Hepcats | Fifth Element and COVID-related closure: Thoughts from veteran Twin Cities artist Christopher Michael Jensen
March saw Fifth Element and Honey shutting their doors permanently, with many other venues closing their doors temporarily due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. To get a sense of what those closures would mean for the local community we contacted some of the veterans of the local hip hop scene.
We first talked to Christopher Michael Jensen (CMJ), a long-time veteran in the Twin Cities Hip-Hop community and the most recent host of the Fifth Element open mics. Due to the stay at home orders, we arranged the interview over email.
We were mainly interested in hearing how artists are adapting to the changes, how folks are responding to the closures, and what some of the potential next steps would be. Live shows have become a critical part of artists’ careers as the emphasis has shifted away from record sales towards streaming, so we were curious how local rappers and producers are adapting.
Here’s what CMJ had to say:
HC: We were all pretty shocked to hear about Fifth Element closing, how do you feel this will influence the local Hip Hop scene going forward?
CMJ: Fifth Element has been an institution in the local scene for over twenty years, so the fact that it will no longer be a thing is definitely really weird. For years and years I would always hit up FE when I was trying to get a new underground album that I couldn’t get at places like Best Buy or bigger outlets. We were lucky to have a store like that around that a lot of cities didn’t. More than that, though, they had the open mic there which has happened on and off since the early 2000’s. A lot of local rappers came up performing there and meeting other artists locally, myself included. It was an indispensable place to network. The first time I ever performed at the Fifth Element Open Mic was late 2009. Years later I would get the opportunity to become the full time host of the open mic, starting in September 2018, which I continued to do all the way up until the end of the store’s existence in March of this year. That was a huge honor for me, especially when you think about some of the others who have hosted the open mic in the past, including Brother Ali, Toki Wright, Big Quarters, and more. There was a real vibrant community that was able to be fostered at Fifth Element and the open mic and other stuff that the store provided for the community.
“It was an indispensable place to network.”
The second stage at Soundset ‒ the one that wasn’t the main stage ‒ was even called the “Fifth Element stage” up until a couple years ago. Fifth Element wasn’t even just a local thing ‒ people all over the country who are deep into indie hip hop know and respect Rhymesayers and their headquarters at Fifth Element. It’s why when the announcement was made that the store was closing you even saw people like Lupe Fiasco paying respects, and why there’s stories of people like J. Cole popping in to visit back in the day. Fifth Element was a hip hop landmark that can never be replaced.
HC: Fifth Element was an integral part of the local music community. Do you know of any local rappers or producers who have plans to create new venues or festivals once we are able to return to normal?
CMJ: Fifth Element closed the same month that Honey called it quits, which was another local staple for hip hop and music here in the Twin Cities. The amount of time I spent in both of those buildings is endless. Sadly, the longer the effects of the Coronavirus last, I’m sure more venues and spaces for artists will be shut down permanently as well, so after this is all over we’re definitely gonna need people to step up and try to fill the void that is being left behind. I’ve been involved with throwing lots of different events and residencies and other kinds of shows nearly every month for a long time, and have brainstormed with other artists and venues about different things that we could do in the future; but it’s hard to say when there will even be live shows again, so it’s impossible to even think about planning anything right now. The monthly showcase I was throwing with my friend Uncle T every month at Can Can Wonderland “Local Dope $#%T” got shuttered when that venue had to lay off all its employees and staff due to the pandemic, so we’re all just getting hit really hard by this. It could be a while before smaller shows ‒ let alone large scale festivals ‒ are able to happen again until the virus is really contained and a vaccine is widely disseminated.
HC: The live show and concert industry has been one of the most directly affected by COVID-19. How do you see the Twin Cities concert industry reemerging overall, (and possibly changing) after the pandemic?
CMJ: Like I was saying before, I think we’re going to see less venues after this is all over unfortunately, just because it’s going to be hard for a lot of venues to weather this long term, while not being able to generate any funds. So that will be a major change ‒ less places to play, especially the smaller spots. That will mean more people vying to play more of the same spots in what can already be a competitive and tricky scene at times to get shows booked in as it is, so a lot of places that were more willing to take on smaller events might not be able to as much, and some artists will have a much tougher time getting shows at all, which will make things harder for everybody, especially for up-and-coming artists. Hopefully things will not end up as dire and depressing as a lot of us fear, but it’s really up in the air right now and a bunch of artists are kind of bracing for the worst case scenario.
“…some artists will have a much tougher time getting shows at all,
which will make things harder for everybody, especially for up-
HC: As having a profitable career as a musician has become more and more about touring, how do you think local rappers will be able to move forward without live shows?
CMJ: A lot of people are gonna have to find other ways to make money outside of music. A lot of artists will probably be in much different situations when this is all over if this ends up shutting down live shows for a year or more, and truthfully some won’t come back to doing music once they move on to something different. Music can be a real hard thing to make a go of even in normal times; it’s difficult to make money in the world of art, especially in a large and sustainable way, and with the circumstances we have now it can be nearly impossible. Consumers are in financially troubling times, too, so there’s gonna be less disposable income for them to spend on what we create and our merch, etc. Becoming savvier with how artists get their music out there will become more important, and some have started experimenting with virtual performances and things of that nature, but yeah, it’s gonna be interesting.
HC: Has your approach to making music changed, due to the recent stay-at-home orders?
CMJ: For me personally, in the past my mind was constantly on curating events, performing, promoting, and other stuff around all that. Now that I’m not busy with those things for the first time in a LONG while, I have way more time to actually sit down and write, bang out songs, and kind of re-focus my attention on catching up on some things that I had been distracted from before the pandemic. I’m just using the time to be as productive as I can, so if there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s that I am able to kind of give my full attention to the creative process of making music right now.
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Check out Christopher Michael Jensen’s website here: http://www.christophermichaeljensen.com/