The Gathering | Photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
The Gathering: The best kept secret in Philly’s hip-hop scene
The Gathering | Photo by Josh Pelta-Heller |
The most ill, the most raw, the most authentic – this description fits The Gathering, the longest-running hip-hop event in Philadelphia. In a city where the rap scene is fractioned into small cliques, The Gathering has been providing a sense of unity and consistency since the mid-90s. Every last Thursday of the month, hip-hop heads from across the city, and sometimes the world, make their way over to The Rotunda located at 40th and Walnut to get in where they fit in. The event provides a space for breakdancers, DJs, graffiti artists and MCs to simultaneously show off their skills. It is an all-ages event that welcomes individuals of all skill levels, gender identities and backgrounds.
In 2016 The Gathering will be going into its 20th year of existence. Over time, origin story of The Gathering has become a sort of local hip-hop lore. The person who appears to have the best understanding of how The Gathering got its starts is one of its organizers, IB Forever. IB has been attending The Gathering since its start in 1996 back when it was just a couple of musicians getting together and jamming. “Circa 94 / 95, friends of mine – bohemian, hip-hop musician types, part of underground hip-hop collective named MomSug Dojo who had recently moved to West Philly/University City area – were always inviting me to jam sessions at their crib,” says IB. “Not a full out showcase I believe, no cover involved (initially) , more just a ‘gathering’ which eventually became the formal name.”
The event was very grassroots and spread via word-of-mouth, much like today. The fliers were black and white and hand-made; the growth of the event depended on messages sent through the grapevine. By the time 1996 rolled around, The Gathering moved to an unknown location on Locust Walk between 36th and 38th streets and shortly after Houston Hall, also on UPenn campus. B-Boys, B-Girls, MCs DJs and taggers found a home here where they could get busy with their craft with like minded individuals. In 2001 The Gathering set up shop at the Rotunda and has been there ever since.
Currently, in addition to IB, the production is organized by Ai-Que, Tray Digga, and Bryce McDowell. Every last Thursday of the month (with the exception of holidays like Thanksgiving that fall on the last Thursday of the month) the crew filters into The Rotunda from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. for the event. Cardboard for the breakers is laid out. DJs set up equipment, and finally participants and spectators add to the eclectic mix of individuals.
The Gathering serves as a hub for the four main elements of hip-hop – graffiti, breakdancing, MCing, and DJing. It makes sense since the city possesses deep hip-hop bloodlines. New York typically gets all of the credit, but Philadelphia is an underappreciated hip-hop Mecca. Philly is the home of the first graff artist – Darryl “Cornbread” McCray, the man who was infamous for sneaking into the Philadelphia Zoo and tagging an elephant. Philadelphia even originated the “Wildstyle” graffiti script. The city has birthed world renowned DJs and Rappers such Black Thought, DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Fresh Prince, State Property, and Matthew Law, who spent much of his early career as a DJ at the gathering.
“These are typically the broadest elements in terms of participation, and most easily observed,” explains Ai-Que. “If you participate in any of these elements, with the exception of graffiti writing, good chance is you’ve been to The Gathering – because that’s where the true students of the culture and elements go to participate and exhibit their skills and build. It’s huge in the bboy community as a reputable jam and somewhere you go if you want to rock with some of the best. MC’s get the opportunity to cipher with MCs that they typically don’t get to rhyme with. Its significance comes from bringing all of these elements under one roof so the participants can converse, network, and build with cats the don’t normally spend time with.”
On any given last Thursday of the month, someone can go to The Gathering and see some of the tightest pop locks and top rocks accenting classic break beats. Meanwhile rap cyphers are taking place on stage and tagging going on off to the side. The Gathering is a full-sensory experience.
“Your first time at The Gathering is mind-blowing,” says Tray Digga who has been down with the Gathering for over 5 years. “The cyphers are of many different styles of rap and will make anybody want to join in. The graffiti wall will amaze you and make you want to draw anything to be a part of it. The B-Boy circle will drive you into a frenzy – normal everyday people can do the stuff you see on TV and in movies. The mixes and cuts by the DJ’s will have wishing you could download this night to your iPod for a replay of memories.”
It is safe to say that The Gathering represents for the culture in the purest way possible. In the production of The Gathering and the experience itself, there is no ego involved that is often associated with hip-hop culture. Yes, the breakers battle each other and the rappers boast about how their flow is better than the next guy, but that is just part of the hip-hop aesthetic. At The Gathering there is a strong respect for the next person, their skill level, and what they have to offer to the culture.
Beyond that, the organizers understand that it can be easy and quite profitable for hip-hop to be packaged, consumed, and sold for mass consumption. And further, they understand that when hip-hop is for profit, the purity and original message of peace, unity and progress can be turned into something harmful.
“The Gathering is one of Philly’s best-kept secrets because we haven’t tried to monetize and exploit the culture,” says Ai-Que. “We want to maintain the integrity of the event so word of mouth is the primary means of promotion and with that, the benefit is only the right people know and they come. They bring people that love the culture and environment as much as we do.”
Although keeping The Gathering authentic is one of the top priorities for the team, they have in the past teamed up with Red Bull to produce the BC One 10 Cypher – an international Breakdancing Competition. The Gathering has set a high standard for traditional hip-hop so much so they they are recognized by multi-million dollar international organizations. It appears as if they have had the perfect balance between authenticity and notability.
The Gathering has not only left a strong impact on the individuals who organize it, but of course the attendees. Hip-hop lovers like Tempest Carter often reflect on classic moments in The Gathering’s history. She heard about The Gathering in 2003 and started going in 2005. “I started going because I was falling deeply in love with hip-hop as a culture and I was exploring every facet of it,” says Carter. “I was a spectator and photographer. I have so so so many memories of the place but my all time favorite may be Moses (R.I.P.) freestyling with the cypher cats in a Wrestling Mask and randomly breaking out a harmonica while Hanniable and Joe Son smashed the floor.”
According to Tray Digga, “The Gathering is where you really show you got what it takes to be entertainer. Anybody can take the path of hip-hop, it’s a hobby to a lot of folks, but The Gathering is where you can tell if you’re as nice as you think you are and if all that practice paid off. It’s the official underground stepping stone for the real lovers of hip hop culture.”
Although The Gathering is typically held every last Thursday of the month, due to Thanksgiving, the next event will take place on January 7th at The Rotunda located at 4014 Walnut St. in University City, followed by January 28th and almost every final Thursday from there. As mentioned in the story, The Gathering is a place of unity where are attendants are not just expected to respect the authenticity of the culture, but each other as well. Security is also there every last Thursday.