In a tiny, cramped bedroom studio in east Denver, producer/MC Solpowa scrolls through beats on his computer while his cohort, MC Fist of Fury, aka Shunfist, alternately scribbles on a notepad and quietly recites the lines of verse he's just penned. The warm smell of colitas hangs in the air, and a vintage shot of Bob Marley keeps watch over the space, which is sparsely adorned with patches of sound insulation, faded press clippings and old show fliers. It's hard to believe that with only a minimal amount of outboard gear, this makeshift studio has produced some of the hottest hip-hop and R&B tracks to come out of Colorado.
"I got the best software I could, the stuff all the big boys use," Solpowa says. "I am really meticulous about the sound, though."
"It's all about creativity," Shunfist adds. "As you can see, it's not a big studio or nothing like that. It's nothing fancy. Earlier, if you were here, you would've seen everybody just talking, throwing out stupid ideas, saying funny shit, making each other laugh. That kind of stuff makes you sit down, relax and write. You're hearing all these dope-ass beats, and you're like, ŒThat's tight. That's tight. That's tight.' Then all of a sudden you'll hear this one beat, and something gets in your head, and you sit down and start writing."
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The casual environment has certainly cultivated an endless wellspring of creativity. For proof, look no further than Tha Revolushun, RRAAHH Foundashun's third and most stellar release to date. Whereas the act's previous discs, Mt. Airophat and Reincarnashun, deftly showcased the MCs, whose individual styles vary dramatically from the forceful yet refined deliveries of Keo and Shunfist to the laid-back flows of Solpowa and Dent (Jose Valenzuela, Darius Vega, Derrick Rice and Adam Linnabary, respectively), the recordings themselves were a bit unvarnished and the beats less sophisticated. On Revolushun, however, it's clear that the group has begun to tap into its full potential, with production to rival the rhymes.
Listening to the aptly titled Low Budget Soul compilation, which was released around the same time, you get the sense that RRAAHH Foundashun has barely scratched the surface. An exemplary 21-track effort, Low Budget spotlights a diverse array of the area's top MCs in a way that's remarkably cohesive, especially considering the number of artists involved. While there are plenty of exceptional tracks, the ones that stand out most belong to the Foundashun and its secret weapon, King Mississippi, an unparalleled -- and thus far criminally unheralded -- vocalist. Solpowa, who helmed the entire project, says the Low Budget sessions were pretty characteristic of how the RRAAHH crew operates in the studio.
"We're all family, man," Solpowa notes. "We all record here. Nobody's tied to a contract or anything. We just kind of freelance. Everybody's their own MC. Nobody has to be slave-whipped -- ŒGo out there and do this,' or ŒGo out and do that.'"
"I think the biggest thing is that we learn from each other," Shunfist elaborates. "I think that's what some cats don't do; there's too many egos. Thing is, within the family, we're not afraid to break each other's egos down. It's for the better, and everybody knows that. If Sol is telling me, 'Yo, man, that shit's wack,' I'd better come correct; I'd better go back in the lab and start studying. It's just constructive criticism all the way around. I think that's what makes the music so good."
That and Solpowa's undeniable Midas touch when it comes to beat-making and production. "Nothing would go down," Dent enthuses, "without this cat daddy Sol P, man."
Sol, however, humbly deflects that sentiment. "I'm always looking for beats from different producers," he states. "I can't be the best producer in the world, you know what I'm saying? You always need help from other cats. It's like, shoot, I'll take a beat from anybody if it's good. I ain't ever going to be just like, ŒMy beats are the shit. I can't listen to nobody else's shit.' I like to deal with a lot of different cats, because I learn from everybody. Somebody might know something better than I do. I'm always trying to learn."
"He's like the architect," Shunfist adds. "The rest of us are like the engineers. And the other cats that come in are the workers. We get everybody organized and then go out there and put that work in. We start from the ground up, and the next thing you know, you've got something built."
That's exactly how the RRAAHH Foundashun was poured. The original collective, which included Solpowa, Hood (Jamie Kennedy), and Pioneer and DJ Shuntastic (brothers Lamont and Damion Williams), came together in 1993 under the name New Breed. In 1996, when a deal with a local imprint fell through and Hood moved to New Mexico, the remaining members linked up with Keo (aka Life the MC), a labelmate whose deal also failed to materialize. Around that same time, Solpowa ran into former schoolmate Shunfist, and the newly rechristened act added him to the fold. "We all looked at each other and were like, ŒThis is it, right here,'" Shun recalls. "And then we spent every day together in the studio after that."
A month after Shunfist joined, RRAAHH Foundashun took the stage for the very first time. Francois Baptiste of 3 Deep Productions invited the unit to open for a national act he'd brought to Club Mecca in Boulder. "We went out there, and we just started killing it," Shun recounts. "We started moshing while we were rhyming, throwing each other around. And the next thing you know, the beat stopped. Everyone was quiet for a couple of seconds, and then they just went nuts. We were just looking at each other, like, 'Damn!' And everybody was like, 'More! More! More!' And then Francois said, 'You got one more?' We were like, 'You only told us to bring one.' He's like, 'Fuck!'"
Since then, Dent, a respected MC in his own right, has joined the crew, and they've shared the stage with such luminaries as Ludacris, Wu-Tang Clan, Slick Rick and Common. Yet outside of Denver's relatively small and insular hip-hop community, few have even heard of RRAAHH Foundashun. "We could have better promotion from our end, I think," Solpowa allows. "But we just do what we can. We're just men trying to make music."
The members of RRAAHH insist that they'll continue to forge ahead whether notoriety eludes them or not. "I love music," Solpowa deadpans. "I don't give a fuck. I'm still gonna be makin' beats. I'm still gonna be writing raps. It's kind of like basketball to me: If you're gonna hoop, you're gonna hoop, regardless if you go pro. It's a love for the game."
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For Shunfist, who's currently taking an open-ended sabbatical to spend more time with his kids, fame is definitely not the aim. "As far as RRAAHH Foundashun, we're not a group of rappers; we're MCs," he points out. "A rapper ain't got the right intentions; an MC has the right intentions. A rapper wants to be popular, to have this kind of status, like 'I want to wear the bling-bling. I want everybody to kiss my ass and feet.' An MC really don't give a shit. An MC is going to go out there and drag his ass through the mud, working the fucking trenches."
Ideology aside, RRAAHH Foundashun isn't quite willing to join the ranks of the willfully obscure simply for the sake of purism. Like any other group of artists, it's out to make a name for itself -- which it probably will, thanks to Solpowa. Refusing to be pinned down to a particular style, he's created a sound that's as geographically nebulous as it is compelling, vaguely resembling a merger between the hessian funk of Cypress Hill and the boho stylings of De La Soul, with the underpinnings of classic '70s soul orchestration. If that sounds diverse, the sonic nomad wouldn't have it any other way.
"Everybody hates on somebody being from down South, or somebody being from the East Coast or the West Coast," Solpowa says. "What kind of sound do we have? I don't fucking know, really, man, honestly. To be honest with you, I like it all.
"Good music is good music," he concludes, "regardless of where it comes from."