What began as a culture that prided itself on its resourcefulness and inventiveness now blares from mainstream radio as a swaggering pissing contest of bling, bitches, and violence. In retaliation, Sara Moskovitz and Shannon Guthrie, owners of Portland's latest hiphop space, Wax, are dedicated to celebrating the elements of an old school aesthetic, far removed from the antics of contemporary idols who have deviated from hiphop's nonviolent, un-materialistic roots.
To do this, they've created Wax, an all ages epicenter of old school hiphop culture. Situated on Interstate Ave--a virtual no man's land for underage fun--the bright yellow building and wide windows are immediately eye catching along the relatively drab and chintzy strip. When the curious passerby enters, they are greeted by a bright, spacious room with hip furniture, cozy booths, and a smattering of graffiti pieces proudly hailing from the walls. Towards the back of the room is a café bar, serving espresso drinks, smoothies, and snacks, as well as hard to find bubble teas and "mocktails." Each bearing the name of a hiphop song, some of the mocktails glow in the dark when Wax's black lights are in effect, such as "Blast," made with Rockstar, pear nectar, and 7-Up.
But far more than a young, spacious coffee shop, Wax holds a different themed night for each day of the week. So far, after only their first month of operation, one of the most popular nights is Wednesdays' b-boy and b-girl breakdancing class and open session, with Portland's tight-knit community of breakers quickly sniffing out an all too rare space for them to congregate and practice. The other hit is Sunday's the Cypher; a freestyle event where emcees battle while b-boys and b-girls cut loose on the open floor. Other weekly events include a Tuesday open mic poetry night, a Thursday reggae and dancehall night, a spoken word/poetry night on Fridays, and a mainstream hiphop club night on Saturdays.
Giving Them What They Want
Originally from North Portland herself, Moskovitz moved to San Diego eight years ago, where her early interest in hiphop blossomed in the Southern California town's booming scene.
"I just thought, "Wow, this is fantastic, we have so much positive energy… why don't we have this in Portland?" she remembers.
It was there she met San Diego native Guthrie, and a year ago he returned with her to Portland to help foster some of that same creative energy.
"But a lot has happened in those seven years," says Moskovitz, "so it's not at all like we're coming here to show everyone what's up."
Still, it's a noticeable fact that while Portland has a limited hiphop scene, the few clubs and spaces devoted entirely to this culture usually don't last. Additionally, there aren't very many options for the underage crowd, and certainly none like Wax.
"Growing up, the Quest was the only late night option for underage kids," remembers Moskovitz, "and I went because I wanted to dance. I mean kids have a lot of energy; they're not ready to go to bed at 9 o'clock on a Friday."
In some ways, Wax is set up to cater to kids in the North Portland neighborhood, who have few things to do between the hours when school lets out and when their parents get off work. Wax opens at 3 pm, just in time to fill that void, and stays open until 3 am, which suits the older set. (Guthrie estimates the clientele age range as 16-26). Still, as a for-profit business, Moskovitz and Guthrie recognize the challenges that lay ahead.
"It's great when [kids in the immediate neighborhood] come hang out with us all afternoon and make up dances and just have a good time," says Moskovitz, "but there's no money being brought in, so that's been the trickiest part. I understand now why unfortunately so many underage clubs don't last very long. It's too bad that the alcohol really brings it in financially."
Old School vs. New
Unfortunately, because there are few other places to go for hiphop in this neighborhood, the mix of people who are into old school can clash with those who are locked into the contemporary mainstream.
"It's too bad, but the mainstream night is the only night we hire security," says Moskovitz. "Bling blingin' and being 50 Cent… that's not where it's at. It's a struggle."
A recent night at the club resulted in a minor clash between what they see as divided factions within the hiphop scene. Although it didn't go so far as to evolve into violence, it was disheartening, and they are considering withdrawing the mainstream nights at the club, despite the money they generate.
"They need this place, I guess," says Guthrie. "But if they push it away, we're not going to shove it down their throats."
And a misbehaving element is exactly the opposite of what any hiphop oriented venue in Portland needs. Warned they would meet with a lot of concerns from the neighborhood, Guthrie and Moskovitz were asked to speak at a neighborhood association meeting. Instead, they invited members of the association to Wax to see it for themselves.
"We wanted to meet with them on our own terms instead of having to be on the defensive," says Moskovitz. "A couple of them came, I made them some smoothies, and they sat and watched some breakdancing--it felt okay. We didn't hug, and they didn't tell me how great it is or anything, but I think they were glad to see that we weren't sacrificing kids in here or anything crazy, because all they see is the mainstream."
If all goes well, not only will Wax's good intentions reward them with a matching reputation, but they will be a positive influence on young people who are misled by a culture that has been warped from its roots in positivity.
"That's what they see--the jewelry, the cars… it's really unfortunate how the media has commercialized it," mourns Moskovitz. "It's not real, and it's not fair."
Wax is also a promising gateway for those who aren't involved in hiphop, but are curious--and Guthrie has already noticed this starting to happen.
"Most of the people who come in are already involved, but we have a couple who come in for breakdancing class that aren't involved in hiphop at all--they just want to learn how to breakdance. Then a lot of people just come in to get coffee and go, "Wow, what's this?'"
Room to Grow
In its earliest incarnation, Wax already has impressive size, resources, and style, but expect to see even more expansion in the future. A glass-walled room in the building's front is in the process of being painted with a graffiti mural, and Guthrie and Moskovitz hope to also use the room as a retail space for paint and spray can tips. Another room in Wax is soundproofed and ready for transformation into a recording studio. There is also a huge yard on the side of the building they would like to do something with in the warmer months.
"Get a big porch set up out there and have breakdancing on it… that would be cool," fantasizes Moskovitz. They are also planning to begin hosting live music--particularly by underage hiphop artists.
If you're an aspiring artist within the realm of hiphop culture, now's the time to get in at Wax's ground level. They're still on the hunt for DJs/Emcees, breakers, and graffiti artists (there's still a lot of room on those big white walls), and they invite anyone interested to call or stop by--after all, it's your community.
With youth, ambition, and sincerity on its side, Wax is poised to be a huge and positive step toward nurturing a healthy hiphop scene in Portland--essentially becoming a one-stop shop for all the elements of old school hiphop culture. And because Wax offers something for everyone, the future looks as bright as the yellow paint on its veneer.
Wax, 5101 N Interstate, 283-9093, Tues-Sun 3 pm-3 am; Tuesdays, Open-Mic Standup Comedy, 9 pm, free; Wednesdays, b-boy & b-girl Foundation Class, 6:30 pm, $7, Open Floor Break Session, 9 pm, $3; Thursdays, Reggae & Dancehall, 9 pm, free; Fridays, Open Mic Spoken Word & Poetry Slam, 9 pm, free; Saturdays, Mainstream Hiphop Club Night, 9 pm, $6; Sundays, the Cypher, 9 pm, $3