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The definition of underground rap differs depending on whom you ask. To some, it's a state of mind where one refuses to compromise for commercial dictates -- to others, it's just another clever marketing strategy peddled by industry playas and journalists. Though few words are contested more in hip-hop, the "underground" still usually connotes some sort of oppositional stance to what dominates the marketplace. In an era of iced-out platinum jiggy superstars who sing songs about thongs, one needn't dig too far to find thriving subterranean sects ready to bust into willing DJs' record crates. The paradox is that if you ask most of the rap artists who've had the label thrust upon them, they'll tell you they want their records to reach a large audience. But if you start to sell more records, have you ventured aboveground? And if you are labeled underground, will that prevent your records from ever reaching more listeners?
Such is the dilemma faced by the Brooklyn-based five-deep crew of Jise One, Freestyle, Swel Boogie, Q-Unique and D-Stroy, otherwise known as the Arsonists. Jise One puts it like this: "I've seen it happen to a lot of groups that I bump heads with. It gets pigeonholed -- not only just underground hip-hop, but any kind of hip-hop that you hear. What's wrong with the industry is, people need to categorize individuals. If you don't belong in a category, you're pretty much nothing, so people don't care about you. Until you get placed in a category, nobody is going to try to buy your records, whether it's mainstream or underground."
The Arsonists' first forays into the underground/mainstream dialectic began in 1996, when DJ Bobbito Garcia -- a radio personality and hip-hop tastemaker -- began to play their first single, "The Session," on New York's WKCR. The response was overwhelming. "He played it once and the calls came in -- it was incredible," says Jise One. "He was like 'Yo, I've never had this many calls.' People were just calling and asking what it was." The group, which had just trimmed down from thirteen members and changed its name from the Bushwick Bomb Squad to the Arsonists, planned on pressing its first record itself, but Bobbito convinced the members otherwise. "We gave Bobbito a tape of the single and a collection of demos, and he was like, 'Put your money in your pocket, and I'll put it out, and we split fifty-fifty,'" recalls Jise One.
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Bobbito put out "The Session"/"Halloween" on his own label, Fondle 'Em Records. The single did well and began to generate a buzz in all of New York's boroughs and in stores statewide that carried Garcia's imprint. The effort even earned the group the prestigious Butter Award in the West Coast-based publication Rap Pages. The Arsonists followed the next year with "Venon"/ "The Seed," put out by MC Serch (yes, that MC Serch -- half of the defunct Anglo-rap outfit 3rd Bass) on Serchlight/Geffen Records. In 1998, they returned to Fondle 'Em with the cuts "Blaze," "Geembo's Theme" and "Flashback." The success of the singles, combined with the group's well-received live shows, helped solidify the Arsonists' reputation as a group that was likely to break out.
Major labels came around along the way, but none really brought with them offers that the crew thought would be wholly beneficial. This changed when the Arsonists got a call from Matador Records, a New York-based independent label known for elevating groups such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Guided by Voices, not putting out rap records. Employees from the imprint -- which recently celebrated a benchmark decade of being in business -- had purchased the singles at the well-known Fat Beats record store in Manhattan, a place where Q-Unique had once worked. Apparently they liked what they heard and told their co-workers so. Soon, co-presidents Gerald Cosloy and Chris Lombard got in touch with the group and a deal was inked.
The group is quick to dismiss the idea that a label more practiced at putting out works by indie heroes like Pavement couldn't possibly have any idea of how to market a gritty, urban rap group. "The reason we signed here is that they gave us complete control, and that's something you usually don't get when you sign a record contract," explains Jise One. "You never really get creative control. You always have somebody to tell you, 'Well, you really can't do that, or you shouldn't say that, or you shouldn't do that, because it's not going to sell.'" The label's propensity for granting creative control to artists, along with a marketing approach that's as precise as a smart-bomb, have helped establish its credibility among indie, college-rock and punk-lite loyalists. Matador's recent signings of the Arsonists and Non Phixion (who released Black Helicopters on the label in March) should help the company become a respected player in the rap world as well.
The Arsonists' As the World Burns, released in the fall of 1999, represents material that the group began working on in 1995. Not surprisingly, the Arsonists had plenty of tracks to choose from when it came time to compile a full-length. "We've recorded like almost a hundred tracks," says Jise One. "We picked the tracks according to the different emotions and different times we were going through when we recorded those songs. Every song represents a different period of time we were going through, whether it was happy or sad." One thing that comes across loud and clear on the album is the group's maniacal energy. The group laces its tracks with some bugged-out beats, most noticeably on the Q-Unique-produced "Pyromaniax," which sounds like Monty Python in a cipher backed by the sounds of a monkey grinder playing on a street corner. The Arsonists go all over the musical map in their quest for otherworldly sounds and sample even the most non-urban artists imaginable -- check the cut "Halloween," which borrows from the B-52's "53 Miles West of Venus," as one example.