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.
with DJs Stanlee, Dijon and Lark
15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street
10 p.m. Thursday, April 27
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.
On As the World Burns, the unit decided to re-release all of its popular singles, albeit in a somewhat altered form. "The Session" gets the most discernible reworking, with smoother production values and a blazing, jazzy acoustic bass line. "We put cleaner drums on there. We made a change-up with the beats, just to give people more variety. We felt like it was cheating people to give people the same thing again," says Jise One.
Throughout the disc, the crew lyrically celebrates and pays homage to the four elements of hip-hop: emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing and graffiti writing. At 29, Q-Unique is a veteran B-boy -- a more-than-ten-year member of the world-renowned breakdancing squad the Rock Steady Crew. "Flashback" provides a B-boy stroll down memory lane in which Q-Unique reminisces about the genre's glory days: "Hip-hop was breaking, spray painting full-train cars/DJs cutting/ MCs was instant ghetto stars." "Underground Vandal" puts Freestyle up front in a song that finds him representing the best underground rappers by graf-writing their names on walls throughout New York City. As Jise One tells it, Freestyle "wanted to represent a lot of the MCs people don't hear on a normal basis. He wanted to describe it in a way where he's getting chased by the cops, and he's tagging these names up -- he's tagging all these group names up on the wall."
Each of the Arsonists' MCs has a distinct style and hits the mike from a different angle. The unit, at its best, recalls other multi-MC groups like the Leaders of the New School and the Wu-Tang Clan. But the crew shines brightest in its freestyle and battle raps. The zany "Lunchroom Take-Out" lyrically pits Swel Boogie against Arsonists affiliate Gr8Scott in a jest-filled and spirited verbal joust. To the accompaniment of what sounds like someone banging on a lunch table, the two trade off such disses as "You couldn't drop shit unless you were sitting on a toilet" and "You're so poor the only time you eat is in the lunchroom cafeteria."
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Though the Arsonists are self-professed studio junkies, they approach the recording process with an attitude toward improvisation, as if they were on the street corner kicking it freestyle. "What happens is, it's just a whole vibe," says Jise One. "Q, D-Story and Freestyle produce the album and what we do is just throw on the tracks and hang out. We don't try to do records or anything. It just comes out naturally. They'll play the tracks, and we'll pick one and discuss, 'What does this make you think about? What do you feel off this track?' We just try to make our words music as much as the production is so that you have two different kinds of music playing off of each other."
As the World Burns has received enthusiastic reviews from all of the major rap publications, but it has garnered only a lukewarm response from radio, something that puzzles Jise One and his fire-starting comrades. "I don't understand," he says. "A lot of people like the record, but it's just not played like you would think. That's a mystery. Maybe it's because of the sound. It's different."
Different is a quality often looked down on in a rap world too often obsessed with trendiness and material glossiness. For the Arsonists, though, different means original -- and the crew displays its creativity in everything from lyrics to its choice of label representation. Arguably, few hip-hop artists could successfully pull off a collaboration with the German noise terrorists in Atari Teenage Riot, as the Arsonists did last year. Though the group still maintains street credibility, you definitely won't hear any gangsta rap cliches uttering forth from any of the crew's MCs. "We grew up in the street," says Jise One. "It's good to talk about the street, but talk about it in a different way. Talk about a different aspect of the street. Talk about sunshine in the ghetto. Sometimes people will do a whole album and just say 'My life is fucked up, life is shit.' But we look at it from both sides. There is a balance you've got to keep, and that's what we try to do on stage."
Live is where the Arsonists hope to get their voices heard outside the largely underground ghetto scene that has been their musical home for the past five years. The group's kinetic onstage hijinx have, in the past, featured plenty of breaking and improvised skits -- recently, the MCs adopted superhero personae and battled the evil sample-clearance villain. Although Jise One doesn't want to give away any details of what the Arsonists have planned for their current tour, he promises "to give the people their money's worth." The Arsonists' incendiary antics might even have you burning your dollar dollar bills, y'all.