Heaven is a basement

Joey Pompignano

B Side Liquor Lounge hosts poetry show

A sign reads “Lyrical Rhythms” near a stairwell leading down to a dimly lit room where the cover charge is $5 at the entrance. Hip hop heads and seekers of the spoken word art form eagerly wait at the bar and candlelit tables for the show to begin. Various members of Chief Rocka Entertainment greet and acknowledge customers with smiles, handshakes and hugs as they make their way inside a packed house. This is just a typical Tuesday at Cleveland Heights’ B Side Liquor and Lounge.

Making for an intimate and relaxed atmosphere, The Playscape All Stars set up their band equipment while DJ Tom Noy spins classic records by KRS-One, followed by A Tribe Called Quest. Noy is the treasurer and poetry Slam master of Chief Rocka Entertainment, a spoken word poetry group formed in 1999 by host Q-Nice (Quentin Finley) and Jabaaz Snipes. It was an off-shoot of Black Poetic Society, based at Cleveland State University.

Noy is proud of the tradition Chief Rocka has carried, preserving a spot for poets to come out to venues, such as the B Side, on a weekly basis for the past five years.

“We push each other to write better and are diverse in our topics,” Noy said. “Cleveland comes with the grimy, real-life, not-so-talked-about topics.”

Noy believes that Cleveland performers “come from the left (field)” so hard that people aren’t always ready for their creative styles and complex material. Exploring from different angles, such as a poem about a woman experiencing domestic violence by her police officer husband, separates Cleveland from other cities with mediocre or sub-par subject matter, which Noy said has “spoiled” B Side audiences.

Matt LeSueur, a Shaker Heights native, has attended Lyrical Rhythms for almost three years. LeSueur, known at the B Side as Cool Matt, speaks of Chief Rocka with the utmost respect.

“My favorite part of the show,” said Cool Matt “is when One Truth lays the iron fist of law down.”

One Truth (Thomas Parrish), one of roughly a dozen members in Chief Rocka, announces the rules before the show, which include a five-minute time limit for each artist, no walking in front of a performer while he or she is on stage, and absolutely no rappers allowed. “Emcees,” who are conscious and uplifting, are encouraged to utilize the microphone, but “rappers,” who tend to only talk about materialistic items, are forbidden. Noy says the hands-on approach of making people feel comfortable has been the key to success because customers wanted to go somewhere other than places only playing the latest joints heard on the radio.

The group has not only transcended the negative views and portrayals of modern day hip hop culture, but has branched out to outlets of DJing parties and hosting writing workshops and poetry seminars at schools and community centers.

Chief Rocka opened up doors to launching off new careers other than those related with poetry as well. They hired McKinley Wiley, known as RockeT, as the group’s photographer in 2006. RockeT takes pictures of artists who grace the stage, handles promotions and advertising and updates their MySpace page.

But RockeT said the group’s main responsibility is to provide open mic, which he said generates word-of-mouth that causes a “chain-effect” throughout the city. He said people come from out of town “to be fed spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually,” and the B Side is known nationally.

Despite being a weekday venue, the B Side easily fills an average of 75-120 people in its facility.

“Our venues are smokin’,” Noy said, recalling a freezing cold night last winter when college students were back home for break between semesters.

Noy said there were 300 people at the B Side, and the fire marshal ordered the crowded attendees to take turns viewing the show for safety precautions.

The consistent turnouts and longevity of the B Side reflects the host of the venue.

“Q-Nice has set the standards on how to be a host,” Cool Matt said.

Inspired by Q’s leadership, Cool Matt started hosting his own hip hop venue at Solon’s Arabica on Sundays. The B Side means more to him than just a hang-out on a Tuesday night.

“There’s a sense of unity,” said Matt, who described Chief Rocka as a group that trusts and believes in one another. “There are no games. They’re not self-serving. it comes effortlessly because that’s who they are.”

Matt has gained new friend contacts he most likely would have never met, including his Solon venue co-host Deonna Ivey. Ivey, who was searching for the same principles and values in music, was also fulfilled when she found it at the B Side.

“(Q-Nice) has a way of bringing people together,” Ivey said of the Tuesday night host.

Chief Rocka’s professionalism and drive to spark positive change in the minds of those feeling hopelessness, or for those destined to maintain happiness, may be their greatest accomplishment.

“It’s been a blessing,” RockeT said. “We’ve impacted lives.”

Contact off-campus reporter Joey Pompignano at [email protected].