Road to 100K
Byline for Bars On I-95
The soundscape of hip hop exponentially evolves and what could be a hit today may not be the formula for a hit next year. With those changes comes loss and some of us may argue that lyricism fell out of function on this trajectory of growth. This is not limited to the music itself but also media platforms and record labels divesting more from talent and investing more in popularity and sensationalism. This shift creates an environment of smoke and mirrors leaving us with more monolithic sounds and appearances. There is little room for artists who may not check off the trendy or viral boxes. The field is tougher to navigate for artists not based in cultural hubs like LA, Miami, and New York but they do have the heart, vision, and talent.
If we play word association with hip hop, what comes to mind? New York, grit, gangstas, but the last thing we identify as hip hop is Connecticut. We’re often hidden under the label of “east coast” or muffled by questions like “are there even Black people in Connecticut?” The simple answer is yes and we love hip hop as well. Our size and geography may work against us, but these factors are simply the fuel that keeps the ember of talent burning with fervor. The conundrum many artists here face is playing the game of industry politics. Here we see, again, the assimilation needed to be a part of the pack. Our local radio stations and venues fall short in providing genuine opportunities to display their talent or to be that springboard to take their music to new heights, new eyes, and new ears. The politics of the hip hop industry seeps into all levels of experience: mainstream, underground, and independent leaving us with music diluted by overproduction and lack of imagination.
The looming question appears to be how do we allow hip hop to evolve and nurture talent simultaneously? Skills over politics. That’s the motto for CT’s premiere hip hop platform, Bars on I-95. The founders, AB and Cease, created Bars to be that home for rappers to demonstrate their artistry and to stay true to one of the most important pillars of hip hop: lyricism. Freestyling was the way to prove that an artist is truly an emcee. Cease and AB recognized the shifts in not only the music itself but the coverage of the artists and built an opportunity borne from the industry moving away from the fundamentals of hip hop.
For these young men, hip hop not only brought them together but scored pivotal moments throughout their lives. It is the soundtrack to their joy, pain, celebration and introspection. Being former collegiate athletes, AB and Cease cultivated a network of influence which brought them into rooms and conversations about hip hop culture. This journey began with event coordination, throwing parties for the community and creating spaces for people to celebrate with each other.
Understanding their position, the founders leveraged their influence to fulfill a need that CT and eventually the music industry hadn’t realized was unmet. Their close friends were artists themselves and AB made the seamless shift into management even though he lacked the experience. However, his background in finance coupled with their network created a buffer in that gap of his understanding. He made the time to study and learn from professionals through documentaries, books, and research. After his best friend got incarcerated, AB realized that it was time for yet another shift.
The Bars on I-95 studio, initially called Studio I-95, was conceived by AB and Cease’s realization that they needed to invest in their vision more seriously. Being that CT isn’t known as a cultural hub for hip hop, this simultaneously put the founders at a disadvantage but still created an avenue for them to dominate. The two men rebuilt AB’s garage into their new studio and soon, it would become a place for artists to create and develop their music. Through more trial, error and analysis Cease and AB reworked their plan to bolster the culture. They realized the difficulty CT artists run into with gaining support from platforms within the state as well as commanding the attention of the industry beyond CT. Hot 93.7, the main hip hop station here, discontinued Jingle Jam, our version of Summer Jam and it opened the door for local and mainstream artists to perform and expand their network and influence. The goal was to have a place for those within the state and beyond to produce quality work and establish a connection with the culture in CT. With Studio I-95 up and running, AB and Cease knew it would become the conduit for enriching the hip hop community. Still, this wasn’t quite enough nor did it truly execute the vision they had in mind.
The two of them went back to the drawing board to refine their vision once more. They wanted to keep maximizing the potential of their studio space beyond recording music. Cease and AB went back and forth on concepts that could show artists on all levels that CT is a place where hip hop thrives and also still be that platform to prioritize talent. While Cease went to school full time in VA, AB remained diligent with their vision as he worked full time as well. This meant more studio renovations, late night meetings, and Cease coming up from school until they landed on their final vision. After a couple setbacks, AB and Cease began building out the Bars on I-95 team.
Networking across as Issa Rae said, they reached out to their respective networks and family to find those who are passionate about their craft and about their love for hip hop. Soon they had a videographer, graphic designer, and engineer who all share a deep love for hip hop and creating quality content to begin creating episodes. When the show premiered, there was still the obstacle of proximity to overcome. CT artists sometimes fall into the trap of ignoring the cultivation happening around them and instead look outward to attain more notoriety from more familiar platforms. It wasn’t until battle rapper Chess set the mic on fire during his freestyle that artists within CT and outside of the state began taking Bars on I-95 seriously as a hip hop platform. Cease and AB recognized they were on the precipice of (re)setting a standard in hip hop that talent matters and that consumers do care about an artist’s ability to actually rap. They stayed true to their vision and continued to adapt in minor and major ways. This created opportunities to travel to artists’ hometowns to generate dialogues focused on hip hop culture in these places and provide a stage to display their lyrical prowess.
Through personnel changes, (even more) studio renovations and increasing the standard of quality, Bars on I-95 blazed their own trail and opened up new opportunities for talent across the nation to have a home. Freestyling still acts as a litmus test for lyrical ability and with the industry directing more focus on popularity, Bars on I-95 is bringing it back to fundamentals. At the core of the team is the devotion to move with integrity on all fronts. This is the battery that keeps the show running paired with the love of hip hop and faith in the vision.
Three years later after their first episode, Bars on I-95 is taking root as that place to find the latest talent and to engage in or set the stage for creating authentic narratives and discussion for the betterment of hip hop.