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Pittsburgh's underground hip-hop scene has helped produce key players like RZA and Mel-Man

Now, a new wave of rappers tries to build a community that pulls together, not apart

Friday, July 13, 2001

By Sarah Lolley

Pittsburgh's underground hip-hop scene has helped produce key players like RZA and Mel-Man. Now, a new wave of rappers tries to build a community that pulls together, not apart.

J.Sands is part of a hip-hop group called the Lone Cataylists. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

On a stage in Oakland, Wu Tang Clan's RZA releases a drill of rhymes, deafening a sweaty crowd with floor-vibrating bass beats. Meanwhile in Homewood, a doorman at Ramsey's waves a familiar face off the streets into a room where a skating-rink concession acts as a hip-hop lounge.

The void between these worlds of established and underground hip-hop may be narrowing if a group of driven young people get their way in Pittsburgh. Historically divided by definitions and neighborhoods, Pittsburgh's hip-hop community is uniting to put its city on the map. And it's doing it through the underground.

In the past every local rapper or DJ dreamed about the day a limo would pull up from a record label inspired by a demo they had sent and whisk them away from the violence in their hood. Today Pittsburgh is a lot more sober. Rather than looking for big labels to hire limos and sink money into their projects, hip-hop artists have wised up and decided to build a support system in Pittsburgh. New performance venues, stores, hang-outs, graffiti walls, dance clubs and studios have emerged recently as the tide changes for the town.

The goal, of course, is to break out. RZA recalls the day when Pittsburgh had nothing showing but a lot of people trying to make it. He remembers his father's convenience store in the Hill District back in the days when, as he says, people were selling crack to buy audio equipment to make beats. Like most urban kids he hung out at the "O" and listened to WAMO. He is now one of the leading artists of the New York group Wu Tang Clan.

RZA is not the only hip-hop success story with ties to Pittsburgh. In the mid-'90s Sam Sneed made beats for Jay-Z, Budda worked with Ice Cube, and Mel-Man produced albums with Dr. Dre and won a Grammy for his work with Eminem. Their success stories began with a CD they sold in the underground and handed to labels and rappers from Compton to Queens. It is a story every rapper on the streets knows and a vision they perpetuate the same way, by selling and sharing mixed tapes and CDs through networks.

Speaking from Aftermath Records' studio in Los Angeles, Melvin "Mel-Man 9" Bradford says, "I'm one of the pioneers and I'm a hip-hop producer, fully. Dr. Dre is a hip-hop producer. He's also the icon of gangster rap, so-called -- people fingered him and labeled him this. People got to understand that this is hip-hop and that's all that it is. There isn't any categories."


 
 
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Mel-Man says he wants to start giving artists from Pittsburgh a chance to make a music career, and he doesn't care what neighborhood they are from, be it the Hill District, Homewood, North Side or Squirrel Hill. In the studio with him and Dre right now are Joe Beast, a 19-year-old from the Hill, and Infinite, a twentysomething from Homewood.

In the future Mel-Man plans to set up a branch from his connections that will produce and catapult artists from Pittsburgh. "Point blank, it hasn't got anything to do with where anybody is from. I'm about to make it happen for my city because ain't nobody else going to do it and I'm in a position to do it," says Mel-Man, who represents Pittsburgh with black and gold Nikes and a Steelers hat. "It's Pittsburgh's turn and if they don't see that and know that, then they are sleeping."

The next wave

In the late '80s and early '90s, local artists were influenced by the layered beats of East Coast rappers A Tribe Called Quest and the nimble tongues of the West Coast's NWA. The Homewood Coliseum had MCs rapping out similar poles between the Hill and Homewood. But all were influenced by the coasts and when push came to shove they realized neighborhoods shouldn't be divided. With the rude awakening of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac murders, the world of hip-hop looked South, and now mainstream radio pumps out the club tracks of Nelly.

But Pittsburgh has its own approach, mixing all of the above together. Although thousands listen to CDs, radio and TV, the core hip-hop community, who regularly comes out to shows, is about 500 people and their influences are from the old-school. Mel-Man describes Pittsburgh as old school hip-hop, a raw approach to rapping and beat-making influenced by groups like NWA, Boogie Down Productions, Run-DMC, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Within the rhymes are lyrics and stories from life in the 'Burgh.

That approach, however, is not exclusive. The Lone Catalysts and Strict Flow, both around since the mid-'90s, are among the Pittsburgh artists touring and selling CDs internationally. Among the others making fresh ripples through the scene are The Fine Arts Department, Deadly Scribes, Concrete Elete and RXC.

