Rock and roll has Call the Office. The London Music Club has blues. Fans of folk and world music can hit up the Aeolian.
Here in London, it’s practically homeless.
But it wasn’t always the case.
For the better part of 10 years, rappers had a place to hang their perfectly kept baseball caps at Dirty Thursdays – a weekly open mic for rap and hip-hop that lasted through several years and venue changes. Its demise left a hole that fans and performers are still trying to fill back in.
A legacy born
The longstanding institution was the brainchild of MC (Brandon) Moore and DJ Over, who found a home for local rap in the unlikeliest of places – the now-demolished Brunswick Hotel. Beginning in the early/mid 2000s, Dirty Thursdays provided MCs, DJs and fans a home away from home. Anyone could walk in off the street and deliver their best (or worst) set in front of an appreciative crowd.
For years the ‘Wick was a go-to punk and metal haven at the corner of York and Talbot Streets. Rap, however, wasn’t even part of the picture.
While Moore’s idea was originally met with skepticism, eventually his persistence paid off. The ‘Wick gave him a freebie on an otherwise dead Thursday night. Failure meant it was one-and-done.
“The place was just fucking packed,” Moore recalled of the first Dirty Thursday. “Nobody was checking IDs, you could do whatever you wanted on the back patio… It was just perfect.”
Moore said he believes the success of the night was a direct product of a blossoming rap revival scene with no place to go. Most of the artists were young, some not even of age, and Dirty Thursday provided a sense of legitimacy that can’t be found at a house party – the wasteland most young rappers were relegated to.
It was at the original Dirty Thursdays that Moore met some of London’s lasting names, including Casper The Ghost, Culture, Mat Labatt and the ever-present DJ Hullewud – a mainstay at just about every rap show in the Forest City to this day.
“We were all in the same boat,” Moore said. “We were all really young and we didn’t know how to step forward into the scene.”
Nic Latella, better known in the rap world as NGAjuana, recalls the early days of Dirty Thursdays as a network opportunity that created lasting relationships in the rap community.
“It’s the reason a lot of rappers who were close then are still close,” he said. “There was no aggression, no animosity… It was just a good time.”
An unknown rapper could quite literally walk directly off the street and into a set during Dirty Thursdays at the Brunswick, thanks to a side door that opened right on to the stage. Those who did were met with support from others who would do the same.
Adam Tanton, AKA Mad Hattr, is another of London’s older guard who came up through the Dirty Thursday scene. He said its no-format format was an invaluable avenue and testing ground for rappers of all styles.
“It was an institution,” he says. “Nobody was on the flyer – fans of Dirty Thursday just showed up to see who was playing.”
In those early days, the place was popping, and sometimes way over capacity. MC Moore’s relentless dedication was the lynchpin.
Having that informal access gave artists like Hattr and NGAjuana the ability to develop their sets, test out material, and pay your dues. Rappers learned what it’s like to win a crowd, and what it’s like to lose one.
“It’s trial and error. You see what works and what doesn’t,” Hattr said. “That’s what Dirty Thursday was good for. Inexperienced novice MCs could see what material works and what doesn’t.”
A bitter end
But nothing good lasts forever.
In 2008, the Brunswick Hotel fell victim to the wrecking ball. The building was destroyed literally overnight in the midst of heritage designation talks.
It’s owner at the time, Dan Dencev, was adamant the premature demolition of the building was the work of an over-zealous contractor. However, the writing had been on the wall for some time before the first holes were punched through the ‘Wick.
Call it bad luck or a curse, but every time Moore found a new home for Dirty Thursday, the club closure was not far away.
Wandering the desert
The second iteration of DT began at the now-closed club Moon over Marin, formerly on Dundas Street. The night enjoyed a relatively long run at the club, lasting more than a year before its doors were permanently closed in 2010.
The next big migration took London’s rap scene over to Big League Comedy on Richmond Street, where it lasted about six months before that establishment closed.
Not to be deterred, Moore found the final home for Dirty Thursdays with the APK. At the time the club was located at Wellington and York. When the APK relocated to Clarence Street, so did Dirty Thursdays.
However, all good things come to an end, and when the APK announced its closure in January of 2016, it meant hip-hop was homeless once again. Just as it was 10 years ago, club owners were apprehensive to get on board.
Rappers have had a tough time since then, trying to dispel the stigma that rap breeds criminality, fueling a long-standing battle of perception versus reality, owners versus artists.
If anything, both Moore and NGAjuana can personally attest to rap being an avenue to get away from all that. Sadly, club owners don’t see it that way, which is why finding a consistent venue is getting more difficult in London.
Crooked promoters, however, saw a tremendous opportunity.
Exploitation vs. experience
Rap in London had turned into a pay-to-play scene.
MC Moore has never been shy about his feelings for P2P…
“Pay-to-play is the biggest load of shit in the fucking universe,” he said. “The fact you can just pay money and get on stage is ruining hip-hop shows.”
It’s a scheme that has been around for a long time, where promoters essentially sell performers tickets to their own show, which they in turn have to sell to make any money. The bill is crammed with unknown performers who have no credentials other than the software on their computers, and sometimes, not even that.
Established rappers will tell you – pay-to-play is a poor substitute for paying your dues – rewards sales, not talent. Meanwhile, promoters are lining their pockets off kids who have no business being on stage… At least, not yet.
For new and relatively unknown artists, pay-to-play works – it’s a guaranteed audience. For the audience itself, though, three hours’ worth of 10 minute sets is agony when you just want to see the headliners.
“It’s not their fault. They are being fast-tracked,” MC Moore explained about young artists caught up in P2P. “But nobody wants to see 16 openers that are garbage.”
“It’s killing the scene,” NGAjuana adds. “(Promoters) are happy to let it collapse.”
The only way to combat the damaging effects of pay-to-play is to stop supporting it – getting artists running their own shows and discouraging club owners from the exploitative practice.
The empire strikes rap
That’s exactly what Danny Gable is trying to do.
A relative newcomer to London’s rap scene, Gable had enough of being strong-armed by shady promoters and decided to be the antithesis – resurrecting the spirit of Dirty Thursdays.
When he first started, though, he had no idea what the P2P scheme was all about.
“I started going on a few (pay-to-play) bills, sharing their flyers, not realizing what they were,” he said. “Once I realized what was going on, I stopped supporting them and started supporting artists.
“It’s hard to get venues, even though we got a lot of dope talent from DJs right down to new artists.”
Gable’s venture, Hip-Hop Anonymous, is a monthly open-mic showcase at Gordy’s Brew Pub on Oxford and Second, where artists can network, promote and support their craft.
“It gives (artists) a chance to come out and rock a show and help promote music as much as they can,” Gable said.
With Hip-Hop Anonymous, Gable said he hopes to facilitate the mentoring of younger rappers by members of the older guard, and do his part in ending pay-to-play exploitation.
Will Hip-Hop Anonymous manage to bridge the gap left by the dissolution of Dirty Thursdays? It’s far too early to say.
But, for a city with as large and diverse collection of rap artists as London, it’s a comfort for fans and artists alike to have a place free of beefs, where beats, rhymes and life are the only things that matter.