Scratch the Surface: Tucson Hip Hop Summit

Part festival and part conference, the Tucson Hip Hop Summit brings the underground into the spotlight

Tucson's first Hip Hop Summit will present fans with more than 50 performers and panelists, showcasing a diverse and growing music scene while looking to a more cohesive future.

The two-day event, at the new performance venue the Scratch Shack, will feature all local rappers, carefully mixed between up-and-comers and local veterans, as well as discussions on music videos, street wear, break dancing, graffiti art, songwriting, producing and DJing.

Organized by Pike Romero, who DJs as Smash Lames and promotes concerts under the WeAreBugginOut banner, the Tucson Hip Hop Summit is a first effort at an inclusive event for all local fans and artists, rather than a typical show with just a few performers.

"There's just tons of talent in Tucson and this is something the city really needed as far as getting the hip hop community together," Romero says.

Romero first started brainstorming for the event in March when he was at the annual SXSW Music Conference & Festival in Austin. Romero started thinking about how Tucson could have its own SXSW-style event devoted to hip hop at the recently opened Scratch Shack. With Mike Heslinga and Jocelyn Valencia as co-organizers, Romero started developing an outline for the event. As crucial as the performances, he decided, would be the conference aspect, giving everyone in attendance a chance to learn something new.

"Having a wider format with the panels lets people share their knowledge and experience," he says. "It's about the artists and helping them grow in their craft."

Beyond songwriting and production, the panels will focus on the music industry and the culture related to hip hop. A screening of A.M. Mayhem, a documentary film chronicling Tucson hip hop radio station Power 1490 will kick off Saturday's sessions at 10 a.m. Professor Alexander Nava, who created the "Rap, Culture and God" course in the University of Arizona's hip hop minor, is scheduled as a special guest speaker Saturday at 3 p.m.

"We're rookies at this point of throwing a festival, but we felt like it needed to start somewhere," Romero says. "We wrote down a list of rappers and producers, performers, DJs and graffiti artists we knew in the community, but we wanted to look at the current state of hip hop and the music industry as well. We just wanted to have a good balance and I hope people recognize that."

Romero grew up in Tucson, moved to Oklahoma when he was 20 and lived there for nine years before returning to Tucson five years ago. He sat back for a bit, learning what had changed since he'd been gone, and found his niche more behind the scenes than out front.

"The scene in general needs some sort of structure. For me in Oklahoma, I wasn't trying to unify a scene there or be a leader or anything, but I learned a lot being in that scene. Here, I've recognized that role a bit and stepped back from DJing so much to focus on artists, artist management and promoting shows. I've taken that role here so that I'm able to try to make something happen."

Rapper Marley B, who'll perform Saturday night in the closing round of the summit, says he was impressed from the first announcements of the event.

"There've been talks about festivals before, but this is the first one to come through. The structure is going to be really dope. It's not just a rap show. It's all the elements together, which is awesome," he says. "It'll be great to have panels and get some up and coming artists get pointers from people in the scene for a few years."

The time is ripe for the summit, he says. In the five years Marley B has been active, he's seen exponential growth in Tucson hip hop.

"Originally, the only place I could get booked was DV8 and I'd have to sell tickets and rap for eight people," he says. "Now all these different venues are booking local hip-hop acts and giving them the chance to perform and the talent is just getting better and better. We just have to stay persistent and keep putting together the pieces. A lot of people have gone touring out of state and at this point it's about putting together the resources to keep it going."

Jaca Zulu, a Friday night performer, says a full two days of hip-hop is both unheard of in Tucson and overdue. Originally from Sacramento, he's been in Tucson 11 years and performing steadily and releasing music since 2010.

"Because I've grown in it and my fan base and the whole city has grown since then, it seems like the artists have been able to do bigger things and still get love in Tucson. But usually, it's fans of specific artists supporting the people they know, so it'll be nice to spread out the love and show the actual scene itself, instead of just a couple artists."

Jaca Zulu's latest release, Graine, is a collaboration with B3NBI, part of WeAreBugginOut's dy-ad series, pairing producers and MCs that don't typically create together.

"Tucson being a small big city that it is gives a lot of space for different people to grow into themselves," he says. "The styles flow so freely and everybody is just trying to become their own artists now. We all have the ball going creatively and as long as we keep pushing in the right direction and keep connecting, it's only a matter of time before the rest of the state sees what Tucson is going. We just have to keep making as much noise as possible and this is a big push."

Romero sees potential for the Tucson Hip Hop Summit to grow into an annual event as local artists draw more attention from both Tucson fans and beyond.

"Since March, the Scratch Shack is gaining recognition nationally from the touring acts that are coming though. It's amped up people in the city and people outside too," Romero says. "I had people from other states wanting to play the festival once I announced it. Artists from New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and California said they're just going to come down and see what it's all about. They want to see what Tucson is doing, because there's something boiling here."