Exploring Open Mic culture W/ Motormouf
There is a blurred line between performer and audience, where in which both become each other.
I walked into a red striped sea of fisherman’s hats and fila hoodies. People whistled over the top of one another, bodies bouncing and necks nodding. I was in Zanzibar, Liverpool, at Sumati Presents. The likes of Yanu, MC Nelson and Brad Stank were seen to take the stage throughout the evening. Standing with the few new friends I had met in the smoking area; I saw the vibrant colours of a multi-coloured jacket walk by. I shouted my admiration across to its owner, “Thank you my friend” he called over his shoulder, throwing me a wide smile. This was how I first met Alex Young, also known as Motormouf.
As host for the closing jam session, Alex freestyled funky rhythms and silky bars as part of the ever-changing ensemble on stage. As a beatboxer, Alex has harnessed a craft which is completely free, embedded in the self and empowered by others. There was an overwhelmingly playful atmosphere built as crowd members were welcomed to the stage to join in. Whatever lyrics, beat or guitar riff was thrown down, the jammers seemed to shift into each other’s flow easily.
Jam sessions are at the core of hip-hop, especially in Liverpool. The energy that bubbles over from strangers and artists bouncing off one another, live on stage or in someone’s living room is not something easily defined or replicated. There is a specific beauty found within an open mic, or jam night. It is an adrenaline overload of fresh talent and nerves. Not only do open mics offer a platform for new artists, but they keep the heart of what makes Liverpool a city of music afloat. At a time when we turn to the virtual world, I find myself reminiscing over these nights. And I realise, it is not the polished, slick performances I am missing but the raw, unplanned, excitement of an open mic or jam. This is a sector of the music industry which cannot be placed onto a Zoom live stream. It is, however, an essential part of the music community within Liverpool and I wonder what the current climate will mean for such events.
I spoke with Alex a few weeks after the night in Zanzibar, during lockdown. He tells me he was shy as a child but began beat-boxing in school at the age of 15. When I ask him how it all began, he tells me about a time when he and his friends began freestyling in a chip shop. The video of this later went viral around his school and Alex laughs as he remembers the staff members shouting, “Yo this kid is sick” as he threw a grime beat down for his friend. Years later and Alex is still bouncing off others to find new rhythms and beats, always exploring and playing with sound. And this, is exactly what keeps hip-hop alive. It does not try to be a polished art form; it stands as a beautiful contradiction of self expression which is embedded within community. Alex expresses his love for the little pocket of Hip-Hop found in each city across the UK. He tells me he misses playing in Liverpool and hopes to come back, “There’s just so much opportunity for a musician in Liverpool. From day dot I was welcomed with opened arms, no qualms". We fall onto the topic of the Hip-Hop scene in Liverpool, and though this is a fairly small branch on Liverpool’s music tree, Alex explains, “jam sessions are a big thing in Liverpool, most nights of the week they’ll be a jazz night or jam session where everyone can get involved in. Each crowd has its own vibe, and every freestyle set is so dependent on how the crowd is feeling, or how I’m feeling”.
As I continue to chat to Alex, my initial impressions from that first gig are cemented in my mind. I am convinced he is an extraordinarily humble man, and kind soul. As he talks about his music career, he weaves his admiration for other artists into his conversation, people such as Counting coins, Nutribe and Jonjo amongst the many artists he highlights. I get the impression that talking about himself does not come quite so naturally to Alex. But I suppose, lifting others is exactly what is at the heart of hip-hop.
Events such as Lime have recently swept onto the scene, bringing afro-beat, hip hop and dancehall into the melting pot of Liverpool’s music. Lime, with a ‘be nice or go home’ policy, is cemented in the empowerment of others. As with many hip-hop events, there is a space for everyone here. Within hip-hop, and other similar events, such as spoken word nights, there is a strong sense of one-ness. There is a blurred line between performer and audience, where in which both become each other. Entangled within immediate influences, performers are constantly adapting and changing in response to the people around them. Alex explains, “I chameleon my sound to theirs, y’know what I’m sayin’. It just depends on the event. For a poetry night I’ll be a bit more mellow say, or I’ll be a bit more energetic for a punky vibe. But the hip-hop element is always there.”
These fundamental roots; empowering others, sharing art and energy, bouncing off one-another, create the life force within hip-hop, as well as other art forms. The open mic is a vital part keeping this afloat, though often overlooked for its amateur collectives and non-profit performances for artists. It is within these small pockets, however, where the magic of creativity is ignited. Undoubtedly, the music industry is struggling during these unprecedented times. The open mic, as well as jam sessions, are the most at peril. They thrive from the immediacy of a live audience and need to be fed with face to face interactions. When placed in a climate where this is becomes impossible, there is a real danger these events will fade to the background. I ask Alex how he feels about the future of the music industry during this particularly unsettling time, he tells me, “The music industry is not doing too well at the moment, but people’s artistry is. People have the time to do things. People are being creative and have a willingness to create art that will ease people’s minds,” and at this my worried heart warms a little. Remarkably, Alex has planted a seed of hope in a time when the world feels a little lonely. But I suppose, this is just what Alex does.
Make sure to keep up to date with Motormouf’s social media for more jam sessions, gigs and fire beats on the flip side of isolation. Above you can watch him his track, 'Cherry Tree' for Zooniverse, a song that is “a little bit dark” in his own words. Opened with a hit-you-right-in-the-chest bassline the track gradually weaves layers of vocal loops together to create something of intricate beauty and pounding energy.
Stay happy, stay hopeful. As Alex told me, “Creating art is the process that will help us all to heal.”
WORDS AND PICTURES FROM MARY OLIVE