It was 10:30 p.m. on a Monday night at the Pontiac Grille. The venue and lower level bar were surprisingly not packed with people. But it was definitely packed with noise.
The Pontiac Grille’s open mic freestyling night is the only spot in the city that starts out with a disc jockey and a few emcees, and then ends with a line of voices waiting for the mic and a seven or eight-piece band.
Regular emcee at the Grille, Michael Burke, starts out the night by clearing up a few misconceptions about freestyling. “That’s not written music,” he said. “This is all improv.” Most frequently behind the turntables is 23-year-old Ryan Patterson, with hands quick to mix a beat and jam the place with endless underground hip hop.
“I wanted to try something a little different, something different man,” Patterson said. “This is free [expletive], awesome music.”
Patterson started the event about eight months ago while looking to meet other musicians interested in breaking into Philadelphia’s hip-hop scene. He snagged 20-something Matt Marks off craigslist.com to be a drummer. Marks and Patterson are the two constants aside from certain freestylers, Marks said.
“He scooped me up, got a guitar player,” Marks said. “So there are the turntables, and a bass guitar, and sometimes a trumpet and trombone.”
The most consistent emcee is 24-year-old “Warren Peace” Adams. The sound, according to Adams, does not attract a specific crowd.
“We get a crazy range of people from every corner of the city,” Adams said. “I’m talkin’ like, 55-year-olds freestyling.”
Whether the freestyling at the Pontiac creates a friendly ambience or starts a vicious battle, each person that shows up is there for his or her own reason, Adams said. Adams said he doesn’t like when things get vicious.
“Hip-hop’s about your ego,” Adams said. “It’s people trying to figure out a way to talk about somebody. Some people really spit everyday of their lives, and some people just do it ’cause it’s cool.”
The tension is undeniable, and the freestyling isn’t the only thing that creates it. The Grille not only attracts a wide range of freestylers waiting for their chance on the mic, but it also brings a variety of people trying to play the same instrument.
University of the Arts percussion major Rusty Robinson recently found the event and has been stopping in with his trumpet ever since.
A member of four different bands playing Latin rock, progressive rock, fusion and jazz, Robinson still manages to throw the Monday night gig under his belt. Robinson and Marks switch on and off the drums, which causes Marks to get impatient when he’s not playing.
“I always feel really, really competitive when I play the drums,” Marks said. “So I’ll talk [expletive] all day. It’s like playing sports.”
Sharing the drum set doesn’t keep the musicians from having a good time.
“You can’t beat the South Street beat,” Robinson said.
“And you get free food to eat,” Marks said, laughing.
Jillian Bauer can be contacted at email@example.com.