Tony Cummings and Stephen Adams report on some of the best acts in America's hip-hop underground.
Portland, Oregon's Acts 29, who are currently getting mucho airplay on Cross Rhythms radio, consist of MCs Braille, Soul Plasma and MC/producer Ohmega. They are based in the youth ministry New Beginnings Christian Centre in Portland. Their debut album 'Under Exposed' on Syntax Records is available here through Spirit Music. I spoke to Ohmega Watts who explained the objective of the group and their album. "The entire album's focus was really on spreading the word of God, and the lifestyle we should be following and just real life situations with some fun tossed in. We're just down to earth individuals humbled by God's goodness and we just seek to express ourselves through music."
Their sound, courtesy of Ohmega and Braille, is reminiscent of the mid '90s playful vibe of the Native Tongues collective (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, etc), while their lyrics are firmly rooted in the issues of today that face the youth, from the street to the church youth groups alike. From the very underground sounding flow and vocabulary of Braille and Ohmega Watts, to the more rugged, street flow of Soul Plasma, the resulting sound is hip-hop with a very broad appeal.
Acts 29's ministry isn't confined to the jewels of a CD case, but the crew have seen very real results of God's power during shows. Ohmega recounts, "We saw a woman that was about to shoot up in a park where our whole youth ministry Acts 29 was outreaching at, and we were rapping after an altar call, and this woman came up to the altar and was crying out very loud... She had been in the bathroom a little while before, by this park, about to shoot up heroin, and her heart was too convicted to do so. The Spirit of God was there, and she came running out after hearing the testimonies of other young adults, and us rapping - she had a sense of fun and joy come over her hearing us all and got convicted that she was throwing her life away. That was the best thing. We've also had real good responses from people saying some of the songs we did ministered to them or helped them through situations, so that itself is a great thing that God's done with Acts 29."
The already prolific crew are linked with the ever-growing collective of Christian MCs, DJs, graff artists and B-boys, all over the US, known as the Buphoon Cyrkle. Including artists such as John Reuben and DJ Manuel, Lojique, Othello, Playdough from Ill Harmonics, Labklik's Illtrip, Mars Ill, RedCloud, Locke, Soul Components, the Acts 29 boys are involved in a movement bringing a much needed unity to the Christian hip-hop scene. Ohmega explains, "It began a long while ago by MG! The Visionary and had the late Reuben A.P. of Comunalien as part...it's just a movement of like minded Christ-following believers that make dope hip-hop or music that they do, b-boy, turntabalism, or graff, and we are a network or resources to pull from each other. We're all pretty funny guys, sometimes... some of us all the time! That's the Buphoon Cyrkel.
Already, the crew are involved in a lot of other projects, whether solo or otherwise. Return To Sender (Ohmega and Braille's original group) have already created a little buzz as we await an album from them; Braille's second album 'A Long Road' and Soul Plasma's debut solo album are in the works and Ohmega's productions on songs by KJ52 and Mars Ill are earning him a reputation as a fine beatsmith. Next thing on the agenda is the upcoming release of the album 'Pure Thoughts' by Lightheaded which is Ohmega, Braille, Othello (formerly of Lojique) and Canadian producer Muneshine. As Ohmega explains, it seeks to bring back "a part of hip-hop that's been missed for some years... the hype uptempo beats, jazzy vibe and energy from MCs who have a genuine quality in themselves. Again we push love. We don't want to candy coat our view of the world itself, and also we want to share the Gospel through personal experiences." - Stephen Adams
Of all the hundreds of rappers and groups exploding onto America's hip-hop underground, one of the most respected is San Diego's Future Shock. Consisting of rhyme masters Ahred, Sojourn, Redbonz and DJ Trey-Qel. In the mid '90s Future Shock, Raphi and LPG did a tour of Southern California. Finding themselves of like mind after the tour they formed a collective. Ahred told Feed magazine, "We just put a name to it and called it Tunnel Rats. In Vietnam, the tunnel rats were the guys who went underground to make sure that the tunnels were clear so the soldiers could go through. We considered ourselves as those guys going first to make the way clear for people to go after us."
