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Apr
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2024
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Since moving to Yellow Springs, Justin Herman, at right, also known as UnJust, has spent the last few years building and contributing to the local hip-hop scene through the OPEN project. Shown above, hip-hop artist Issa Ali lays down some lyrics to Herman’s beats. (Submitted photo)

‘OPEN’-ing hip-hop in Yellow Springs

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Local resident Justin Herman, with Yellow Springs’ burgeoning hip-hop community, is working to create an open space for creativity, collaboration and collective vision.

Herman, better known by his producer moniker UnJust, is spearheading a movement to expand the local hip-hop scene through the OPEN Project, where beats flow freely and artists find solace in shared expression. As part of the project, artists of all backgrounds are invited to meet in local venues to showcase their talents and connect with like-minded creatives.

“All ages are welcome, all skill levels are welcome,” Herman told the News in a recent interview, emphasizing the inclusivity and supportiveness of the Yellow Springs hip-hop scene. “I want to amplify and foster a scene of creative support … where people can come together and be celebrated.”

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Originally from Beavercreek, and with a years-long career as a designer and creative director, Herman’s own journey into hip-hop spans from the Midwest to Oakland, California. He told the News that, for him, hip-hop has always been more than just music; it’s a medium of empowerment and self-expression.

“Hip-hop grabbed me as a kid,” he said, recalling his earliest encounters with the genre through such iconic shows as “Yo! MTV Raps” and Robert Townsend’s “Partners In Crime” comedy series with the electrifying performances of Kool Moe Dee and other artists.  “I saw young kids and teens empowering themselves through their creativity … and I knew that’s who I am.”

He added that his upbringing in Beavercreek, which he said was marked by conformity and a lack of creative outlets, only fueled his passion for hip-hop.

“I felt like being creative was not celebrated … but when I saw hip-hop, I saw myself,” Herman said.

From breakdancing on suburban corners to experimenting with turntables and graffiti, Herman immersed himself in hip-hop’s diverse elements, taking heart in its inclusive culture. Transitioning into music production, Herman became UnJust as he discovered his calling as a sample-driven beatmaker, drawing inspiration from his parents’ Motown-infused record collection and his own experiences growing up as a self-described “welcomed guest” in the hip-hop world.

“I had no idea I’d ever be making beats … but hip-hop production has become something deeply personal,” he said, reflecting on the evolution of his craft.

In 2003, Herman made the move to the diverse streets of Oakland, where he worked for several years as creative director for ABB Records. Outside of his day job, Herman said Oakland is where his musical identity blossomed. Surrounded by a mosaic of cultures and sounds, he honed his craft, immersing himself in the vibrant tapestry of West Coast hip-hop, becoming close friends with Oakland hip-hop foursome Souls of Mischief, whom he called his “kindred spirits.”

Though Oakland’s essence intertwined with Herman’s creative spirit, shaping his vision for the future of hip-hop, Herman came back to the Midwest in 2021 with a desire to reconnect with his roots. Herman said he chose Yellow Springs as his new home because it had been  a haven for him in his youth.

“Yellow Springs is where I came to get free as a kid — where conformity gave way to creativity, and monotony yielded to diversity,” he said, highlighting the village’s blend of activism and artistry. “In Beavercreek, it felt like creativity was beaten out of you and conformity beaten into you.”

Herman soon began forming connections and partnerships with creatives already working in the village. With collaboration already part of his artistic ethos, the seeds of what would become the OPEN Project began to germinate when he met Forest Bright, professor of visual arts at Antioch College.

“His son goes to school with my son — I told him what I wanted to do, and it just so happened that he had already received a grant for open mic events,” Herman said.

Next, if he wanted to “galvanize the hip-hop community” in Yellow Springs, Herman said it was essential that he involve locals who were already doing that work — the people who had held hip-hop down in Ohio while he was in California. For that reason, he said, he invited local hip-hop artist Issa Ali to host OPEN Project events at the Antioch Amphitheatre and Foundry Theater. 

Because he experienced a lack of support for his creative endeavors growing up, Herman said he’s determined to change this narrative, and aims to amplify and foster a scene of creative support within Yellow Springs. Drawing inspiration from the thriving beat scenes of Los Angeles and Oakland, where people gather solely to appreciate beats, Herman said he envisions a global network of beat-centric communities. Through his OPEN Project events, he seeks to cultivate a vibrant hub for producers and artists, uniting Yellow Springs with the wider world of hip-hop creativity.

“If you got beats, come play for us,” he said. “We are going to celebrate you and then we’re going to play you our beats. We’re all going to celebrate each other and support each other.”

Also central to Herman’s vision is the fusion of music and visuals, intertwining sound and sight to create immersive experiences. Through projection mapping — a technique in which images and/or video are projected onto surfaces of different sizes and shapes — he creates light-based murals, transforming static artwork into dynamic canvases.

Herman’s efforts have also garnered international recognition, with Yellow Springs becoming the newest chapter of flipabeatclub — a global initiative founded by acclaimed producer Dibiase. Through live Zoom sessions — headquartered locally at HaHa Pizza — Yellow Springs producers join their counterparts from Oakland, London, Tokyo, Texas and Chicago in crafting beats using the same sample material, forging connections and sharing their creations with a global audience. At the end of each meeting, the beats are submitted back to the originators of the samples and become a part of an online compilation on Bandcamp.

As Herman continues to champion hip-hop in Yellow Springs, he said his vision extends beyond the music itself, encompassing a broader mission of community-building and empowerment.

“I want someone to be like, ‘Oh, you’re from Yellow Springs — I heard about you,’” he said, envisioning a future where the town’s name becomes synonymous with artistic innovation and creative excellence.

In a world fraught with challenges, Herman said he sees hip-hop as a catalyst for change — a universal language that transcends borders and empowers voices.

“Hip-hop is not stoppable — it’s a bigger discussion of whether hip-hop music will continue to make a large enough impact to be financially viable for artists,” he said.

Taking a moment to consider the intersection of artistry, commercialism and cultural authenticity, Herman wondered: “Will it ever go back to when music with a message was No. 1, and not just party music?”

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3 Responses to “‘OPEN’-ing hip-hop in Yellow Springs”

  1. John says:

    I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS! Now, as a fellow artist I’m looking for dates and times that I can come through and experience what’s going on in the world of hip hop in YS!

  2. MA,DUUKEZ says:

    MANY PRAYERS ANSWERED MANY BLESSINGGZZ FAMM TRAIN 2U&YOURZZ 2024&BEYOND

  3. Harold Wyant III says:

    My guy !! Congratulations, keep bidding the and expanding The culture. I’m always a friend and a fan.

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