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The Current Rewind

March 4, 1991: Ice Cube/WC and the Maad Circle

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [34:45]

by Cecilia Johnson and Michaelangelo Matos

October 27, 2020

Description: One day after the LAPD beat up Rodney King, an Ice Cube concert went down in history as one of the most violent shows ever held at First Avenue. Hosted by Jay Smooth, we ask rap experts and former First Ave staffers about gangsta rap, security, and the uneasy relationship between the Minnesota music industry and Black hip-hop artists.

This is the sixth episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. Catch up below.

• April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
• Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)
• Sept. 27, 1982 (Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Hüsker Dü)
• Aug. 3, 1983 (The birth of "Purple Rain")
• Oct. 22, 1990 (Sonic Youth/Cows/Babes in Toyland)
• March 4, 1991 (Ice Cube/WC and the MAAD Circle)
• Nov. 2, 2004 (The day the doors closed)
• Aug. 12, 2015 (The day the sky fell)
• April 21, 2016 (The day the streets turned purple)

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 6: "March 4, 1991"

Anne O'Connor: We're talking about almost 30 years ago, but my memory of this was like, you opened up the gate at the horse races, and everybody was off to it.

[Ice Cube, "The Bomb," with the lyrics:

"With the L, the E, the N, the C, the H
The M, the O, the B, the great
Lyrics that make the beat swing and I gotcha
It's the hip-hopper that don't like coppers." Hard cut.]

Anne O'Connor: And it was just like an explosion, and it was non-stop all night long.

["The Bomb" picks up where it left off, running through these lyrics:

"And if you try to upset the pot, son
You get kicked in the chest like a shotgun
I make the beats, I make the breaks
I make the rhymes that make you shake
Make you find
Ice Cube never caught in the middle
I make stuff that kick you in the a** a little." Hard cut.]

Anne O'Connor: We just went from one fight to the next fight to the next fight. There was no breathing time. There was no downtime. It was just, "What emergency is there to go and deal with next?"

[Ice Cube's "The Bomb" returns with a sample of spoken audio and several voices singing, "The bomb"]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Gangsta rap was the most controversial music of the '90s – praised as an expression of Black America's righteous anger, reviled for its misogyny and depictions of violence. Taking cues from Schooly D and Ice-T, Los Angeles group N.W.A popularized the genre with their album Straight Outta Compton. Their most talented rhymer, Ice Cube, left the group to go solo in 1990. In early 1991, he brought his show to Minneapolis's First Avenue, for one of its most memorable nights ever.

["Hive Sound" by Icetep]

Cecilia Johnson VO: [over theme] I'm Cecilia Johnson. This is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. For our second season, we're looking back at one of the Twin Cities' – and the country's – greatest live venues through a series of pivotal nights. We're bringing on guest hosts for several episodes. In this one, Jay Smooth – the New York hip-hop radio legend and cultural commentator – joins us to tell the story of one of the most infamous shows in First Avenue's history. I do want to warn you: This episode contains explicit accounts of racism and violence.

[rewind sound effect]

Jay Smooth VO: Way back in 1991, I founded New York's longest-running hip-hop radio show, WBAI's Underground Railroad. It was a pivotal time for hip-hop music, when it was still just beginning to cross all sorts of cultural boundaries. And the other love of my musical life back then was the Black Minneapolis Sound, as defined by Prince and his many collaborators – who, in their own way, were on a similar path of bringing Black music into spaces where it hadn't necessarily been all that welcome.

So, as a devoted student of Prince and hip-hop who came of age in that era, the First Avenue club and its relationship with Black music, and hip-hop, specifically, has always been an object of fascination for me. And though it was primarily defined as a rock club, First Avenue did host a number of high-profile hip-hop shows in the '80s and early '90s, according to someone who saw a lot of them.

Tim Wilson: Timothy Wilson, Urban Lights Music owner.

Jay Smooth VO: Tim's record store, Urban Lights, is a community hub in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul.

