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La Famiglia now includes (clockwise from front and center):
Mike Gagliardo, Cory Harris, Tobias Gurd, Makisha Davis
and Joe Weinstein. Founding member Steve Thielman recently left due to family reasons. The band uses several drummers.

Hip-hop hits home

After years of poor attendance and fears of violence, hip-hop is gaining local acceptance,
triggered by La Famiglia — a truly diverse band.

By Jacob Himmelspach
Photography by Michael Buck

West Michigan is not exactly a hotbed of hip-hop and rap. Yet the headliner at last summer’s downtown street party sponsored by Local First was hip-hop band La Famiglia.

National tours of hip-hop and rap artists regularly pass GR by while local venues overflow for country and classic rock and Miley Cyrus. Yet La Famiglia is one of the most popular bands in the area, drawing fans from all ethnicities and musical genres.

The paradox is explained by the significant issues hip-hop continues to face in order to gain full acceptance in West Michigan.

Close to the time of the Local First party, Mike Gagliardo was spotted sitting on the street curb outside Wealthy Street Bakery. He wore a basketball jersey and hunched over a Dixie cup of espresso. His eyes squinted in the sun, a source of light he had not seen in a while.

The band leader known as Mike G. had been too busy to go outside, stuck in the studio in his basement, mixing and editing tracks for La Famiglia’s latest hip-hop/jazz fusion CD, “The Get Away.”

Gagliardo obviously is pleased by the popularity of the band he founded, but he’s not so pleased about the reception hip-hop and rap have received in Grand Rapids. And he’s not alone among local performers who feel their music has gotten (to make a bad pun) a bad rap — even though they do see some recent improvements on the local scene.

“The average American probably views hip-hop in a negative way because of what they see portrayed on the videos, especially if you don’t understand the culture,” Gagliardo said. “But that’s not how it got started.”

Gagliardo says that subsequent to its founding, some rap and hip-hop addressed violence in lyrics “to express what was going on in their communities.”

“I think from that, a lot of studio gangsters were created who glorify it,” he said.

It didn’t help any when a local man was shot and killed outside a hip-hop concert in Grand Rapids last summer.

“At our events, we try to invite everybody and make it multicultural,” said Antoine Gooch, whose Bang Out Entertainment promoted that event. “Unfortunately, this group of people had a problem with that group of people, and (the shooting) just so happened to be there. It could have been anywhere.”

Bang Out Entertainment continues to promote minority performers, and recently helped bring a production by revered African-American playwright Tyler Perry to Van Andel Arena.

“Our music doesn’t promote violence, but it’s hard for people to see that,” said local rapper Rello Jones. “We’re trying to get it back to its original form. It doesn’t have to be about drugs, money and violence.

The more we do shows, the more people come, and we can (demonstrate) that on a consistent basis.”


But getting local shows has been a problem dating back many years. Grand Rapids venues large and small have not exactly opened their arms wide for hip-hop. For some it’s a concern about potential violence. For larger venues, it’s been about filling the seats.

Van Andel Arena experienced three low-selling shows by three of the nation’s most popular performers: Alicia Keys, Kirk Franklin and Mary J. Blige. Other shows were canceled due to low ticket sales. Lynne Ike of Van Andel Arena said part of the dismal turnout was related to marketing strategies that didn’t reach the right fans.

“The biggest concern is that they’re not hearing our advertising,” said Ike.

Canceled shows result in fans waiting until the last minute to buy tickets for the next show. Low sales up-front make the promoters hesitant to book shows in Grand Rapids.

The arena has launched a diversity initiative to research how to bring in more minority acts, including hip-hop and rap.

“To overlook that is to overlook a large spectrum of culture,” said Skot Welch of Diversity Management Strategists, which is working with the arena. “Incidences of violence are not really what people think: It is far and few between.

“The economics of it make sense.”

That’s exactly what local performers want to hear. But they also are working against the security concerns of some smaller venues. Gagliardo started his music career as a promoter and DJ, working to bring in a “big city vibe” from such places as Chicago and Detroit, including musicians who had performed on a national level. But venues were slow to trust.

“Once I ‘dropped’ the word hip-hop, clubs shut doors, tried to renege on contracts, changed dress codes,” he said. “All out of the fear and ignorance of what hip-hop is.”

He helped promote one hip-hop show at a venue that had never had a dress code — until that night. Fans stayed away in droves, and crowds at future concerts, including shows by La Famiglia, dropped from 300 to 30.

“They want my business, they want my money, but slap some dress codes on it and kill the things I’m about,” Gagliardo said with a touch of frustration. “I don’t believe wearing a hoody makes you a bad person.”

La Famiglia eventually began building a local following too large to ignore — due to their talent, of course, but also partly because they promoted themselves as a jazz-funk-hip-hop band, and partly due to the ethnic diversity within the group. Doors started to open (see for their schedule), but Gagliardo insisted on one thing wherever they played: no dress code.

“I never wanted a dress code and we didn’t have a dress code, and we didn’t have any (violence) issues. Ever.”

La Famiglia’s diversity is unusual, both ethnically and in terms of musical background: Cory Harris, the M.C., grew up in the hip-hop culture; Joey Weinstein is classically trained on bass; Steve Thielman is a jazz and classical studies graduate of Western Michigan University; Tobias Gurd (known as “Omega Supreme”) has been a hip-hop DJ; and the newest member is R&B singer Makisha Davis (known as “Kiss”).

Ethnicities and cultures represented include Jewish, Sicilian, African-American, the American South, and, of course, the Midwest.

“I think we hit with such a broad spectrum of people because we have a voice for almost every type of person,” Gagliardo said.

While some venues still are cautious about promoting full hip-hop shows, most have encouraged local artists to perform at open mic nights. That has led to the popularity of newer artists, including Rello, Nixon, Suport, and Rick Chyme, who has been featured on the LAV-FM morning show and has headlined at The Orbit Room.

Eric O’Brien of WSNX, a Muskegon station that plays hip-hop, said that the quality of the music is “tremendously better in the last 18 months.”

“It’s not that Grand Rapids sucks or is lame, it just has a much smaller base to pull from,” he said. “We need to make a concerted effort to work together.”

For Local First’s Rob McCarty, the choice of La Famiglia was easy, and fears were nil.

“We went out to see them a few times and saw the energy and the passion for the music they had,” he said. “They just felt like this really interesting collection of what local is in our market.”

Several other bands played earlier that night, drawing some attentive listeners, though much of the crowd paid more attention to the food. But while La Famiglia was setting up, many more people arrived and the crowd started drifting toward the stage — though they made sure to leave room for a dance floor.

La Famiglia began to climb the stage stairs, and as soon as they came up, so did the hands of the audience. The instant the music started, fans began to wave and bounce and dance.

From the stage, Gagliardo spotted a family with two young children approaching. The parents and kids split up once on the dance floor, but Gagliardo kept his eye on them. The kids started to bob their heads. He looked over at the parents, and they were doing the same.

Two generations dancing to one band. A hip-hop band. GR

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