It's 11 p.m. on a Saturday outside Piere's Entertainment Center in Fort Wayne.
Fort Wayne rapper PfrmDa3, aka Darrell Strozier, isn't due onstage at Piere's Club Fuze until after midnight, but he's not relaxing in any green room.
The 29-year-old, wearing a brand new, red and shiny Ohio State jacket and matching hat, has one hour left on the gleaming, white rented party bus parked outside and the cameras are rolling.
Videographer Samuel Emedobiof Indianapolis is shooting Strozier's rap video for his new album that will include his entourage. Their breath in the klieg lights set up outside the bus mimic stage fog in the chilly air on a November night.
“We support each other,” Strozier said, surrounded by other rappers and Emedobi. “That's the only way we can make it.”
It's a sight not all that uncommon in Fort Wayne. The rap scene is growing here, particularly on the south side, according to those involved in the music scene.
Local rappers are telling their stories and people are buying their tracks online.
The artists can bank on royalties for extra income with hopes of making it big.
“There are probably 15 artists here one big break away, all on the verge of something,” said Keriston Baker, known as Big Kess on B96.9 radio, featuring R&B and old school music, part of the Adams Radio Group.
In November, Adams Radio Group added to their lineup a hip-hop station, LOUD 103.3 FM, after a five-year drought of hip-hop radio in the city.
The station features “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally syndicated morning show. Big Kess, pronounced “Keess,” follows from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then hosts his usual show on B96.9 from 3 to 7 p.m.
Kess, who was DJ on WXKE, 96.3 FM, one of two former hip-hop stations, had a show called “Battle of the Streets” that featured local rappers. It's something he'd like to try again.
“Hip-hop is the No. 1 genre of music in the world right now, which is amazing that you can live in a city which is the second biggest city in the state and go five years without any hip-hop,” Baker said.
J.J. Fabini, operations manager for Adams Media Group, said Adams bought the group of radio stations after the hip-hop station was terminated and WXKE became a classic rock station.
“We started having discussions internally. We saw a hole in the market. That hole is hip-hop, a segment of the listening audience that was not being served at all,” Fabini said.
Rap, usually placed in the hip-hop genre, is part of a billion-dollar industry in the U.S. that started in the 1970s in New York. Rappers spoke a rhythmic lyric against beats produced from a turntable and a DJ.
Bronx lyricists rapped about their lives – poverty, policing and prison, but there was also swagger, humor and empowerment.
It's the same today.
“We express our life and what we've been through with a beat and a rhythm,” said Brion Holman, aka Shiest, a local rapper who was part of the entourage the night Strozier debuted his album. “People understand because they've been through the same thing.”
Strozier says of the 12 to 13 friends he grew up with in Fort Wayne, there are just two or three still around.
“The people I grew up with is dead or in jail,” he said.
Thirty-something local artist Brutha Bubba raps about lives lost to gun violence on the song “2 For 1.”
“They shot him down dead/shot him in cold blood/tore his whole face off/with a shotgun.” Later, he says, “I hear sirens (word unclear), scared to let my kids go out and play/people from Chiraq (Chicago) moving to my city/people from Chiraq, killing in my city/ain't no pity.”
Jesse Allen, whose son Jaquan Allen was shot and killed more than 10 years ago, had his song “Messed Up World,” filmed for a video at Greenlawn Memorial Park where Jaquan and other relatives are buried.
“Tell me why our people have to cry every day,” Allen asks in his video. “Damn, Lord, it hurts/ to see my fam in the dirt/I miss my son, my nephew, my bro/the n----- I didn't know/Man these streets are getting cold.”
For Ben Swift, 39, whose rap name is Hustle Handz, rap is an art form that already brings in an income and allows for self-expression. And Swift has the street credibility usually expected of rappers: a prison term, several children and hard times.
“I caught my case on Lillie Street,” he said. The feds heard him rapping about selling drugs and showed up at his home, Swift said. “I grew up on Lillie Street and Euclid (Avenue) and I can't forget McCormick Apartments.”
He was incarcerated about 10 years on guns and drug charges, he said, and released from federal prison in July 2016. (Before the publishing of this story, Swift was sentenced to five months in prison Feb. 4 for charges of failing a drug test and failure to participate in drug testing.)
“That's what put a halt to my career,” said Swift, who opened at Club Fuze for Strozier.
Strozier's PfrmDa3 name is derived from a childhood nickname and Building 3 at Eden Green apartment complex, now called the Villages of Hanna, Strozier said. Locally, Eden Green apartments, which were just a short distance from the old Fort Wayne Police Department, gained notoriety as a place for violence, drugs and several shootings and homicides.
Swift now has his own studio in his basement and sends his music out to be mixed and mastered, he said.
He is one of numerous local rap artists who upload their music to iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and other digital networks where fans pay to hear it.
Residual checks and royalties are paid through American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Tunecore, a digital music distribution company, Swift said.