Jermaine Sands, aka J Sands, of Lone Catalysts, originally hailed from the North Side, and studied in Ohio where he met J Rawls, the other half of the equation. Sands, 28, believes his interpretation of hip-hop to be a more consciousness-raising approach that teaches and excites people.

According to the rapper, "If you're going to spit something, say something. Read a book, learn some knowledge and put it in your rhymes. My work is very conscious about what's going on in the world, and that there are kids listening to what I say. Rappers I grew up with were telling me things."

He recalls, for example, KRS-One rapping about Moses and Abraham originating from Egypt and therefore being dark skinned. It taught Sands about Afrocentric culture, which he says wasn't a part of elementary school.

On "Extinction," from the Lone Catalysts CD released in April, he raps: "It's really not about who's less and who's creator/ It's more about who's the player, who's the player hater/ Ashanti chiefs worked right along with slave traders/ Selling prisoners they captured from wars, their neighbors/ It reminds me of today, You gotta practice survival/ Once a man turns your brother to your rival."

Like many of today's rappers, Sands learned to distrust major record labels so he is working with independent organizations and distribution. Instead of achieving quick money from a hit track on BET, Sands, who has sold more than 18,000 units worldwide, wants to create something that withstands the dancehall trend of music charts.

Further, he says, hip-hop is about people, and music is a product, which he feels is exploited on the radio. "Music is just one aspect of a whole entire culture. The reason the music is at the forefront is because that is what people are making money off of."

When hip-hop became popular in the early to mid-'90s the old-school attitude of "stop the violence" changed. What characterizes radio play lists now are songs about material objects the majority of its listeners cannot afford. Sands incorporates a different approach that entails using information kids will learn from.

In "Three Years Ago," he raps, "When I was young all I wanted were Cazels and a nameplate buckle, with gold fronts that you see when I chuckle/ J Sands cover my knuckles in 18 karats, Pumas suede with fate laces, Kangol from Harrods." It's this kind of image that Sands is obviously not living himself. He lives in Upper St. Clair now and has a day job working at a family-run business.

Aware of the violence that has broken out in the city lately, Sands says, "The violence didn't stop when hip-hop came around. Music is not going to calm that down, but it gives you something else to do."

Strict Flow, a group with a more dancehall flow, is another group getting its message out of Pittsburgh. The group signed to Raw Shack, but decided to form its own company after it lost control of the group's direction. Like Lone Catalysts, it deals with distribution, books concert dates and backs its own projects.

Strict Flow MC Masai Turner says the experience motivated group members to reach a higher level that brought them back to knowing their audience better. "Pittsburgh's hip-hop scene is definitely divided," says MC Masai. "There really isn't a scale. Hip-hop is something that comes from respect ... You can't be a part of hip-hop if you don't pay attention to other artists in the area."

Time Bomb shop is packed with assorted DJs, MCs, break dancers, graffiti artists and organizers of E-fest. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

The Deadly Scribes, originally from Allderdice High School, are another group on the rise. Masai says they remind him of Strict Flow when his group was developing. The recent high school graduates attend Temple University in Philadelphia and are making a name there. By having strong influences close to home, Dan Mussig, 19, from the Deadly Scribes says hip-hop is in his future.

Unlike those groups, The Nickel has been referred to in some circles as gangsta rap. The hard lessons of living among gangs, with its deadly gun culture, leak into the group's songs. Its popularity among high school kids stems from its relationship with its Homewood neighborhood. Kids from E-Fest (the East Liberty Festival this weekend) knew The Nickel because the band drove through the neighborhood and handed out CDs to people.

But just because they rap about violence doesn't mean group members condone it. In fact, as he sits with members of his marketing team in a Homewood living room watching a Missy Elliot video on TV, Dorian Johnston of The Nickel says, "We reflect how we live day to day from our standpoint," which can mean hanging out with family or losing friends to gang warfare.

He says that by incorporating the reality of friends and acquaintances who are in jail into their songs, they hope to have kids learn, not imitate.

"I knew people in every gang, people that bang red, blue ...," says Johnston. "We don't want our kids growing up like that."

The Nickel is working on a "clean" version of its tracks for that reason. Johnston raps in one song, "Dear Lord can you save me/ please watch my babies/ Life on this hell-a-fied earth is so crazy."

Rodney "Hot Rod" Hamilton says he gets his news from the stories in rap. Hot Rod is part of Homewood's Ruff Chemistry, which also features Rashi "Rockin" Stubblefield and Icee Ed. Rockin just got back from spending a few months working with Bido1 at Rock/a/lot Records in Houston. "The music industry is not in Pittsburgh," Rockin says. "It's underground until people get stable jobs with it."