Tim Wilson: I remember seeing Run-D.M.C. I remember they had Jam Master Jay kind of suspended in the air, swinging back and forth, and they couldn't jump around on the stage, because the records were skipping and stuff like that, but they still made it through. I remember going to KRS-One; the sound crashed and he literally had one of his people beat box, and he continued to perform. [Tim laughs]

Jay Smooth VO: On top of the big names from out of state, Minnesotan hip-hop acts the Micranots and the I.R.M. Crew sometimes performed in First Ave's smaller room, the 7th Street Entry. Still, it would take a while for the club's overall attitude to change, from what sound engineer Randy Hawkins, in Chris Riemenschneider's book First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom, called, quote, "anti-rap." The non-white population of Minneapolis grew nearly 70 percent during the '80s. But hip-hop took longer to bloom in the Twin Cities than on the coasts, partly because the success of Prince, the Time, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis made funk the sound du jour there in the '80s. One of First Avenue's most successful dance nights was More Funk, every Thursday with the club's longtime DJ Roy Freedom. Prince and Jimmy Jam would sometimes bring test pressings for the occasion. Tim Wilson also DJ'ed there.

Tim Wilson: You know, it was disco, funk, rap, kind of all mixed up into one hodgepodge. It was just a little bit of hip-hop at the time, because rap just hadn't really – hadn't really captured the imagination of the world, let's say it like that. It wasn't the Wall Street darling that it is today. So it was a record here, a record there, but it was just a lot of Minneapolis Sound stuff. Of course you would get a lot of Prince and people like André Cymone, the Girls, Ta Mara & the Seen, Alexander O'Neal.

Dan Corrigan: More Funk with Roy Freedom? We used to call it More Fights with Roy Freedom – ha!

Jay Smooth VO: Dan Corrigan has been First Avenue's official photographer since 1995. These clips are from a 2003 interview he did with Pete Scholtes of City Pages.

Dan Corrigan: There was one night, there was the biggest fight I've ever seen down there. It was just crazy. It started on the dance floor and kind of went around the right and spilled all the way out to the entryway.

Jay Smooth VO: That brawl took place in 1990, during More Funk's fifth anniversary. Randy Hawkins told our writer Michaelangelo Matos about that night.

Randy Hawkins: The fifth anniversary of [More] Funk night it was a similar situation of losing control of the club. There was a few times where it was like, "We've lost control of this."

Jay Smooth VO: Now, this kind of thing didn't happen very often. One reason for that is First Avenue's security system.

Sabrina Keith: There's, like, a light switch at various locations throughout the club, like emergency buttons you press if something goes wrong.

Jay Smooth VO: Sabrina Keith was a bartender, stagehand, and superglue employee of First Ave, working on and off from 1988 to 2004.

Sabrina Keith: And you flip the switch, and let's see, upstairs, a central light goes on. It's, like, a siren light – a red siren light. And then, I think, at the front door there might be one, as well. And then, you look over to the side of the stage, and there's many lights of many different colors, and hopefully just one of them will be spinning, and that would be – that gives you an idea of where the trouble is. And actually, just the other day, me and another old employee were talking and can remember pretty much where all the trouble lights are. It's really disturbing. [laughs] I shouldn't know that green means pool tables, which means it's by where the current coat check is and no more pool tables.

Jay Smooth VO: The origin of the so-called "trouble lights" is still fresh in Richard Luka's mind. He had been recruited to work security in 1975, when the club was still called Uncle Sam's. You may remember him from the Ramones and Pat Benatar episode earlier this season. Richard spoke with our producer, Cecilia, and First Ave's longtime general manager Steve McClellan.

Richard Luka: The reason for that light was that in March of 1977, I was working alone. We'd purged a lot of people out of there at that time. Uh, there was all this new staff. They really didn't know anything, and I was all alone at the front door with the cashier, and a bike gang came to the door. The Iron Cross from northern Minnesota. And I had to card these guys, and I thought, "Oh my god, I can't – what am I gonna do here?" And I just – there was, like, six of them. I just said well, I guess I'm letting them in. And it turns out a few more came in, so we had like nine bikers in there who took their coats off. They were flying their colors in there.

Steve McClellan: What show was it?

