By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Feb 28, 2014 at 2:01 PM

It’s in a small, dark studio tucked within a red bricked, triangular building off a cul-de-sac in the Bronzeville District. It’s at a coffee house in Riverwest. It’s up the elevator and through the handmade interior of the Digital Kitchen in the industrial yard off South Hilbert Street; in the austere studios of DJ Mammyth in a warehouse just off the Kinnickinnic River on South 1st.

Hip-hop is living, breathing all throughout Milwaukee.

It’s heaving, though, working for air, for space. It wants to get out – but does it need to? It wants to stay – but can it afford to?

"When I got this on my hand it was like this is real – I want to call Milwaukee home," said Kellen Abston, a.k.a. Klassik, holding up his Milwaukee Home tattoo, its shading over his veins quickly rising and falling with each syllable. "I want it to happen here. I’ve seen so many before me or just ahead of me who are just now convinced – and had me borderline convinced – that this city, for whatever reason, how this is set up, our ears, or our demographics, they’re not going to show love until you go elsewhere and then come back and then they’re kind of like on the train."

The question many local emcees’ have is, can that train actually get started in Milwaukee, and is it strong enough to carry an artist to where they want to go?

Stay, or go?

With one leg folded up on a couch, Dana Reeder’s hands and eyes are active. Some part of him is constantly moving. He pulls the knit hat off his head, then rubs his hair, and tosses himself back into the arm of the couch.

For the better part of a half hour, Reeder – a.k.a. Dana Coppafeel – has been preaching about hip-hop in Milwaukee as D.J. Mammyth (Charles Forsberg) began bringing his studio to life. On the scene for the better part of two decades, Reeder has done it all, and has strong opinions on it as well – so he knows the question that’s coming before it’s asked:

"Why am I here?"

Reeder, who was part of the Rusty Pelicans group in the 1990’s, admits he thought about leaving Milwaukee, but "it just felt like shit was going to happen, so it was like wait this thing out."

It didn’t, and he did move – to attend the Madison Media Institute. Eventually he returned to support his ill grandmother.

"I’ve always thought about doing that, going somewhere else, like OK, if I do what I do here, say in Chicago or New York or in L.A., and yeah I’d have a lot more recognition but the problem is that’s not where I’m at. I’m here," he said, the ball on the top of his knit hat bouncing violently as he shakes his hand. "And to do that, I’ve got to go rebuild and lose a lot of my resources that I already have in play. It’s kind of a catch-22 you know?"

He pauses, looking up to the ceiling.

"That’s when it should’ve happened, like 21-ish. I went to Madison. I should’ve thrown myself to the wolves in New York or L.A. That’s what I should’ve done. Milwaukee was always going to be here."

It’s the biggest question a Milwaukee emcee faces when he examines his catalog, evaluates resume and measures his bank account. Stay? Or go?

It’s been over 12 years since Calvin "Coo Coo Cal" Bellamy put Milwaukee on the national stage with the "My Projects" single off his major label debut "Disturbed," released a week after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The song cracked the Billboard Hot 100, was the country’s No. 1 rap single, helping sell around 800,000 records.

It seems like a lifetime ago, and it might as well be for as quickly as hip-hop singles (and records) can cycle in and out of the public consciousness.

Bellamy is still active and has released two other full length records, but he wasn’t able to sustain a national following.

"You can get signed out of Milwaukee but the problem is the recruiters aren’t coming here, though," Reeder said. "That’s all it really is. The recruiters ain’t coming here – you have to go to them for that. Nobody is ‘Let’s go to Milwaukee and find the next big deal!’ No one’s saying that."

He laughs.

"The next rapping sensation is coming from Milwaukee!"

Even Forsberg proffered a wry smile at the punctuation as Reeder threw his hands up.

David Baldwin gets it, too.

More widely known as Prophetic, Baldwin is one of the most prolific emcees to come out of Milwaukee in the last decade. Famously co-signed by Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D., Baldwin opened for Wiz Khalifa in front of an estimated 23,000 three years ago at Summerfest – which led to more Summerfest performances and a spot in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Pantherfest – but eventually Baldwin felt he had to take his career outside the city.

Now, he spends time in Nashville and Atlanta.

"It was a career move that was focused on music licensing," Baldwin said via email. "Think of it as someone leaving their hometown for college. We have colleges here but there may be an institution with better focus on the specific career you want, so you leave. I needed to learn more so I left seeking experience."

Baldwin has remained connected to his hometown, and there is not right or wrong answer. If there was, more would jump on either train.

"I always have faith," said Demetrius "Yo-Dot" Bennett, who is part of the Umbrella Music Group that also features Prophetic. "I always have the mindset that you can organically build that type of notoriety instead of going to another market and getting accolades and coming back to really show and prove. I don’t really think that’s necessarily the case."

