say your piece
 
ISSUE NO.153
OCTOBER 16, 2003
 
 
coverStory
Rhymin' in Zion
Exploring Salt Lake City's Underground Hip-Hop Scene
By Jordan Scriver and Flora Bernard
 
 
Participants in Uprok's open-mic night demonstrate their verbal skill, highlighting the power of Salt Lake City's underground hip-hop scene.

hat do people think about when they think of Salt Lake City? The pretty architecture? The returned missionaries? The breathtaking and majestic Wasatch Mountains? Or do they think of dropping a phatty-bom-batty beat while making fun of your overweight mother in rhyming couplets? For some, it’s the former. But for the select few who frequent Uprok Records and DJ at the best parties, Salt Lake City is a breeding ground for purveyors of crazy beats and wicked rhymes.

 
   
 
 

Describing the history of hip-hop music is not unlike describing the history of America. The best and easiest way to do it is to list the names of the people that shaped the style into what it is today. The Forefathers: Kurtis Blow. GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five. The Sugarhill Gang. There are also the ones who broke barriers, who took what was once “just a fad” off of the disco stage and made it in to something new and exciting: NWA. Public Enemy. Run-DMC. The Beastie Boys. There are those who added organic beats and mixed jazz elements into the equation, turning hip hop into an art form: A Tribe Called Quest. The Roots. Digable Planets. There are even those who have added sex and violence to the mix, making records that you have to hide from your parents: Ice T. 2 Live Crew. Black Nasty.

Now meet the next generation of hip hop. They come from your own backyard.

The Salt Lake City underground hip hop scene has been growing with amazing speed in the last few years—and word on the street is that our tiny town is about to explode onto the international stage. This week, RED takes a look at some of the up-and-comers that are ready to take the city and the country—and maybe even the world—by storm.

Undagroundz Coffee (Undergrounds in the phone book) is a small coffee shop with generally no more than a half-dozen customers at any given moment. All the makings of an SLC coffee shop are here: local art on the walls and randomly strewn chairs and couches. Peaches, an Undagroundz barista, plays with her baby girl Mya on one of the two couches in the store. She escaped the temptations of Southern California for the mountains of northern Utah. “California made me into a bad person,” Peaches said. “I moved out here because of my dad…Now I live with my little one here.”

The details of the store make the place unique. There are the two turntables by the front window waiting to be tickled, touched and scratched. There are the pool table, arcade games and entertainment center open to all who want to do more here than just drink coffee. And, of course, there are the beats emanating from Uprok, the hip-hop CD and vinyl store adjacent to the coffee shop. Welcome to the epicenter of the underground hip hop scene in Salt Lake City. This is hip hop headquarters.

It is here that many of the best and brightest local acts congregate to network and celebrate the burgeoning scene. Here is a sampling of perspectives from some of those talented groups.

The HeaDriftaz

 

 
   
 
 

The HeaDriftaz consists of J-Stench (DJ), Form (emcee), Steezy (producer/emcee) and B-Minor (emcee). The group has been together for close to four years. Steezy and Form were high school buddies and at a different high school, J-Stench and B-Minor were also buddies. They met through mutual friends and have stayed together thanks to their common love of hip hop. The group can often be seen at Brick’s, Lazy Moon, Club Manhattan, Urban Lounge and Zephyr Club.

Form, by far the easiest member to reach, lists as his influences some of the biggest names in rap—NWA, Wu-Tang, Jay-Z and Biggie—and some groups you may have never heard—The Beatnuts, Big L and Brand Nubian, for example. The sounds from these groups come through clearly in Form’s music (which can be heard on MP3.com), as is true for any burgeoning emcee who listened to such influential pioneers. As far as local acts are concerned, Form lists some of the best and brightest of his peers. “My favorite locals are Brisk, The Agents, Foekus, Enee-1, Sam I Am and of course myself FIZZY FORM!”

“Anyone who wants to have a good time and hear some live hip hop should come see us,” said Form. “Basically because we get live and have fun.”

Under his alias, The 45 Felon, Form has supported the Salt Lake City hip hop scene by making mix tapes of the various underground groups—and he isn’t shy about putting his own cuts on there as well. He pushes these CDs as KNOWONEKNOWS and gives them out to friends and fans at local shows. (One of his favorites was Sam I Am, after all.)

Right now, KNOWONEKNOWS is up to Volume 12—although it’s only the 10th CD. “I did one through eight and started doing evens for some reason—eight, 10, 12, etc. Volume 12 was released as a compilation of nothing but local artists. We got my boy Fancee Free, Concise, Steezy, Real Eyes and of course I had four solo tracks on there, too. Volume 14 will have more exclusive tracks from me and my crew, but we'll be introducing a couple new producers—and the studio has recently been remodeled so it's gonna be real nice! DON'T SLEEP!”

