Maybe what Kansas City’s slow-to-redevelop 18th and Vine district has needed all along is The Popper.
The entrepreneurial rapper, whose real name is Walter Edwin, recently opened a storefront just south of the historic street corner. True to his hometown cheerleading, the name of the shop echoes the title of his signature song: It’s called I’m KC.
Among the more than two-dozen albums and mixtapes The Popper has released over the last 25 years, his best-known songs are anthems of hometown pride that could easily — and arguably should — be used by the city's convention and tourism office.
Now he says he hopes tourists as well as area residents who visit 18th and Vine will go home with I’m KC-branded merchandise. The small store’s wares include T-shirts, hats, hoodies, baby onesies, shot glasses and phone cases.
He sounds proud to be part of the storied district.
“I can be on Vine where my mom always talks about the history,” he says. “That's right on time.”
Among the dignitaries in attendance at the grand opening of the I’m KC store in April was Missouri State Rep. Brandon Ellington, who congratulated The Popper for keeping economic development in the community.
“We run around talking about Gucci, we run around talking about Nike,” Ellington said. “They aren’t hiring us. They’re not putting economic incentives in our community. Here we have somebody who created their own clothing line.”
The store isn’t The Popper’s first venture. He also operates Landmark Records, a label prized by Kansas City rap aficionados for outlandish album covers and the ingratiating “Landmark that!” catchphrase. In addition to The Popper’s projects, Landmark Records has released albums by notable artists such as Ron Ron, who often rap about Kansas City’s rough-and-tumble underworld.
Loaded with regional dialect and references to Kansas City locales, The Popper’s output isn’t designed to compete directly with mainstream artists. Even so, a handful of his songs have found large audiences.
In 2016, he collaborated with two battle-tested local rap stars on one of his biggest songs. “Kansas City,” a track on a Tech N9ne album, also featured Rich the Factor. The Popper made waves with a lyric about the namesake of Troost Avenue: Troost was a slave owner — Google up that history.
“I had a chance to drop knowledge and game,” he says.
And when the song became a rallying cry at area sporting events, including Kansas City Chiefs games, he says, “I felt like we were planting the flag in Arrowhead Stadium.”
Though his CDs carry parental-advisory labels, The Popper balances out his street language with a sense of humor. That was certainly the case with “I Do,” which had a few months of heavy rotation on KPRS in 2004. He and collaborators including Fat Tone (a Kansas City rapper who would be murdered in Las Vegas a year later) conduct a playful call-and-response asking questions like, “Do you wish the poor was wealthy?” and “Do you see how many people get caught and then tell?” A rap version of a Greek chorus responds to each query with an enthusiastic shout of “I do!”
The Popper celebrated the track’s success in an unlikely setting. When an unidentified abdominal pain became unbearable, he checked himself into Baptist Medical Center, where a medical team removed his ruptured appendix.
“That was the night that ‘I Do’ went Number One on the radio,” he remembers.
But it was 2015’s “I’m KC,” a roll call of notable Kansas City celebrities and institutions, that initiated the latest chapter of his career.
The song inspired his clothing line and store, for which he had an idiosyncratic business model: Country View Market at 5802 Swope Parkway.
He says the convenience store has been his second home.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he says. “I think it's the safest place in America. It's a landmark to me, it’s as big as Sprint Center. In my eyes, it's Swope Park.”
He strives for a similar atmosphere at I’m KC and marvels at the advantages of operating a conventional business.
“(I’ve been) hustling dark alleys and garages, where you’ve got to sneak and stuff this and here. Now I'm at a place where you can hustle this in public. This is what I needed to been doing the whole time.”
The Jazz District has had a fitful track record with mom-and-pop operations in recent years. Yet I’m KC is one sign of renewed vigor in the area. The Popper procures refreshments from the newly opened Smaxx restaurant on same block as his store, and speaks excitedly about a nearby coffeehouse slated to open soon.
His raps are a far cry from the elegant swing of the Count Basie Orchestra, but they, too, are Kansas City classics.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.