Hip-hop in the Heartland
The talent at Torch Tuesday may be the Springfield music scene’s best-kept secret
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I’ll never forget the day I stumbled onto Springfield’s underground hip-hop scene. It all started with Raekwon the Chef. Or perhaps it was Fast Orange.
I found myself at Bar None one evening in the spring of this year watching local hybrid punk-metal cover band Fast Orange. While standing among the typically sparse crowd at Bar None, my eye was caught by a postcard-sized flyer announcing that Raekwon the Chef would be performing at the tiny downtown watering hole on that following Tuesday. Incredulous, I took a closer look. The distinctive Wu-Tang shield logo was indeed featured prominently in the flyer’s design. This did not seem possible. In fact, it was completely insane. Nonetheless, it turned out to be true.
For those unfamiliar with Raekwon, suffice to say that in the world of rap and hip-hop, the man is an internationally respected superstar. He first came to prominence in 1993 as a member of the massively popular and influential Wu-Tang Clan, a crew that also introduced the world to such genre luminaries as Ghostface Killah, Method Man and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard. In 1995, Raekwon solidified his reputation with the release of his solo debut, Only Built for Cuban Linx, widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time. Both as a solo artist and as a member of the Wu-Tang, Raekwon has spent most of the last two decades releasing and performing music all over the world, frequently in front of sold-out stadium crowds.
Leading to the inevitable question: Why the hell would Raekwon be playing at Bar None? And why hadn’t I heard about it until now? According to the flyer, the show was only three days away. I consider myself fairly well connected, but up to this point, no word had reached me via the local press, the Internet or word-of-mouth. In fact, it is likely that if I hadn’t gone to see Fast Orange that night, I may never have learned of the Raekwon show at all.
More importantly, had that been the case, I might never have stumbled onto the fantastic mother lode of regional hip-hop talent which I soon learned has been performing every week of the year at Bar None under the banner “Torch Tuesday.” Which in turn would mean the article you’re reading right now might never have been written.
Thanks, Fast Orange!
“In 2001, my daughter was born and I moved back,” explains Torch. “And what happened was, I brought some of the fuel I had from St. Louis with me to Springfield, and that’s when things started picking up a lot, for myself and for the hip-hop scene here.”
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Raekwon’s brief, wee-hours set at Bar None (which turned out to have been a last-minute booking via Wiseguyz Productions to fill a gap in Raekwon’s schedule between Chicago and St. Louis club dates) was an eye-opening experience – but not so much because of the star’s performance. Sure, the roly-poly rap legend’s charisma was intact and he did all of the solo and Wu-Tang hits, as expected, but the main thing that was notable about his appearance remained the fact that it even happened in Springfield in the first place. What really made the night special was the parade of young local and regional hip-hop artists that preceded him onstage, all of them hungry to express themselves and clearly thrilled to be performing. It didn’t seem to matter that the audience, even counting Rakewon’s entourage, was no larger than the scant crowd Fast Orange had drawn the previous weekend. This was still an event. This was Torch Tuesday, and Raekwon’s presence, though thrilling, was largely incidental.
Torch Tuesday is the proud creation of Howard “Torch” Tomas (aka H. T. Spitfire), a focused and energetic local promoter, musician and entrepreneur whose lifelong love of hip-hop music and culture seems to inform every aspect of his life. The weekly Torch Tuesday event is part open mic, part talent showcase, and 100 percent a way of life for Torch and his cast of regulars.
“Even last winter, in the worst of the blizzards, when the streets were shut down and nothing was happening, we still had performers showing up on Tuesday night,” he says, still amazed at the memory. “I almost didn’t make it out myself, but when I got here and saw who all had shown up, I was really glad I did. I mean, that’s dedication.”
Tomas first moved to Springfield from his hometown of Chicago in 1995, after having left Tuskegee University and finding things a little rough back in the Windy City. “A lot of the guys that I grew up with were getting involved in…a lot of different things and I just felt like I needed a change of scenery,” he recalls. His aunt was a member of the Springfield Coalition of Black Attorneys, and after relocating to central Illinois, the young Torch initially stayed with her while picking up classes at Lincoln Land Community College.
Longing for the hip-hop culture that was so much a part of daily life back in Chicago, Tomas did what he could to find what his new environment had to offer. “I started meeting people here in Springfield and I was looking for a hip-hop scene,” says Torch, who was primarily a rapper at the time. “It didn’t seem like too much was going on. But I basically started meeting other guys, doing cyphers and freestylin’ and such. I used to battle against a lot of guys, started getting a little rep.”
During this period, Torch found himself testing his verbal skills alongside a number of respected old school area rappers, including Entourage, Greg the Architect and B-Dog the Gambino. In 1999, though, he landed a job managing a bar in St. Louis, and quickly found himself absorbed in the much larger, metropolitan hip-hop scene there. Still, it wasn’t long before other considerations brought him back to the Land of Lincoln.
