on a live performance is that I always want it to be new,” says MC Chris Shreve of Free the Optimus. The Boone-based artist teamed up with other rappers as well as local aerialists for a night of performance art collaboration. The event benefits Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. Shreve's photo by Carretto Studio, aerialist photo courtesy of Bromelia Aerial Dance Collective

Think of hip-hop, and a number of images might come to mind: DJs, loose pants, B-Boys and graffiti, perhaps. Even if your list isn’t culled from stereotypes, it’s unlikely to include aerialists — though that might change after the Hip-hop Circus at The Orange Peel on Saturday, Nov. 29.

That event pairs area hip-hop acts Free the Optimus, Woven Hatchets and Martin Snoddy and Alpha Lee with Bromelia Aerial Dance Collective for an evening of high-flying, genre-defying action. “We’re always looking for different angles to present our art. Different forms and different crowds,” says MC Chris Shreve of conscious hip-hop group FTO. His bandmate Mike L!VE (who also performs as half of Woven Hatchets with fellow MC, Tucson) did a set at Bromelia’s “Missed Connections” show at The Mothlight in July. “We thought it was a pretty cool entertainment experience to have a visual component,” says Shreve.

It was L!VE who, after spending years performing with a large band in Raleigh, came to the conclusion that shows are often a lot of effort for not much financial reimbursement. Inspired to put his creative energy to good use, he started looking into benefit shows. “We did one in April called ‘Where My Dogs At!?’ to benefit Brother Wolf,” says Shreve. “That’s how we began that relationship.”

The fundraiser took place at Timo’s House, a venue known for its support of local hip-hop acts. Shreve, who lives in Boone where he teaches at Appalachian State University, calls Timo’s “a cocoon where we could grow.” But both FTO and Brother Wolf Animal Rescue were looking to try their partnership in a larger venue. When the idea struck to add Bromelia to the mix, the concept of the Hip-hop Circus on The Orange Peel’s stage took shape.

Performing to live music is nothing new to the aerialists. The group has already produced shows with experimental instrumental outfit Hello Hugo and indie-rockers Pawtooth. In both cases, the aerialists and bands interspersed separate sets with onstage collaborations. Shreve says for the Nov. 22 production, “the goal is to mesh and have overlap.” While the dancers aren’t planning a fully choreographed number during a hip-hop set, there will be some elements inspired by B-Boy battles. “One of the things we’re going to do is have a big box of props. If someone pulls out a broom, we’ve got to sweep you off the stage,” says Shreve.

IMG_5290Fellow rappers Snoddy and Lee also have experience with crossing genres in the live arena. The duo were special guests of a Hard Bop Explosion jazz show at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall. “A lot of rap is based on jazz sampling,” says Shreve. “But [Snoddy] wasn’t playing with jazz beats, he was playing with jazz players. It’s a totally different rhythm; they’re scatting all over the place. To watch that set, you could see [Snoddy’s] wheels turning.”

Shreve says that joint efforts like the Hard Bop Explosion show and the upcoming Hip-hop Circus are good for the local music scene. “It proves to a different crowd that rap isn’t just abrasive and angry. It can be that, but it can be a lot of things,” he says. “It can go to a jazz club and knock it out.”

Part of the success of Snoddy and Lee’s Hard Bop experiment comes from the rappers’ ability to freestyle. Shreve says that onstage he also wings it. Meanwhile, L!VE likes to think his set out. That synthesis (with the addition of DJ Jet, known for his scratching skills), makes for a well-balanced presentation. “My mindset on a live performance is that I always want it to be new,” Shreve says. “Some songs work better in an underground space, some songs fly better on a big stage.”

Plus, the Orange Peel show is all ages, which inspires the artists to pull from material that appeals to a wide audience. The Hip-hop Circus’ artists are interested in pushing their own boundaries, both in terms of style and theme. Shreve credits Asheville’s music fans with progressive tastes: “You can play a weird beat — something conceptual and artsy — and they’ll be totally open to it.” To parlay that into a big-top-themed show, benefiting canines, no less, is an (almost) logical next step.

“We adapt,” says Shreve. “If you have a bunch of kids in the crowd, and adults, you have to hit on something universal.”

WHAT: Hip-hop Circus with Free the Optimus, Woven Hatchets, Martin Snoddy and Alpha Lee and Bromelia Aerial Dance Collective
WHERE: The Orange Peel,
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 29, 9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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