It's close to midnight at the Rotunda on 40th and Walnut. On the steps outside, a cypher of about 20 hip-hop heads huddle in close as a ghetto blaster thumps old school loops and two emcees in the middle face-off: "Common nigga, you don't think that's a lie / That's like saying when I spit it I don't spit fly / That's like saying you ain't you and I ain't I / Like this ain't the Gathering it's a street word fight." The crowd goes nuts, leaning back like witnesses of a car wreck to reward the verbal beating. A few campus security guards stand watch over the group, but they seem more interested in the freestyles than concerned about things getting out of hand.
Inside the venue is packed tight, and the crowd of head-bobbing spectators on the floor wraps around four break-dancing mats. Ambush and Fatcat, two local DJs, seamlessly blend "Thriller" into a Spanish flamenco number on turntables. B-boys and b-girls furiously cycle in and out of the circles with sweat-drenched bravado. A wall in the corner covered in cardboard is being tagged by a group of young graffiti artists. At the front of the venue is a stage where Tu Phace, the lead emcee of Subliminal Orphans, grabs a mic and raises a sheet of paper that reads "Open Mic Sign Up - Suckas Need Not Apply" in his hand. "If ya'll put your names on this motherfucker, bring your asses to the stage!" he cries, and a dozen or so men and women heed his call.
As any of the regulars will tell you, it's just like any night at the Gathering, the longest-running hip-hop event in Philadelphia. Organized by volunteers and funded by the Penn Foundation Arts Initiative, The Gathering has offered a place for break-dancers, emcees and graffiti artists to hone their craft of flash since 1997. It's free, open to anyone, and held the last Thursday of every month.
"You can be a 12-year-old white girl dancing out there or you can be a 30-year-old black dude on the mic, and it's just part of the vibe," said Chris Anderson, a senior public relations student at Temple University, and one of three head organizers of the event. While the crowd of 300-plus ranged from ballers to skaters, hustlers to hipsters, only a handful of Penn students meandered through. "You'd think that this event, being right here at Penn, would be dominated by Penn and Drexel kids," said Anderson. "But if you look around, the majority of people are West Philly hip-hop heads."
Hip-hop heads like Fred Lane, a South Philly studio technician who has been coming to the Gathering for five years to rap. "I used to write rhymes in my house, and you never really go outside until your rhymes are tight," said Lane, fresh off a freestyle on the open mic. "But to be an emcee you've gotta grab the mic, so the Rotunda was a perfect place for me to come. This was the first place I grabbed the mic and really felt what hip-hop was and became an emcee." As for the first time he braved the stage: "I wanted it so bad that it was like a release of everything, and it just came out raw. It was like that tsunami, you couldn't stop it."
There are just as many breakers as rappers at the Gathering. Alexis Jimenez - known to this circle as Lex - is a 23-year-old business student at Camden Community College who treats breaking as a sacred order. The first time she came to the Gathering, "I couldn't even go out to the floor because I had so much respect for the circle. I couldn't go out the way I was, I had to go home and train, watch footage, and practice to show them that I do have love and respect for this." After a year of practicing three to four hours a day, Lex is confident in dubbing herself a b-girl. Each Gathering is now an opportunity for her to test the limits of the art form. "We're all after the same thing. We're all trying to be a legend, a trendsetter, always trying to add something fresh to the game, to be a pioneer. That's what we're all after. It's a fight."
And any hip-hop pioneers looking to blaze trails in this city better prove it at the Gathering first. "This is truly the biggest and most authentic representation of hip-hop in Philly," said Anderson. "If you step in the b-boy floor, or if you're tagging up the board or you're jumping on the mic, you gotta come with a certain level of skill, or else you're just gonna look like an idiot."
Still, the Gathering community is eager to foster talent. At 16-years-old and barely over four-feet-tall, one up-and-comer (who preferred to remain anonymous) is one of the most ferocious breakers of the night. His first visit to the Gathering was at age 11 and he's returned every month since. "I just rolled down here on my bike, and I just started dancing, and I felt as though this was where I belong," said the sophomore at William L. Sayne High school in West Philly. He spends the night breaking with people twice his age and half as good, slapping-five with opponents after battles. "It's a lot of fun having people come out and teach you, help you with stuff you don't know." He's one of the last dancers breaking when they hit the lights at 2 a.m.
"There are a lot of legendary people here who haven't even begun to do what they're going to do," said Tu Phace, who practiced his craft here long before he became the host three years ago. "Ten years from now we're gonna be saying 'Oh my God, I remember when such-and-such was in the Gathering"