It’s a Friday night, when emcee Ardamus (Artemis Thompson) lets loose on a chrome-handle microphone upstairs in what used to be Capital City Records on Washington, D.C.’s historic U Street.
A crowd of mostly White youth pack the humid record shop — some wiping their sweaty faces and thumbing through wooden shelves of vinyl records, others bobbing their heads to the bass-heavy track and rhyming along with the artist.
Though the turn-out’s far from that of any sold-out show by mainstream standards, the 29-year-old emcee wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I could do this right, I could make this my job,” said Thompson, who rocks mics at night and works full-time during the day as a computer operator for XM Radio Headquarters in D.C.
It’s where he ended up four years ago after putting in 16-hour days as a contracted employee, working beyond the required hours before he was eventually hired full-time. “I’d have a gig during the day, a gig during the night, and then I would do stuff for the radio show,” he said.
But this balancing act is nothing new to the lives of indie hip hop artists. Working day jobs, while promoting and rocking shows at night is part of that life where the obstacles include finding affordable studio time and dealing with shady promoters for shows.
It’s a life Thompson has lived for 12 years in the district, after leaving Nashville, Tenn., at 17 to study anthropology and sociology at Howard University. His motivation for choosing that life was his skepticism of the creative control that major labels have over their artists. “I didn’t want any kind of control over my stuff whatsoever,” he said.
It’s a life Thompson has documented in his latest release, “When Nothing Goes Right” (2007), a direct correlation to what he’s gone through while living in D.C. The CD’s topics range from money issues to dealing with promiscuous women to kicking dead-beat friends out of his house. The production process was also added to the list of things gone wrong when Thompson lost the previously recorded material for the album to a computer crash.
His advice to those going the indie route is to roll with the punches, and treat each obstacle as a teaching moment.
He said it also includes taking advantage of the barter system, or exchanging favors, as a way of working around not being able to find affordable studio time and dealing with shady promoters. “If you’re doing production for somebody who can’t afford it because they’re paying for studio time and other things, just work something out with that person,” Thompson said.
This includes “trading off shows,” or opening for artists in other states in exchange for them coming to your area and performing. So if Thompson opened for an emcee in Philadelphia or Ashville, N.C., the artists in those areas would open for Thompson at his shows in D.C. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be strictly hip hop artists,” he added, but also rock, jazz and blues bands — what he calls another way of an artist exposing one’s self to various audiences.
Another tip for indie artist is to be resilient in any situation. In 2007, Thompson bounced back almost immediately after being robbed at gun point. He took out his aggression at a hip hop battle that same week. “The prize money was $200,” said Tyrone Norris (emcee “Mental Stamina”), who met Thompson nine years ago when they were both Howard undergrads. Norris recalled that during the battle Thompson “destroyed” the other emcees and walked off with the prize money. “He works hard and is very creative — always coming up with something new, always pushing what he’s trying to do,” he said.
Even when his first EP, “Life is a Humbling Experience” (2001), received a review that was hard for Thompson to swallow, it didn’t hinder his determination to keep pushing what he does.
A 2002 review of the EP in Howard’s Hilltop, the university paper reported: “The concepts grappled by Ardamus does bring an innovative and refreshingly clear view as opposed to other hip-hip artists [limited] to rapping about women, selling drugs, committing crimes and chilling with the local gang.” However, according to review, “The word play and content lacked correlation, relevance and unified themes.”
Looking back, Thompson said: “I was very uncomfortable at the time recording [the EP] because I didn’t know where I was going with it. You hear other people rap and you’re like, ‘Yeah. I can sound like that too.’ I listened to myself on there [now] and I sounded like how I don’t want to sound.”
At present, his group Ardaplus (Thompson with emcee Double Plus) is at work on their EP, “Fistful of Plutonium.” “It’s going to be more experimental stuff,” Thompson said. But unlike his first EP, “This time it will be me sounding like how I want to sound on the beats.”
“The way they come off is very energetic and very different from what you see in regular hip hop,” said Kimberly Glenn (emcee “Jade Fox”), who described the group’s sound as “a mixture of rock and hip hop.”
Ardaplus is also part of “The Food Chain Collective” (http://myspace.com/foodchaincollective) — a crew of about a dozen artists that includes Jade Fox, Rosetta Stoned, Cubbie Bear, Caverns, Educated Consumers, Flex Matthews, Mathpanda, Blak Lungz, Future, Cuer and Teddy Faley. The collective works to promote one another by trading off shows and helping with promotion.
Overall, “He’s a good person — a real cool guy,” said Norris, who performs as “Mental Stamina” from Rosetta Stoned. “He knows everbody. If you’re doing hip hop on the East Coast, you know Artemis.”
Considering D.C.’s fragmented music scene, Thompson offered another bit of advice. This includes various cliques such as go-go, mixtape, hip hop and neo-soul crews working together to take the full flavor of D.C. to a national, and even international, level. “I know a lot of people that want to put DMV [D.C., Maryland and Virginia] on the map,” he said. “My thing is unless people come together as artists then you’re probably not going to reach that goal.”