Most of the year, hip-hop is sorely underrepresented on the local music scene. But at the annual Folk the Police showcase, the genre takes center stage in the most Ann Arbor way possible: wrapped in folk’s clothing.
Returning to the Blind Pig for its fifth year on Sunday, January 25, this “folk tribute to hip-hop” features some of Ann Arbor’s notable young neo-folkies putting an acoustic guitar-fueled spin on everything from early gangsta rap to the hip-hop radio hits of the moment. While the broad range of covers can be a mixed bag, the event is consistently noteworthy for its eccentricity and sheer electricity.
Folk the Police allows local folk musicians and their fans to let their hair down in a big way. The energy runs high in the Blind Pig, which consistently sells out for the event. Showgoers pack the floor, and there’s a breathless anticipation among them for each new tune. The expansive lineup of talent (this year’s show sports eighteen acts) rotates at such a ferocious clip that even the most attention-challenged attendee can’t lose interest for long. But the real fun comes in trying to guess what cover might be coming up next. The curiosity in the room is palpable during the instrumental intro to each song, and the crowd’s reaction to the first recognizable lyrics of each tune is ecstatic. People cheer, howl, and sing along, and their delight at hearing familiar tunes reworked in a very different way is almost worth the price of admission alone.
But of course the music is what you’re actually paying for, and it’s well worth it. The best acts at Folk the Police use the setting to branch out into something more soulful than their usual oeuvre. Most of the arrangements add a more melodic component to their source material rather than simply replicating the original raps, and the reworked versions generally add considerable stomp to already swaggering songs. The female acts are almost always the standouts. It’s a bit of a head turner when an artist like Abigail Stauffer, known for her quieter, pop-inflected folk, takes the stage to deliver a spitfire rendition of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” Or when Keri Lynn Roche, a vocal powerhouse as a country songstress, grabs Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” by the throat. Back in 2012, singer-songwriter Nicole P’Simer claimed the Folk the Police crown with a blues-inflected take on Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy” that somehow summoned even more sheer carnality than the considerably depraved original.
Of course, not every song soars; a cover here and there matches a basic folk guitar part with hip-hop lyrics to relatively uninspired results. But the overall spirit of Folk the Police is one of giddy creative liberation, of artists and audience letting it all hang out. You can feel the collective joy at venturing a few steps outside Ann Arbor’s usual box–perhaps something the local scene could use more of.