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Hip-hop culture popping up in Provo

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PROVO — This city is changing, says Gunnar Mckell, a man with a gold tooth, an earring in each ear and a few homemade tattoos scribbled on his arms.

What Provo needs, he says, is something like Uprok, the store where he works, which sells turntables and has a wood floor for break dancing.

Mckell, and his boss, who calls himself DJ Kel Rok, knew the rap on Provo as an ultra-conservative city before they decided to open their store.

But the city is growing, they say, and becoming increasingly diverse. To some, the existence of their store is proof.

The shop, 440 N. Freedom Blvd., is in a small plaza in downtown Provo that also houses a furniture store catering to Hispanics and a church called Iglesia Pentecostes Restaurada.

"Provo is becoming a big city whether people like it or not. This kind of stuff is going to happen here," says Kel Rok's brother, Dustin Kelsch, pointing to graffiti on the store wall behind him. "We don't know how this town will perceive us."

Uprok may seem a bit out of place in Provo, like a store selling country music in New York City. The kind of music Uprok sells, underground hip hop, is usually found only in major metropolitan areas.

Besides vinyl records and turntables, the store also sells markers used for graffiti and videos featuring graffiti artists.

Kel Rok says when he dreams he sees colors and pieces of graffiti he would like to "bomb" onto walls.

"The flip side of hip hop is that it's from the street," says Kel Rok, who grew up in Midvale. "There's a rough side to it."

So how did the hip-hop culture — which is embraced by break dancers, graffiti artists, DJs and rappers — end up in Provo? Provo is viewed by many as the state's most conservative city and boasts an economy that ranks as one of the most vibrant in the nation.

Hip hop, considered the voice of the ghetto by many, has spread to suburban areas like Provo because kids like the braggadocio of its artists, says Club Omni owner Ken Merena.

"If they're playing it on MTV, pretty much every white bread kid is going to pick it up," said Omni operations manager Cliff Snow. "It's a trend just like punk rock was in the '80s."

Merena believes the Uprok store, which has been open in Provo for about three weeks, does not signal the rise of a new subculture in Provo and should not be viewed as a symbol that the city is becoming more urban. He thinks it's just a fad.

"Hip hop used to be emblematic of street gangs and black kids," Merena said. "A long time ago we would not allow that type of clothing in here because it was gang related. But now you can buy it at the mall."

Merena is right that some of the stuff in Uprok — the skateboards and the clothing — can be found in the mall, Mckell says. But the Uprok crew lives the hip-hop lifestyle, he says, and will be around when fads change.

Mckell fronts a hip-hop group called the Numbs, which has a loyal following in Utah County and enjoys street credibility.

Kel Rok participates in competitions — or "battles" — with other DJs across the country. He is sponsoring a "DJ Battle" at Club Omni in a few weeks.

Even if that is the case, it concerns the Provo police department that Uprok is selling markers used for graffiti and videos showcasing graffiti artists, said Provo Police Sgt. Richard Ferguson of the city's major crimes task force.

Kelsch and Kel Rok say their store and the hip-hop culture shouldn't worry parents. They hope kids will come off the streets to learn to break dance or spin records in their store.

"This kid comes into the store almost every day," Kelsch says pointing to a 12-year-old with bright eyes and a well-groomed mohawk.

"His mom came in and really liked it, she felt like it was a positive thing. With those kids if we don't give them something positive to do, they will get in trouble. Trust me, they will get in trouble."

E-MAIL: jhyde@desnews.com