Hip-hop in Milwaukee has been going on for decades and though many local hip-hop artists haven't had a large amount of extended success – commercially speaking – the quality of what's been produced is equal to that of cities that have found a way to fare better in the industry.
In the early to mid-2000s there was a new class of artists that emerged as possible behemoths – artists like Coo Coo Cal, Baby Drew, The Rusty P's and Black Elephant. These are all names that Milwaukeeans and even music fans out of the scene in Milwaukee still know.
Black Elephant was one of the more promising acts during their time as a group, as they frequently did shows both in state and out of state and hit the college circuit as hard as they could. People in the new generation of artists still talk about their feat of making it into The Source, a magazine that was the hip-hop bible during the '90s.
But as it goes, the group split after some internal struggles and their train stopped.
Behind the scenes was their manager Geraud Blanks, who did everything he could to make them successful on the business end of things. Once Black Elephant was done, Blanks re-focused himself toward covering hip-hop, promoting and managing the solo career of former Black Element member Element Everest.
As a long-time contributor to the daily newspaper, Blanks has often been one of the lone voices to write about Milwaukee hip-hop in a positive way, and recently he undertook the task of putting together a panel to discuss the past, present and future of Milwaukee hip-hop.
Blanks has often been looked at as one of the gatekeepers of Milwaukee hip-hop, so it was time to hit him with a "Quick Six" to see how he feels about today's culture.
OnMilwaukee.com: You've been associated with the Milwaukee hip-hop scene for a long time now, as the manager of Black Elephant and as a writer. What drew you to the business and journalistic side of music?
Geraud Blanks: My first passion was film, not music. I got into music around middle school but my Attention Deficit Disorder wouldn't allow me the patience to be a musician. When I went to UWM I was consumed with the idea of becoming the next Spike Lee, but again my lack of focus made film school a little tough. Writing has always come naturally for me, and other than film directing and teaching I probably admire journalism and writing in general more than any other profession.
I don't have the personality to be on stage or performing songs in front of people. I am most comfortable and at my best when I'm behind the scenes directing things. Don't get me wrong I like an audience, it just happens to be doing a workshop on hip-hop or presenting a Power Point for the Helen Bader Foundation.
OMC: You've seen a lot of talented artists in Milwaukee come and go with the hopes of building upon what Coo Coo Cal, Baby Drew, the Rusty P's, Black Elephant and others were able to do. Why do you think that many of the newer school of artists are having trouble growing beyond the city limits when it should be easier with tools like the Internet?
GB: The art of personal networking has been lost. A lot of local artists don't quite understand the importance of building the kind of personal relationships that will help them move beyond the Stonefly Brewery.
All of the groups you named had to hustle twice as hard before the advent of social networking. Building a relationship with a journalist, booking agent, some nerdy little college kid who has access to thousands of dollars in university funding, is a part of the business. For years we built these relationships with people beyond our particular side of the city.
Facebook stats and YouTube views have given today's artists a false sense of accomplishment. Just because someone "likes" you on Facebook doesn't mean they really like your music. Five thousand "friends" is not the same as 5,000 fans.
I also feel like today's rapper devalues their product, dropping so much music that they never even promote the project they released two months ago. Not to mention they give it all away for free and then wonder why no one wants to pay $7 to see them perform.
OMC: You manage Element, who is currently working on a new album. I know that nothing is finished, but what can fans expect from her new album?
GB: A year ago I asked Element what she wanted her album to sound like, she said "the feeling I got when I heard Norah Jones and Lauryn Hill for the first time." For the past three years we've been working to put together something that would give people those kinds of chill bumps.
This will be her last local project, so we don't want to put it out until it is perfect. But it is by far her most well-produced work; some of the songs are out of this world!
OMC: How do you feel about the overall coverage that Milwaukee hip-hop gets in Milwaukee publications? Has it gotten better or worse over the last five to ten years?
GB: You tell me how many local bands were getting covered in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 10 years ago. The Journal was allergic to local talent in the early '00s; you don't know the type of grinding I had to do to get Black Elephant the type of coverage today's performers take for granted.
Nowadays, just about anybody can get coverage for their music or event, and still people put out product anonymously. It's like half the rappers in this city would rather complain than learn how to write a decent press release or take the effort to promote themselves to the Shepherd Express, OnMilwaukee.com or MJS. MJS is a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper respected nationally, yet too many artists spend more time quipping in 140-word tweets than harassing my editor to get a feature in the paper.
OMC: What Milwaukee hip-hop artists have you come across that you're like "I can't believe more people are listening to him/her!"?
GB: Tay Butler had a few songs on his latest project that were so good I couldn't believe he wasn't promoting it more. I used to be a Gerald Walker fan; I couldn't understand why he wasn't getting more publicity around the city. But like I said before, a lot of people don't understand the value of maintaining good personal relationships, so he stays virtually unknown in his own town.
A.P.R.I.M.E. is one of the most underrated emcees in Milwaukee. Although he gets better and better with each CD, the minute he releases a project he is already recording his next album. His music needs to be marketed and promoted more thoroughly.
OMC: I think that a Black Elephant reunion show would be wildly popular. Is something like that ever going to be possible?
GB: It's hard to say. There have been moments over the years where if a few things would have happened differently we could've had the group back on stage or even in the studio again, but the opportunity was missed. Now it's a matter of timing; everyone is busy with various endeavors and a lot of time has passed. The window of opportunity is not as wide open as it once was.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, Concordia University Wisconsin alumnus Poppe has spent the majority of his life in or around the city and county of Milwaukee.
As an advocate of Milwaukee's hip-hop community Poppe began popular local music blog Milwaukee UP in March 2010. Check out the archived entries here.
Though heavy on the hip-hop, Poppe writes about other genres of music and occasionally about food, culture or sports, and is always ready to show his pride in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.