Derek Jackson wants to send a message to anybody who's thinking of attending the 2007 Ohio Hip-Hop Awards, so he sets down his fork, leans over his Caesar salad, and bellows into my cassette recorder: "Leave your white tees at home, your do-rags, your saggy jeans. This is a black-tie, red-carpet event." The decree sends Jackson's OHHA partners -- Quincy Taylor, Derrick McKenzie, and Mike Vasquez (aka Garbs Infinite) -- into fits of laughter.
Red carpets are on Jackson's mind. He just got off the phone with a local company that rents out the sprawling kind, as seen at the Grammys and VMAs. But now he and the others are taking a break at OHHA's headquarters, an office on West Sixth that doubles as headquarters for ESP Enterprises, an urban marketing company owned by Jackson and Vasquez.
The guys look utterly frazzled: five o'clock shadows and thousand-yard stares all around. Several weeks ago, as this Saturday's ceremony drew nearer, the four basically locked themselves inside this office, juggling day jobs, pulling all-nighters, and sneaking catnaps on the couch. "This is my second home," says a weary McKenzie, who tries to relax, but can't stop updating their website: www.ohiohiphopawards.com. Taylor, meanwhile, sits silently, bags clinging to his big eyes. It's hard to believe he's the same sharp-dressed player -- head of In the Way Marketing and manager of local R&B vixen Cali Miles -- who was schmoozing at last month's "'07 Ohio Hip-Hop 216 AIDS Walk" concert.
This fatigue is the by-product of trying to establish the OHHA as a regional institution. Its first installment was just last year. Actually counting old-fashioned paper ballots by hand, these guys -- who all grew up in Cleveland's hip-hop scene -- put on a modest affair at the Flats' Metropolis nightclub. Several hundred musicians, DJs, indie labels, and fans from around the state showed up to celebrate Ohio's hip-hop culture and to partake in some urban networking.
In an age when rap has fractured into regional scenes, the inaugural awards ceremony stirred up some latent Buckeye pride. And it's carried over into this year: McKenzie says they've already sold more advance tickets to Saturday's event than there were attendees last year. And the awards have graduated to downtown's Galleria at Erieview, a posh venue that seats more than 1,000.
Bigg Eddie Bauer, program director for Cincinnati's WIZF and former Z107.9 DJ, will host the souped-up, black-tie soirée. Hardware will be doled out by a handful of major-label presenters, including Toldeo-born R&B singer Lyfe Jennings, who records for Sony; the 216's Ray Cash, signed to the same label; and Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek, who's also due to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work with Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and others.
McKenzie, clearly relieved, says they're done with the cumbersome paper ballots of '06. He then shows off the online-only voting system for the 2007 Ohio Hip-Hop Awards, a high-security program that prevents repeat voting. To date, the OHHA has tallied more than 5,000 votes for awards in nearly 30 categories -- everything from Single of the Year and Best Video to Best Model and Best Graffiti Artist.
But unlike the national awards ceremonies, the OHHA devotes a large chunk of the live performances to up-and-coming talent; exposure is a fundamental component of the group's mission. Representing Cleveland will be 18-year-old phenom Corey Bapes and the highly touted Machine Gun Kelly, both of whom are nominated for Best New Artist.
Taylor is quick to point out that while the OHHA is based in Cleveland, it endorses inter-city collaboration, not rivalries. "The biggest thing is unifying the Ohio hip-hop scene, which is pretty much nonexistent," he says.
That's where the OHHA has its work cut out for it: Unlike the Dirty South's crunk and its pounding club beats, Ohio has no regional sound, no easy brand to market. In fact, many area rappers cop different accents in an attempt to jump other region's bandwagons. "I'll listen to a track and hear a guy sounding like he's from Queens, when he's from down the street," explains Jackson.
But that, he says, is why he and his friends have been locked in this office: to foster a sense of unity in a scene more infamous for fractured infighting than anything else: "We just need to stop thinking about what everyone else thinks and just get our own thing."
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