Half a Century of Hip Hop’s Evolution to be Celebrated at Troy Music Hall
The needle of time has passed through a 50-year-long hip-hop groove defined by scratching break beats and flowing B-Boy verses. Though one’s consciousness of the culture may have come later than some, a celebration at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall will bridge local rappers with the likes of Beethoven and Bach on Friday, Oct. 27.
50 Years of Hip Hop will highlight the rich history of Hip Hop with both classic tracks and original songs in performances featuring JB!! AKA Dirty Moses, Ohzhe, KATANI, DJ Nate da Great, Shiloh the Messenger, and Mundy, supported by hometown horn funk favorites, Victory Soul Orchestra.
Ozymandias Merci Morris Jr. went to school for his friends, “and sometimes the girls,” he said, with a chuckle. But no one called him by his government name. They couldn’t pronounce it. To this day, the people around him call him Oz or Ozzie. When he’s on stage, he goes by Ohzhe.
“The only thing I cared about when I went to school was my friends and sometimes the girls,” said Morris. “But I just didn’t care.” He’d struggle with his anger and get bullied by other kids. He admits that he still has his off days. When he’s overwhelmed with stress, people take note. ‘You’re not Ohzhe today.’
“But, you know, I, I take that and I transmute it. I see it as an opportunity to turn it into something,” he said.
Morris’ earliest hip-hop memories involve him and his friends busting rhymes at school over beats they’d download off Limewire. He discovered that it gave him the space to express himself. Creative writing lessons later helped him to see the process; of building stories and transforming thoughts into poetry. He’d spend hours writing raps and later share them with friends and family.
Hip Hop culture
“Hip Hop is not just the music, it’s a whole culture,” John Brown said. The Eddie Award-winning artist is best known locally as JB!! AKA Dirty Moses. He’s never seen without a Yankee cap pulled over his head. The interlocking N and Y is a nod to his old neighborhood. Before immersing himself in the local scene, he lived across the Harlem River from East 161st Street. He could walk down the street, look across the banks, and see Yankee Stadium.
Brown heard his first Spoonie Gee track when he was 9 years old. The rapper, also out of Harlem, had another name outside of his given one, Gabriel Jackson: The Godfather. His words would be among the first raps on record. Brown scored the record off his older brother who would rap and DJ along with his friends. It wasn’t long before he started going to shows, seeing Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh. Other names like Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J—now pioneers of the genre—were just names on mixtapes circulated within the community.
“It’s the way we dress. It’s some of the terminology we use in our vernacular and art. It’s dance styles,” Brown said. “It’s the actual part of MC being a master of ceremony and breaking, it’s a whole culture.
“So it’s not just about the rap music, it’s the whole culture and I’ve been a part of it since it started.”
Hip Hop’s genesis as a culture has been honored throughout this year, celebrating a distinct flavor of music, dance, and art since Clive Campbell laid down a unique way to usher dancers onto the floor at a birthday party in the west Bronx neighborhood of New York City.
The Jamaican native, best known as DJ Kool Herc, is credited with isolating non-verbal drum breaks from popular songs after observing dancers as they waited for those moments before hitting the floor. An early technique involved laying down two copies of the same record, breaking down a song from a brief moment and stretching it out, giving dancers more time to perform. Campbell often spoke over the records he played, too. A precursor to the modern-day rapper.
Rap served as a form of self-empowerment. It was about defining oneself and one’s path in life. It was an avenue for artists to discover who they were and where they came from, and to make choices about their future. It encouraged individuals to connect with their roots, to understand their beginnings, and to set their own direction in life.
It was not just about boasting or self-promotion, but a genuine way of exploring one’s identity and place in the world. That often took shape with the tradition of “playing the dozens” or snapping, trading barbs in rhymes and cadences. Over time, these exchanges evolved into structured songs. In these ciphers, artists created personas and narratives, transforming themselves into superheroes through their music. Their lyrics became a way to express their inner struggles and triumphs, and to provide therapy to themselves.
“We had to hype ourselves up, you know, because some of us came from backgrounds that weren’t the best,” said Brown, adding how he left an “unsavory lifestyle” in Harlem to pursue an education in Albany. “Some of us needed mental therapy.”
Believe in your hype
Ohzhe is now among the brightest talents in a scene that witnessed Souly Had signing a major-label deal with Island Records four years ago, and Selli Paper’s name dropped by Vogue on a list of its Best Songs of 2021. Neither one has performed at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Ohzhe has.
But that’s not his boast.
Morris’ Instagram is a mix of self-promotion and videos of him in the gym. He’s as likely to pair his videos with someone else’s music as he is with his own. He could do without social media, he said. But not the gym. The videos don’t show his numbers, or how much weight he’s lifting. They just show him moving. It’s his message for positive well-being. A coach once told him that it’s easier to maintain a healthy body than it is to regain it. He’s a boxer, too. His latest track is a homage to that love.
“Don’t you for once count me by my wins. Count me by my losses… An L is just a lesson for me,” he sings on Apollo Creed, named after Rocky’s fictitious adversary-turned-friend in the Sylvester Stallone film series. Morris pursued his education after he initially dropped out of high school. Today, he’s a student advocate.
“As I got older, I realized the importance of being in school and being a part of a community and being supported by people who want to help you,” he said. “Which is ironic because I never had a mentor, right? I’ve always wanted a mentor and I’ve been like, ‘Oh, please someone, someone please mentor me.’ But the older I get, I realize that I’m just the person that I needed [when I was younger].”
Morris took the stage last weekend at Troy Music Hall as part of Kaleidescape, a showcase performance that featured local artists Buggy Jive, Sam Torres, Sara Ayers, The E-Block, and Zan & The Winter Folk. He’s believed to be the first local rapper to perform on a stage that has hosted Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald.
“When I first got to that venue, it was amazing. I just was in awe because of the historic value that it holds,” Morris said, adding that he sees these shows as “blueprints” for other rap artists to follow. “Being one of the first rappers to perform on that stage, it’s probably one of the greatest opportunities that I’ve had coming out of 518. And I look forward to being able to do more there.
“I feel like more artists should have the opportunity to utilize that stage. It has an opportunity to grow and to turn into something bigger.”