One of the few local artists chosen by Quincy Jones to perform for the national millennium celebration on the Mall, he was duly present last December at a preliminary run-through of the festivities directed by the venerable producer.

Jones explained the staging for the musical extravaganza and handed Priest the lyrics for a rap solo written by Shaquille O'Neal and Coolio.

Priest knew that the nationally televised New Year's Eve spectacle could put all kinds of shine on the reputation of a highly respected but largely underground MC like himself. Not to mention the wonders a kind word from "Q" could work toward that first record deal.

There was just one problem.

"It was horrible," Priest recalled recently. "Like the first time you ever saw rap in a commercial on TV."

His eyes on the corny lyrics, he weighed all the time he'd spent earning his reputation for embodying the best of authentic hip-hop. And he made up his mind.

"I have a lot of respect for you and what you've done for black music," he told Jones. "But if I did this, it would crush everything I worked for in the past five years."

With an amicable handshake, Priest strolled off the Mall.

This is Exhibit A in explaining why D.C.'s hip-hop artists--known for stage shows featuring thoughtful lyrics and nimble freestyle skills often backed by live funk bands--remain under deep cover. Trapped in the underground, they are barely a blip on the national hip-hop radar and an enigma even to many Washingtonians.

In terms of hometown support, D.C. hip-hop has always been something of a stepchild on the live music scene, says David Dickerson, a board member of the Washington Area Music Association whose company, eyes and ears, does promotion for major record companies. In terms of drawing crowds for live performances, "D.C. has always been a big jazz and R&B town," he says. "Outside of jazz and a couple of alternative bands, no one has really gotten much support."

That's not to say that D.C. hip-hop has not received any recognition. The group 3LG has a respectable following and has won the Washington Area Music Association's award for hip-hop four times since it first established the category in 1989. At shows mostly centered on U Street, at clubs like State of the Union, Metro Cafe, Bar Nun and the Kaffa House, several acts have developed a small but devoted fan base. (The groups consciously evoke the idea of a modern-day Renaissance on the strip once known as "the Black Broadway.")

Some of the D.C. groups have caught a buzz in Europe. "Art of War," Opus Akoben's 1998 album released through BMG-France, soared to No. 2 on the country's black music charts, and the group just did a show at a jazz festival in Amiens, France, in April. This year Opus member Black Indian's solo project "Get 'Em Psyched" has gotten national radio play and a national distribution deal with MCA Records here in the United States. And the video for the title track, which was shot in Northeast, has been played on BET. The group Unspoken Heard regularly gigs in Europe, where they just gave three concerts and led a hip-hop writing workshop last month.

But the question remains: Why, with hip-hop achieving ever more popularity worldwide, don't more local people support this eminently talented group of home-grown artists?

There are probably hundreds of people in D.C. who rhyme. Some have gotten signed to record deals, and many more are part of fledgling area record labels. Those aren't necessarily the groups described here.

This informal collective of nearly a dozen acts largely comprises Washington natives. They've been fans of hip-hop their whole lives. Their average age is about 29. Since their school days in the 1980s and early 1990s, they have gone against the grain of popular taste in the District, which has long favored its indigenous music--go-go--and preferred to leave the B-boy stuff to the New Yorkers.

The genre got a boost in 1994 with the formation of the Freestyle Union. Founded by Toni Blackman, a California native who came to the city to attend Howard University, it provided a forum in which area MCs could hone their skills. The group treated hip-hop as an art form that was following the path of other musical genres that once were slow to earn mainstream support, like jazz and the blues.

Freestyle Union was considered hip-hop boot camp, a rigorous training ground for MCs. Blackman, the director and often the only woman in the crew, laid down the ground rules, among them: "No written rhymes," "No hogging the stage" and "The bitches and hos [expletive] is not a discussion."

Their performances were more like one- to two-hour jam sessions where group members passed the lyrical baton back and forth, freestyling (spitting extemporaneous rhymes). They told stories, analyzed ancient proverbs and riddles and debated current events. Audiences were an integral part of the shows, shouting out topics for a freestyle or throwing objects onto the stage for the artists to rhyme about.

The Freestyle Union drew national attention but no major label offers. Eventually most of the corps members branched off into their own solo and group projects.

Thus were most of today's best D.C. hip-hop groups formed. It continues to be a very close-knit community. Most of the artists know each other from the Freestyle Union days and support each other at shows. Nearly all these groups incorporate many of the theatrical and freestyle elements from Blackman's original ensemble.

Despite their talents and the years spent improving their writing and stage shows, most of the groups remain in the underground. Ask the artists themselves why they haven't broken out, and they'll rattle off Exhibits B through E.

One reason is that it is crucial for underground hip-hop groups to garner the support of their home towns. Before the country knew what the acronym NWA stood for, the group was christened by the people of Compton; before clubgoers nationwide were groaning along to bounce tracks by Master P, his acts sold thousands of records in Louisiana.

In Washington, that support hasn't materialized, partly because of local allegiance to go-go. There is a pride in the genre and accompanying subculture that wins loyal support among the young listeners who would otherwise make up D.C. hip-hop's natural demographic. "Go-go is the music of this land," says One-Two, an MC with Infinite Loop. "That's what gets support from the neighborhood kids."

Another problem is that there is no easy way for major labels to market their music. Unlike that of Miami or Los Angeles, D.C. hip-hop doesn't have a distinct regional sound, says Rhome Anderson, a DJ with the Poem-cees. Southern hip-hop is characterized by frenetic beats, dominant bass and regional dialects, West Coast hip-hop by its lazy-tempo party grooves. While D.C. groups often rhyme about issues that are specific to the city, like Washington's political disenfranchisement and the Redskins, they don't have enough stylistic similarities to make their music immediately identifiable as Washington hip-hop.

Some say the groups' lyrics are too esoteric for D.C. listeners. Black Indian who, with his multiple juvenile arrests, is considered this collective's equivalent of Wu-Tang Clan's Old Dirty Bastard, says audiences think many local artists talk over their heads.

He thinks his hard knocks growing up in a rough part of Northeast have helped him avoid that pitfall. For instance, he says he chose the party anthem "Get 'Em Psyched" as the title track and first single from his album with a populist goal in mind. Using slang like "psyched" (pronounced "syssed" but with the same meaning) and talking about the everyday realities of living in Washington has been the key to his relative success, he says.

Many of the other groups alienate their listeners by using arcane references to classical literature and other hoity-toity topics, he says. "They are too busy sending people to the dictionaries instead of giving people what they want to hear."

And finally, the artists cite the issue of location. "It's accessibility to the major labels in New York and L.A.," says Platted Mind, MC for both 3LG and the Infinite Loop. They have to travel far from Washington to gain an entree into companies that could give them exposure, he says.

These are all valid reasons, and another may be gleaned from the Priest-Jones incident: The groups may simply be too unyielding in their artistic principles to make it big. But that is the nature of the rabidly anti-pop underground, where artists derive their edge and authenticity from struggle.

In the D.C. artists' cases, that means spending years working in retail, land-surveying or as attorneys to support themselves while they pursue their music on their own terms. Staying above the commercial-pop fray keeps them laudably faithful to hip-hop's principles in an era when so many MCs are cashing in on the genre's newfound status.

Six years after the formation of Freestyle Union, this community of artists has reached a crossroads. Some are married; some have children. They have been doing the live show grind for years and pretty much figure they've got it down pat. Today, many have scaled back their performance schedule around town so they can focus on recording music to shop to major labels. Some are leaving the city in search of other opportunities.

"I feel like I've accomplished all I can accomplish in this city," saysPriest da Nomad who moved to Atlanta, where he has made some music industry contacts, earlier this month.

"I've acquired a lot of seasoning [in Washington] as an artist," he continues. "I think I've helped to play a part in bringing to light the more artistic side of hip-hop."

Anderson, who was a DJ for several of the groups, including the Poem-cees, moved to Los Angeles this spring, where he is working as an assistant to cartoonist Aaron McGruder on his "The Boondocks" comic strip and related projects. Plexus and Opus Akoben member Kokayi is preparing to move to New York. He says he's moving for personal reasons but adds that "it won't hurt" his musical career.

It will be an unfortunate twist of fate if it turns out that the golden age of D.C. hip-hop has come and gone, and most of the city never even knew about it. Yet most of the artists remain committed to the city and draw inspiration from the tiny signs that somebody, somewhere, is listening.

One recent evening, Heady, an MC in the groups 3LG and Infinite Loop, ducks out of rehearsal at a Northwest Washington apartment that serves as the group's studio to make a bottled-water and Newport Lights run. As he walks the Georgia Avenue sidewalk, a young man of about 20 approaches him.

"In . . . finite Loop?" the man asks hesitantly.

"Yeah, man," Heady replies, clasping hands with his young fan.

"I saw ya'll at State of the Union, waaaay back. What have ya'll been up to?"

"Well, you know, we're working on our CD, trying to put it out by August, September, you know, trying to get a distribution deal."

Sighing knowingly, the man fills in the blank: "The biz . . ."

Heady gives him the group's Web address and card and they part. Later, he is asked if fans often recognize him like that on the street.

"Well," Heady responds, shrugging, "it happens."


Several local hip-hop-related events will be featured at the D.C. Cafe in the Washington, D.C., section of this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall. Call 202/633-9884.

POETRY SLAM -- Friday at noon and 3 p.m. Featuring Kenny Carroll and the D.C. Youth Slam Team.

FREESTYLE EXHIBITION AND BATTLE -- Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

THE INFINITE LOOP -- Sunday at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

SUB-Z, STORM THE UNPREDICTABLE AND FRIENDS -- June 30 at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

UNSPOKEN HEARD -- July 1 at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

POEM-CEES -- July 3 at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

"RHYME DEFERRED," a hip-hop theater performance by the Hip-Hop Theatre Junction, directed and written by Kamilah Forbes -- Tuesday July 4 at 11 a.m. and 1:15 p.m.

The POEM-CEES also perform July 13 at 9 p.m. at the Velvet Lounge, 915 U St., N.W. 202/462-7625; and July 20 at 9 p.m. at the Garage, 1214 18th St. NW. 202/331-7123.


POEM-CEES: True to their name, the Poem-cees--comprising Black Picasso (Patrick Washington), Natural Law (Darrell Perry) and their L.A.-based DJ, DJ Stylus (Rhome Anderson)--are accomplished spoken-word poets as well as MCs. This background informs both their live performances and their recently released CD, "I.O.U Street." Being veterans of both the Freestyle Union and a now-defunct performance poetry group called Generation 2000, they deliver at least one song on the CD "Power" that is almost purely a spoken-word cut. When the album is not overtly spoken-word, Perry and Washington's goofy and self-deprecating rhymes still tend to tumble out in poetic form.

Although the group usually performs backed by a live funk band and by Anderson at the turntables, Perry and Washington also incorporate a great deal of beat-boxing and scatting into their recorded and live performances. In a recent interview with, an entertainment Web site run by members of the local black arts community, the group described its sound as "stupid grooves," "old-school modern" and "original abstract hip-hop." But what they call the "audio buffet" that they serve is not as esoteric as they make it sound.

With rapid-fire delivery backed by funk grooves and oddly symmetrical percussion patterns, their album is a refreshing listen. It's a familiar sound to old-school hip-hop fans.

But their greatest strength is their stage show. The duo's comedic timing and line-for-line (one rapper gives a line, then the other delivers a line that completes the stanza) delivery is amazing; they seem to intuitively finish each other's sentences. (They also do it unwittingly during interviews.) Their style lacks the abrasiveness of the Method Man-Redman verbal tandems and is instead reminiscent of the early musings of De La Soul's Posdnous and Trugoy.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Poem-cees, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

THE UNSPOKEN HEARD: The Unspoken Heard has yet to complete an entire album, but with each successive single or four-song EP they've released since 1997 the duo has built anticipation for its forthcoming CD, "Soon Come," among an international fan base and a small but influential crowd of music industry and media types here in the United States. Since December, Asheru (Gabriel Benn) and Blue Black (Robert Jackson) have taken their show on tour through England, Scotland and Holland. Live, they are known for catchy call-and-response slogans plugging pet causes such as education, society's responsibility to youth and a crowd favorite: hip-hop appreciation. The catch phrases have become so popular now that when they exhort live audiences to "Do your part; support the art you like," the crowd responds, unprompted, with: "Two turntables and a mike!"

Benn, who moved with his family to D.C. from Barbados as a child, and Jackson, a New York native, met while attending the University of Virginia in the early 1990s. Their Brooklyn-based label, 7 Heads, is run by college friends. Though they've never released more than 10,000 copies of any EP or single, they've garnered glowing reviews in the national and international music press.

Their music has reached key members of New York's progressive hip-hop community. The rap artist Common used an Unspoken Heard sample in a single he contributed to the popular musical compilation titled "Soundbombing II." (In the track "One Nine Nine Nine," that's Blue Back's voice singing "Still gettin' mine . . .") Benn reports that when they met Common face-to-face for the first time while doing a show together overseas, the artist seemed nearly as star-struck as they were. "So you're Unspoken Heard," the rapper said.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from the Unspoken Heard, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

3LG: Of all the D.C. hip-hop groups, 3LG, which stands for three levels of genius, has received the most acclaim in its hometown, dominating the Washington Area Music Association awards for the later part of the 1990s, taking the top prize for hip-hop duo or group four times.

With its percussion- and bass-heavy grooves accented by prominent saxophone, their music has a distinctly acid jazz feel, creating a sound similar to that of jazz artists like saxophonist Greg Osby, who experimented with hip-hop during the early 1990s. Neither the MCs nor the band dominates. The shows and albums feature lengthy sets that are purely instrumental as well as extended rhyming interludes backed by minimal accompaniment. The band consists of Soopa Doopa (Dan Cooper) on bass, Kiggo Wellman on drums, Kevin Levi on saxophone, DL (Dwayne Lee) on guitar and Fudj Pudj (Kevin Bright) on keyboards. The MCs are group founder Mao Tse-Tung Clemmons, along with Heady and Platted Mind, who are also members of the Infinite Loop.

