La Famiglia now includes (clockwise
from front and center):
Harris, Tobias Gurd, Makisha Davis
Joe Weinstein. Founding member Steve Thielman
recently left due to family reasons. The
band uses several drummers.
years of poor attendance and fears of violence,
hip-hop is gaining local acceptance,
triggered by La Famiglia — a truly diverse band.
Photography by Michael Buck
is not exactly a hotbed of hip-hop and rap.
Yet the headliner at last summer’s
downtown street party sponsored by Local
First was hip-hop band La Famiglia.
National tours of hip-hop and rap artists
regularly pass GR by while local venues overflow
for country and classic rock and Miley Cyrus.
Yet La Famiglia is one of the most popular
bands in the area, drawing fans from all
ethnicities and musical genres.
The paradox is
explained by the significant issues hip-hop
continues to face in order to gain full acceptance
in West Michigan.
Close to the time of the Local First party,
Mike Gagliardo was spotted sitting on the street
curb outside Wealthy Street Bakery. He wore
a basketball jersey and hunched over a Dixie
of espresso. His eyes squinted in the sun,
a source of light he had not seen in a while.
The band leader known as Mike G. had been too
busy to go outside, stuck in the studio in his
basement, mixing and editing tracks for La Famiglia’s
latest hip-hop/jazz fusion CD, “The Get
Gagliardo obviously is pleased by the popularity
of the band he founded, but he’s not so
pleased about the reception hip-hop and rap have
received in Grand Rapids. And he’s not
alone among local performers who feel their music
has gotten (to make a bad pun) a bad rap — even
though they do see some recent improvements on
the local scene.
“The average American probably views hip-hop in
a negative way because of what they see portrayed
on the videos, especially if you don’t
understand the culture,” Gagliardo said. “But
that’s not how it got started.”
Gagliardo says that subsequent to its founding,
some rap and hip-hop addressed violence in lyrics “to
express what was going on in their communities.”
“I think from that, a lot of studio gangsters
were created who glorify it,” he said.
It didn’t help any when a local man was
shot and killed outside a hip-hop concert in
Grand Rapids last summer.
“At our events, we try to invite everybody and
make it multicultural,” said Antoine Gooch,
whose Bang Out Entertainment promoted that event. “Unfortunately,
this group of people had a problem with that
group of people, and (the shooting) just so happened
to be there. It could have been anywhere.”
Bang Out Entertainment continues to promote minority
performers, and recently helped bring a production
by revered African-American playwright Tyler
Perry to Van Andel Arena.
“Our music doesn’t promote violence, but
it’s hard for people to see that,” said
local rapper Rello Jones. “We’re
trying to get it back to its original form. It
doesn’t have to be about drugs, money and
The more we do shows, the more people
come, and we can (demonstrate) that on a consistent
But getting local shows has been a problem dating
back many years. Grand Rapids venues large and
small have not exactly opened their arms wide
for hip-hop. For some it’s a concern about
potential violence. For larger venues, it’s
been about filling the seats.
Van Andel Arena experienced three low-selling
shows by three of the nation’s most popular
performers: Alicia Keys, Kirk Franklin and Mary
J. Blige. Other shows were canceled due to low
ticket sales. Lynne Ike of Van Andel Arena said
part of the dismal turnout was related to marketing
strategies that didn’t reach the right
“The biggest concern is that they’re not
hearing our advertising,” said Ike.
Canceled shows result in fans waiting until the
last minute to buy tickets for the next show.
Low sales up-front make the promoters hesitant
to book shows in Grand Rapids.
The arena has launched a diversity initiative
to research how to bring in more minority acts,
including hip-hop and rap.
“To overlook that is to overlook a large spectrum
of culture,” said Skot Welch of Diversity
Management Strategists, which is working with
the arena. “Incidences of violence are
not really what people think: It is far and few
“The economics of it make sense.”
That’s exactly what local performers want
to hear. But they also are working against the
security concerns of some smaller venues. Gagliardo
started his music career as a promoter and DJ,
working to bring in a “big city vibe” from
such places as Chicago and Detroit, including
musicians who had performed on a national level.
But venues were slow to trust.
“Once I ‘dropped’ the word hip-hop,
clubs shut doors, tried to renege on contracts,
changed dress codes,” he said. “All
out of the fear and ignorance of what hip-hop
He helped promote one hip-hop show at a venue
that had never had a dress code — until
that night. Fans stayed away in droves, and crowds
at future concerts, including shows by La Famiglia,
dropped from 300 to 30.
“They want my business, they want my money, but
slap some dress codes on it and kill the things
I’m about,” Gagliardo said with a
touch of frustration. “I don’t believe
wearing a hoody makes you a bad person.”
La Famiglia eventually began building a local
following too large to ignore — due to
their talent, of course, but also partly because
they promoted themselves as a jazz-funk-hip-hop
band, and partly due to the ethnic diversity
within the group. Doors started to open (see
www.myspace.com/lafamigliamusic for their schedule),
but Gagliardo insisted on one thing wherever
they played: no dress code.
“I never wanted a dress code and we didn’t
have a dress code, and we didn’t have any
(violence) issues. Ever.”
La Famiglia’s diversity is unusual, both
ethnically and in terms of musical background:
Cory Harris, the M.C., grew up in the hip-hop
culture; Joey Weinstein is classically trained
on bass; Steve Thielman is a jazz and classical
studies graduate of Western Michigan University;
Tobias Gurd (known as “Omega Supreme”)
has been a hip-hop DJ; and the newest member
is R&B singer Makisha Davis (known as “Kiss”).
Ethnicities and cultures represented include
Jewish, Sicilian, African-American, the American
South, and, of course, the Midwest.
“I think we hit with such a broad spectrum of
people because we have a voice for almost every
type of person,” Gagliardo said.
While some venues still are cautious about promoting
full hip-hop shows, most have encouraged local
artists to perform at open mic nights. That has
led to the popularity of newer artists, including
Rello, Nixon, Suport, and Rick Chyme, who has
been featured on the LAV-FM morning show and
has headlined at The Orbit Room.
Eric O’Brien of WSNX, a Muskegon station
that plays hip-hop, said that the quality of
the music is “tremendously better in the
last 18 months.”
“It’s not that Grand Rapids sucks or is
lame, it just has a much smaller base to pull
from,” he said. “We need to make
a concerted effort to work together.”
For Local First’s Rob McCarty, the choice
of La Famiglia was easy, and fears were nil.
“We went out to see them a few times and saw the
energy and the passion for the music they had,” he
said. “They just felt like this really
interesting collection of what local is in our
Several other bands played earlier that night,
drawing some attentive listeners, though much
of the crowd paid more attention to the food.
But while La Famiglia was setting up, many more
people arrived and the crowd started drifting
toward the stage — though they made sure
to leave room for a dance floor.
La Famiglia began to climb the stage stairs,
and as soon as they came up, so did the hands
of the audience. The instant the music started,
fans began to wave and bounce and dance.
From the stage, Gagliardo spotted a family with
two young children approaching. The parents and
kids split up once on the dance floor, but Gagliardo
kept his eye on them. The kids started to bob
their heads. He looked over at the parents, and
they were doing the same.
Two generations dancing to one band. A hip-hop