When in Monroe, I always like to eat breakfast at the Brandy House restaurant at the Atrium Hotel on Louisville Avenue. The place is never crowded, the waitresses know me from having eaten there so frequently and the breakfast is among the best anywhere in the South. So with the sun rising over a beautiful, blue, chilly fall morning, I headed there for an omelet breakfast before making the rounds of antique malls along West Monroe’s Trenton Street. The results were far more disappointing than in previous years, as I didn’t find anything pertaining to Grambling in any of the shops, but I continued west into Ruston, and stopped for lunch at Raising Canes, a chicken finger place that I was thrilled to see had put Grambling logos and pictures on their walls as well as those for Louisiana Tech in Ruston.
After lunch, and a brief look-through at Acorn Creek Antiques in Ruston, I took the backroad past Rabb’s Steakhouse into Grambling. On this Friday before Homecoming, Grambling was beginning to come more to life. Main Street in the Village was lined with cars, and students were beginning to hang out. A new barbershop called the G-Spot had opened, and its proprietors had placed large stereo speakers outside on the sidewalk, which were blasting a hip-hop mixtape of some sort. The quadrangle wasn’t all that crowded, other than the group of Que-Dogs gathered around their hill near the sidewalk, but down at the Favrot Union there was a considerable crowd of students hanging around. The bookstore was quite crowded indeed, and there were a number of Grambling items that I would have liked to have purchased, but, with Barnes and Noble having taken over the bookstore, the prices were quite steep. I did buy a new Grambling T-shirt for myself, and a book about Grambling’s long-time sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, but I had to leave two other books I wanted behind because they were so expensive. As I headed back up the street toward the quad, I could hear the beat of drums, and thought that perhaps the Grambling band was on their way to a pep rally, but it turned out that they were practicing inside Dunbar Hall, near where a group of student were busy at work on a Homecoming float for the next day’s parade.
I reluctantly decided not to wait for the pep rally, and headed back to Monroe instead, since I had not visited any of the record stores there yet, and since I wanted to eat dinner there rather than in Ruston. To my surprise, there weren’t as many Grambling fans in my hotel as I would have expected. Instead, the football team and some fans of the University of North Texas were staying there, as I assumed their team was in town to play the University of Louisiana-Monroe at their homecoming. I had promotional CDs in my trunk for Li’l DJ (whose album Welcome to the SWAC was a tribute to the Black college athletic conference of which Grambling was a member), Bohagon, Hittman and Donnie Cross, and I dropped these off at Mr. E’s Music and Mad Flavors clothing store. Sadly, no other stores remained in Monroe, so after that, I headed to dinner at the Mohawk Tavern in West Monroe, where the radio was broadcasting a pregame show for West Monroe High School’s homecoming game.
Mohawk Tavern was a seafood restaurant, and I ordered grilled halibut, which was very good. On the other side of I-20, I stopped by the Corner Coffeehouse again for a Reese’s cupcake and a cafe latte. I had called my friend Dr. Reginald Owens, the journalism professor who taught at Louisiana Tech, and he was grilling chicken over at his house, so he invited me to drop by and we hung out for awhile talking.
Then I parked in the Village and walked onto the campus, still feeling like this year’s crowds were smaller than previous homecomings, but there were crowds at the Plush club and at the old Renaissance building. I had heard on the radio that Gravedigga was supposed to be DJing at the Endzone, out southwest of Ruston, so I drove out there, and found that he wasn’t there, but one of his associates was, and I left some promotional singles with the DJ there. Then, resisting the temptation to head back to the Plush in Grambling, I drove back to Monroe, where DJ Phat was spinning at a new club on Catalpa Street called Club Envy. There was hardly anybody there, and that was despite the fact that G-Spot from Dallas was supposed to be there to perform their hit single “Stanky Leg.” I left DJ Phat a stack of promos, and then drove over to Club Dominos, and, as with the night before, this is where the crowd was gathered, as well as four carloads of Monroe police who seemed to be expecting a problem. I had to pay to get in, and I had never heard of the DJ that was there, who said his name was KC, but I gave him another stack of promos, and then, thoroughly tired, returned to my hotel, hoping to get up early enough the next day to make it to the Homecoming parade.