Richard Luka: No, this was like a Saturday night in 1977, and I remember one of our regular customers, a guy named Tiger. He was Black, and he had a shaved head and these guys surrounded him. They were rubbing his head, saying, "I wish I had a watermelon," and I was like, "Oh my god, this is gonna get out of hand." And at the end of the night, they were just rude and belligerent to people. And [Tiger] came up and he said, "What on earth did you let them in here for?" I go like, "I was gonna get the s*** beat out of me. It's like I'm up here all alone." And they said, "Okay, we're putting a light in." So they installed this light, and a year later, the bike gang came back, but we had hired all new staff. [Steve and Richard laugh] We had some bigger people there, and I hit that light and people were right there, and these guys, they threw their jackets off and they were ready to go, and the police showed up. So that is what can happen at the front door. You never knew what was gonna show up there.

Steve McClellan: Oh, the first light that he's talking about, my brother Kevin installed. When did we put in the different colors? So if it was the game room, it would go off green, and when it was –

Richard Luka: It was, like, 1983, I'm gonna say.

Steve McClellan: Yeah, that much later. The first one was '77, '78. And that was sufficient, and then we had to do a system that people wouldn't go to the front door. They would go to the game area, the upstairs, or bar five. So we had like a six-light sequence that would go off.

Jay Smooth VO: Along with the trouble lights, the seriousness of First Ave's security earned it a reputation in town, according to Tim Wilson.

Tim Wilson: People go through the usual First Avenue bulls*** when you go to First Avenue. You know, they look at your license and turn it upside down and flip it and flop it, pat you down, and you walk in. It was always one of those things like, oh man, don't go to First Avenue with a fake ID. Don't try to sneak in First Avenue. Their security doesn't play. And it's still the same thing. People get turned away.

Sabrina Keith: One point that as always made kind of clear at First Avenue was, we're not bouncers. And we don't ever want to be called bouncers. We are security. We're just trying to make things better. We don't want to bounce you. We don't want to be mean to you. We don't want to beat you up. We just want you to have fun, and I've never understood why people go out and don't have fun. It's like, "Why are you starting stuff? You paid however much money to get in here, so have fun."

Whether you kick them out or whether you put them back, it's up to how they act. I mean, I had one kid come up to me five years after the fact saying, "Oh my god, it's you," and I'm like, what are you talking about. "You kicked me out of Nine Inch Nails." I'm like, "OK." [laughs] I'm glad that was a great memory for you. [Sabrina and Michaelangelo laugh]

Jay Smooth VO: The club's security staff have long been trained to de-escalate situations, according to a longtime staffer.

Anne O'Connor: My name is Anne O'Connor. I worked at First Avenue for two different time periods in the 1990s. [pause] I mean, de-escalation can work in any setting. It really can. You have to keep your head. My strategy was always to get in between the people who were really upset, because they almost would never go after me. And so that would at least create some space. When people are hot-headed, a lot of times all they really need is to step back for a second and say, "Wait a minute, do I really want to do this?" And that's the kind of thing that we would say.

[Ice-T's "Body Count" starts fading up]

Anne O'Connor: And sometimes that didn't work at all. [Anne laughs]

[Ice-T's "Body Count" plays for about 20 seconds]

Jay Smooth VO: In February of 1991, First Avenue hosted one of its occasional rap shows: Ice-T, the revolutionary Los Angeles MC with sharp storytelling and a steely voice. That show was one of two he'd perform in Minnesota that year; he also came through St. Paul's Harriet Island on the Lollapalooza tour. And each time, Ice-T didn't just rap – he sang with an all-Black metal band called Body Count. Sabrina Keith told Michaelangelo about hanging out with that group.

Sabrina Keith: It was just fun, because it was Ice-T, and he was doing metal, which, like, with Body Count, there's just not a lot of Black artists doing that. And we had Blake working at the club, who's basically the exact same thing, just not, you know, Ice-T. And so it's fun, it's novel and just a bunch of big guys, and they had really cool merch, and they wanted like our First Avenue jackets because we were all wearing them and I think it was cold then too.

Michaelangelo Matos: February.