Swift, who said he wrote his first rap when he was 9 years old, has opened for national acts Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Plies. He has performed in Atlanta; Jacksonville, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and St. Louis, where he sells copies of his music.
Swift is included in a list of up-and-coming rappers, along with Scoot da Kidd, Toneshiest, Nick Warren and J-Bosky, EAZY-Rax, Dezzy, Lil' Juu Widdaus, Jesus Corlione (aka Jesse Allen) and Cam Brooks.
There have been several rappers and R&B artists from Fort Wayne that have made a name for themselves. Tasha Denae, a backup singer for R&B artist Fantasia, was in a Tyler Perry movie and has traveled all over the world, while Amanda Perez and Phyzical or “Phyz” are two well-known rappers, Baker said.
Depending on what they can afford, local artists typically buy their own equipment or record at each other's homes. They often send their work out to be mastered or perfected, rappers said. A music engineer is chosen because of his sound.
For years, the most sought after local music engineer was Dennis Watson, owner of Waxtrackz, a locally owned recording studio, who until recently operated out of an unassuming building at Lafayette and McKinnie streets.
Watson, 32, has recorded many local and regional rappers but is moving into more commercial work. He created spots for IPFW, the Fort Wayne Komets and Glenbrook Ford and has a movie in the works, he said.
“All these people here seen me come up from nothing,” Watson says.
Watson said he had to give up the building because he couldn't afford it.
“A lot of people have their own studios,” Watson said. “My work is their sound. I can make their home studio sound like a million-dollar studio.”
Part of life
Although it's hard to nail down the number of people rapping and working on their music in Fort Wayne, Baker and Swift said there's easily a rapper on every block of every street on the south side – Avondale Drive, Lillie Street, Reed Street, Holton Avenue and Smith Street, to name a few.
Brutha Bubba holds Freestyle Fridays on the city's southeast side for anyone who wants to get out in the street and perform.
He started rapping at age 8 and says the music form is part of the culture and lifestyle.
“That's just how we is and I was good, so I kept going,” he said.
His rap is “more conscious.”
“I try to watch what I say. I'm a role model,” Brutha Bubba said. “I try to enlighten people. You don't just try to stun on the next people. They want to show you that they've got the bigger wallet, they've got more girls than you and all that.
“Most of the street rappers, they all affiliated. It's some that have died,” said Brutha Bubba, who did not give his real name. “Affiliated” means people are members of a local gang.
One of those was a street rapper from Fort Wayne named Skrill.
“He was one of the biggest rappers. He got killed in Omaha (Nebraska). He was on his way, too, traveling from state to state performing. It's the street life. It's what comes with it. The crazy thing about it, his last album was called 'Consequences of Thugging,'” Brutha Bubba said.
Whether it's “conscious” or street rap, Fort Wayne artists are putting the city on the map in an unexpected way.
Many local rap videos feature the streets of the city's south side, commercial parking garages or inside a residential garage. Others show more of Fort Wayne like the bridges, the Allen County Courthouse downtown and the cemeteries where relatives are buried.
One local artist, Trell 260, raps his heart out in the beautifully landscaped, red brick courtyard of First Presbyterian Church on Wayne Street downtown. The church elders had no idea.
After reviewing the clip, the Rev. Dr. Anne Bain Epling, the church's pastor and head of staff, did not seem to have any objections to it.
“As a church that has a long and rich history of supporting the arts, we support the diverse forms of music represented in Fort Wayne today,” Epling wrote in an email response. “Thank you for sharing the video with me.”
Another video of a song by Daelon Locke or “D Roll” features familiar street signs of the south side while D Roll and two others rap threatening statements about snitching.
In one of Swift's latest singles, he wears a baseball shirt with “Fort Wayne” emblazoned across the chest in red.
“To be honest, it's the local artists that have kind of kept hip-hop alive within the city while the station was absent; ... that's what's making me want to fight to make sure, if I can, just can get a couple of local tracks played,” Baker said.
Fabini said the station is open to the idea but wants to keep the process fair.
“You may have to make 1,000 hits before one of them sticks,” Baker says. “That's just the grind. There wouldn't be an Usher or a Jay-Z or a Tupac or a Biggie. They all had to start somewhere.”
Where to hear rap music in Fort Wayne:
Piere's Entertainment Center, 5629 St. Joe Road, encourages rap, according to Nathan Mertz, general manager.
“We love the rap scene. We do everything in our power to bring rap artists,” Mertz said in a phone interview.
Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Wu Tang Clan are some of the names that have appeared at Piere's.
Regional rappers from Indianapolis, Detroit and Chicago play regularly onstage, managers said.
Many of the regional artists ask for local rappers to open up for them, Mertz said, giving the local artists exposure.
Local rapper Jesse Allen takes his rap to the stage at Carl's Tavern in New Haven where heavy metal is rotated with rap.
Rapper Ben Swift has appeared at Cover Girls on Production Road, a strip club that also features many local rappers.
The clubs have turned to social media to promote their upcoming events including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, email and texts, Mertz said.