A cold front had brought a dreary, heavy, continuous rain to the Memphis area as I was preparing to head out of town to the Grambling homecoming, and even though I had intended to run by early voting before going out of town, the line was so long that I couldn’t wait. I called Charlie Braxton in Jackson, Mississippi and decided to meet him at lunch so I could pick up some Donnie Cross singles to take to DJs in the Monroe/Grambling area, and fortunately it wasn’t raining in the Jackson area.
I had planned on going to Up The Creek Fish Camp, but Charlie decided he preferred pizza, so we stopped at a Mellow Mushroom Pizza in Flowood next door to the Up The Creek, and a Jackson rapper named Tony B met us there. After a latte at Cups in Fondren, I headed out west on I-20 toward Vicksburg, running back into the rain that was heading east toward Jackson.
The weather was truly nasty for the better part of my trip, but just outside of Monroe, the rain tapered off, and the weather became much cooler. Streets were still wet, but it wasn’t raining as I pulled into the Holiday Inn to check in. After getting settled into my room, I headed out to dinner, choosing Portico Bar and Grill on Tower Drive, which was crowded as always, and decorated for Halloween, just as I remembered it from last year. Despite the huge crowd, I was amazed that there was no wait, and as I enjoyed a filet mignon, a band began playing in the lounge area, and people were sitting around the bar watching a college football game.
Afterwards, I stopped by Books-A-Million, specifically to see if there were any new books about Grambling there (there weren’t any), and so I went on into West Monroe to the Corner Coffeehouse for a latte. Then, listening to my compilation of Monroe rappers, I continued the 30 miles to Ruston and Grambling.
At Grambling, a large crowd was gathered at a new nightclub called Plush that had opened next door to the Chevron near the I-20 exit, and I thought about going there, but decided against it, and headed down into the Village instead, but Main Street seemed relatively deserted, and even the quadrangle was unusually calm and subdued. There was only a small crowd in front of the Favrot Student Union and food court area, and a few students coming from the area of the stadium and assembly center (perhaps the talent show had been held in the new assembly center this year). I noticed that the last high-rise buildings had been demolished as I drove back up RWE Jones Drive to the interstate. Back in Monroe, nothing was happening on Olive Street, nor at Club Krystal on Washington. Club Dominos clearly had the crowd, but I decided to go back to my hotel room and get some rest.
The Sanctuary Jazz Orchestra was part of the tribute to James Williams that was being held at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center, so we all met up there around 7 PM.
Not only were we playing there, but also the fine Memphis pianists Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown, the trumpeter Bill Mobley, and the saxophonist Billy Pierce. Renardo Ward was to have been the drummer for much of the gig, but he was sick, and was replaced by James Sexton, who did a great job on probably short notice. Even though it was a mainstream jazz event, it was a sell-out, and the room was full to capacity!
Now that our company was on a four-day schedule, I had Friday off, so I called up Tune C, who didn’t have to be in to work until 4 PM, and we headed out to lunch at a new restaurant in Cordova that I had heard about, called Skimo’s. The place was at Houston Levee Road and Macon, and featured a wood-fired oven for pizzas, as well as five flat-screen TVs. I ordered a ciabatta burger, which was quite good, but the TV screens were full of the shocking stock-market crash that occurred even after Congress had passed a bailout bill. From there, we headed over to the new Cafe Eclectic on McLean across from Snowden Middle School, where I ordered a Viennese capuccino. This place features coffees, or course, but also fabulous breakfasts, burgers, gelatos and homemade desserts. Later in the afternoon, I drove over to Wellworx health club and completed my membership, and by that time, it was time for dinner. I was so impressed by Skimo’s that I suggested that my mother and I try it again for dinner, so we did, and this time I ordered a shrimp po-boy. Like the burgers, it too came on ciabatta bread, which was a little unusual, but very good. In the evening, the Sanctuary Jazz Orchestra had a rehearsal at Johnny Yancey’s house, so I drove over there, and we finished with that about 9:30 or so, getting ready for our performance Saturday at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center.