Sabrina Keith: Yup, that's cold. [laughs]

Jay Smooth VO: Ice-T and Body Count would see more than their share of controversy a year later, in 1992, when they released the song "Cop Killer." But in 1991, there was no more controversial figure in rap, or in music, than Ice Cube. He'd been the primary lyricist for N.W.A, who had debuted in 1989 with the iconic album Straight Outta Compton. Soon afterward, the FBI sent a letter to N.W.A's record label to complain about the lyrics of songs such as "Eff Tha Police" – lyrics that had mostly been written by Ice Cube, who was only 20 years old.

But Cube felt like he wasn't getting his fair share of royalties, so in 1990, he and his friend and producer Sir Jinx went to New York to collaborate with the hottest producers of the time, The Bomb Squad. The Bomb Squad, featuring Hank Shocklee, Chuck D, and Eric Sadler, were Public Enemy's sample-heavy production team. With their help, Ice Cube finished his first solo album, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and released it in May of 1990. He followed it with the Kill at Will EP in December. No rapper was hotter right then, as Tim Wilson recalls.

Tim Wilson: That was good Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, one of my top five albums of all time. He left N.W.A, got politically conscious, and then there was just the whole thing with the group and the break-up, and then he went out east and hung out with Chuck D and Public Enemy, and they produced that album, and it was just – it was the hot album at that particular time. That particular album bridged gangsta rap and politically conscious material all into one project. You know, he was gassed up and ready to go.

Jay Smooth VO: Ice Cube didn't lead a lifestyle as violent as his lyrics would suggest – like a lot of rappers, he'd rhyme in character. But some of his fans did carry the things he rapped about carrying, as John Smith, who would join the First Avenue staff in 1993 and is still a DJ and bartender at the club, would discover.

DJ Smitty: First Avenue started using metal detectors. When you saw the metal detectors, it wasn't, "Oh, this is a new thing they're doing." It's like, "Oh, Ice Cube is coming." And then earlier that week, before the show, I was at Northern Lights Records, and I overheard some clerks talking about how they had overheard some kids talking about trying to stash some guns in First Avenue before the Ice Cube show, so that they would circumvent the metal detectors. Those were the people who first made it apparent to me that this was not gonna be business as usual.

The record stores, I guess, were getting phone calls and whatnot – because we weren't a Ticketmaster club, [so] if you wanted to buy tickets for a First Avenue show, you had to go someplace and buy them. I think the Ice Cube crowd was a crowd that didn't necessarily know where to buy our tickets. So it was kind of that, where we realized, "This isn't just gonna be shiny happy hipsters going to a rap show. This is gonna be real."

Jay Smooth VO: Anne O'Connor worked roaming security that night.

Anne O'Connor: As the staff, we would get together and talk about what we were gonna do. And then what ended up happening is we hired in a bunch of extra additional security people. For about a week before the shows, we had metal detectors at the door so that people couldn't bring guns of knives or anything in and stash them in the club, so that they could use them during the shows themselves.

You know, these were guys who, their show was about raising people's anger about some really unfair situations, about calling out some things that were really wrong, and so people had a tendency to get pissed. So we knew that, and we had to be ready for that. And the Ice-T show, I feel like we managed to do that without huge problems. We didn't have huge problems that night.

When you put together people with loud music, lots of drinking and lots of young people dancing – body contact – you're really just setting a stage for some conflict. There's gonna be some conflict sometime.

Jay Smooth VO: Ice Cube's March 4 appearance was, in fact, two shows – an all-ages in the late afternoon and an ID-only show at night. This was a regular occurrence at the club throughout the '90s.

Sabrina Keith: I know for the first show, I did coat-check, so it was pretty mellow. Everybody thought the kids' show was gonna be bad, and it just was not.

Jay Smooth VO: There was one issue during the all-ages show: Somebody threw a bottle over the upstairs balcony, where alcohol was allowed. When Ice Cube finished the first show, the club took two hours to change over.

Sabrina Keith: You have to clean up and kind of reset everything to start the night fresh. I think they bought us pizza, and we just kind of hung out and waited.

Jay Smooth VO: Rod Smith was bar-backing that night – running liquor from storage to the bars.

Rod Smith: The attendance at the all-ages show was healthy, but nowhere near sold out. At the ID show, attendance was sold out-plus. I believe you've encountered the phenomenon where somebody in the office would panic about ticket sales and just start slamming comps out indiscriminately. A ton of comps had gone out, and then a ton of people paid, so attendance [laughs] was way over the top.

