Mike Landers and Alan Johnson are driven. In February 2003, the Deux Process partners in rhyme -- aka Vice Versa and Chief Nek -- moved to Los Angeles, determined to land a record deal. It was a gigantic leap of faith for the Colorado Springs-bred MCs, who'd performed as Deux Process only once and didn't even have enough material for a full-length, much less any connections in L.A. But now, nearly two years later, Landers and Johnson have their deal. Next month, Avatar Records, a sizable indie distributed through Fontana/Universal, will issue In Deux Time, their national debut.
And it's all because they never lost sight of the dream.
"Chief and I are brothers," Landers says, speaking from the home he shares with Johnson and manager Mike Milnick in downtown L.A. "We knew what we were going to do before anyone else did, before we came out here. It definitely took some balls -- for lack of a better word -- to make the move. To leave it all behind and really go for what we were trying to do, it was a soul-searching thing. It's like that's our family; that's our comfort. We had steady jobs that paid us. Sometimes I think you have to be out of that comfort zone to really support your own creativity. We had those days where we didn't have any money and no record deal. We put mileage on our souls beyond what anybody will ever know. But you see it start to pay off, and those are the nights that help make it all worth it."
But Landers's resiliency had already been put to the test before he moved to the City of Angels. A founding member of the Procussions (which just inked a deal with the legendary Rawkus imprint), the MC left that combo right before it moved from the Springs to L.A. in 2002 and quickly became a critically acclaimed underground phenomenon. The decision to leave the Procussions wasn't an easy call, he says, but it was the right one.
"They always talk about when there's 'too much talent' in a group," he explains, "and I never believed it until I was a part of it. All of us had different creative ideas of where we wanted to go with some of the songs and what we wanted to do. And it felt like sometimes some of the stuff that I wanted to do maybe wasn't quite in line with what they were doing. I felt more like the odd man out; that's why I removed myself. Rather than hold them back by feeling like I was dead weight or not quite as creative as I should be, I'd rather them go forward and me figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life."
Landers admits that he was a bit disillusioned as he followed the Procussions' progress. "I won't lie -- there were some moments that I was, especially early, early on," he confesses. "That was all I did. I dedicated six or seven years to that. So it was like, 'What do I do now?' I found myself starting to write lyrics again at night, even though I didn't have anything going." Instead of becoming embittered over the success of his friends, he regrouped and eventually hooked up with Johnson, a fellow veteran of the Springs hip-hop scene who'd just returned from college in Atlanta and was eager to begin making music again.
It turned out to be a perfect union. With the help of Luke Atencio, a third member who opted to stay behind when Landers and Johnson moved to L.A., the group finished its first song, "The Process," a track originally intended for the Procussions that Landers and Stro the 89th Key had previously worked on. The single, which appeared on Deux Process's self-pressed twelve-inch, turned heads almost immediately. Soon after its release, Landers and Johnson headed to California to visit the Procussions, who had worked their way up to performing six or seven shows every ten days. While the two were there, a promoter at Stacks, an L.A. record store, called to offer Deux Process an in-store appearance; he thought the act was local.
"We were like, wow!" Landers recalls. "We seemed to be working our tail off as much to try and get one or two shows a month in Colorado, and we got people out here already calling to book us, and we don't even live here! So we were like, 'Maybe this is the place to go.' Out here you're in the belly of the beast, so to speak. It's the media capital of the world, as far as entertainment is concerned. There's so many labels, entertainment companies, producers and other artists and studios. It's just so much more wide open."
A few months later, the Deux crew was in L.A., with the musicians working at Bed, Bath & Beyond during the day and grinding at night. "Aside from the Pros, we didn't know anybody out here," Landers says. "And even they hadn't been out here quite long enough to be super, super established. They definitely put us on to some great opportunities. But we just hit the ground running. It was no sleep, a lot of going out, a lot of performing for free and doing whatever we could do to get heard."
The networking paid off. With the help of the Procussions, Landers and Johnson met the L.A. Symphony, an acclaimed L.A. hip-hop ensemble that offered up its studio for recording. Landers, meanwhile, had begun to supplement his income by deejaying at area clubs; that's how he met childhood hero and West Coast icon DJ Rectangle, who later recruited Johnson to tour with him. By then, the two also counted the likes of DJ Quik and members of Ugly Duckling among their friends and had appeared on Sway and King Tech's highly influential Wake Up Show.
Before long, Landers and Johnson were able to ditch the day gigs and make a living with Deux Process, now bolstered by the addition of DJ Shawn Wilson, aka Shawn Dub, a Long Beach native and a fan of the act. Their dream had come true in California.
Although DonnieBo, the head of A&R at Avatar, reportedly discovered Deux Process through its myspace.com profile, Landers still considers the move to the West Coast critical to its success. "It happened on the Internet because of the shows we had," he insists. "A lot of the people who were on our myspace page were going to our shows. As the buzz in that community circled, it's because we were out here doing shows nightly. It was still us out hustling and grinding to really get noticed."
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And never giving up on the dream.
"It sounds corny," he concludes, "but we would have rather died than failed. That's just how much we believed in ourselves and were determined."
Catch Deux Process at the Snake Pit on Saturday, December 17.