On either side of the market were restaurants and gift shops, but I soon found that parking (at $1 per half hour with no daily maximum) was quite expensive. I knew I would have to pay it to enjoy the city on foot (and that’s about the only way to enjoy Charleston), so I paid and parked my car and then began a walking tour of the area, snapping photos of nearly everything. While trying to snap a picture of the old US Customs House, I nearly backed into to a bellboy of what turned out to be the Market Place Hotel behind me. Seeing that they had a rooftop bar, I decided to ride the elevator up there, and found that the view of the old city from there was beautiful beyond description. The weather was downright hot, but the bar was crowded with people sitting around the rooftop pool, and I took pictures of the city, and of Mount Pleasant’s yacht harbor, visible to the north beyond the amazing bridge that I had crossed into the city over earlier.
I walked down to Meeting Street, noticing a lot of youths in military outfits who were cadets at the Citadel, and then I made my way back to the Charleston Crab House restaurant, where I enjoyed a shrimp dinner. The T-Bonz family of restaurants had a dessert cafe called Kaminsky’s across the market from the Charleston Crab House, so I walked over there foran after-dinner dessert and coffee. I instantly noticed a chocolate-peanut-butter torte, which proved to be moist and delicious, as Kaminsky’s only serves fresh desserts each day. Thoroughly relaxed and contented, I sipped my cappuccino while hearing rousing cheers from the T-Bonz next door where people were apparently watching a pro football game.
As I drove up Meeting Street, I stopped at an Exxon for gasoline, and then continued through some rough and ramshackle ‘hoods into North Charleston and on out Highway 78 into what truly was a primeval wilderness, broken only by the occasional small town. Some of these were a little bigger than others, and Branchville proved to be a rather good-sized place, where I stopped for a cold drink. The town was in a state of excitement due to some sort of fair and street festival, and crowds of young people were everywhere.
When I got to the conference room, however, I learned that it had been rescheduled for 7 PM, and there were several rap artists there waiting for me who thought it would be held at 10 AM as scheduled. So we held a little panel discussion about distribution in the foyer in front of the ballroom door, and afterwards, I decided to spend some time in the whirlpool. The sun was out, the wind had died down, and the weather was much warmer.
At noon, I drove down to the River City Cafe in Surfside Beach’s little downtown, since I was told that they had the best hamburgers on the beach. The place was crowded and cute, with an upstairs view of the Surfside Beach pier and beaches, but the burgers, which could have been really great, were only mediocre because of a South Carolina law that requires burgers to be cooked to medium well or above. So, needless to say, my burger was grey throughout, and dry as a bone.
Afterwards, I used my iPhone to locate an internet cafe around the corner, where I ordered a latte, and then I headed back to the hotel for the performance showcases. These ran longer than expected, however, and the 7 PM panel didn’t get under way until nearly 9 PM. By the time it ended at 10:15 PM, it was much too late to go to the Crab House at Barefoot Landing, where I had planned on eating dinner. In fact, to my surprise since Myrtle Beach was a resort area, I soon found it was too late to go anywhere at all. Most restaurants closed at 9:30 or 10 PM, even on weekends, I was told, because this was the off-season. I finally found that TGI Friday’s in Murrell’s Inlet was open, so three rap artists that had been at the panel discussion rode with me and we rode down there to eat a late dinner.