He added caveats, though.

"I think the only way domestically you can be successful here is if you have a continuous, nice amount of money, revenue," Bennett added. "Money plays a key factor. If you can have a substantial amount of money, continuously have merchandise, and keep the consumer (up) on what you’re doing, you can win."

Bennett cited many lessons learned from Baldwin, from performing, utilizing the internet, marketing and self-promotion, to knowing how to put together a pitch for a show and demonstrating that it’s in the other party’s best interests to work with him.

It’s worked to some degree, too. The former champion battle rapper appeared on the cover of a July issue of the Shepherd Express and added a solo appearance at Summerfest to his resume in 2013.

So while Bennett is still physically planted in Milwaukee, he’s digitally increasing his footprint – trying to get the best of both worlds to build his reputation.

"It’s pretty much strike one being from here, where the music market hasn’t been recognized since like Coo Cal," he said. "You automatically get written off from the outside perspective. I think if you’re actually going to be serious and be an artist, you’ve got to study the actual game, the mainstream and the independent, grass roots industry outside of Milwaukee, I think, in order to be successful."

Reeder says trying to figure out the Milwaukee scene can be "mind boggling," but there is a more common word used.

"That’s what’s most frustrating," Abston said. "If I can’t get the support of the people who know me and see me every day in the community that I’m a part of and so invested in in so many ways and I don’t have your love and support, what am I doing?"

If I stay, where do I go?

Up the stairs of the Running Rebels Community Organization, Sharrod Sloans looks down at his black and white NIKE’s, the stud in his ear catching the dim light from above. A space heater helps ramps the temperature up in small production booth.

The rapper known as Pizzle has had his share of local fame, teaming up with Prophetic in 2011 on "Green and Yellow," a Green Bay Packers-themed anthem, and holding a stage at Pantherfest.

Yet, like many rappers in the city, he feels boxed in.

Perhaps it’s because he’s from the north side. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know the right people.

Sloans runs his hands over his neatly trimmed beard, before letting them fall on black jeans, with just the right amount of wear.

"Right now, if I wanted to walk in somewhere and rap for them, I wouldn’t know where to start," he said. "Here, if we didn’t have the internet, we would be finished. Definitely here, it feels like that. It’s like what else am I allowed to do? It is disheartening. I’m really trying to figure it out. It’s still hard to pinpoint a spark to it because it’s so deep now."

He shakes his head.

Abston knows the feeling.

He played Summerfest in 2013 and opened for Kendrick Lamar in Champaign, Ill. Yet he feels he can’t get any real traction in Milwaukee.

"In your head, I mean as a performer, you get on this big stage and it puts you in a different place," he said. "You have to perform at a certain level. But when you’re told you can only perform at the Cactus Club and Stonefly, places with sound systems that are pretty good, but we’re limited to (just) these (places). People know this. So when you’re starting off and you’re coming up, you’re like 'yeah, I played Stonefly'. But then it’s the same place. And the same place. I’ve played BBC 13,000 times. I love them to death. I love the staff. They’re very good people but I shouldn’t feel wrong for wanting more."

There’s the rub. In Milwaukee, "more" is considered The Rave/Eagles Club and The Pabst Theater Foundation, which includes The Riverside Theater, The Pabst Theater and Turner Hall.

When reached by for this story, neither would comment on booking, citing company policies.

Sitting in a chair in the Digital Kitchen studio, Bennett can’t blame those venues for lack of access.

"It’s all about someone buying into the product and actually being supportive," he said, flipping his hands out as he speaks, the arms on his leather jacket pulling up to his wrists as he accentuates his point. "I can honestly say I’ve got a lot of people to like my music but I can’t guarantee I can get a spot at The Rave and headline a show and I could fill a capacity of 2,000. I can’t promise that. So I can’t get frustrated and say I don’t have this opportunity where I haven’t proven myself worthy in order to get those type of privileges like that."

Reeder, who has played The Rave as an opener multiple times over his career in Milwaukee, including recently for Mac Miller, feels the passion to command that stage, or the Pabst Theater Foundation stages, is misplaced.

"The Rave shouldn’t be your focus," Reeder said. "A show isn’t really doing anything for you. Shows don’t get you record deals. People that are on tour, the people that signed them aren’t there looking for talent at that moment right in Milwaukee."

But, Abston and Sloans will tell you they can’t even get a look from bookers – and frankly don’t know how to. Reeder did admit he didn’t get on at The Rave/Eagles Club initially without the help of a connected manager in the 1990s, however, and then once he proved he could produce results, he became a staple in the rolodex.

The same could be said with Baldwin, who opened for Ice Cube at The Rave/Eagles Club.