The underground gave Ruff Chemistry its first chance at making hip-hop when Tuffy Tuff gave the group its first beat machine. Gene "Infinite" Mollett, 29, also a member of Ruff Chemistry and supported by Mel-Man, flew out to Los Angeles last week to write his first song for Dr Dre. "When more people get in the business [in Pittsburgh] and start making money and opportunities for people, then maybe it won't be as harsh on the streets," says Infinite.

It appears there are places in the ocean of hip-hop where waves are beginning to form.

Hip-hop spots

Keeping the hip-hop flow going are a handful of new venues and festivals that have developed recently, contradicting the belief that the culture and its revelers harbor nothing but violence. Clubs like Jetz and Stratus and performance places like the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty and The Spot in the North Side give local talent access to under-age kids eager to hang out and learn about something positive.

"At The Spot we promote the four elements of hip-hop: DJing, MCing, breaking and graffiti," says Michael "Moes" O'Neill, 22, proprietor of The Spot and Influential Flavor, a promotion team with ties to New York. Moes says more people attended when he promoted over-21 events, but this is what he does to give back to his roots. Neither venue wants a liquor license, preferring to have a place where kids can feel free to get off the streets. Every Saturday night The Spot will host events for under-age people and also will host the E-Fest after-parties.

Outside The Spot on a recent July night, dark bridges loom over the heads of a couple of graffiti artists who fabricate a wall to paint on. Inside, a group of 50 youths circle the dance floor as the break-dancing battle begins. Each team almost defies gravity with acrobatic moves and footwork. It is the urban ballet they learned from people like Moes, who took the time to teach them tricks he learned growing up in Long Island. B-Boys taunt the other dancers and try to get them to best their moves. In the end they laugh and give each other respect for their effort. In the world of hip-hop, there's nothing greater than respect.

"We have to stand out as a team," says producer Emmai Ala Quiva. "The city is not big enough to be as segregated as it is." Quiva, who believes a renaissance occurs when people can feel free to congregate and share music, will soon open a production studio in the basement of the Shadow Lounge called Ya Mom's House. Together with Justin Strong, 23, owner of the Shadow Lounge, he hopes to give hip-hop groups a chance to package and fine-tune their music for labels.

Nearby, at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty about 30 people listen to RXC freestyle as two little girls dart between people. The venue becomes a hangout for hip-hop artists at a monthly showcase called Theraputix. Groups perform with rotating guests from the audience and freestyle rap, a practice of improvising and rhyming lyrics without a consistent story or theme.

On a recent Thursday the Bridgespotters host a night at Ramsey's for friends and family to see what the ruckus is about. The event attracts poets, jazz musicians, MCs and DJs. Outside, Sands can be found talking to Akil Esoon about his recent band formation, The Fine Arts Department. Esoon, whose group melds jazz, rock and hip-hop, says he is self-taught, but that Sands is among the people who inspire him to keep at it.

Other places where people can congregate include Time Bomb and 720 Records in East Liberty, and Focus, opening on Sunday in Oakland. Standing behind a counter decorated with snapshots of popular rappers, Brain Brick, owner of Time Bomb, says despite the violence in the music, "Hip-hop is a positive thing. It can raise you out."

Again and again, people talk about the strong bonds that are made in a thriving hip-hop community.

In order to get where he is, Mel-Man says it took little people and big people along the way who believed in him.

Now he sends a message back home: "I'm giving love back to Pittsburgh for those who are true to their craft and they know what that is, that's hip-hop."

Sarah Lolley is a traveling freelance writer who covers music and culture for international and national publications. She recently received her masters in journalism from NYU.


Upcoming events:

Shadow Lounge

5972 Baum Blvd. at Highland Avenue

July 17: open poetry night with Suncrumbs

July 19: Mi Sandz soul band

July 31: CD Release Hip-Hop Party for Buk Nasty (The Terrorists)

Aug 18: Hip-Hop show hosted by Vortex Entertainment with live performances, MC Battle, Graffiti contest, B-Boy and B-Girls (breakdancing). Fundraiser for Vortex Comix.

Every Sunday: live jazz jam session with Brother Peck's Satellite Jazz.

The Spot

3108 McClure Ave., North Side

July 14: Old School Hip-hip after-party for E-Fest.

Every Saturday: Open Sessions for breaking and DJs at 8 p.m.

Ramsey's II

7310 Frankstown Road, Homewood.

Every Thursday: Hip-hop night called Midnight Espresso Series (M.E.S.)hosted by the Bridgespotters.

Concerts

Strict Flow, the Deadly Scribes and Complecscq perform at 7:30 p.m. July 24 at 1026 Smallman St. in the Strip.



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