Respiration’s last gasp

By William E. Ketchum III

Monthly hip-hop showcase to go out with a bang

It seems like Respiration, the monthly Lansing hip-hop show, has been around forever. But after nearly three years, the event is coming to an end because of dwindling attendence.

Respiration got its start in May 2006, when Marc “Clok” Raskolnikov and EJ “Verse-is” Dortch — the Lansing rap duo of FOS, or Figures of Speech — took their admiration of events at spots like New York City’s Nuyorican Café and others decided to fill Lansing’s hip-hop void.

“I saw other people I respected had thrown their own [regularly-running shows], and there was a lack of that in Lansing,” Raskolnikov remembers. “I knew there was the potential for a lot of artists to come out of here.”

Raskolnikov helped do promotion at The Temple Club, a Lansing venue that shut down in fall of 2006. After a booking agent at Mac’s Bar in Lansing enlisted his help to arrange a hip-hop concert, Raskolnikov approached him about doing a show every first Thursday with local hip-hop artists. The line-up of performers never appeared on promotional flyers — but the event became reputable enough that every show was a must-see.

The booking agent approved of the event, and the inaugural Respiration saw F.O.S. hosting a line-up that included Detroit emcee Finale, Grand Rapids group La Famiglia, Lansing emcee L.O.R.D. and others. “It was packed, and they all stayed the whole time,” Raskolnikov remembers.

Over the next couple of years, the shows exceeded expectations. There were changes in the monthly DJ, and Dortch moved to Florida, but organizers rolled with the punches. Attendance was solid, and Clok’s duality as an artist and a promoter helped bring in some of the state’s best-known indie artists.

“One of the things [Raskolnikov] did best was bridge the gap between promoter and host, which is an outdated concept,” said Mac’s owner Chuck Mannino. “No one else has done that at Mac’s since. He was bar none the best host I’ve ever seen, and that helped create the positive vibe.”

Finale has performed all over the country, but said Lansing’s hip-hop crowd stands out. “I always look forward to rocking there, even if it’s an hour and a half away, snowing, and [with] a bunch of cops,” he laughs. “Most Michigan artists don’t support each other the way they do in Lansing. That’s why I always enjoy rockin’, whether it’s 20 or 200 people.”

Lansing began to build a scene around Respiration. Local rapper Othello started his own hip-hop night, Elevation, at Rendezvous on the Grand, and rapper One Be Lo made plans to open Skool, a hip-hop store in East Lansing. Rappers like Othello and P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. built expansive fan bases while representing Lansing as home base. “For lack of a better statement, Respiration made my career,” P.H.I.L.T.H.Y., born James Gardin, said. “It’s been said I'm the prototype of what the open mic was made for. Respiration gave me my first real planned-out solo set. It’s where I learned how to set up shows, network and work the crowd. Respiration was where I was really cultivated as an artist.”

But last year, momentum slowed. Elevation stalled a couple months after it began and One Be Lo’s Skool project died. During the summer, Respirations attendance began to wane.

Then, last August, members of the local hip-hop community threatened to boycott Mac’s if it followed through with a scheduled show featuring allegedly racist hardcore metal band, M.O.D. Mannino eventually canceled M.O.D., and hip-hop organizers put together a genre-blending bill with rap acts and the previously scheduled metal band, Black Tooth Brigade. Inside Mac’s, the show went well, but outside, protestors lined up with signs dissenting against M.O.D. even though the band was taken off the bill. Some say the stigma of Mac's having considerded hosting an allegedly racist band led to diminishing crowds at Respiration.

“It’s unfortunate, because in that situation, I think ultimately, Chuck did the right thing,” Raskolnikov said. “People are quick to get behind something negative, but not quick to support Mac’s Bar when it did something positive.”

To combat slumping attendance, Raskolnikov began working with Irving Ronk and his company, Fusion Shows. The goal was to bring in bigger artists and put more money into promotions, but Mannino pulled the plug on Respiration early last month. Mannino said the event had lost its palette of performers and diverse audience. He also said Fusion’s rates would force the night’s cover charge to go up from $5.

Raskolnikov disagrees, retorting that the show kept a stable of diverse artists outside of its “conscious rap” reputation. He also said that beefier cover charges would be the result of bigger artists charging more to perform, not Fusion’s rates.

Respiration will go out with a grand finale this weekend. Saturday’s line-up will be a “greatest of” showcase of Respiration performers, and will include Marv Won, La Famiglia, Finale, Octane & iLLite and others. And this time, their names are on the flyer. “I felt like it’d be cool to put the names performing on the last bill, to give it a special feel,” Raskolnikov said. “We couldn’t even fit every artist on the flyer, or there would’ve been names all over the damn place.”

Mannino said he’d like to arrange another recurring hip-hop show at Mac’s, but the challenge to keep things fresh remains. “My experience with Clok was positive. It was a great mark in Mac’s history,” he said. “We created a hip-hop scene in Lansing that wasn’t there before in a punk rock bar.”

Raskolnikov said even though he’s not working with Mac’s anymore, he’ll continue booking shows to serve Lansing’s hip-hop community. “The people,” he says, will dictate if there will be another successful hip-hop monthly in the area. “Respiration, as its own entity, has had its time,” he said. “All good things have to come to an end; nothing lasts forever. It might be time for something new. If it is, we’ll see.”

Recently, Othello and Clok released a song, “Keep Dreamin Lansing,” which can be found on F.O.S.’s MySpace page ( Othello, who moved back to Seattle this fall, is bidding farewell to Lansing. Clok is saying goodbye to Respiration.

“Othello had a great connection with Lansing when he was here, he was embraced by the whole community,” Raskolinov said “For him, it was his way of saying ‘Peace, thanks for the love, and keep dreaming.’ For me, it was kind of in the same way, but instead of Lansing as a whole, it was Respiration, thanking everybody for being a part of it.”

Respiration finale
Featuring Marv Won, La Famiglia, Octane & iLLite and more
9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6
Mac's Bar, 2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
$5, 18
(517) 484-6795