Taking the blame off hip-hop

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November 17, 2003 // UPDATED 11:07 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Young Downtown entrepreneurs use positive image to launch clothing line

The name of their new business is Blame it on Hip Hop, but the entrepreneurs credit the art form with bringing them together.

Five 20- and/or 30-something business professionals are working on the new clothing line, trademarked Blame It on Hip Hop, also known as "BIOHH" (pronounced Bee-O). They meet weekly in a posh Warehouse District loft owned by the group's founder, Marcus Manning, a 32-year-old mortgage counselor.

Blue, white and black shirts, featuring the graffiti-style BIOHH logo with a microphone for the "I" and a record for the "O," line a closet in Manning's River Walk loft, 401 N. 1st St.

The men have aspirations to quit their day jobs and make the business a full-time gig. For now, they sell the clothing via a Web site (www.blameitonhiphop.com). They also sell the shirts at concerts and push hip-hop artists to wear the shirts. So far, they've got the Pharaohs and Brooklyn hip-hopper Ray "the Crippler" to don their styles.

The men behind BIOHH are passionate about hip-hop. They spoke at length about their new venture during a recent interview at Manning's North Loop home. To date, the men have collectively invested more than $10,000 of their own cash and have plans to pitch their business plan to other financiers soon, Manning said.

Manning said the group has recently closed deals to sell BIOHH in stores in Florida, California and New York.

The men work in a variety of fields -- design, information technology and business. Besides Manning, the group includes M.C. Livingstone, chief executive officer; Richard "DJ Spank" Strong, a marketing and information technology guru; James Cheatham, marketing manager; and Johari Moten, director of creative services and marketing.

The partners have a playful chemistry; they often finish one another's sentences and act like group of boisterous brothers. They've been friends for years, frequented clubs together and, for some, collaborated on music projects as deejays.

So what's with the name, then? And why are they so proud to be linked with a reference to body odor (since their name is pronounced Bee-Oh)?

Well, hip-hop is "funky," they joked.

More seriously, they said it's often misunderstood.

The men described hip-hop as an art form that encompasses rap, graffiti art and sense of a style in clothing, speech and mannerisms.

When Manning describes hip-hop music to his grandmother, he puts it in simple terms: you start with a poem, then add a little foot tapping or hit your hand on the desk for a beat.

In essence, he said, hip-hop is a storytelling medium. "It's words strategically placed and synchronized over a dope beat," he said.

Livingstone, 30, said hip-hop often gets linked with violence and sexual exploitation -- something he considers antithetical to its purpose.

"Hip-hop is a culture," he said. "It's where we found a place to express ourselves. ... It's all about love and unity."

Manning quickly chimed in. "It's pure -- straight from the heart. It's an expression -- an art form that has taken on a life of its own. Hip-hop is how you talk, how you walk."

He said it's leaked into so many crevices in American culture that it's now taken for granted.

Beneath the BIOHH logo, the shirts include the line, "A clothing line designed with a purpose."

Although Manning acknowledges there's competition in the hip-hop clothing market, he said there's something that sets BIOHH apart. "We're selling two things: an item and an idea," he said.

The idea, he said, is about changing perceptions about hip-hop -- focusing on the positive, rather than linking it with violence. Though hip-hop been popular for years, some people -- namely public officials, the entrepreneurs say -- exploit media reports linking it with gang violence and a drug culture.

Some also consider hip-hop a black thing. The stereotype doesn't reflect the changing nature of the hip-hop community, Livingstone said, pointing to artists such as Eminem -- the white Detroit rap star some have labeled a woman-hater and proponent of violence.

One of the other goals is to reach out to young people, the entrepreneurs say. The group has approached Minneapolis public school officials with a plan to talk to students about hip-hop. They would also sell the clothing line to students and donate a portion of their sales proceeds to the schools. Manning would not name the school officials approached, saying that it might spoil the deal.

The city's arts community has embraced the art form for some time. BIOHH participated in the Walker Art Center's 12-day Hip-Hop Moves Festival, featuring local dancers and Philadelphia artists, the Electric Boogaoloos, and Don Campbell of California.

So how can a T-shirt change a perception? The phrase will spark a discussion, Livingstone predicts.

It's also a refrain in a recent song, "The Industry," by rapper Wyclef Jean, too. "Y'all can't blame it on hip hop. Cause what we say is what we see. What we see is reality. The ghettos you got them livin' in sorrow. Soon they won't see tomorrow."

BIOHH's message is more positive than that. Livingstone said hip-hop's themes -- love, unity and strength -- are universal.

He said he hopes it can become his full-time work soon. "You got to love what you do and do what you love," he said. "This doesn't seem like work."

For now, they conduct business at www.blameitonhiphop.com. Some shirts are also available at the skate shop, 3rd Lair, in Golden Valley.