Art students, musicians, and skate-rap kids are packed into the Holy Underground, eating homemade vegan pineapple pizza and guzzling beverages from brown paper bag-covered 40s as they watch an eclectic lineup of acts booked by the Llamadon collective. Local bands like punk outfit Big Christ, rap collective CCL$, and the Shy Violet share the bill with D.C. rapper Sir E.U and traveling Pittsburgh band the Van Allen Belt. Butch Dawson, of the 7th Floor Villains, is serving as the night's host, while producer HI$TO works the turntables in the corner beside a plush Hulk Hogan.
"It's about bringing people together who wanna have a good time, share their art, and be accepting," says 23-year-old Dylan Sullivan-Ubaldo about Llamadon's local events. "We want to welcome people in so they can grow with us."
That sharing comes mainly on the first and third Thursday of each month with an audience participation-friendly event called Beet Trip and a series of pizza-party rap shows named after the collective.
In September of 2013, Sullivan-Ubaldo and his partner, sound engineer Andrew McClymont, started reaching out to local artists in hopes of setting up meetings at Charles Village's Grindhouse Juice Bar to hang out and share the beats or raps they'd been working on. Unlike a good deal of underground hip-hop-based showcases in the city, Beet Trip and Llamadon aren't five-hour-long stare-fests with the number of performers sometimes reaching the teens and little interaction between performers and the crowd.
"The foundation for Beet Trip was laid before me or Dylan realized it," says McClymont. "I always hated playing conventional shows, so the idea of playing music in a battle set, with five or more other performers, is dream-like to me. People in the audience can interact with performers as freely as they can with each other."
The collective's free-form event, Beet Trip, was initially planned as a forum for producers around the city to come play jams for each other, but looking back on his time living in Long Beach, Calif., Sullivan-Ubaldo -who grew up playing bass and lead vocals in bands-thought adding an open cypher to the show would enhance the experience.
"In L.A., I was encouraged because there were so many random shows going on," he says. "One show in Leimert Park called Bananas inspired me the most. It was a beat show that a dude named VerBS set up. Their diversity and community-based feel made me wanna come to Baltimore and start something like that with my friends who lived here."
Community-building is one of Llamadon's biggest strengths as they've been successful at producing a consistent string of events, gaining new followers, and retaining ones that have trailed them from the first pizza parties at the Bell Foundry to Beet Trip's newest location, the Living Well (2443 N. Charles St.).
In its earlier days at the cozy juice bar, there would usually be a few guys filling into the barely lit pit-like dining room-turned-dancefloor playing beats and raps. But as word of the event spread and reached like-minded young artists wanting to be heard somewhere other than SoundCloud, it became almost impossible to fit everyone in Grindhouse. When the collective moved to the Living Well, Sullivan-Ubaldo was worried that the larger space could negatively affect the intimate vibe he'd been working on. But the past two iterations of Beet Trip have been promising. Producers sit around a round table in front of their sticker-covered laptops, turntables, and MIDI keyboards. There are two tables on either end of the room with jewelry, T-shirts, CDs, and fliers, while the center of the room is reserved for anyone who wants to step up and rap to beats that jump back and forth from boom bap to new dance-friendly cuts.
McClymont and Sullivan-Ubaldo don't plan on limiting Beet Trip to artists in Baltimore finding their way either. Dylan says that kids from D.C. and College Park are regulars, and through online interaction, he recruits traveling acts to make stops. Pittsburgh rapper Joey Smooth, who was traveling along the East Coast to perform with Fortified PhonetX, raved about his experience at the last Beet Trip.
"We don't have stuff like this in Pittsburgh," he says. "I like having this many producers at the round table because that sparks a lot of creativity with the guys who are here to rap. It feels like a big get-together."
While the big get-together feel seems to work for the artists, it can also do them a disservice: None of the rappers are formally introduced at all, leaving it up to the curious audience member to inquire after the name of an MC like Joey Smooth. And the "everyone's equal" vibe makes it hard to look forward to more music from a performer you admire. "For now, it works for us," Sullivan-Ubaldo says. "I'm always open to suggestions, and we may get someone who's not rapping to host and introduce people."
As interest grows, Llamadon will be expanding from music shows to organized photo exhibitions and meetups for vinyl collectors and small labels. But entertaining isn't the collective's only goal. "I'd love for Llamadon to expand its role in the community," McClymont says. "Bring some kids out, maybe teach some classes on audio and signal processing. Anything to help realize MCs' and producers' ideas-sonically and accurately."
The broad range of Llamadon's interests and communal appeal is evident back at the Holy Underground. Since it is the first warm night after a long, dark winter that more than one antendee called "fucking depressing," it doesn't take long for the venue and the entire 2000 block of Maryland Avenue to fill up with people eager to escape another cold weekend night of tea and Netflix. The show's mood and energy fluctuate as wildly as this year's weather; Big Christ's set is pleasantly blaring while the Shy Violet softly croons into an old-as-dirt telephone-turned-microphone that came out of a synthesizer. Sir E.U's mostly trivial lyrics are overcompensated for by his inventive production, and the Van Allen Belt's harmonious music leaves a calming aura hanging over the crowd. And while they barely do any actual rapping during their closing set, CCL$'s bouncing and quasi-moshing add a bit of excitement and unity to a crowd that spent most of its time as onlookers. Whatever Llamadon may presently lack in cohesion, it makes up for with diversity.
"When we do events, everything starts from the bottom," Ubaldo says. "We never put it out there like, 'Hey here's this big-ass show!' It's really just a fun time to get together and show what we're into."