One thing that fanned Torch’s flame was anger at witnessing the blatant way Springfield clubs were then exploiting local hip-hop artists. “A lot of the clubs, like 217, they wouldn’t have any open mics, but they would bring national artists like Eightball & MJG or Scarface or Lil Wayne to Springfield and then would actually charge local performers to open up for these bigger acts. And I had a problem with that. It was like, ‘wow, these guys are coming here and you’re charging us like three-hundred bucks to open for them?’ Which obviously was just helping the club to pay these out-of-town guys. It was highway robbery.”
Determined to find a venue for local hip-hop artists to thrive without the threat of extortion, Torch began cultivating relationships in the overall Springfield music community. “I kept building to the point where I got to know guys in some of the different rock bands, like Damwell Betters, Lazer Dudes, Nil8, Bonards. Eventually I pitched the idea to [Bar None manager] Josh Catalano about a hip-hop open mic. He said: ‘You know what? It’s a wild idea, there’s a lot of risk involved on the business side. But it’s so crazy that it just might work.’ And so a year and a half later, here we are. Torch Tuesday is going strong.”
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It is clear there would literally be no Torch Tuesday if it were not for the passion and dedication of Torch himself. But the lifeblood of this scene, like any other, is the talent of the artists who storm the Bar None stage each week. A typical Tuesday night finds a wide variety of performers stepping up to the mic, including such standouts as the Flatlinaz (featuring the sassy Money Mia), Boby Fshr, Rikashay, Black Trump, Chadi, Dat Dude Scoobie The Lyricist, T-Roni and longtime local hip-hop mainstay, Cornbread. Decatur’s Tebe Zalango cuts an impressive, somewhat incongruous figure, striding into the spotlight with his violin in tow, creating an atmospheric sonic swirl light years away from the general public’s conception of what hip-hop music can be, but which still fits in perfectly with the evening’s freewheeling vibe.
All of these young artists perform like their lives depend on it, whether backed up by pre-recorded beats from home-burned CDs or by Torch Tuesday’s recently formed “house band,” Controlled Substance. There is a definite sense of community that comes through as each performer is cheered on by comrades in the audience. However, the overall feeling of mutual supportiveness did not come naturally, but rather had to be fostered by Torch himself over time. “Hip-hop is a full-contact sport, like boxing, but verbally,” he explains. “It’s very competitive, very braggadocious. So it can be really hard to get a rapper to stay and watch another rapper’s set, to clap for someone else. But I’ve explained to them, ‘Think about it, guys. You want people listening to you, don’t you?’ So they come around.”
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One Springfield rapper very much in touch with his competitive side is 25-year-old Zachary McCoy, aka Agent Orange. A denizen of the Springfield hip-hop scene since 2006 (“Torch is like a big brother to me,” he says), Agent O is arguably the most widely-known of all current Springfield-based musical artists, having battle-rapped his way to national renown last year on the BET network’s 106 and Park as one of the finalists on its “Freestyle Fridays” segment.
“As a kid,” McCoy reminisces, “my dad’s catalog of music included, as he likes to say, everything from Frank to Frank: from Frank Sinatra clear all the way to Frank Zappa and pretty much everything in between. So I grew up listening to everything besides hip-hop.” Starting in fifth and sixth grade, that all changed as he began to cultivate a love for all things hip-hop to the point where, by the time he graduated from Springfield High School in 2003, the young Zach had become associated with several Springfield hip-hop artists, notably Cornbread, who became something of a mentor.
“Cornbread was the one who first approached me about recording,” he says. “I had gotten some buzz doing freestyle cyphers and battles at house parties in town. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but I guess he saw the talent there and convinced me to take it to the next level. At the time, Cornbread had an album called The Adventures of 00Negro, like kind of a twist off of 007, James Bond, y’know? So he was Secret Agent 00Negro. That’s kind of where my name came from, ’cause Cornbread said, ‘if you wanna be my partner in crime…’ and we both kinda said, right at the same time, ‘Agent Orange.’ It just kinda clicked, what with me being the ginger that I am, with the orange hair. It just made sense and it stuck.”
This dynamic duo put out a spy-themed recording in 2006, the cleverly named MI-6 Tape, followed by Agent Orange’s first full-fledged solo release, The Real McCoy (offered by the artist for free download at agento.bandcamp.com), which in turn led to Agent Orange’s eventual excursion to 106 and Park. All of which begs the question: how are you gonna keep Agent O down on the metaphorical farm in Springfield when he’s already tasted the fruits of national exposure on BET?
