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As Court Tavern Door Closes, Music Scene Goes Underground

Basement Shows Quickly Becoming Dominant Component of Local Live Music Scene
Silent Knight
Silent Knight, lead emcee of Fuse, puts his fist in the air in the intimate setting of a New Brunswick basement show Mike Shanahan

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Last month's sudden closing of the Court Tavern may appear to some like the nadir of the music scene in New Brunswick.  The Home News Tribune ran a headline calling it "the end of an era in New Brunswick."

New Brunswick has long been a hot spot on the indie, punk , and–more recently–the hip-hop circuits.  In recent years, it has springboarded several Hub City bands to stardom like the Gaslight Anthem and Thursday, both of whom have gone on to tour the world.

While the loss of the Court Tavern is certainly disappointing, it is simply the latest in a long line of painful closings of classic New Brunswick music venues like the Melody Bar, Roxy Grill, the Budapest Cocktail Lounge, Bowl-O-Drome, and Patrix.  But to call this a fatal blow to the New Brunswick music scene is a failure to look a little deeper. It’s not dead, it’s just six feet under… literally. 

The fall of these clubs has given way to a wellspring of makeshift basement venues that have welcomed rock refugees.  Residents, most often Rutgers students, soundproof the basements of their residences to use them to host musical performances that double as parties.

These shows are often packed with students and locals of all stripes, and have an anything goes atmosphere that appeals to many.  In a town dominated by young people, many not yet of age to enter most legit live music venues, these shows are quite popular.

A local basement show promoter who identified himself as the Gingerbread Man explains it this way, "People love music, they love live music. The entire atmosphere of the basement is dirty, grungy, the lighting is poor. It is dangerous, and people eat that up.

"The threat of cops, the smell of cheap beer, and the wail of a guitar is an experience that can never be matched."

Often these underground venues have colorful nicknames like Meat Town, Princess Palace, The Magic School Bus, and The Oven.  Promoters typically do this to avoid detection by police while still advertising shows. Many flyers for Punk Shows list the location as simply "ask a punk."

The New Brunswick police have certainly made an attempt to shut down these shows.  Every weekend citations are given for noise violations and police often clear out basements.  "The ability for anything to attract such a large crowd is scary for the people in charge, and because of the history with the police, every single person in that basement hates them," says Gingerbread Man.

"The basement scene is absent from any laws: underage drinking, sex, drugs, it is the very essence of anarchy, and it is beautiful."

One of the top bands to emerge from the New Brunswick basement scene recently is Fuse, or as they are officially known to avoid confusion with the cable TV network, The Band Called Fuse.  Fuse has grown to become one of the most popular and entertaining music groups in New Brunswick.

Silent Knight, the group's lead emcee, has recently made waves of his own in the underground hip-hop scene with a new solo album titled Busy is My Best Friend.  Its first single, "Stayin’ Busy," cracked the top ten on the college hip-hop charts and was named the top song of 2011 by HipHopDependency.com.

A band that describes their sound as a mix of hip-hop and soul rock, Fuse has paid their dues in the basements of New Brunswick.  “We’ve had shows where we play for 2 hours straight, and everyone is dancing and singing along, jumping around, and having a blast,” explains Silent Knight.

“I can’t see a day where we don’t do a free show every now and then for our core supporters, or a show… at the Old Bay.

“[Then] there’s been times when we’ve hauled all our gear, all instruments, amps, even a full sound system…and set it all up in a cramped basement… just to have the NBPD bust in and break up the party. Without even getting to play!”

Fuse paid homage to the New Brunswick police in their own way on "Pressure," a track from their second album The Soul Rebels, Volume 1. Soul Qlok, another emcee in the group who also plays the MPC, responds to the NBPD breaking up a set in the middle of a song about police brutality by asking “we only three tracks in, so why you disturbin?”

Outside of the Hub City, Fuse has opened for major-league acts like Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, and Can-I-Bus. They've also headlined at notable venues like SouthPaw and Public Assembly in Brooklyn, the Trocadero in Philadelphia, and Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC.  Each Thursday, they host a hip-hop showcase at the Grisly Pear in the Manhattan featuring underground and independent artists from up and down the East Coast including such acts as Homeboy Sandman, Grind City, and Soul Khan.

Next month, Fuse will be playing at the acclaimed South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX.  And they're being sent there, at least in part, by their fans.  Fuse called on its loyal fan base  through an online fundraising effort hosted by Kickstarter.com.  The band is hoping to raise $3,386–one dollar for each mile of their trip to Austin.  So far, 44 Fuse fans have committed over $1,981 to help share Fuse’s sound with the world.

The fundraising campaign's success and the prospect of a trip to play at one of music's most respected festivals has the group's members excited.

“The Kickstarter campaign is showing me even more, that our people believe in us and want us to succeed,” says Silent Knight, “It’s an amazing feeling.”

“We love traveling and rocking shows out of town.  That’s us getting our music out there – letting the world know where we stand” says Soul Qlok.

For all their success, Fuse has not forgotten its roots in New Brunswick:  “When we do shows for our hometown rockas we know that we’re coming home and it feels fresh… Rockin’ out with people you haven’t seen in a while, love that vibe.  Hometown fans is what makes us rock harder.”

On January 4, Fuse headlined at The Old Bay on Church Street, one of the few legimitate establishments in New Brunswick that still host live bands from time to time.  Both the Old Bay and Tumulty’s Pub, which was featuring local group The Do Rights the same night, were packed. 

No doubt the current city administration will continue to do what they can to quiet the music scene, at both on-the-level venues and underground ones.  But as long as there are bands willing to take on the system, and Rutgers students who soundproof their basements, it appears that music lovers will continue to flock to the banks of the Raritan.