Future Shock's first appearance on an album was on SFC's classic 'Illumination' project on Brainstorm International. A full posse Tunnel Rats album 'Experience' followed in 1996 followed by Future Shock's 'Remember The Future'. Commented Ahred, "Future Shock purposefully stayed away from the normal cliché hip-hop thing. It was our desire to say 'we don't come from a ghetto or gang neighbourhood; we come from San Diego.' Gene Eugene and Ojo Taylor's Brainstorm Artists International folded in 1997 and the membership expanded, taking in Sev Statik and New Breed (see their interview in CR69). But Future Shock decided to leave the Tunnel Rats crew. Ahred assured Feed, "There is a lot of respect, mutual admiration and support on both ends. There's no hostility, there's no animosity." Future Shock have now formed a new crew called the Inklings (though it's a long way from Lewis, Tolkein, et al) and with the Soulseekers, DJ DNA, Redcloud, DJ Hydro and "honorary member" B-Twice, Future Shock's new album is 'The Art Of Xenos: Entertaining Aliens' for Sackcloth Fashion's groundbreaking Syntax Records (available in the UK through Spirit Music). It's a fine album. Ahred spoke about the title, "The word Xenos is Greek for entertaining hosts or 'entertaining aliens'... It's angels, it's aliens, it's a foreigner - someone who comes from a different place. As Christians, we want to entertain other foreigners, other people who feel removed from modern day society." - Tony Cummings
Rapper John Reuben has built up a growing following in Europe thanks to his Gotee albums 'Are We There Yet' (1990) and 'Hindsight' (1992) plus his regular visits to countries like Holland. Barely into his 20s, Reuben came to the attention of Gotee's Toby McKeehan after the release of an independent album. He's outspoken about the "best rappers are black" stereotyping. "I don't define my art by my ethnicity," he says. "My heritage is Jewish and I was raised as a Christian, but our community was full of transplanted new Yorkers - Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities. What I became as a writer and musician just reflects the way I grew up." John is equally determined that Christian hip-hop needs to find its own originality. "With Christian-based hip-hop, I don't think we've really tapped into the creativity of the God of the universe. An artist will never get any respect for ripping off other artists, nor will they gain it from changing a chorus for it to become more holy. That's just generic and cheap."
One of the things that set Reuben's albums apart from more run-of-the-mill hip-hop fare is the superlative production from Todd Collins. The rapper is keen to praise Collins' work. "The guy is an unbelievable producer. He can basically do anything he wants to. He is best at the R&B stuff and the party jams. I think that's probably why KJ-52's stuff is sounding so good right now. I am able to communicate my ideas to him and he is able to take it and boost it. Todd is a pro and he can do anything. I am not saying that to puff him up, but he majored in Latin drums or something."
One of the most powerful songs on 'Hindsight' is "Pataskala", written after his close friend and backup performer Scott Bellows died mysteriously in his sleep. "God used that situation in my life to get me off the one-track mindset I was on. Ever since his passing, I've made much more of an effort to keep a balance between all of my priorities, including staying plugged in at home and staying in fellowship with other believers." In retrospect, Reuben looks on that tragedy with promise, noting how the experience has shaped him for the upcoming stage of his life and career. "Until something like this comes along, it's so easy to get caught up in the everyday movement of life and neglect the important things," continues Reuben. "It may sound overly simple, but I'm just trying to make the most of every situation that comes my way and not take as much for granted in my life." - Tony Cummings
"I'm the Ball Point Composer," Freddie Bruno says. "I'm a producer, an MC and a breakdancer (when I was 20 pounds lighter). I believe that I am a part of a Levitical ministry. I believe that anyone ministering in music is a Levite. I keep it real, but I have fun."
Having grown up both in Washington, DC and Dallas, Texas, Bruno has been featured on collaborations with Mars Ill, Deepspace 5, E-Roc, Ill Harmonics and BK & Associates (a side project headed by Ill Harmonics' Blake Knight). Freddie has now been on tour with KJ-52, Ill Harmonics and Mars Ill to promote his debut for Uprok Records, 'The Ball Point Composer'. "This is my outlet to show the world that I can hold it down on my own." After eight years of recording and performing in the underground, and appearing on numerous compilation albums, Freddie has put together a lyrically tough, musically tight and deeply spiritual debut record with which to challenge the hip-hop heads. "This album is all about me growing as an artist. I really stepped it up, got a little more intricate, a little more hype with it. One thing about me people notice is how I'm always trying to reach the next level, on a spiritual plane."
'The Ball Point Composer' also features the work of Sivion from the Phat Kats, Sev Statik from the Tunnel Rats, Sintax the Terrific from Deepspace 5 and the world famous underground head DJ Ghost. In the song "Melodic Parabolic" Bruno states his evangelical manifesto in rhyme. "It talks about how I utilise hip-hop as a sort of parable to reach the lost, in the same way Jesus did with his parables." Other subject matter in Bruno's raps cover everything from economic desperation in "Not For Profit" to "hip-hop as a girl" in "Miss Bonita" (not to be confused with A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebaum"). "If she were a flesh and blood girl, that's what she would be," Bruno says. "The first verse is about me being a b-boy, the second about me being a rhymer, the third verse about me being a producer, and how she helps me with it. How much I love her, and all that."
'The Ball Point Composer' was recorded with Ill Harmonics' Playdough, at his home studio, and mixed by Playdough and Blake Knight. "I've known Blake for about seven years," Freddie says. "He and Playdough go to my church. I feel like I got the best work from those guys. I think it's very important to say that if it weren't for my homies in Ill harmonics, I'd never be even half way as professional as I am." Jokingly, he adds, "If not for their brutal honesty and heartless criticism the eight year friendship would be pointless." Bruno first received acclaim for his work with Playdough on "The Ink Blot Song", which was originally performed by he and Playdough in their band Phonetic Composition. Now with a remix of "Melodic Parabolic" on BK & Associates' debut, as well as guesting on Ill Harmonics' 'Take Two' album, he's ready to dominate the new hip-hop scene. "I like to do straight ahead stuff," he says. "I'm a pretty deep individual. For lyrical inspiration, prayer helps and being around friends who are straight with me. That helps me a lot."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.