Short answer: You’re not. “No disrespect to where I grew up, where I was born, where I was raised, to the town that’s made me the man that I am today,” Zach explains, “but there are bigger and better things out there for me and I need to go seize those.” He’s been keeping a low profile of late, working hard on his new record, to be titled Nightmare in the Field of Dreams. Once that drops, more likely than not, Agent Orange will head out to try his skills in greener pastures.
Given the rambunctious spirit of competition embodied by Agent Orange, along with the fact that hip-hop is, at its base, rebellious and street-oriented music, it isn’t surprising that things can sometimes threaten to get out of hand on Tuesday nights. Thus, the Ten Rap Commandments.
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At the launch of each Torch Tuesday, the show’s Master of Ceremonies reads the Commandments over the PA, and none are negotiable.
The Ten Rap Commandments
1. Respect yourself, respect others and respect the property (ABSOLUTELY NO DROPPING THE MIC).
2. Sign yourself up.
3. No more than three tracks on a CD, no skipping songs.
4. No take-twos.
5. Show up early for mic checks.
6. You can sign up and leave, but if your name is called and you’re not there, going once, going twice, on to the next one.
7. No jumping on stage.
8. Keep your friends in check.
9. Bring your own equipment, take it when you’re done.
10. Be professional, go hard and good luck.
In spite of this ritual, Torch and charismatic longtime Tuesday host Bis (who has only very recently been replaced by a new MC, Southside, as a result of Bis’s increasingly busy schedule as a teacher and coach with District 186) have assured me that nearly every one of these commandments finds itself broken on a regular basis. In fact, I personally witnessed a particularly egregious incident of mic-dropping on my first visit to Torch Tuesday, but will respectfully withhold the name of the perpetrator.
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Of course, not all potential problems attendant to running a hip-hop open mic are as light-hearted as, say, losing your place in line or damaging a microphone. Hip-hop music and culture is often linked with violence in the mind of the public, and while Torch and his group of performers do their best to keep things peaceful and positive, it has sometimes been a challenge.
“When I first started, it felt like a juggling act almost,” Torch remembers. “I had people in my corner who went to bat for me so Torch Tuesday could happen, but I realized that one bad thing could have ruined it all. There was a point where I brought in a sheriff, a good friend of mine named Officer Knox, who’s on the gang task force. I hired him to patrol the parking lot out back [behind Bar None], and that was a deterrent for any of the riffraff that might come associated with this type of scene. I mean, music is music,” he adds, “but sometimes, there’s a culture that comes along with it, and sometimes people fear what they don’t understand, so, like, that [hiring security] helped not only Bar None but those who endorsed me, to feel a little bit more comfortable, like, ‘OK, he’s invested too.’”
“Another thing, too, man, I’m real spiritual, and my faith – I’m a Christian – also keeps me grounded, and keeps the flame lit a little bit, you know, as far as faith, hope and giving some positive words to some of the rappers. Truth is, only about 60 percent of the people coming out for Tuesdays now are left, out of the group that started with me a year and a half ago.” He sighs as the memories flood back. “A couple of really talented guys, who I started out having big hopes for, went to prison. One guy got in a motorcycle accident and he passed away. And that’s the kind of thing that really takes the air out of you.
“This is bigger than hip-hop,” he continues, “in the sense that we’re giving them something positive to do. Lotta these guys, not to throw a dark cloud over it, but who knows what people would be doing if it wasn’t for this? I didn’t start out thinking that way, but some rapper coming out to Torch Tuesday says to himself ‘OK, I’m here this week, next week I’m gonna come back with some new material, write something, go record it, and rehearse it and be ready for next week,’ so it keeps their minds straight, keeps ’em out of trouble.”
Torch sadly recounts the story of one of the original Tuesday performers, George “Flawless” Caples, who was murdered in 2009, in the act of confronting a group of drug dealers who had claimed the apartment building he managed as their turf. In memory of Caples, Tomas is joining forces with Tuesday mainstay DJ C-Dub to bring their musical entourage and positive social message to the Hoogland Center for the Arts on Nov. 23 for an all-ages Stop the Violence / Register To Vote Campaign show.
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It almost goes without saying that one of the biggest challenges facing Torch Tuesday and the local hip-hop scene is Springfield’s near-legendary apathy and lack of support for local music. “A lot of people in town, they have an attitude that if they haven’t seen it before, it doesn’t exist,” says Tomas defiantly. “But just because you haven’t seen it done doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it just means that nobody before had the perseverance to stay with it. The fact that nobody’s doing it means there’s an open lane!”
Get in on the action with the Torch Tuesday crew, 9 p.m. every Tuesday at Bar None, 245 S. Fifth Street.
Scott Faingold first reported on the Springfield music scene for IT in1987. He is currently working on his master’s degree at UIS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .