There's an innovative new way to experience hip-hop in a more intimate setting, and it's rolling through Tucson at 40 mph.
"The Rap Van is a mobile hip-hop show," said Tom Johnson, Rap Van creator and driver. "It's intimate and it moves."
The six-month limited engagement takes place every second Sunday through January. It's hosted by R Bar, where people wait for their ride while DJs spin tunes and Chef Luoyi Hsieh makes goodies, like egg rolls and dumplings at her pop-up kitchen.
Leaving on three 20-minute trips, groups of 18 to 20 show-goers squeeze into the back of a van with that month's performer, the camera man Jeff Weber and Johnson at the wheel.
Wires run through the panels of the hallowed-out 2005 Hobart Sprinter, running mood lights and a sound system, amplifying the featured performer's microphone and their pre-recorded instrumental music, created by various beat producers.
The focus of the event is on the performer, Johnson said.
"The art form of being an M.C., having a connection with the crowd you're yelling at and creating a community," he said. "The basis of hip-hop music is a community thing—to bring together people, to push away the bad stuff."
The origins of rap music were steeped in the importance of community, and currently much of that has been tossed aside in favor of fame and expressing anger, Johnson said.
"Rappers express written violence at each other and their fans who support them, and that's something that's baffled me, being a rap fan, since day one," he said, marking one of the main differences about the roving rap show. "As the rapper, you can't fake it. There's only 15 people there. You can't lie to those 15 people who want to listen to you."
Johnson had this realization on the Rap Van's maiden voyage, on Aug. 14, with featured performer Anthony "YNot" Ardrey. It was one of the loveliest parts of the experience, Johnson said—seeing people's ability to adapt.
Being the first performer, Ardrey didn't know what to expect so he spent a week preparing, he said. He wrote a couple new songs and put his chosen beats on a cassette tape to create an old-school feel.
"I brought a lot of variety to see what connected the best," he said. "A couple artists that are going to follow behind me were there as well and were able to see the ups and the downs of it. And they're going to be able to tailor their performances with that understanding."
That said, Ardrey wouldn't have changed the experience a bit. The nervousness he felt, not knowing what was going to happen, it kept him on his toes, he said.
"Typically, you do a show, and you kind of have a sense of what the environment is going to be like, how the people are going to react," Ardrey said. "But when you're driving 40 mph in the back of a van, with people swaying all around, it can catch you off guard. And that was the funnest part about it."
At the start of the ride, people tried standing then they tried sitting while attempting to hold on, to get comfortable, to find their groove. And when they did, Johnson at the helm, said he could feel the vibe on the back of his neck.
Nick Kelso, the Rap Van's featured January rapper, was one of the riders creating that vibe.
"It was like being in some combination of the coolest underground club in town and a rollercoaster," he said. "The other cool part about it is you're right there with everyone, so you have this shared experience. It's like you're stuck in the front row of a show."
It got hot in the van too, and everybody was kind of afraid to touch each other during the first run, Ardrey said.
"The second one, I kind of gave a warning," he said. "'Hey listen, it's gonna get hot, you're gonna get sweaty, you're gonna touch everybody—just have fun.'"
Setting out, Johnson decided with the toss of a dice which direction to head in, and from there, he did what he could to keep the van moving, turning right at red lights and taking roundabouts a few extra times. They surprised cashiers at a Wendy's drive-through and drove down Fourth Avenue with the side door open, peaking the interest of onlookers.
"When you can take a show anywhere, it takes off restrictions," Ardrey said. "You get to take the show to the community, and I think that's one of the coolest aspects of a show ever.".