Go Bananas — What You Need to Know About LA’s Premier DIY Hip-Hop Night
By Jeff Weiss
It’s been going up on a Tuesday for the last decade. If you’re familiar with the history of West Coast African-American bohemianism, this is hallowed soil. 43rd Place and Leimert, the vibrant axis mundi once branded the “black Greenwich Village.” There you’ll find Bananas, the best monthly rap night in America, which sustains the neighborhood’s fertile heritage of avant-garde experimentation, poetic expression, and wild style.
The physical space is small, but you won’t have to look very hard to find it. Every third Tuesday, if you arrive in this South Central enclave, you can’t help but notice a hundred-plus teenagers and 20-somethings of all races, ethnicities and creeds spilling out into the street, idling under the adjacent Vision Theatre, freestyling in ciphers, smoking and drinking, and organically creating culture in the only way possible — by just having fun.
It’s inevitably pandemonium inside the KAOS Network venue. Hundreds sweat amidst an art space adorned by hanging psychedelic watercolors, tribal-colored tapestries, and a massive mural of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Instruments idle on a low riser. Very little separates performer from the audience, literally and figuratively. One month a teenager will be awestruck in the crowd, the next he’ll be on-stage, swarmed by dozens, his career suddenly ascendant. It’s incubated a sense of community without forcing it.
“Nearly everyone I’ve musically met or built with in the greater Los Angeles area all connect to the root of Bananas,” says Rhys Langston, one of the most gifted young talents of the greater Bananas scene.
“I first met [Bananas founder] VerBS when I was a short-haired and shy 17 year-old who didn’t craft any music, let alone have the gall to venture to any late night street corner concerts during the week,” the Windsor Hills native continues. “Knowing him first as a community member and then an artist and promoter made my discovery of Bananas all the more magical. I had my first set there. I’ve free-styled there with my rap heroes multiple times, and was culled out of any performance nerves I might have had.”
This is part of a lineage. It begins with Leimert Park emerging as the African American cultural locus in the middle decades of the last century. But it really accelerates at the dawn of the 90s when a woman named B. Hall opened up a nearby health food café called The Good Life. Anchored by Freestyle Fellowship, a rotating battalion of kinetic performers freestyled, read poems, and jammed each Thursday. Everyone from Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube to Common and Fat Joe reportedly attended — with the latter infamously getting booed off-stage with the chant, “Please pass the mic!”
After the Good Life shuttered in 1994, the legacy continued with Project Blowed, the weekly avant-garde rap clinic run out of KAOS Network, owned by the respected filmmaker and community activist, Ben Caldwell. From Busdriver and Abstract Rude to Nocando and Open Mike Eagle, the stylistic eclecticism nurtured at the Blowed continues to influence everyone from Chance the Rapper to Kendrick Lamar — who even popped up at Bananas a few years ago.
Yet none of this would’ve happened without VerBS (nee Kyle Guy), the Project Blowed alumni and fixed gear bike icon, who kept the flame alive rather than see it extinguished. When Project Blowed began to perish in the middle of the last decade, VerBS created Bananas in the same space to ensure that there was a haven for aspiring young rappers, bands, or poets to play for free.
“This was a chance to get known in my neighborhood,” says Hugh Augustine, who has become one of the breakout local stars of Bananas. “It’s been really cool to have a safe space for young black people and other minorities to hang out and perform on a weeknight, in a place that’s not always otherwise safe. Everyone there is just trying to uplift each other.”
What’s been built exists outside of the digital space, and extends well beyond a matter of tweets, Instagram, or social media buzz. This is the result of a DIY mentality and word of mouth transmission — that began with VerBS teaching himself how to make flyers on Adobe Photoshop, printing them off at Kinkos, and personally delivering them to Amoeba and other physical distribution hubs.
During its decade-long run, performing at Bananas has become a rite of passage for any LA underground artist. The list of those who have graced the stage includes Anderson .Paak (under his Breezy Lovejoy alias), Open Mike Eagle, Casey Veggies, SPEAK!, Nocando, and Quelle Chris. Vince Staples and Syd from the Internet have popped in just to hang out — the same for John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then there was that one time that the legendary “waterproof MC,” Ras Kass materialized out of thin air to kick an impromptu 32 bar freestyle on-stage.
“10 years later, we’re still here, still booking anyone and everyone from the underground,” VerBS says.
I ask him why he thinks it’s stayed so popular and he pauses for a second, struggling to find an answer, even though it’s readily apparent that they come for the artistic freedom, sense of possibility, and feeling of community that he’s helped create.
“I don’t know why it’s so popular,” VerBS shrugs.” I think it’s because it’s consistent. It’s one of those things, where if you build it, they’ll come.”
Want a snack while you’re at the next show? Postmates can get it for you.