The Omaha hip hop scene started to take form in 2014, according to hip hop artist and founder of Culxr House Marcey Yates. He had just come home after leaving the state for audio engineering school, and when he returned, artists like Mars Black, Black Jonny Quest, Conny Franko and King ISO were on the scene and releasing music. That year, Yates released a handful of his own albums, including a collaborative effort with Xoboi, titled Sophomore Slump. On that LP, the duo sounds relentless, with assertive, complementary flows that attack each track, like they had something to prove.
Veterans of the Omaha scene now, Yates and Xoboi have been collaborating for nearly a decade. But their ambitions have grown beyond music.
“It’s bigger than hip hop. It’s always been bigger than hip hop,” Yates said. “It’s using your platform to make changes or bring awareness to things that reflect your community.”
Today, Yates runs Culxr House (pronounced “culture”), a community center on North 24th Street that serves as a meeting place for artists, activists and future civic leaders. It brings in crowds with its open mic nights, art shows and lectures.
On July 30, Yates and Xoboi released Culxr House: Freedom Summer on Saddle Creek Records, showcasing the artistic community that has formed at the North Omaha creative and entrepreneurship hub. Within that context, Yates’ intentions for the album were straightforward.
“The mission is always just to make good music,” he said. “I don’t see it as anything outside of that. It was going to be what I wanted it to be at the end of the day, which was going to be a good record.”
Saddle Creek has created a successful niche in the rock and folk lanes and has rarely veered into different territory. Hip hop has gone largely unrepresented. But the label has kept up with Yates’ and Xoboi’s music over the years and watched Culxr House blossom into the community hotspot it is today.
“Any time we connect with an artist on a creative and personal level the way we have here, we will always be interested in working with them, regardless of genre,” said CJ Olson, a Saddle Creek spokesperson.
The duo respects Saddle Creek’s status, too, as a national tastemaker and target for local acts to strive for. Xoboi, aka Lorenzo Fuller, said while he’s mainly into hip hop, he grew up going to shows at the long-defunct Cog Factory, the influential, hole-in-the-wall punk club on Leavenworth where many early Saddle Creek bands cut their teeth.
“This is one of those, ‘Oh, that’s full circle for me’ things,” Xoboi said.
While last year’s social unrest was the impetus for Freedom Summer, the project shouldn’t be viewed as a protest album, Yates said. “But here and there, you’re going to hear that messaging in there. You’re going to get a good record that was made in that moment.”
On the lead single “Inherit the Earth,” Yates and Xoboi rap over a somber, piano-driven trap beat about daily struggles: low wages, violence, the death of loved ones. Positivity on the track is present, but fleeting; they search for gratitude in the moment but are disheartened when they look up. “Inherit the Earth, but what is it worth?,” Yates asks in the hook. That sense of dejection exists elsewhere on the album, but so do feelings of hopefulness. Other tracks, like “Fruit SNX,” featuring Conny Franko, offer applicable life advice: “Money is only a variable, true wealth is held.”
Yates produced each track on Freedom Summer, and he brings his A-game, arranging vibrant beats that nod to jazz rap, with prominent piano and trumpet samples that feel organically soulful, like what you might hear a busker playing in the afternoon sun. More than a dozen musicians are featured on the project, but Yates’ production is what ties the various artistic styles together.
“It’s a cohesive sound,” Yates said. “It’s over my production, so it’s in that box.”
Every artist featured on the project is connected to Culxr House in one way or another. Some are long-time collaborators and veterans of the Omaha hip hop scene (J. Crum, Franko), and others are newcomers who Yates has mentored (Come Back Sandy, Corro Corleone).
“Some of those are [artists] that I helped with during their development. They come up through our open mic program. They’re ones who look up to me and just respect what we do,” Yates said. “Other artists like J. Crum and Conny [Franko], these are guys I’ve been working with the whole time I’ve been out on the scene.”
As a prominent figure in the hip hop scene and as Culxr House’s founder, Yates embraces a position of influence that brings with it the challenge of representing himself and an entire community, whether through promoting civic engagement or changing the discussion around hip hop in Omaha. When he was coming up in the hip hop scene, he said he noticed an indifference toward local rappers from certain venues, promoters and publications that he said either wouldn’t give coverage to the scene or chose not to book local hip hop artists to open for touring rappers.
“We all know that you’ve got good hip hop, and you’ve got people that make hip hop that’s not right in certain settings,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure that there was a difference that I represent and can be played at Maha and on certain stages, but also can be the face of moving hip hop music forward.”
Now, as Saddle Creek releases Freedom Summer to a national audience, that means Yates and Xoboi will become the de facto faces of Omaha’s hip hop scene. Yates said he hopes listeners consider the music like they would any other album that shows up in their Spotify feed.
“The focus shouldn’t be ‘Oh, this is coming out of Omaha,’” Yates said. “It should be ‘That sounds good. Oh, this is from Omaha?’”