For Issue 07 of Here Magazine, we explored Louisville, Kentucky, and found a city abuzz with creative energy. A vibrant food and beverage scene produces reimagined Southern classics like corn cakes with pulled pork and a spicy honey drizzle that taste the way the local accent sounds—salty, sticky, and rich. But the scene hitting its stride the hardest is hip hop, as a multitude of styles and sounds flood the streets. And while diversity is a way of life here, the following artists are united in one shared interest: showing their hometown, and the people who live there, the love they deserve.
When Kogan Dumb and the rest of Bird Zoo, his hip hop collective, take the stage at Kaiju, my eyes—and ears—are still struggling to adjust. A band by the name of Tender Mercy has just relinquished the spotlight, taking with them their synth-metal sound and their strobe-like, ’90s-inspired visuals, which bring to mind the cover of a “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD. But what’s even more jarring than the drastic shift in genre is the realization that none of the Tender Mercy fans are leaving the venue. Tender band members even join the audience themselves, whooping and cheering for the energetic hip hop group that follows.
If you’re looking for Kenny Chesney–like tractor anthems… Louisville is not your town.
We’re in Louisville for the weekend, attempting to acquaint ourselves with as much of the exploding hip hop scene as we can in just 48 hours. We learn quickly that music fans here have eclectic taste, something that could be understood as a reflection of the larger culture of a city that finds itself straddling many different identities—not quite the Deep South, not quite the Midwest; neither fully urban, nor fully rural; more progressive than the rest of Kentucky, but still a product of Jim Crow. City alliances splinter even further on what is known as the “9th Street Divide,” which separates East and West, a distinction that many lazily chalk up to rich and poor, white and black.
And just as Louisville is a blue county in a sea of conservative red, the city’s musical identity hardly aligns with the rest of the state’s. If you’re looking for Kenny Chesney–like tractor anthems, spoons on a washboard, or even bluegrass, Louisville is not your town. While country is not entirely off the menu, alt-rock, R&B, soul, and hip hop are the real entrées in this city, where internationally acclaimed artists like My Morning Jacket and Bryson Tiller got their start.
“In all 66 of our zip codes, there’s representation of people from all walks of life, and that’s reflected in our art, our food, our music,” says Jecorey Arthur, a music teacher and rapper who began making music as a 12-year-old growing up in Parkland, West Louisville. He now performs under the name 1200. “West Louisville is oftentimes considered the less fortunate end of town, but even within [that area] we have nine different neighborhoods and they all have cultures and subcultures within them. Every neighborhood you go to in Louisville, you’re gonna find small pockets of people who are all different from one another.”
A classically trained percussionist, Arthur is one of many musicians in the city who liquidate the boundaries between genres that often limit artists. Singer-songwriter Otis Junior, who has just returned from visiting his record label in Germany, doesn’t identify as an artist of one single genre, either. Instead, he celebrates the “people here who go to the hip hop shows, who go to the jazz clubs, who go to the rock shows,” noting that influences come from all over. Rapper James Lindsey is another example; in his office, over a soothing, brassy Donald Byrd recording, he tells me that he “Trojan horsed” his way into the forefront of the local hip hop scene by playing with a variety of artists and cementing a diverse fan base that spans different sounds. Dave Christopher of LouiEvolve, the city’s largest hip hop festival, points out that “when Bryson Tiller hit it big with his trapsoul, people started saying, ‘Oh that’s Louisville’s sound,’ but it’s not—you can’t pinpoint just one sound here.”
Rapper Sasha Richmond, known as Sasha Renee, knows better than anyone the values of variety and multiplicity. Every Thursday, Richmond hosts an open mic called The Vibe, which is heavy on the hip hop but open to performers of just about any background. Over Mayan tacos at Gravely Brewing Co. in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood, we talk about her career as a rapper and community figure in Louisville. Though she has been writing rhymes since she was a little girl, Richmond, who is now 27, released her first mixtape in 2011, after several periods of doubt in her ability to pursue a career in music. She attributes coming out as a queer woman to much of her current success—she was named female hip hop artist of the year by the Kentucky Urban Entertainment Awards in 2017, and was nominated for the same title again in 2018—recognizing that audiences ultimately respect when authenticity in someone’s personal life carries over into a person’s art.
“Before people know me as a good artist, I want to be known for spreading love.”
In the years before her career took off, Richmond felt that the hip hop scene in Louisville was much more divided than it is now. She very politely tells me that I’ve only really “tapped into one scene” with the group of artists I’ve been able to meet—“but the Louisville scene is divided into different cults of hip hop,” she says. “There’s the urban scene, and your hood gangsta rappers out in the West End doing their thing; and then you got the Newburg rappers. It’s different pockets of people, and up until the last three or four years, we didn’t perform in the same spaces.” Instead of viewing these factions as a hindrance, Richmond sees them as an opportunity. “A few years ago, I was like, ‘Forget it! Can I come and perform in y’all’s show? Can I come and hang out with y’all?’ I wanted to break the divide. Had I not tapped into other scenes, I would have just been bringing out the same people—but now we get 75 people a week at The Vibe. And it’s the weirdest mix ever. Everybody is in that space.”
Back on the Kaiju stage, Kogan Dumb kicks things off with a teary-eyed tribute to his mother, who is in the crowd filming, before introducing the rest of “the Zoo.” I watch as 25-year-old Mmuso Matsapola, one of Bird Zoo’s youngest members, explodes with energy under the spotlight. If not for the double-wide smile on his face, it might look like he’s in pain, bent over and convulsing as he spits his bars. What comes next alarms me at first, until I realize how perfectly it sums up the soul of Louisville hip hop as I’ve seen it. Matsapola and Dumb start tussling on stage, ramming into each other like two brothers roughhousing in their living room. Later I ask Matsapola why they were doing that, and he answers simply: “It’s all about having fun and keeping the energy high.” They’re literally pushing one another to be better—better performers, better friends, better creators—because that’s what you do for the people you care about.
Within this community, I like to think of Dumb as everybody’s favorite uncle. Every chance he gets, he’s looking to help boost young artists onto the scene, in many cases by offering his services as a videographer and photographer to help with their branding. “Before people know me as a good artist, I want to be known for spreading love,” Dumb tells me later over some bourbon. “Bird Zoo is really trying to show like, we give a fuck. We. Give. A. Fuck.” And that’s the Louisville I now know—one in which, above all else, it’s cool to care.
To learn more about the artists energizing the Louisville hip hop scene, click here.