Thursdays at Arlene’s Grocery have become a hotbed for New York City hip-hop. Gentei Kaijo presents The Lesson, an open-jam that has not only been drawing love and support from five boroughs worth of rappers, but musicians of all sorts have flocked to become part of the movement. Capturing the community vibe in a way that’s become increasingly more challenging amongst the ever changing and more expensive Manhattan music climate, it’s allowed a true sense of family that fits anyone’s budget perfectly (it’s free!). We spoke to host Phase One and mastermind Lenny the Ox, who considers the entire band and the audience just as important to The Lesson’s now two-year long legacy as he is, about why the night has been so able to connect with listeners and has truly become The Lesson of the day.
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Congrats on The Lesson hitting the two year mark!
Phase One: Absolutely man. It’s crazy, I’m dumb happy that we were able to sustain and be able for the amount of time that we’ve done it and to hit the strides that we did. We know a lot of people between me and Lenny, we have a lot of peers in the game and it has taken a long time to build something that’s so solid. We were able to do it in not even half that time, and even get co-signed by a lot of peers who were doing the same kind of events and be down as family.
In the beginning, before The Lesson what open mics/jams did you guys frequent and who did you want to emulate and differentiate from them when you started The Lesson?
Lenny: I had been doing a lot as a musician. I’ve been to a lot of jams, a lot of hangs, and it was pretty rough. The way I was raised musically, it was like you had to hold your own. If you were just starting out, nobody wanted to be associated with you or know your name even when you reached out. I felt, not bitter, but a little put off by that. At the same time, I was a very family oriented person. I love hangs and good times in groups. I wanted to combine all that and create a situation where it wasn’t a purist vibe or an elitist vibe. I wanted to create a situation where people could grow and have a good time at the same time.
Phase One: Honestly, I wasn’t a big open mic type head before The Lesson. I was part of another scene, from the MC side I was mainly into showcasing. Years ago, mid-or-early-2000s, that’s when I was into the open mic stuff when Nuyurican and 5 Spot in Brooklyn were doing stuff like that. I got into showcasing and, ironically, when I got involved with The Lesson, I was more into the backstage [elements] instead of the frontline. Showcasing, I may have not known all the musicians I played with on stage, but now, doing The Lesson, I know all the musicians who are frontline cats. I’m in a whole new level of life musically.
Lenny: I wanted to create a family vibe. I was heavily involved in organizations for community development and I wanted to create an environment that had a good variety of people. Artists, musicians and even people who were a really good hang and wanted to give love. Regardless of your background, skill level or if you did anything at all. The point was, how could I combine all these things? I
Phase One: I got the call from Lenny in January 2012. He hit me up and I thought he was butt-dialing me because I hadn’t spoken to him in a year. When I called him he was breaking down the idea. I told him cool, but I was in a group and didn’t want to take on something that was going to take away from the move and told him if it interfered, I would need to pull back. He said cool, but he needed my spirit. Lenny knew what he wanted and was like that coach or that scout that saw how he wanted to put the puzzle together and we started it at Bamboo, which is like a block or two away from Arlene’s.
Lenny: was going through some changes concerning what energy was about and getting more sensitive to energy, how to focus and utilize it. I knew people like that and got a sense of urgency where I wanted them to meet each other. For me, it was a lot more than just the music. I wanted to create a love scene. People getting together, building good relationships and building networks. I was sick of the “How are you doing? How is your life because mine is dope?” Constantly testing each other to see who is at what level, all this classism. I wanted freedom from all these negative things.
Where did the name The Lesson come from?
Lenny: I called the jam “I Heart Hip-Hop” at first, but then it dawned on me in Florida that it’s about learning. That’s what this whole thing is about and I wanted people to learn how to be kind to each other, how to coexist and how to hang out. That’s where the name comes from. My favorite thing is learning how to hang-out.
How much has The Lesson changed from those early Bamboo shows to now at Arlene’s?
Phase One: Oh man, big changes. When we started, it was about trying to find our chemistry in the groove. We were doing much more experimental [music] in the very beginning. It was so crazy and left field, the space was very raw so the music became the score for the location. The spot was small, so if you had 60 people in there, it was jam packed. It allowed us to go elsewhere because what we had in front of us was different. At Arlene’s, the musicality’s a lot sharper and we’ve grown as artists. We’ve stayed pushing. It gets hard, and weekly you try not to deal with crutches. We make it look easy, but it’s not easy. What’s changed is the natural progression of things. What you do when you turn one isn’t what you do when you turn three.
What was the exact moment things just clicked and you realized you had something special?
Phase One: I do remember there was this moment when we were in Bamboo and I got this moment where I felt I had to talk to the crowd like a reverend to let them know how to open themselves up and become better. We had a fog machine and the fog machine was so O.D. that you couldn’t see what was going on, but I was still talking to the crowd and dropping rhymes in-between. I remember some people had their eyes closed and a girl started crying because it became so powerful. When I saw that, I realized we had the chance to touch people’s lives in a way most events didn’t do. Another moment, the fuse when out two times in one night at Bamboo and we just kept going anyway. The crowd immediately started clapping their hands, and I just stayed rapping regardless. It was something that connected.
Lenny: One day, we were all eating breakfast. We were joking around at this long ass table of 30 folks. As we were ready to get the bill, the waitress says “don’t worry, it was already taken care of.” Supposedly, there was a gentleman who watched us interacting and it moved him so much, he paid for our food. It’s happened several times when we’ve gone out where people nearby are just so into the group. That’s what I’ve been pushing for this whole time. People to feel free and liberated and share their goal. The love that people show and share makes me not afraid to do this.
Why do you think The Lesson has been about to thrive in the every changing Manhattan music scene?
Phase One: It’s about everyone getting their chance to shine. Open mic, open guitar, open keys. A lot of these open mics in other events, they’re heavily based on sword sharpens swords. You have all these people who are extraordinary in their own rights. What makes The Lesson unique is that there’s a spirituality to it. Lenny’s always been about this being a place that you get off a gig and could just come and do what you do. When so many artists and musicians do that together, it becomes a spiritual experience. It’s not just about saying “I’m nice,” it’s about what people are coming in feeling and coming out feeling. If people don’t leave different, we haven’t done our job for the evening. The spirituality aspect makes it so when it comes time to sharpen your sword for your skillset, now you’re on a whole different level because you’re using your cadences to describe the feeling in your heart and soul which creates a whole new situation.
Lenny: Love is very self-sustaining. I feel, in people being selfless and opening up to other people, it keeps infecting other folks. People are understanding this is how we do things here. The community exercises the protocol, this self-sustaining love bubble.