An Oral History of: The Bananas Hip-Hop Showcase, as Told by VerBs and Hugh Augustine

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On the third Tuesday of every month, behind whoever’s selling drinks from a battered white cooler, concealed by a chatty, convivial crowd of twenty-somethings, and between the Pan-African jewelry peddlers is Bananas, Los Angeles’ premier rap night. And there’s no Bananas without VerBs, a bike courier by day, omnipresent rapper by night. He’s an everyman who’s everywhere, who seems to draw everyone into his orbit. Bananas is his event–he compares it to his child, even–that, in spite of financial hardships and a growing reluctance for self-sacrifice, he continues scheduling. He’s the Bananas Godhead, the humble force through which young rappers and singers channel their hopes. It wasn’t always like this, though.

Before there was Bananas, there was Project Blowed. And, before there was Project Blowed, there was the Good Life Cafe. In the 1990’s, the Good Life Cafe (an actual cafe during the day) was effectively the epicenter of underground Los Angeles rap and after its closure many of the principal characters decided to start Project Blowed at KAOS Network, a community art space a couple miles down Crenshaw. Again, a scene of mostly leftfield, hyper-talented artists emerged, and again the scene slowly disintegrated–but Bananas was there.

Unlike its predecessors, Bananas is less rap-exclusive and less masculine. Dreadlocked songstresses croon, bespectacled beatmakers from Ohio hammer sets on MPC’s, and, of course, hungry-eyed rappers rap. It’s positive, diverse, and communitarian, and, aside from the derelicts doing who-knows-what in the public toilets across the street, it’s an almost idyllic version of Los Angeles. That VerBs’ financial recompense is so limited–tickets are only $5, regardless of lineup–seems unfair, no matter the spiritual rewards. Bananas is the rap night Los Angeles deserves. But maybe VerBs deserves more.

VerBs

I found out about Project Blowed when I was 19, and I started coming. That’s when I [decided] ‘I wanna be a rapper.’ Project Blowed was a place where people came to rap before it was a thing to be on the internet; gangster rappers, ‘miracle lyrical’ rappers, esé rappers, tag rappers, Silver Lake coffee shop rappers–it was all walks of life at all times. It was a place where you could hone your skills. The crowds were not as forgiving as a hip-hop crowd today, where they’re happy for whatever–if you we were wack we’d tell you that you were wack to your face. It was rapping for rappers with their not-hot girlfriends or their sisters, [but] there’d be some girl rappers who’d be in there with the wolves and gorillas.

bananas hiphop showcaseMurs took me on my first tour when I was a wee lad. I was 22 years old. I met him at this event we did in West LA. I was hand-making my CD’s and he liked the packaging; he called me one day and was like ‘Hey, man, what are you doing? Would you be down to go on tour as my hype man? I can’t pay you, but I can give you per diem.’ So I made $110 per week, and I was with it. I was on tour with Kidz in the Hall and Rapper Big Pooh from Little Brother. I got to meet 9th Wonder and Just Blaze, I recorded at the Hall of Justus [Little Brother’s recording studio], and I got to tour the whole country. I was just happy to be there and starstruck most of the time, trying to keep my cool around these legends.

Bananas started with Devin Montgomery, this girl that I was seeing. We wanted to combine noise/indie shows I would go to in Echo Park and Silver Lake with the underground shows I’d go to in Leimert Park. I would book rappers, and she would book bands; we used to go to Pehrspace and The Smell when we were 18-19, and she kind of introduced me to the DIY world. Bananas was an attempt to bridge these worlds. I used to book bands all the time. Then we broke up, and I continued to do the event–Bananas was like our baby and I kept custody of it. And now it’s eight years old. It’s in fourth grade.

I hate the word ‘Afro-Punk,’ but [Bananas] is the West Coast answer to that. (The ‘Afro-Punk’ aesthetic is there but it’s very much Internet fashion. People like to throw ‘punk’ around so loosely.) It’s a new Los Angeles, it’s the youth–young black, young white, young Hispanic. People like to say that, because Bananas is in an all-black neighborhood, it’s all black, but it’s all everybody. It’s Los Angeles now.

verbs bananas I built a world from the ruins of what was Project Blowed. People just stopped coming to [Project Blowed]. It just fizzled out. Nobody was there to take leadership of it–it was a headless beast. Certain people would be like ‘I’m gonna try to steer this for a second,’ ‘I’mma do it,’ ‘I’mma do it’–I didn’t want to do it. At that time, [Devin] and I were already doing Bananas, but we never said ‘This is going to replace Blowed.’ People just started saying that for me. It really didn’t dawn on me until I started getting props from multiple OG’s.

Me and [Devin] made a little, tiny thing, a thing for you to do on the third Tuesday of every month. And people would come, every third Tuesday, and it grew from there. It’s like a science experiment: you put humans in one close area, and you see it grow over time. That’s what Low End Theory is, or Chain Reaction in Orange County is, that’s what any club night that’s successful is–you’re building a community doing a consistent thing. I just took the template of The Smell or Pehrspace, and what I learned from Project Blowed, and applied it to my community. I wanted to make something that was all types of people.