Upon our returning, we learned that there had been a fight outside the hotel, but on the hotel grounds, and the Surfside police had been called. Once again, alcohol seemed to be the catalyst, and the individual who had gotten the worst of the incident had threatened to bring a weapon up to the conference and kill the person who had whipped him. After things had calmed down, there were some conference panelists and attendees in the lobby talking about the Obama candidacy and hip-hop versus gangsta rap. But I was tired, so I headed up to the room and to bed.
The weather was cool, but overcast and quite windy, and I walked back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. I had scouted out a place called the Liberty Brewhouse at Broadway at the Beach. The restaurant was a brewpub featuring steaks, and was owned by T-Bonz out of Augusta, so I figured it would be good. Getting to Broadway at the Beach proved to be more difficult than I had expected, however, since traffic was backed up for miles because of an incident in front of a McDonald’s where a car had struck a child on a bicycle, and everyone was stopping to look as the ambulance was pulling up. Broadway at the Beach proved to be an elaborate outdoor shopping village built around a manmade lagoon full of catfish, other fish and ducks. One of its anchors was a Hard Rock Cafe built in the shape of a pyramid, and there was a Kiss Coffeehouse (the name and logo licensed from the band), a Tripp’s Family Restaurant, a Crab House, a Key West Bar and Grill, and many interesting shops. I decided to walk around a bit before eating dinner, and I walked through nearly all of the facility, stopping in a few shops to look around. In addition to the shops and restaurants, there were entertainment options like Dragon’s Lair goofy golf, and some sort of Adventure Quest laser game, and a theatre. I soon walked right to the Liberty Brewhouse, and, to my surprise, had no trouble getting a seat. The Liberty Brewhouse brewed their own root beer, which was excellent, and the steak and lobster dinner was really good as well.
Afterwards, I stopped into a Kaldi’s Coffee Bar for a latte, and then drove over to Ocean Boulevard, to drive that way along the Grand Strand back to the hotel. The sun was going down red to the southwest, and I stopped to take a number of pictures. When I arrived back at the hotel, showcases were still in progress, with artists performing and being critiqued by some of the panelists. After that, a beat battle and a freestyle battle were held. Unfortunately, liquor was flowing freely from the hotel bar, and a fight was narrowly averted when one young man who had lost in the freestyle battle complained that another man nearby kept staring at him. Altogether, however, day one of the Southern Music and Entertainment Summit went very well.
Then from there, I headed out to Tobacco Road, where I stopped at a couple of clothing stores, including Millenium Urban Wear and Titanium Music and More, and then I drove up to an urban wear store on Peach Orchard Road, but the Music Connection store next door wasn’t open yet. Jamming my “Crunk in Augusta” CDs of local rap that I had made from artists on Myspace, I headed past the abandoned Regency Mall to Pyramid Music and More, and then down Deans Bridge Road to Four Corners, also known as Augusta Music World. This local landmark featured a counter where people had signed their names and neighborhoods, and as I was purchasing a DVD, a boy came inside talking about some fight that had broken out in the parking lot.
My final destination was the other Pyramid Music and More downtown where there were old vinyl records, but my journey there led down James Brown Boulevard, through neighborhoods that were basically eviscerated. Seeing the decrepit, tumble-down buildings and houses, along with vacant lots and nodding junkies walking down the street, I couldn’t help but think of this street as an insult to the famous singer rather than a tribute to him.
Downtown Augusta had free parking, and there was some sort of music festival getting underway near the riverfront, as I saw a stage and heard a drummer warming up on a drumset, but I walked into the record store, and found a number of 45s that I wanted, but the prices proved to be way too expensive for me to purchase any of the records. I had thought that V-Tec and Mr. Hill would meet me downtown before I headed out to South Carolina, but they told me to head over on the Washington Road side of town, so I drove west on Broad Street past a number of project buildings in Harrisburg and Lake Olmstead, stopping at a Starbucks to meet them there, and Mr. Hill came to bring me a copy of the Millionairz-N-Playaz album.
