“Get to the Basement”

Snel Basement

I park my beat up, dented, blue Subaru on Centre Avenue, a broad, empty street in the neighborhood of Oakland, in which Pittsburgh’s major universities are found. My friends and I, double and triple check the address that was sent to me through Instagram DM’s, squinting to match the right numbers lit by street lamps and dim porches. The unfamiliar makes me uneasy, anxiety and all— but the secrecy and mystery of tonight’s show fills my tightly-wound chest with excitement instead.

The week leading up to September 16, 2017, I got invited to a house show by a musician friend who I had become acquainted with earlier in the year. My homie Miles, who went by the producer name Yung Mulatto, showed me a private Instagram account where I could get all the info. The page was private but once I was accepted, I saw the banner for this week’s show: “ABAD x BDAYS @theBushnelOakland; Saturday, Sept. 16 | Doors open @ 7PM; Music by: Yung Mulatto & DJ Coleblooded; DM for address. #GetToTheBasement.” Between all the names on the list of performers, I saw a stage name that I recognized from a past friend. Seeing Akono Miles’ name associated with my newfound friendship with Miles (Yung Mulatto) felt like a wild coincidence. It had been two years since Akono and I had seen or talked to each other since high school, which made me half-laugh, half-scoff as I now knew for sure that I was going to Saturday’s show.

Sometime during that week, I texted Akono about my excitement to finally be able to see him perform, and we briefly reconnected with music small-talk. The night of the show, I picked up two close friends and drank whatever alcohol was left that one of them had brought along. On one of the dim porches lining the street, we finally spotted an address that matched. “I don’t know if this is it,” my friend Ruben says, face pressed to a dark green iron fence as he tries to peek into an even darker yard. “There no lights on man.” We look into this dark, brick house on a slope, with brick steps leading from the front gate. Two massive trees on both sides encroached over most of the space, giving an intimidating vibe past dusk.  My inner monologue became filled with excuses that maybe we were kind of early; maybe they keep lights off on purpose; no way in hell I got the wrong address— “hey I think I see people in the back, let’s just go in and see what happens,” Ruben says, abruptly dispelling my anxious thoughts. We crack open the metal fence and head upwards through the red brick steps, which were sieged on both sides by an ocean of light green vines. Past the porch, following a path to the right side of the house, we began to see light. As we got closer to the backyard, steadily the chatter became more familiar and the ring of friendly voices dispelled any worries that had built up inside my chest.

Sitting on some chairs, on the table, and atop a short wall were a mixed group of people hanging out in the backyard. I later learned that some were performers, others lived at the house, and the rest were mostly friends or those that came for the show. Upon spotting Miles, I eagerly went over to have a ciggie and a drunken conversation that later ended with “I hope you enjoy the show man” in his usual gentle, soft spoken voice.

***

That same chilly September night, Akono sits with the rest of the performers, talking and wishing happy birthdays to Yung Mulatto and Marcus Salvator, another musician popular to Pittsburgh’s music scene. As tonight’s show begins at the Bushnel house, Akono prepares to perform in the basement crowded with young people from around Pittsburgh, all looking to get trashed, chill to some local music, and have a good-ass Saturday night. As Akono leaves the backyard and descends from atop the stairs, he sees a sea of heads sipping from cups and swaying around in the glow of dark pink and purple lights. The staircase is right in the middle, next to a wall littered on both sides with Sharpie graffiti of signatures from past performers, phrases from fans, and markings from previous memories. One side looked like a regular, semi-finished, grungy basement with concrete floors and all sorts of pipes wrapped with string lights. Wiggling past the bodies in the crowd to the other side, the lights got dimmer and the space felt darker, more personal. The performance side of the basement was shrouded in deep blues and dark purples from all sides. The performing area was marked with an old carpet, a long table, a chair or two, amps, mic stands, and sometimes a drum set in the back—all with chords and cables intertwined between them. Whatever was needed for the show, Bushnel had it ready.

Marcus, Miles, and Akono await their turn behind the large table littered with wires and laptops- whatever, whatever, while the current performer finishes his set. Being at Bushnel always felt so intense for Akono, never bad intense, but he loved the feeling of seeing a bunch of people shadowed in dark blue, purplish, pink hues all staring and hyping up whoever was performing. He reveled in the energy of the crowds moving side to side, touching each other, vibing, whatever— especially when he could have a laugh at the tall-ass dudes over 6’4 that needed to crouch under the pipes that webbed throughout the ceiling.

As the performer’s set wound down, it was finally his turn to walk up to the nice piece of carpet and microphone at the front. While performing his set, he always gets caught up with the energetic crowd. The only thing running through his head is moving and dancing amongst the people and embracing the humid-ass, sweaty-ass heat together with everyone. Bushnel shows are personal, not only to him but everyone involved. When Akono wasn’t performing and instead was just another head in the crowd, he would often feel like this is the only place he’d get to see that band. It wasn’t the kind of place where you didn’t feel comfortable having fun, and just went to go lean against a wall in the back checking your phone over and over. You came there to express yourself creatively and listen to good music, whatever genre it was. Akono loved how sometimes “you got punk at 8, and then hip-hop artists at 9, then we’re closing out with Jazz”. When many of today’s artists are found through reddit, Instagram, or whatever, it felt unique for him to go to a show and link up, actually get to talk and get drunk with the group performing. To Akono, he says it felt like the kind of shit that happened in the 70’s.

During the days leading up to the show, he practices as much as he needs to make his performance perfect. It has to be perfect. He focuses on breath control, like the rappers that he idolizes did before their performances, and the rest of the time is spent rehearsing bars, and bars, and bars. With a crowd that is probably mostly intoxicated, the shit has to be fun. That’s what choosing the songs was all about; whatever felt good and whatever felt comfortable for him.