I wish I took more care of my own career, and didn’t worry about this event and other people’s rap careers. A lot of people use me. I guess I made the bed so I have to lay in it. That’s only regret I have: not doing more for me. That’s what I’m trying to do now. Truth be told, I would love it if I found an 18 year-old I could pass this torch to.
If I didn’t do it, nobody would do it, and a lot of people look to me to do it. It’s my community service. I don’t make a lot of money doing it, but it makes people happy, and they’ll thank me all the time. That’s the real payment in the long run. So, I’m happy with that.”

hugh augustineHugh Augustine

One of Bananas’ most devout attendees and performers is Hugh Augustine. In some regards, he embodies the promise of the event, having transformed himself from a lightly-regarded early evening performer into being a guest on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade and having his most recent single debuted on Billboard’s website. Few who trod the small stage KAOS Network will make a career in music, and the humble beginnings of those who succeed make them easy to root for.

I met VerBs in 2008, and we had a show together at Loyola Marymount at one of their little venues on campus. I was in 11th or 12th grade at the time. I thought it was was cool to meet someone who was older than me who was in the actual LA scene, versus me being in the high school scene. I wasn’t performing any music, I was just recording it and putting it out on MySpace.

I would say Bananas is the last spot that we have left in LA in terms of [being] a hub for underground hip-hop and underground culture in general–especially now when the city’s venues are becoming very corporate. It’s a community–everybody knows each other–and it’s dope to see people who started off going to Bananas, then performing early at Bananas, and next thing you know they’ve built of a fanbase and they become an actual act at Bananas. It’s a home for so many independent artists to hone their skills, but also a way for people to use that as a platform to do bigger things.

That’s the neighborhood I grew up in so for the history of hip-hop in LA to have strong roots, and to able to be involved, is dope. That’s a big reason why it’s so community-based: the people who are part of Bananas are from the community, or they’re involved in the community, and they get people who aren’t to come and see what it’s like over there.

It’s a safe zone in our own neighborhood. A lot of times you can’t hang out without being harassed by the police, but everybody knows, from police to the gang members to whoever’s in the neighborhood, that it’s just homies in the park, rapping. It’s a no-fly zone for all the other kinds of drama. Everybody’s just there to do hip-hop [stuff] and spread good vibes and be creative. We don’t really have that in the city.

It’s kind of like a judgement-free zone when you go in there; if I’m not sure about a track and I still wanna perform it, I can perform it at Bananas and know that people are going to give me their honest opinion about it, but at the same time they’re gonna support what I’m doing. Even if they’re not feeling my music, they’re still gonna encourage me. That’s a big part of why I’m successful–the confidence of having that community behind me pushes me to make doper music and get it on a bigger platform. At Bananas people won’t tell you that you suck–they’ll just go outside while you’re performing.

When I started performing at Bananas, there wasn’t that many people inside, and I was like ‘Damn, man, I wanna go on later in the night. I want everybody who comes to Bananas to be inside while I’m performing.’ And that happened!
I enjoy being at Bananas; I enjoy seeing all the people; I enjoy being out there, in the LA night, in the street with people. I just know every month that I’m gonna be able to go to the park and see people that I think are dope, hear new music, see new [stuff], and be a part of that vibe. I think it’s really cool seeing everybody grow up over there. It’s a part of my routine at this point, whether I know who’s performing or not. It’s something that’s become a part of my culture.

bananas hiphop showcaseThe thing about VerBs is that he’s kind of a pioneer for the alternative LA rap scene, and I would say that I’m a part of that scene as well. I think that he’s done a great job at staying true to that culture and opening up the city in terms of where our scene can go. Everywhere he goes he takes our scene with him–he’s been able to open doors in that way. If he’s doing something, then Bananas is right there with him. He makes a lot of people feel comfortable because he’s so outgoing, I think that’s why Bananas is so popular. It’s growing, and it’s growing organically, it’s just going to take time for things to come around.

Versis

Versis, like Augustine, spent part of his childhood near KAOS Network. But, unlike Augustine, he doesn’t maintain the same extreme degree of devotion. Still, Versis and VerBs are longtime peers, having met while the former was just a precocious high schooler. Versis doesn’t have the immense social cache of VerBs, but he’s become a mainstay of LA’s underground rap scene in his own right.

I remember being in high school and seeing VerBs’ video for “Journey to Fame.” I liked seeing someone from LA who was a regular dude but [who] could use his words really well, on that song in particular. I used to live on Crenshaw and Venice, and I never went to Project Blowed because I didn’t know about it. I was too young–in middle school–and wasn’t into making music like that.

The first time I performed at Bananas I was with the homie Zeroh, and Marguerite [de Bourgoing, creator of LA Stereo.TV] and Rebecca Haithcoat [Los Angeles rap journalist] were there. I was like 19 or early 20–it was around the release of iLLCANDESCENT–and he booked me because we knew each other and I had the project out. I felt like I understood Bananas immediately; we needed a breeding ground or a training ground for people who were just getting into sharing their music. It was dope that someone was providing that space.

Bananas is the only place I know where hierarchy, or the exclusivity thing, doesn’t exist. Anybody could be there every single time. You can go there, and be there to perform, and you can go there and be put on to somebody. It’s unique in a communal sense–there’s so many things going on out here, and it’s the only thing that feels entry-level. It’s real friendly and pretty loving.

VerBs is like Ben [Caldwell, owner of KAOS Network and a Leimert Park staple] if he rapped. Everybody knows VerBs for his beanie, his bike, his vest, and the buttons. I have to tell him ‘No one does what you’re doing.’ It’s beyond important.

Images: Dus’T

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