A bright afternoon sun spreads across the empty parking lot of the Westport strip mall where a group of young men are talking about Kansas City's hip-hop scene.
They laugh. They name local artists: who's killing tracks, who's wack. They plot potential collaborations.
In the middle of his own sentence, Martin Clardy breaks into an impromptu freestyle. Clardy will do this several times over the next few hours. While illustrating a larger point, he'll exhale soliloquies of verse. He's eager to spread his message, a story that only rhymed words can adequately express.
Lester Paul, Gage Barton and Sean Easterwood also have lyrics that need delivering. Together, they think, they might be onto something big.
Handpicked by Reach, a local rap veteran, Clardy, Paul, Easterwood and Barton make up the latest installment of the Young Lions, a performance series that spotlights emerging Kansas City hip-hop talent. They join a growing list of alumni: Greg Enemy, Attila and the Phantom, among other local favorites.
Today, in this Westport parking lot, is the first time they've all met. They're here to shoot a video promoting their upcoming live performance.
Extending a hand to young artists, in a city where rap artists compete for the limited ears — and hearts — of a small fanbase, is a courageous, forward-looking gesture. Reach, a rapper firmly entrenched in the city's hip-hop scene, fondly recalls the help of older artists. Now, he says, it's his turn to return the favor.
"They just bring a different energy and vitality [to the scene]," he says. "Sometimes older artists lose that energy."
Reach's work goes beyond a simple good deed. The Young Lions' event is an organized platform for young artists. This is a significant feat, considering the variety of obstacles, both formal and informal, in a city that suffers from de facto segregation. The series' success is built upon the respect and admiration that Reach commands from Kansas City's promoters and hip-hop fans. In short, he has built the house, and now he's inviting the young cats to enjoy it with him.
Reach doesn't invite just anyone. He carefully selects each artist, scouring the streets and the Internet for young talents who are hard at work making music.
"I look for artists who are making their own strides and take music seriously," he says.
Clardy, a Wyandotte County native, recalls sending out 300 to 500 e-mails in search of a promoter or a mentor to help him find his way into the city's scene. He pressed his own CDs (a method of distribution that he says quickly became too expensive) and battered himself against the brick wall of his hometown's struggling hip-hop scene. Reach answered Clardy's e-mail.
"Since then, it's been on," says Clardy, who raps as "Marty Notes."
Lester Paul, a Jimi Hendrix-inspired skateboarder from Kansas City, Missouri, first met Reach when he sneaked into local rap shows. At the last show at the old Mike's Tavern, Reach invited Paul, also known as "LP," onstage to perform.
Paul talks about the experience as he does most topics: with wide eyes and uninhibited ambition. Paul, who grew up on the Paseo near 51st Street, remembers confrontations with kids who didn't appreciate his offbeat style. He fought through it all, he says, and now he wants to use his rap talents to bridge the city's skate and hip-hop communities.
Easterwood, who goes by "8th," may be the most serious-minded performer on this bill. He walks with headphones draped around his neck like a towel on a boxer between rounds. With a look of reservation that borders on detachment, the MC says he has a simple reason for rapping: "I don't like talking to people."
As a member of his high school debate team, he discovered a passion for self-expression. But he soon grew tired of debate's formalities. A year ago, Easterwood turned to the free-flowing forms of hip-hop, which allowed him a more suitable one-way conversation. No one talks back.
Barton, a baby-faced 18-year-old from Johnson County (and the only white member of this group), came across his musical inspiration a bit earlier than Easterwood and in a more common way: by flipping through records in his parents' basement. Their vinyl collection of soul and funk included P-Funk and Earth, Wind and Fire. Barton, who also goes by Headfella, soon started scratching the old records.
Since then, he has worked to sharpen his skills as a DJ, moving from his basement to gigs at local parties and, more recently, as the DJ for the last Young Lions performance. Now he's penning lyrics to the music he used to produce.
After only a few minutes together, the young men are already hatching a far-reaching vision for local hip-hop. They're on the brink of something formidable, they say.
"A 'recession renaissance,'" Paul calls it.
"There's no ceiling," Barton says.
Reach listens, distractedly poking at his cell phone and chuckling, as the young artists plot their ambitious takeover.
Before they depart, Clardy describes his style.
"My goal," he says, "is to absolutely destroy you lyrically. It's like — "
Prose isn't enough: He delivers another fiery outburst of verse.
Editor's note: After press time, 8th announced his withdrawal from the event due to a death in his family.