A growing hip-hop scene in Greenfield

  • Benjamin Goldsher, center, who co-manages Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, with his brother, Jeremy, dances during a recent hip-hop dance night at the center. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Audience members listen to hip-hop icon KRS-One speak candidly about the need for revolution at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Hip-hop icon KRS-One speaks to an audience during the day at Hawks & Reed in November. He performed the night before alongside a bill of local talent including UMass student Eric Yelle, who goes by the stage name eRATT, and Tang Sauce, a performer from Connecticut. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Tang Sauce, a performer from Connecticut, opened for KRS-One during an event at Greenfield’s Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center. The night was capped with a freestyle performance among the artists who shared the bill with KRS-One. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Anthony Ahearn, center, of Greenfield dances during a hip-hop dance night hosted by Crazefaze at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Olivia Riley, front, of Amherst, who is a member of an all-female hip-hop dance crew called Crazefaze, leads a group in a hip-hop dance class at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. Gus Foote, 5, of Shelburne follows along. Crazefaze hosts a hip-hop dance night at the center once a month. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Yelle, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who goes by the stage name eRATT, performs at Hawks & Reed. He was an opener for KRS-One. GAZETTE STAFF/Sarah Robertson

For The Recorder
Published: 12/27/2017 10:58:08 AM

Creaky floor boards announce that Lawrence Parker has entered the room. A large man with short dreads and the commanding presence of a preacher, he stands behind a podium and speaks candidly about the need for revolution on a Sunday afternoon.

“Humbly but truthfully, hip-hop is America’s new religion,” he says to an eager audience. Parker’s fans know him better as KRS-One, an acronym for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone” — and, he’s a hip-hop legend.

Rolling Stone magazine once dubbed the rapper the “conscience of hip-hop,” and The Source called him “the greatest live emcee ever.”

KRS-One calls hip-hop the “only indigenous spiritual movement in the United States today,” and likens himself to a spiritual leader. Living homeless in the Bronx in the 1990s, his interest in the Hare Krishna spiritual movement inspired him to take a vow of poverty while he pursued his dream of becoming a mic controller, the master of ceremonies, an emcee.

Over the next few months, he’ll be performing in Miami, Fla., Los Angeles, Calif., and Atlantic City, N.J., promoting his latest studio album, “The World Is Mind.” But last month, KRS-One made a stop in a city that, until now, hasn’t exactly been a destination for world-renowned rappers — Greenfield.

Across the street from Wilson’s Department Store, in the newly renovated Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, the rapper played a sold-out show — the venue’s most successful show to date, and a promising milestone for the family-run business.

Hawks & Reed has been part of the revival of Greenfield in recent years. And while the former mill town might seem an unlikely place for a burgeoning hip-hop scene, that’s what it is thanks to the venue, which hosts shows and performances by a variety of artists in a range of genres.

With the vision of creating a cultural center in the heart of Greenfield, Steve Goldsher, a periodontist with Pioneer Valley Periodontics, purchased the former Arts Block out of bankruptcy in July 2015 for about $1 million.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that the arts are vital for life,” Goldsher said. “You make a living by working, but you make a life by the arts.”

His sons, Benjamin and Jeremy, manage the venue, booking shows with local and touring artists. The venue sold all 400 concert tickets for last month’s KRS-One concert, which included several local artists on the bill. The day after the concert, KRS-One returned to give a lecture about the divine nature of hip-hop.

He spoke on the top floor of the four-story building, in a new space known as the “Perch.”

Railing against corporate America and the exploitative nature of the rap industry, he touched on issues of race, inequality and student debt.

“America drives on your depression, your fear,” KRS-One said. “We have these institutions that are supposed to be doing different things … and none of them work.”

Audience members came from around the Pioneer Valley and beyond — black and white, college students and aspiring musicians, longtime Greenfield residents and new transplants to the area.

Catherine Janke, a 45-year-old art teacher from Greenfield, compared hearing the talk to practicing meditation.

“Both use love as a driving factor,” Janke said.

Stephen Wallace, 25, who was homeless before he moved to Shelburne Falls, hadn’t planned on seeing KRS-One speak on Sunday, but some friends dragged him along.

Noah Goldman, a 25-year-old aspiring emcee and poet from Montague, wore a Malcolm X T-shirt and brought his leather-bound copy of KRS-One’s 600-page book, “The Gospel of Hip-Hop.”

In the manifesto, the rapper claims that in 100 years, hip-hop will be an established religion. His goal is to build temples to hip-hop around the country. After the talk, Goldman suggested Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield as a potential location.

‘A little push’

Growing up in Conway, Ben Goldsher says he would drive around the Pioneer Valley with friends, making beats and freestyle rapping over them. He describes himself and his brother as, “Just two Jewish kids who liked good hip-hop,” and when his friends started making albums and putting out music, he started hosting shows in his home in Erving. Then, eventually at the Arts Block, which is now Hawks & Reed.

“We kind of just jumped into it with an open mind,” he said. “We wanted to have a little of everything here and be open to as much as possible.”

Having worked as a freelance videographer and as a chef at The Brass Buckle in Greenfield, Ben Goldsher decided to devote himself fully to his side hustle — bringing music to Hawks & Reed.

Forming partnerships with local businesses was and is key, he says. The venue co-sponsored the KRS-One show with The Enthusiast, a local smoke shop that helped publicize the show on 93.9 The River radio station.

“This town has come such a long way, and having something like Hawks & Reed draws so much attention and brings so many people to this area,” said Alex Abrams, general manager of The Enthusiast and a Greenfield resident who sits on a board of local business owners called the Progressive Partnership. The nonprofit aims to promote the economic development of downtown Greenfield.