It was later than I had intended when I left Augusta, and with so many gas stations out of gas in the area, I decided to head on into South Carolina before filling up, which proved to be a mistake, as no stations in North Augusta or Aiken had any gasoline at all. I finally found an Exxon in Batesburg/Leesville which had gasoline, and I filled up there, but the weather was now taking a turn for the worse, with grey clouds everywhere and wind picking up significantly.
Finally, at Florence, I-20 ended, and I made my way through the rain into town and to a Longhorn Steakhouse for dinner. Afterwards, I continued on Highway 501, stopping at a convenience store and noticing a newspaper headline about the bankruptcy of the Hard Rock Park amusement park in Myrtle Beach. An exit off the main road led me into Surfside Beach, and from there, I made my way to the Holiday Inn with no trouble. However, while running from the hotel lobby to my car, I slipped down on the wet pavement. The hotel called the EMTs out, and they concluded that I probably hadn’t broken anything, so I declined to go to the hospital, and went upstairs to bed instead.
I passed through Atlanta and stopped at a Panera Bread in Lithonia to meet a representative from DMP Records, who was bringing me some promotional items on the Hittman release. From there I continued toward Augusta, where I found that traffic was complete chaos due to heavy construction on I-20 and I-520. I had reserved a room at the Microtel Inn on Gordon Highway, so I checked in there and waited to hear from V-Tec, the rapper from Millionairz and Playerz that I had an appointment with. That group had been one of the first rap groups from Augusta, garnering attention from a single called “Barton Village Souljaz”. By an odd sort of coincidence, the Barton Village subdivision was but a stone’s throw from my hotel, and V-Tec had agreed to give me a tour of it. He soon arrived at the hotel, with several other people with him, and I rode in his truck down to Barton Village, which was not necessarily what I had expected. A large boulevard with a sign marked the entrance to the community, which had clearly been a suburban subdivision at one time. The houses were fairly large, and had decent front and back yards, although one could see that some of the houses had been allowed to deteriorate.
Built in 1969, Barton Village had been a private housing subdivision, but problems set in early, and the development company went into bankruptcy before the community was complete, so the US Department of Housing and Urban Development stepped in, and took over a subdivision where many of the houses were boarded up or even partially burned. The Augusta Housing Authority ended up with much of it, renting the houses much like project apartments, although some of the houses were still privately owned, and the area soon gained a reputation for drugs, then violence.
Local law enforcement and media associated Barton Village with a gang called the O-Dubbs, which the Augusta-Richmond sheriff claimed might be slang for Old McDuffie Road, which runs through the area. All of this brought a laugh from V-Tec, who could have told them that O-Dubb was short for Only With True Thugs, the old name of his record label when he and a partner named John Wolf first started recording rap music in the late 1990’s. On the song “Barton Village Souljaz”, there are numerous references to “OWTT” the acronym. People who lived in Barton Village came to associate this name with the neighborhood, and began to throw up a hand signal comprised of the letters O.W. to represent the area. Apparently the gang tag came about in two ways-one, the sheriff needed Augusta to have gangs in order to receive a coveted grant, and, two- some young members of O-Dub got involved in fights with nearby neighborhoods such as the Meadowbrook Click (MBC) or the Circle Boyz in Glenn Hills.
But now in the early dusk, as we rolled through the streets, V-Tec pulled up in front of one of the houses where some friends of his were hanging out, and he introduced me to them. People would come up to the truck and acknowledge V with an “O-DUBB” shout, and then we headed out to T-Bonz on Washington Road where other OWTT family members met us, and we got a big boardroom table to eat and hang out. V-Tec and I discussed digital and physical distribution, and then afterwards, he took us down to Soultry Sounds Cafe in downtown Augusta for a local showcase of rap talent. Some of the rappers were particularly talented, but I wanted a cappuccino, so I walked around the corner to the Metro Coffeehouse, and then back to the event. V-Tec wanted to stay and hang out, so his uncle drove me back to the motel