A Tribute to SinSin
Not unlike the closing of FatBeats, this piece is going to divert from the norm of how we typically do things around here. SinSin is a nightclub in New York City that has a very special place in my heart, and its closing is due to unfortunate circumstances that aren’t for standard economic reasons, but rather something else that I don’t want to cloud this tribute with. Buy me a drink in person some time and I’ll gladly fill you in. Until then, this is my tribute to SinSin.
As I write this, it’s Monday October 11th at 7:34 PM. I’m in-between interviewing possible subletters to take over for a roommate who isn’t able to finish out a lease we renewed for our apartment. Along with the fatigue that comes from playing tour guide, my mind is a bubbling septic tank of stress. Thoughts currently flying through my frontal lobe like a sitcom food fight include preparing a curriculum for my next year of teaching, getting these next few reviews done before my editor chews me out, prepping the proper promotion for my new album, getting to the post office to mail a birthday card for my Grandma, missing someone in another country, assembling questions for a rapper I have to interview on Wednesday about an album he’s so concerned with leaking that I’m unable to hear a single song off it or even see a tracklist, delivering something fresh and worthwhile for a pilot for a children’s show I’ve just got backing for, getting the timing just right so I can buy a new shower curtain from K-Mart and still catch Jesse Abraham’s performance at his record release, pinpointing the dates to fly home for Thanksgiving, calls I have to make, calls I have to return, figuring out what I’m still doing in New York, trying to remember if I have Advil or not and if I really, on all the worst possible nights, just heard the beginning of a thunderous downpour. In a few short hours, I’ll be covering all of these topics and more at a spot on 2nd Ave and 5th Street known as SinSin.
Yes, SinSin. For the past nine years it’s been the host of Freestyle Mondays, a Hip-Hop Open Mic where a live band performs classic rap instrumentals as MCs/Rappers and singers freestyle (as in spontaneously think of and recite) about anything and everything. It’s the last connection to a bygone-era of Washington Square cyphers and tape-trading where rappers would get together and rap for no other reason than that they loved to rap. While it was a great place to make a name for yourself, make friends or network, the main allure always has been the chance to rap or listen to rappers. The nature of Freestyle Mondays and its revolving door of regulars and visitors made each Monday night a completely different show and ridiculously addicting. The band was always excellent, the rappers ranged from brilliant to magnificently bad, and a good time was always had.
I know for a fact that if it wasn’t for SinSin, 90% of you wouldn’t know who I am or be reading this right now. I moved to New York for the 2004-2005 school year and while I always knew it was around and revered, I never tried to get in as it was notoriously 21+ with no exceptions. It wasn’t until early sophomore year when I was matched against iLLspokiNN, a rapper I grew up watching bootlegs of his battle performances but never met, at a battle at NYU. After having my mic cut off two bars in after making an suicide joke (NYU had the nation’s highest college suicide rate at the time) and getting boo’ed by the audience, iLL whooped me but still saw something in me and extended an invitation to come and rap at SinSin sometime. I accepted, but never made my way out there until the Monday before Thanksgiving that year when I was supposed to meet-up with BrokeMC of MINDSpray who was going to bring me the gloves I left at the MINDSpray open mic the previous week. I needed the gloves because a recent breakup had killed my plans of being with my then-girlfriend’s family for Thanksgiving and, stuck by myself in New York, I was going to go to the Macy’s Parade. As the fates had it, the bouncer wouldn’t let me in because it “sounded like a lie” so I waited outside for an hour hoping to catch Broke. Just as the downpour picked up, iLLspokiNN arrived and asked me why I wasn’t inside. I told him it was an age issue, so he told the bouncer I was cool and then made me promise I wouldn’t buy a drink from the bar until I turned 21. I agreed, stepped into that red lit room, heard Mariella singing and felt my whole world shift.
I’ve always been something of a loner and, although I’ve always had good friends and hangouts, seldom felt like I really belonged anywhere. SinSin was the first time I felt that comfortable that quickly somewhere. Here were a group of people who loved the same thing I love enough to just get together and do it once a week for no money just because they love to. I was hooked. I started going every week and it wasn’t until about five weeks in that I got my first real crowd reaction, and to finally get that was an incredible feeling. Monday night quickly became the highlight of my week. I arranged my classes at NYU to have Tuesday off just so I could arrive there at 11:00 PM and rap until 3:30. Because of the NYU TA-strike at the time my classes were not in the actual campus buildings but all over the city, and whenever I passed SinSin, I felt like Clark Kent with a heartbeating beneath-that-red-S-beneath-that-business-suit just a little bit prouder. I soon became tied publicly with SinSin as my tremendously talented former roommate Donald A.C. Conley shot a documentary loosely about me, but really focusing on SinSin and its importance in the New York Hip-Hop scene –
Thanks to iLLspokiNN spotting me six bucks, I made my Freestyle Mondays Off-the-Head Gameshow Battle debut in March, 2006 on the night Kirby Puckett died. The battle is a 16-MC Tournament where a wheel is spun and whatever topic it lands on is what the MCs duke it out over. I won that night, and the $5.00 cover and open bar gave me the perfect incentive to begin inviting my college friends to my performances. Once YouTube arrived, my battles started being posted and word about me began to spread. By the end of my sophomore year I began getting coverage, offers to perform, and recognized through all five boroughs and beyond. I spent the next two years purposefully living in an NYU dorm four blocks away just to ensure I could maintain maximum performance consistency week-in and week-out.
But more than just a safe and fun environment to be seen and share what I love with the people in my life (including once when I was surprised by my entire intermediate creative writing class, including my professor, showing up to one of my battles in October 2007), SinSin became the definitive venue for my time in New York. An oasis, soapbox and sanctuary, it’s where I got to weekly stand in front of two dozen friends and 20-100 strangers and vent about math class, student loans, relationships, moving, being under-21, being over-21, being homesick and whatever random pop culture reference(s) popped into my head. I learned how to play to a crowd and still hide obscure nods while rhyming that would result in at least one person walking up to me afterward with their mind blown that they heard someone say “Swift the Fox” at a rap show. Outside of my own performances, I have so many important memories tied to there. From where I took countless visiting friends in the city, to landing my first ever paid writing job by proposing a story on it , to knowing if I wanted to really date a girl by testing her reaction to it, to my first mention in my Minnesota hometown newspaper the Star Tribune via a story on New York Hip-Hop , I can’t imagine how radically different the last five years of my life would have been without it. It’s the first place I went after I cut off my hair, the first place I performed after my grandma and best friend died, the first place where I had my midnight album release party, the first place I resurfaced after getting my nose broken and countless other important firsts I’m sure I’m forgetting.
While Freestyle Mondays WILL CONTINUE AT A DIFFERENT LOCATION IN NEW YORK CITY, it’s still hard to say goodbye to that second home. People make a place special, but once that place is special it’s special forever. As truly devastated as I am about this turn of events, I feel tremendously fortunate that I was able to have SinSin as a part of my life. No one place has influenced me or shaped me as a person over the past ten years as SinSin has, and while the next three Mondays are going to be a difficult goodbye, they’re still going to be Freestyle Mondays and that means they’re still going to filled with rapping, a lot of fun, and memories that I’ll never forget.
MY EVOLUTION AT SINSIN: A YEAR-BY-YEAR LOOK AT MY HEIGHTENED RAPPING ABILITY AND SHORTENED HAIR