DJ Smitty: We got there for the ID show. We walk in. First thing we figured out pretty quick was, we weren't gonna get any help, because anything with a counter, whether it was a bar or whether it was coat-check – they were busy. It was packed. It was full, and there were people yelling. There were people who were not happy with the order that they were being helped. There were people who were not happy with the prices. There were just a lot of not happy people. It was wet outside, and it was hot in there, which made it hot and wet – like a cave. The walls were sweating. The men's room had an inch of water going on, on the floor. There was a bad vibe.

Jay Smooth VO: Our sources couldn't pick out one specific point where the fights started. But according to Anne, once they started, they didn't stop.

Anne O'Connor: It was just bam-bam-bam. It was just non-stop, so you didn't really have time to stop and think, "Wow, this is really overwhelming; I don't know if I can do it." You just did it. The place was packed. There were so many people there. So if you were – if you couldn't get to the trouble light, that's one thing, but also if the trouble light was already going, you'd have a fight five feet away from you. Well, five feet in a packed room could be – it's a lot of feet to get to, sometimes – [laughs] you know – to get through the bodies and get to the actual fight, you're not always gonna make it.

Rod Smith: These melees would just randomly break out. The outside security people that First Avenue hired did an outstanding job, because they were really aware of what was going on mood-wise in the club, and as soon as something broke out, they would start heading toward it. But, again, the problem being there was a certain amount of distance in the Mainroom, and when the club is that packed, you can't move that quickly. They were moving pretty quickly, though. So these fights were being stopped, for the most part, like, pretty quickly after they started. But they didn't really stop. I'd say they continued pretty much through the night.

DJ Smitty: As a customer, I knew about the trouble lights, and I'd seen them go off in the past. I had never seen all of them go off at the same time.

Rod Smith: I believe there were 27 all told, and there were incidents that didn't even prompt the trouble light, because nobody could get to a trouble light, because the club was that packed.

Jay Smooth VO: Randy Hawkins worked the barricade in front of the stage for both shows.

Randy Hawkins: There was three of us – four of us all in the barricade, and we had to stay there. Unless the situation was right in front of you on the floor, of which there were many, we did what we could from inside the barricade, but mostly the roaming security of people on the dance floor dealt with that stuff. And so it was like, it turned into a pretty serious us-against-them scenario, and like as far as security vs. the audience, which, you never want to get in that situation. But every time a door got opened, there'd be three people trying to bum-rush the show. But every time like a side door or anything got opened to let someone in, you had to have security at each one, basically just to defend the castle. It was kind of the same way with the barricade and every bar – just people trying to take everything they could take. Yeah. There was all sorts of, just grab whatever booze you could grab.

Rod Smith: I encountered bartenders and bar backs crying back by the coolers, and that happened multiple times. The bar backs, because they'd been sucker-punched, and the bartender, because people kept I mean, there was some real ballers there, and they tipped really well, but then these wannabes would come along and steal the big tips that somebody else had just left. And it was so busy that it was impossible for the bartenders to really keep track of what was happening with their tips.

Anne O'Connor: You know, we called the cops several times. We carted several people out to the cops. When you are in a fight at First Avenue, what ends up happening is you get surrounded by staff.

Michaelangelo Matos: Quickly.

Anne O'Connor: Quickly. And so, you know like, there's nowhere to go.

Jay Smooth VO: But the cops weren't particularly soothing that night, or any other. In fact, just the night before, on March 3, 1991, a Los Angeles motorist named Rodney King was pulled over and beaten mercilessly by the LAPD. A man with a camcorder filmed the incident and sent it to a local TV news show. The Rodney King video wasn't yet national news when Ice Cube played First Avenue – that would be in a few days still. But for most people at the show, police brutality wasn't just something they heard about in rap songs – chances were, many of Ice Cube's fans knew someone it had happened to, if they hadn't experienced it personally.

Anne O'Connor: What I would say is that there were a lot of valid reasons for being upset, and this was a place for them to have that upset, and sometimes that upset meant that they wanted to hurt someone. And so I'm not justifying the behavior or excusing it, but I'm just saying it was not a big surprise. When I say nobody got seriously hurt, I mean like broken bones or injuries that . . .