"I can say I got some of my shows through going and meeting the owners," Baldwin said. "Most time venues book what they know. And if they aren't catered to hip-hop they probably don't know what is going on in the hip-hop community. Once we made a relationship with them it became easier to rent out, co-op, or be booked for shows."

In the end, it’s all about the dollars. After all, those properties have history, and are considered marquee, regional venues. It's a business.

"The reason why The Pabst (and The Rave) doesn’t do it is because it’s not lucrative," Reeder said of booking local acts. "They don’t care about the music, it’s not a venue for artists. It doesn’t make no sense (for them)."

But it doesn’t mean those on the outside looking in feel it should be that way when it comes to local acts.

"I think moments like that are so crucial and we fail at that," Abston said. "I think as a stop people don’t really come here on tour because … say they do come here and they put a local person – just whoever put up the most money or whoever sells the most tickets and they got that space – has nothing to necessarily do with their actual performance skills or their track record. It’s just ‘how can we make money off of this?’ Which sucks because now you’re not representing the city, you’re not representing the best the city has to offer for these headlining people.

Having seen how a label-mate like Prophetic has worked his sources for shows in town – and balanced that out with his own struggles to get on a stage like Summerfest, Bennett is sympathetic to both sides.

"I can’t really be frustrated – I just think we have to work harder as artists and establish ourselves business wise in order for the local venues and vendors and just businesses in general to say these kids are making some money and we want to invest," Bennett said. "It’s up to us."

Reeder and Baldwin have simpler takes, which loop back to the question of whether an artist needs to stay or go.

"There’s no industry here," Reeder said, his pitch rising. "So where do you go from that? If your ultimate goal is to play Summerfest then yeah, that’s an easy goal. I always say it’s easy to get famous in Milwaukee. It’s easy to get into papers. It’s easy to get your name known and people seeking you out, but once you hit the roof you can’t go no further. That’s just in Milwaukee because there’s not an industry here. You’re better off trying to concentrate in other places where your talent is going to thrive and where you as an artist can thrive."

Baldwin agreed, adding that the first engine that gets rolling has to be heavy enough to pull everyone else down the line.

"You have to look at it like this: Chicago is an entertainment hub," he said. "So is L.A., Atlanta, etc., so the support is there because there have been rewards shown from the support. You have your Kanyes, Lupes, Twistas, R. Kellys, and so many more. We haven't. I feel like once you get accolades from these other cities then Milwaukee will fall in line.

"The scene has grown but is still not big enough to not venture around. Build your buzz here but at the end of the day, an artist should want to make music for everybody that relates, not just their city. It sucks that we don't have the outlets but it is what it is. You either let that be an excuse or added incentive."

The battle to be heard

Check your social feeds, and you’ll see that Pizzle, Klassik, Dana Coppafeel, Prophetic, Yo-Dot and Rayhainio "Ray Nitti" Boynes are widely considered as Milwaukee’s finest.

They know the hip-hop scene remains segregated by geography, by reputation and by style. Yet, you’ll see them supporting one another socially, performing together, featuring each other on songs.

There’s a reason for that. While frustrated at times with their plot, they are laying the ground work for success in a market where the biggest enemy may be the market itself.

"Everybody was trying to get into the music, people who thought it was a quick way to get money or doing it for fun, and it just became everybody you were running into was doing music," Sloans said. "It crowded the space. It’s way harder for an artist to stand out locally now.

"Now, when you even say you do music, it’s so common now that people automatically have low expectations for it."

It’s easier than ever to "become" an emcee. All you need is a computer with production software and basic hardware, like a mic and a digital camera.

Suddenly, everyone is a rapper. Everyone is trying to get on.

What these artists are finding, however, is that this is all tied together – the musical chicken and the egg argument: what has to come first?

Does a bigger venue booking you to open prove you’ve risen above the masses, that you’re a performer and not just a rapper? But how can the booker notice you when there are so many voices shouting to be heard? What outside accomplishments validate the work, like awards or media recognition, and could that validation lead to bigger accomplishments and recognition?

It’s their Ouroboros, and it's infinitely frustrating.

Yet … it’s motivating.

The look in Abston’s eyes matched that of his counterparts with that thought. It was the one time when opinions didn’t vary, when the cadence slowed, and the train of thought bore full speed ahead.

"Maybe it’s just patience. Maybe it’s a little more pushing. Maybe it’s knocking a few more doors. I don’t know what it is, but it’s got to happen because I want it to happen because I’m not going to take no for an answer and I’m going to do this."

That Milwaukee Home tattoo never stopped dancing atop his blood lines as he spoke about community, hip-hop, and his faith in it all. And on more than one occasion Abston pushed his white sleeves up.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.