Clemmons founded the group about 10 years ago with some friends from high school. At first, their music had more of a rock feel, but it later graduated to what Clemmons describes as "college funk" with MCs. The group released its first self-financed cassette single in 1993 and played to a growing multicultural fan base on the East Coast. They strove for a festive, get-blasted vibe during performances. At first, the music "was more of a party tool," Clemmons recalls. "We would play as long as they would let us."

In 1995, they recorded "3LG Live," becoming the second group to record a live album at the State of the Union nightclub on U Street, on the Union Records imprint.

Along the way, they opened for several major acts, including a Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, the Roots, Run-D.M.C. and Wu-Tang Clan. Today the band has scaled back its live show schedule dramatically in favor of trying to get a record deal.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from 3LG, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8103. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

THE INFINITE LOOP: The Infinite Loop's size alone, with 11 members (down from a one-time high of 18), leads to requisite comparisons with Wu-Tang Clan. But their style couldn't be more different than that of the New York collective.

Since its founding in 1992, the group has conveyed positive messages to a soundtrack of catchy, dance-friendly loops. "I think that positive music [begets] a positive life," says member One-Two, who makes up the Loop along with Heady, Platted Mind, Grizzly Bear, Los, Face, Theory, Blackbird, DJ Infinite, Omega Red and the group's Brooklyn-based manager, Jarobi. All but one of the members are D.C. natives, and several did stints in the Freestyle Union.

Their repertoire does include that hip-hop staple, the battle anthem (theirs, which appears on their debut album, "First Contact," is titled "Choke Up"). But despite the group's preponderance of testosterone, the Loop reveals a romantic side on the ballad "Earth Girl."

In the eight years the group has spent on the Washington circuit, it has gone from paying to do shows to performing for free to getting paid gigs. They've even gotten nibbles from major record companies that, despite Infinite Loop's dedication to underground hip-hop principles, they'd jump at given the right terms. ("Who don't want to go platinum?" Heady observes.) The key is negotiating an agreement that allows them to stay true to their own voices. "We want to get as big as we can and still maintain control of our craft without being a puppet," One-Two says.

In the meantime, they've scaled back their performance schedule to focus on recording another album to shop to labels. But they understand that the lack of major labels in Washington--a city they refer to as "Lot F," for Land of the Forgotten--makes it an uphill battle. Still, their optimism persists. "It's like a blessed curse," Platted Mind says. "It's giving us time to hone our craft."

* To hear a free Sound Bite from the Infinite Loop, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8104. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

OPUS AKOBEN/PLEXUS: There is perhaps no greater concentration of raw rhyme skills in Washington than in Opus Akoben and Plexus, two groups that share members and often perform together live. All five of the MCs shared by the groups are founding members of the Freestyle Union and have the lyrical boot camp's fingerprints all over them, demonstrating improvisational rhyming and mental agility at their best.

Plexus's members are Kokayi (Carl Walker), Priest da Nomad, Storm the Unpredictable (Dwayne Henry) and Sub-Z (Terrence Nicholson). Walker and Nicholson are also members of Opus Akoben, with Black Indian rounding out the trio. All five of these MCs have done solo projects. So far, Black Indian has earned the greatest domestic exposure with his CD "Get 'Em Psyched"; the disc has gotten national radio airplay and the title track's video, shot in his Northeast Washington neighborhood, is in rotation on Black Entertainment Television.

Thus far, Opus has achieved the most commercial success. A precursor to the group was formed in 1994, when Sub-Z and Kokayi began touring the United States as part of jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman's "Metrics" project. Joined by Black Indian to form Opus, they got a national distribution deal with BMG to release "Tale of Three Cities" (1993) and "The Way of the Cipher" (1995). But Opus's biggest success to date has been "Art of War," a 1996 project they released through BMG-France. Since 1998, when the group began touring France to promote "War," the CD has sold briskly there, at one point reaching No. 2 on the country's black music charts. ("War" never got distribution in the United States.)

Plexus hasn't recorded any albums; it was formed two years ago as an informal ensemble that performs together live.

Priest has probably done more than any other Washington artist to put a face on D.C. hip-hop, with his collaborations with area jazz musicians and his extensive touring as a solo artist. With his looks and charisma, many assume that if anyone breaks into the mainstream, it will be him. There was a sense of melancholy in Washington about his move to Atlanta earlier this month, but everyone expects good things from him there.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Opus Akoben, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8105.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Plexus, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8106.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Storm the Unpredictable, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8107.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Black Indian, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8108.

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Priest da Nomad, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8109.

(Prince William residents should call 690-4110.)