Michaelangelo Matos: Hospital injuries.

Anne O'Connor: Hospital injuries. It was a rough night. It was a rough scene. It was a very violent show, so I don't want to underplay that.

Jay Smooth VO: Urban Lights owner Tim Wilson was in the audience that night – and he remembers seeing an opening group that included a rapper who would top the pop charts four years later.

Tim Wilson: I remember a group called WC and the MAAD Circle, which was one of Ice Cube's groups – Dub-C who still tours with Cube. And Coolio was actually part of the group at that time. Crazy Toones was the DJ, which was Dub-C's brother. I remember they kept having sound problems. And they kept telling the sound guy, like, "Man you better fix this or we're gonna have a problem." And they would keep rapping, keep doing their thing, and then they would warn him again, and then the sound never changed. I think they warned him a third time. And honestly, what I remember is them jumping off the stage, breezing past us, and I remember – I never understood why First Ave set their soundboard – they had those steps that go down, and then they set their soundboard where, unfortunately, the way he kind of got jumped on, he ended up down in the crevice at the bottom of the stairs and where the soundboard started. And they were kicking him and hitting him until they got pulled off and back onto the stage. They just kind of shot past us and jumped on him. Then they jumped back onstage, and they kept rapping, and the sound man wiped the blood off his face and he just kept going.

Jay Smooth VO: DJ Smitty, who couldn't get into the Sonic Youth concert last episode, did make it in the door for Ice Cube. He says the mood perked up when the headliner took the stage.

DJ Smitty: People never talk about the fact [that] that was a great show. Ice Cube – I'd go see him again in a heartbeat. One of the best hip-hop shows I've ever seen. But a friend of mine did get close enough to the stage to see the set list and came back and said, "We're going. We're two songs away from the encore. Let's get out of here." And as we left, I had to hold the door open because they were stretchering someone out.

[Ice Cube ft. Chuck D, "Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside) - Remix"]

Rod Smith: Management lost control of the club, too. Everybody lost control of the club.

Steve McClellan: All I know is it was hateful because you couldn't – you got 1,500 people in the room. You could have 50 security staff. You don't stand a chance. There was so many people ready to quit after some of these shows.

Jay Smooth VO: Anne O'Connor was one of them.

Anne O'Connor: I put my notice in shortly after the Ice Cube show. I remember thinking, that is the violence that I don't need to be a part of. And I love the club, I loved the people I worked with, it was a lot of fun, but that wasn't fun for me.

Rod Smith: A lot of people were really bummed out. I had quit smoking eight months earlier, and I started again that night. The mood overall was, "We got through it." A few people were traumatized.

Anne O'Connor: We were worn out. And it was hard. And I remember everyone feeling pretty rough at that point. It was pretty rough.

Jay Smooth VO: The show also got First Avenue in trouble with the city, not for the first time.

Steve McClellan: I had too many incidents where the police wouldn't respond when I would book gangsta rap. I used to go to monthly downtown – what do they call them? – downtown association meetings or something. Where I'd go and I'd sit, and when you went to these meetings, and if you were a nightclub, the fire department was there to tell you exactly what you do to keep your license. The police department would be there monthly and tell you exactly what you needed to do to keep your license. They were more like – "This meeting isn't to ask questions. We're the city and you're gonna do what we tell you."

Jay Smooth VO: Despite the complaints about gangsta rap, the next First Ave show that'd see similar violence was a 1995 appearance by a singer-songwriter whose politics could not have been further removed from Ice Cube's.

Randy Hawkins: There's a country singer – oh my god, what's his name? Outlaw country singer. David Allan Coe. At the time, that was show two that had as many problems as Ice Cube. That David Allan Coe show, I think it wasn't as well attended. I got probably there was probably 800 people there, and so I don't think we ever really lost control of it, but it was definitely getting there. I came in the next day and everybody was just, like, shell-shocked: "You will not believe what we were dealing with last night."

Jay Smooth VO: Chris Riemenschneider, author and longtime music reporter at the Star Tribune, suggests that the Ice Cube show is remembered as a turning point.

