Collective Cool

Holding on loosely and making a scene

Aside from a bottle of wine and my couch, something that really makes a Friday night for me is music. Loud music, with hypnotic, booming bass.

On a Friday night not long ago, I've found it right in downtown Phoenix. I'm in the groove with hundreds of warm bodies at the Old Brickhouse, carefully weaving through the bohemian crowd -- girls dressed up in sexy blouses and dangly earrings, half the dudes wearing Castro hats along with their artsy tee shirts, faces rosy from a couple of pints of Kiltlifter -- to grab myself a vodka tonic. It's an insane melting pot of musicians and poets, anarchists and indie entrepreneurs. The air is heavy with smoke and paint fumes, the latter from artists decorating canvases with brushes, markers and spray paint, for onlookers.

Eye candy's everywhere, but I'm looking for music. When I finally make it over to the stage, I'm sucked into the MC's near-angry voice and the DJ's seamless samples. Every so often, the hand-waving, head-bobbing audience steps back when b-boys and b-girls get worked up enough to start busting some moves, and the musicians onstage get an obvious kick out of all the commotion.

Are you experienced?
Mark Poutenis
Are you experienced?
What's in a name? The Co-op's ubiquitous logo.
What's in a name? The Co-op's ubiquitous logo.

This could be in L.A. or New York -- it's that alive, the music's that good. But the action is right in the middle of downtown -- five minutes from my own house -- and I couldn't be happier about it.

The event was called First Friday Artwalk Extensions at the Old Brickhouse, but you don't need to remember that mouthful, because the Artwalk Extensions are long gone, replaced by various weeklies and dozens of one-off concerts that crop up at different spots around town -- just as cool, just as transient. Before you get a chance to get tired of 'em, they're gone.

But the party planners aren't going anywhere. Look past the big names on those fliers you pick up and read the fine print if you're curious about who's doing all the brainstorming: Blow-Up Co-op. You may not know the name, but you've probably been to Blow-Up Co-op's proverbial house. This hip-hop collective is like an invisible army, everywhere and nowhere at once, contributing all kinds of things to local culture while still staying under the radar.

Think of Andy Warhol's legendary Factory back in the '60s -- someone was always snapping a picture, singing a song, or striking a pose. It was always in motion, and full of intermingling personalities. With Blow-Up Co-op, you'll find MCs, DJs and other musicians teaming up with each other for one show or a regular gig, doing double time as artists, promoters and designers. The freeform, improv mix is kind of like hip-hop itself.


From the time I moved to Phoenix in 2000, I began looking for this in the music scene. Something that connected the dots instead of making me bounce from one isolated niche to another. Something that was all about music, but also a lot more.

It took me a while to figure out why Blow-Up Co-op was one of the most intriguing things in my rock 'n' roll world. Then I started thinking about how stuff is so spread out and disconnected here, and how this group seems to overcome that with raw energy and tons of ideas. So what if a natural urban vibe doesn't exist in Phoenix? These people just make it happen, in their own way, usually on a shoestring. It feels familiar because it taps into some old memories for me.

As teenagers in rural central Pennsylvania, my friends and I grew accustomed to going the extra mile for anything underground -- music, comics, clothes. "Alternative" hadn't become mainstream mall fodder, and we didn't have the Internet to satisfy our obscure tastes. It took desperate measures to find a Fugazi seven-inch or buy a real pair of Doc Martens. It took some guts, too, because being into punk or goth or rap or anything remotely subversive -- ooh, swear words! -- made you a full-on freak in the land of white, conservative conformity.

We'd gladly drive two or three hours to see hardcore bands in Lancaster or Philly or New York. If the show was on a school night and I couldn't expect to be home until really late, my dad let me go as long as I didn't miss class or let my grades slip. Hey, whatever it took. And if any acts actually came to the boondocks, it was because we managed to find a VFW basement or a roller-skating rink that would put up with our racket. We made our own tee shirts, pasted together our own 'zines, and made friends with every weirdo within an hour's radius of our tiny, spread-out scene.

We embraced the D.I.Y. spirit because, well, what choice did we have?

So while Blow-Up Co-op is a major presence on the local music radar, it's still classic D.I.Y. This informal alliance of musicians, artists, b-boys and b-girls, and other creative, motivated types sprang up out of sheer necessity, scraping together an underground hip-hop scene and clearly filling a need.

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