***

From 2016 through 2019, that’s how weekends were spent at Bushnel. Almost every weekend had shows featuring new artists, returning “veterans”, even bands from out-of-state. During this time, new “house venues” began hosting their own shows, many of which were started by friends of Stu, the founder, and his roommates who lived at Shnel. Akono explains that Pittsburgh had a void to fill in its music scene and these DIY house shows emerged “from the ashes of Shadow Lounge.”

The Shadow Lounge opened in 2000 but had to close down in 2013 due to changing liquor laws and gentrification of the East Liberty area. This venue was a pillar for mid-2000’s rap and R&B music in the city, even being a formative haven for internationally recognized artists like Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa. Akono goes on to tell that “the hip hop scene in Pittsburgh had a nasty downfall with the tide of gentrification.” Many venues “which were the hotspot for Pittsburgh rappers to, sort of, develop their craft… that disappeared with that wave of gentrification.” From then, once a new generation of people flooded into the universities, “my generation… our generation, sort of” picked up where Pittsburgh had stalled. College kids like Stu, started “basically hosting as many people as they [could] in a house show, which yeah, that has its safety precautions no doubt, but that was cool.” These kids were doing whatever the hell they wanted and making things happen on their own without any corporation coming and pasteurizing the scene. Everything was DIY, everything was organic, and it wasn’t gonna happen any other way—it couldn’t have happened any other way, without this musical famine that gripped the city.

Akono thinks that this kind of scene only develops in places like Pittsburgh because of “the old houses… that people rent, especially in Oakland, where the realtors don’t really give a shit about their condition as long as they get it back when they need to.” In many other music scenes in cities like Miami and LA, newly built low-rise apartments are the standard for housing, which make it impossible to nurture the same type of DIY music culture that exists in Pittsburgh. He goes on to say that “half the shit they do in Pittsburgh, you can’t get away with in Miami,” where Akono is originally from.

***

Bushnel and other house venues in Oakland flourished, filling the city with opportunities to show off their music to like-minded people, and even hosting a yearly multi-day festival called Pitt Fest. Konscious Kel, a rapper and producer in Pittsburgh performed at two separate Pitt Fests. During the 2019 show, Kel with his friend Isaiah Small on the drums, play at the Bushnel basement; the energy is there, everyone is having a great time. When it’s time to get up onto the stage, he feels the nerves catch up to him once they announce “next up is Konscious Kel”. Alright, let’s do this. Fuck it, I’m already here. He gives a little intro, cracks some jokes, and gets everyone warmed up with that ‘pre-show foreplay’. In that moment its all eyes on him. Despite hating being the center of attention, when he’s performing it’s like something takes over. During breaks in between songs, he’s dancing, dapping people up in the crowd, yelling “ALRIGHT Y’ALL READY?”

“YEAH,” a choir of screaming voices yells back.

“ALRIGHT Y’ALL READY THOUGH?”

He makes sure to give it his all, he’s gonna make the people hype— never just standing there like a stick but constantly moving around the stage. He makes sure to look people in the eye, you know, feel the emotion of the crowd. He does whatever he can to get the audience with him, catching the vibe of the beat, and have everybody there in that moment with him. For Kel, that’s what really makes the most profound experiences for any concert. Period.

Unfortunately, this period only lasted two years and as shows went on, both the artists and the people running the house shows started to graduate from university and move out of the city. On June 28, 2019 Bushnel had its last show. The long period of silence in Pittsburgh’s music scene, worsened even further with Covid— leaving no one wanting to host shows and no one to safely attend them.

As ‘Shnel rose from the ashes of Shadow Lounge, the music scene promises to rise again post-pandemic. Kel strives to make another space like the Bushnel, where you never have to worry about being judged. A place where it’s always cool and it’s always love. He says that “the Bushnel was a good spot to get your training wheels for performing” and he wants “the kind of thing [it] had, that’s kind of like the ember that never went out, even in the middle of this pandemic.” There are so many people in the underground music scene that are trying to do this and that and they’re here making noise. Kel just wants it to be louder. He firmly says that “it’s not over, [he doesn’t] want people to ever think that the music is scene is dead,” or that “there’s not any house shows or venues they can go to perform. It will pop back up… [he’s] already making the preparations, getting the costs lined up, getting people on tickets who will be dope for that show or this show, reaching out to different people not only for hip hop but also trap, funk, rock, it doesn’t matter.” There’s already spaces available for rent throughout Pittsburgh that as long as you sell the tickets, they will let you use it for whatever. It might seem like “things are dying down, but people are still out here working. Locked up in the studios, locked up in their rooms creating art” during quarantine. The embers that were kindled by the Bushnel and everyone who was involved with reviving Pittsburgh’s DIY music roots are still burning underground. The names may have changed, people may have moved, others even tragically passed away, but Pittsburgh will never stop using whatever means exist to create art with like-minded people in the city. 

Works Cited:

Cooke, S. (2015, December 16). On the heels of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, Pittsburgh hip hop faces a cloudy future. Pittsburgh City Paper. Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/on-the-heels-of-wiz-khalifa-and-mac-miller-pittsburgh-hip-hop-faces-a-cloudy-future/Content?oid=1874195

Magoc, K., & Webb, R. D. (2013, March 27). Shadow Lounge prepares to close after over a decade in a changing neighborhood. Pittsburgh City Paper. Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/shadow-lounge-prepares-to-close-after-over-a-decade-in-a-changing-neighborhood/Content?oid=1632528

Young, M. (2019, June 30). Pittsburgh music scene: The FYI on DIY. The PittNews. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://pittnews.com/article/148841/arts-and-entertainment/pittsburgh-music-scene-the-fyi-on-diy/

Instagram page: @shnelpresents

Instagram page: @saalboat

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