Chris Riemenschneider: The biggest myth about that show – well, I don't know if it's a myth, but I mean, supposedly that show was – hip-hop was not booked at the venue for many years after that show, because it got so ugly. And they generalized over, "Well, hip-hop audiences are bad news."

Jay Smooth VO: When we asked Steve McClellan and LeeAnn Weimar whether First Avenue avoided hip-hop after Ice Cube, Steve said that he still booked rappers through agents he trusted.

Steve McClellan: There was a lot of drug dealers that were trying to bring me shows, because they had connections with the agent, and they wanted to bring in a lot of these hip-hop acts.

LeeAnn Weimar: Or they had beepers. Remember, they had beepers.

Steve McClellan: I called them the beeper phone promoters. In the '90s, I stopped dealing with beeper phone promoters that had plenty of cash but no trust from me.

Jay Smooth VO: Steve returned to this point several times throughout the interview, insisting that if there was a lapse in hip-hop shows, it was only because he didn't want to work with so-called "beeper phone promoters." Whatever the case, First Avenue generally avoided hip-hop until the late '90s, according to Chris Riemenschneider.

Chris Riemenschneider: It really wasn't until Rhymesayers and Atmosphere came along and started packing the place that they started giving hip-hop a good chance there again.

Jay Smooth VO: Nationally, hip-hop had been ebbing into the mainstream for years. In Minnesota, indie rap label Rhymesayers capitalized on that shift. In the late '90s, they started throwing Soundset Wednesdays, a series of hip-hop dance nights at First Avenue, and their audiences trended whiter and whiter. At the same time, First Avenue opened the gates to touring acts such as OutKast, Eminem, Public Enemy, and the Black Eyed Peas.

["Hive Sound" by Icetep fades up and plays for a few seconds]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Ok, so this episode was a whopper. And I think the material of this episode is still so relevant today. At this point, I want to bring up an article that rocked Minnesota music in 2016. Like, I still remember, the day that it came out, reading it at my desk. It's the Twin Cities Daily Planet's piece "Whitest hip hop scene you've ever heard of," written by Kayla Steinberg, and it speaks directly to the aftershocks of the Ice Cube show. I'm just gonna read a few somewhat abridged sentences:

Quote, "When out-of-state and mainstream media and fans refer to Twin Cities hip hop, Rhymesayers Entertainment is often their point of reference. The common faces of Rhymesayers include Brother Ali, an albino Muslim rapper who identifies as white, and Atmosphere, a duo of racially ambiguous, arguably white-passing, hip hop artists.

However, to Toki Wright, a Black North Minneapolis rapper, these are just a couple faces of the Twin Cities hip hop scene. "I think the face of Twin Cities hip hop is a 14-year-old kid on the Northside of Minneapolis in his bedroom, making beats or writing rhymes," he said. "The face of Twin Cities hip hop is Lexii Alijai recording with Kehlani and the local press turning a blind eye to it. That's Twin Cities hip hop." Enquote.

Later in the article, Black rapper MaLLy talks about his experience at the Rhymesayers 20th anniversary show in 2015. The way he remembers it, many audience members went from supportive, when white artist Brother Ali rapped his song "Dear Black Son," to apathetic when Toki Wright and I Self Devine, both Black rappers, proclaimed messages such as "eff the police" and "kill white supremacy" on stage.

Some things haven't changed between '91 and now, but First Avenue [itself] has undergone a monumental shift, in the way they operate, what causes they stand for, and whose names are at the top. It's all covered in our next episode, which is about Election Day in 2004: the day First Avenue declared bankruptcy.

This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by the one and only Jay Smooth and me, Cecilia Johnson. It was produced by me and Jesse Wiza and scripted by our head writer, Michaelangelo Matos. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is the song "Hive Sound" by Icetep. This episode was mixed by Johnny Vince Evans. And I wanna give a super special thank-you to Rick Carlson, Shelby Sachs, David Safar, Pete Scholtes, and Chris Wilbourn for additional support.

If you want to check out a transcript of this episode or any other one, you can go to And if you feel so moved, you can go ahead and rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or tell a friend that it's out there. If you want to share any thoughts, feedback, or First Avenue stories, our inbox is open. You can just send an email to

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.