At first, that question was difficult to answer as patrons filed into the ornate and dimly lit establishment for dinner while others were clearly there to mix and mingle and collect their awards. The advertised start time for the event was 9 p.m., but dinner is served in the main dining hall until 10, so awards attendees were shuttled into the reception room to wait for the area to clear.
Once inside, a video presentation was ignored as guests conversed with each other, greeted old friends and chatted on omnipresent cell phones. The area became a sea of faces, flyers and business cards as nearly everyone worked the room and tried to make as many connections as possible. Rapper Jac Rip's mom handed out her son's promo CDs, digital cameras flashed everywhere and TV crews from "Midtown After Midnight" and "Whatz Happenin' TV" interviewed anyone who'd stand still. The room was so thick with guests, it finally took Moses to part them - promoter Moses Dailey, that is, working the room with cards and party invites.
Personable spoken word artist and writer Brother Malcolm sidled up to this writer and introduced himself. "This is my second year nominated in the Guaranteed Fresh or Not At All category," he said proudly, confident of his victory this time around. "This is my year," he said.
But it would be awhile before he or any of the other nominees would find out who actually won the triangular Underground Awards. At 10 p.m., the restaurant staff had to clean away the remnants of diners' Cornish hens, lobster and duck breasts. By 11 p.m., the crew was still setting up tables, chairs and sound equipment as the audience was finally seated.
At 11:30, MC/comic/filmmaker Fredo "FD Stmp" Davis bounded onstage to begin his duties as host. "Y'all gettin' ya drink on?" he thundered. He encouraged the crowd to imbibe as he stalled for time so the evening's first act could get ready to take the stage. At long last, Joi and her band kicked off the event at quarter till midnight. And frankly, it was worth the wait. The soul diva presided over a galvanizing mini-set, punctuated with the smoldering guitar prowess of Tomi Martin.
Spearheaded by Organized Rhyme's Haziq Ali as a local alternative to the excesses of corporate sell-out shows such as the Grammys, the actual awards show began well after midnight, but the attentive and rowdy crowd held tough. The Outlawz, the Tupac-approved rap pack, announced the first two winners. The Illmatic Product Award went to Cola Rum, and the coveted Guaranteed Fresh award went to the eager Brother Malcolm. "I've finally earned what I deserve," he said triumphantly.
As he surveyed the audience, performer/presenter Dres tha Beatnik observed, "There's a buncha good-lookin' black folks here and ain't nobody died or gettin' married." He also offered a touching tribute to the late DJ Ox. Zee Bradford, DJ Ox's mother, presented the Underground Railroad Award to Haya, Renita, Faona and Indigo.
Performance highlights of the two-plus-hours event, which was still jumpin' after 2 a.m., included smooth C-Bone Jones, crowd-pleasing Trav Wright, a spoken word piece by Spoken Word Artist of the Year Nfared, and wild-eyed neo-soul from Malachi, who nabbed Song of the Year and Neo-Soul Artist of the Year awards. Bone Crusher, Rasheeda and Big Rube presented awards. "This is like the Grammys," said Bradford, as she presented an award. "Better!" shouted out someone from the crowd. And it was.
Rookie of the Year, Male: Sky Hy
Rookie of the Year, Female: Sista Queen
Hustler of the Year: Haziq
Illmatic Product of the Year: Cola Rum
Come Fresh or Not at All: Brother Malcolm
Creative Artist of the Year: Cali Starks
Rap Artist of the Year: Starr James
Song of the Year: "Husslin' Boy" Malachi
Neo-Soul Artist of the Year: Malachi
Spoken Word Artist of the Year: Nfared
Poet of the Year: Bo Ellis
Promoter/Venue of the Year: Free Form Xchange, Apache Café
Favorite Group or Duo Performance: Kelsy Davis and Radical Soul
Underground Railroad Award: Haya, Renita, Faona and Indigo
Underground Icon of the Year: Haziq
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