“The creative partnerships in this area are creating renaissances in these small towns that totally have the infrastructure to do it,” he said.

Abrams believes that the city has the space, energy and creative capital to make for a great local arts scene.

The Enthusiast partnered with the Goldsher brothers once before to put on Greenfest, a free all-ages concert in April of last year. And he anticipates many more partnerships with Hawks & Reed.

“Greenfield is just on the cusp,” Ben Goldsher said. “It’s got the foundation — it just needs a little extra push. Arts are key.”

In addition to its hip-hop shows, Hawks & Reed has put on metal festivals and punk concerts and showcased folk artists and reggae stars. The venue is planning a busy New Year’s Eve show with the Amherst “circus punk powerhouse” Bella’s Bartok, as well as a show with the politically conscious hip-hop duo Dead Prez in January.

“I can tell you that prior to the new owners running it, the programming there was sort of hit and miss,” said George Gohl, president of the Greenfield Business Association and owner of Greenfield Garden Cinemas.

“The new owners, in the last two years, have gotten the programming up and running, and it seems very consistent. There is something going on every weekend,” Gohl said.

According to Steve Goldsher, the venue has put on more than 160 events in the past six months, with no plans to slow down. Hawks & Reed hosts a hip-hop night the first Tuesday of every month, seasonal productions by Silverthorne Theater Company, free shows twice a month by the Creacion Latin Big Band, regular jazz events, karaoke every Wednesday and much more.

“There is a definite creative economy that goes on in Greenfield; Hawks & Reed is definitely tapping into that,” said Gohl.

‘A lot of swearing, a lot of smiles’

Sharing the stage recently with KRS-One were several other artists — Amherst native eRATT, Connecticut artist Tang Sauce, P.SO the Earth Tone King from New York, Mal Devisa of Northampton and Springfield’s LS Camp.

For LS Camp, the event also served as an album release event for “Back To The Basics (The Boom Bap),” the group’s first studio record with HiPNOTT Records. The veteran musicians, Ricky Dixon, Michael Willoughby and James Bosworth also attended KRS-One’s lecture the next day.

“Before this, I never came to Greenfield two days in a row,” said Willoughby. “That never happened.”

“He’s the reason why I do this,” said Dixon, referring to KRS-One. “He had an album that came out when I was in high school called ‘Criminal Minded,’ and it changed my whole perspective of hip-hop.”

Fostering a supportive local arts scene is important for up-and-coming artists, added Dixon, who has been making music with LS Camp for more than two decades.

“You have to support local hip-hop to give those local artists confidence, and give them a chance to perform,” Dixon said. “It’s not easy to go on stage when you’re new.”

Ben Goldsher connected with KRS-One’s manager through Dixon, who met the rapper in the underground hip-hop scene in Rhode Island. When Dixon raised the idea of having KRS-One headline the show, Goldsher jumped on it.

“Ben is really single-handedly the guy who is responsible for bringing this massive hip-hop scene and KRS-One to this area,” Steve Goldsher said.

When an opener for the KRS-One show dropped out at the last minute, Ben Goldsher reached out to a friend he knew through the local hip-hop scene, Eric Yelle, whose solo project goes by the name eRATT.

A student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst studying English and indigenous cultures, Yelle first learned about KRS-One this year in a course on gender and hip-hop. Weeks after watching a documentary on the iconic artist, Yelle got a call from Ben Goldsher, asking him to fill an open slot.

Yelle says that this kind of casual relationship with venue owners is helpful for young artists.

“We feel comfortable,” said Yelle, who wears glasses, his hair long dyed red with henna. “We don’t feel like we have to put on airs of professionalism … If it’s just an ill venue run by our homies, then we’re doing it to have fun.”

Growing up in Amherst playing in punk bands and listening to local legends like Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies, Yelle started rapping with the encouragement of a childhood friend Luis Fernandez, the now Los Angeles, Calif. rapper LuieGo, while he was a student at Amherst Regional High School. Together Yelle and Fernandez formed the eGOmaniAKs, playing house shows and local venues such as Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall with bassist Myles Darby and a rotating cast of drummers.

“It was really the UMass, kind of party hip-hop scene that we started performing at when I started to realize, ‘Whoa, this is actually something I could do,’” said Yelle. “I think that was the most validating thing for me.”

He remembers playing the first of several intimate shows in the basement, known as the Wheelhouse, two years ago with friends back when the venue was still known as the Arts Block.

About a year into the new operation, Steve Goldsher re-branded the venue Hawks & Reed, paying homage to the 19th-century retail clothing store that first occupied the space. Both of his sons left careers in film production to join their father in the endeavor.

“Jeremy and Ben stopped their careers and devoted every waking minute to creating something out of this space,” said Steve. “It has been an incredible uphill battle.”

The old building had “great bones,” as Jeremy Goldsher put it.

And, with some interior upgrades, including a new bar on the fourth floor, renovations to the Wheelhouse and a few fresh coats of paint, the Goldshers were ready to turn the venue into a long-term fixture of downtown Greenfield. The key, Jeremy Goldsher explained, is finding a sustainable business model that keeps the venue running, pays artists and employees and keeps big-name acts like KRS-One coming to Greenfield. Jeremy Goldsher is also renovating the third floor of the building to house a co-working space.

Steve Goldsher says that he and his sons are “opinionated individuals,” so running a business together comes with “a lot of swearing and a lot of smiles.”

Jeremy Goldsher says their mother, nicknamed “stealth Fran,” is also an integral part of the business, working behind the scenes to make sure everyone is happy, fed and well-rested.

“We’d like to be sustainable for a long time and leave our legacy and lay the groundwork for others to come after us,” Jeremy Goldsher said.

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