The love from the hip hop scene in Salt Lake City has also been a significant motivator for Form’s music. “Yeah, [HeaDriftaz] definitely get a lot of love from the scene here. We’ve had some cool opportunities to open for groups like Mystic Journeyman, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon from Wu-Tang. Every so often I hear about a shout out from [local hip-hop and R&B radio station] U92. Foeknawledge will always give us a shout out to any show he’s doin.’ The Agents and Expression show love, too.”

Form may get love from a lot of local acts, but he’s willing to give love, too. He ended the interview giving big ups to “Steezy Wondah, Finale, Brisk, all of Netweight Records, threesixfive records, The 45 Felon [yes, himself] at Right Hook Music, Fancee, Utahgraffiti.com, Draztikbeatz.net, Uprok, and anyone else holdin' it down! PEACE!!!”

The Agents

 
   

The Agents, made up of Facts, Everest and Illumino, are Salt Lake City’s premier hip-hop group. This status was cemented when they won this year’s SLAMMy Award (City Weekly’s annual award for the local arts) for Best Hip Hop group. Facts, one of the emcees in The Agents (which also include fellow agents Everest and Illumino) called winning the award “surprising.” He said, “Just because we’re not technically from Salt Lake City and we don’t have as much of a name as some of the other acts might, I was surprised we got the votes to win it.”

Everest was equally stunned and happy about the win, calling it “Crazy. Plus, we got a shiny trophy.”

The Agents has been a group since 1997 when its members met at a Numbs show through mutual friends. With their love for similar flavors of hip hop (all three cited A Tribe Called Quest and The Numbs as big influences), the three emcees seemed like naturals. “We just had the same vibe as far as music,” said Illumino. Everest gives a slightly different reason for the group’s formation. “They were the only rappers I thought were good.”

The Agents have played numerous shows at Urban Lounge and the Lazy Moon and also at Muse Music in Provo. The group also released its debut CD, The Long Road Times Up, this past June, was part of a record compilation last year called The Idiots and is currently working on new songs for a 12” single.

The Agents have quite a few upcoming plans. The group’s new Web site, agentshiphop.com, is scheduled to be up at the end of the month.

As far as the hip-hop scene in Salt Lake City is concerned, the response from The Agents is positive. “For sure the emcees and other groups [show us love,]” said Illumino. “Sometimes the crowds are harder to pull with all the competition with the SLC night life.” Facts concurred: “SLC always shows us love.” It’s this kind of love and support that drives the hip-hop scene in Salt Lake City, and makes the emcees here a generally down-to-earth and affable bunch.

“Cop our album at Uprok Records or get at me for a copy [at] factskills@yahoo.com,” Facts said. “Just keep supporting the local music scene, y’all.”

Illumino ended the interview with a rallying call for his fellow rhymesayers. “Let’s unify the local scene!”

Shiny Hip Hop from The Filthy Unit
By Flora Bernard    

Downtown Salt Lake City has a lot of secrets. Between the construction signs and the bright white streets, beneath the gaze of smarmy tourists and the glaze of Latter-day charm, there are enough nooks and crannies to hide crime, grime and in some cases, serious talent.
Just north of State Street, pawn shop prime, on the west side of the road between 300 and 400 South, there’s a big boldface black-and-white sign that says “UPROK,” squeezed in between the graffiti and the homeless vets. Outside Uprok, I first found the core members of The Filthy Unit, Salt Lake City’s best-kept bright new hip-hop secret.
“DJ Cool Kel Love: A Bad Motherfucker,” The Filthy Unit’s DJ introduced himself over the phone using his regal full title. He is the proud owner of Uprok, now in its fifth year. “I’m not rich, but it’s a whole, whole lot of fun,” he admitted amiably. On Oct. 13, 2003, Kel was voted City Weekly’s favorite DJ for 2003. He’s Red Bull’s official DJ. His backbeats for the group are smooth, cognizant, complex and fresh. “Kel does a lot for the hip hop community, and he likes long walks off short piers just to get his feet wet,” mused one trippy Mike Boothe, The Filthy Unit’s emcee and engineer. ”He single-handedly holds this city’s hip-hop community together,” chimed in loyal Pig Pen, the Circle Jerk.
What the hell is The Filthy Unit? “The best fucking thing to happen to Utah since Joseph Smith,” offered Boothe. Boothe was the founding father, so to speak, of the crew. The group met and hit it off beautifully at an open-mic night (every Friday night at Undagroundz). Once the initial ice was broken, the ragtag lineup of emcees just tumbled together naturally, with Kel Love as the sturdy skill set foundation.
“My unit’s really not that filthy,” Pig Pen stated for the record. Mike Boothe, Pig Pen, Abnorml and Task are the four core emcees who take turns laying down rhymes and spitting cutting insults at each other whenever there’s a microphone available. Boothe hooked me up with a demo copy of their album straightaway. The licks I was privileged to sample were not the radio pop hop I’m used to hearing banged out on demo discs all over the valley. Instead, the majority of the project is fresh, chill and ripe with potential and enthusiasm.

Each filthy emcee has his own distinctive and unusual style. Complementary in contrast, they trade and toss rhymes at each other like Frisbees and make it seem easy, casual and effortless. It’s fairly obvious to any ear that Abnorml has been freestyling hip hop long enough to learn the language—and he’s just a whippersnapper, 18 years young. He started flowing hip-hop rhymes when he was 14, after he met Kel. “When I started out, I was all bumpin’ that mainstream shit,” he admits. “Like Jay-Z, that kind of shit. I didn’t get into underground hip hop until I moved here to SLC.” And who would ever have thought that the hip-hop scene of Salt Lake City, Utah could save sidetracked souls from the siren’s song of mainstream pop-hip-hop plastic bunk?
Pig Pen, The Circle Jerk is too charming and affable for his title. “We do dirty hip hop. That’s why they call me Pig Pen—’cause I’m a dirty writer. That’s what makes me a circle jerk.”
Still, I’ve been slowly exposed to his flows and his rosy prose, and The Circle Jerk isn’t a real jerky jerk. He takes his shots like any cocky emcee, but for the most part his vocals are butterscotch. Although he’s just as Utah as you and me and your mom, Pig Pen manages to let a little Brooklyn leak into his voice, not just on stage but also in casual conversation. Perhaps it’s because the inadvertent result of overdosing on East Coast hip hop; possibly, a self image concept manifesting itself. Most likely, he just knows how dang sexy and hip it makes him sound.

 
Evidently, Abnorml and Pig Pen, The Circle Jerk go way back. They bitch at each other like an old married couple. But that’s how all the Unit interacts. Mostly it’s just funny and harmlessly juvenile. Sometimes they’re vicious, verbally clubbing each other down, maybe in pursuit of the alpha emcee title. After getting to know the Unit, I still can’t help but look at Boothe as the unofficial leader of the pack. He is enthusiastic, driven and wound tighter than a spring. So far, all that I’ve seen of his day-to-day life—from the way he moves or walks sometimes to the way he spits rhymes like sunflower seeds—belts out “hip-hop boy” like a war cry.
The smart-assed, smug, sharp and self-righteous mentality that he wears like a broad-brimmed hat is crystallized and made into what sometimes turns out as brilliant art, the moment he steps behind a microphone. He experiments with unexplored altitudes of death-defying internal rhyme scheme and mad-flowing speed. He has balls. With slim to no chiding he was talked into freestyling an impromptu bit in front of Uprok. The flow wasn’t impressive, but it was heartfelt.
The last emcee to introduce himself to the invasive journalist, Task could easily be mistaken for just another lanky, anti-social average-looking city kid with a bit of hip-hop-stylized flair to him. Then, when he opens his mouth, he brings us bread and butter for the beat-driven soul. In person he is a relatively reserved kid, at least in comparison to the rest of The Filthy Unit. Behind the microphone, he tends to transform into one sharp-tongued vicious emcee.
“Growing up in the Sandy-Little Cottonwood area, we had a little scene where kids would come and kick rhymes. The Uprok kids were always the best, always seen as intimidating,” said Task. Unlike most young hip hop musicians, Task skipped the mainstream hullabaloo phase. “I just never really liked that…stuff,” he shrugged. Instead he dove directly into the scene’s holy heart, finding his place at local house parties, in the spotlight behind the mic. Two weekends ago, Task and Abnorml cleaned out the Unite Battles, held annually at the Kiwanis Club on 900 East. Task took first, Abby second.
These boys aren’t just fooling around—they take the whole scene almost too seriously. They record once a week, every week, affiliated at present with Sleestack Records. They’re constantly promoting, playing out, performing more or less anywhere and everywhere they can. It’s rare in a scene so small and unpretentious to see such dedication and genuine, self-motivated hard work. The Filthy Unit’s album is a worthwhile slow work in progress. It should be available for purchase by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the group members will continue to dominate the microphone whenever possible. Catch them at Bourbon Street on Wednesday Nights for “Humpin’ Wax and Throwbacks Wednesdays”—or of course at Undagroundz, where they sling coffee and, on Friday nights, trade brutal, sick rhymes. The first Friday of every month, Undagroundz is a host to rap battles of all walks—“Raw-dog-dirty mo’fuckin’ hip-hop, man,” is how Boothe put it—and the group has tour dates lined up for a month of Sundays. See them and Kanser on Oct. 25 at Undagroundz, (344 S. State Street). See them again at Brick’s (579 W. 200 South) on Nov. 15. You can track bits and pieces of their gorgeous progress on UtahGraffiti.com. Or you could put on your I Am Not Afraid Hat and stroll up State to Uprok once in a while—eventually, you’re bound to run into something good.

staff@red-mag.com
jordan@red-mag.com

 
     
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The members of The Filthy Unit have made their hip-hop lifestyle into a burgeoning career.

 

       
 
   
 

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