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Muhammad always wanted to produce a hip-hop album but could never find an MC who was stable enough to stick around to get an album out. When he took a job at the HueMan Experience bookstore, however, he was trained by Detric Garvin, aka Mecca Machete, a young rapper who hadn't been able to find a producer who was into his vibe. "Everybody out there was just doin' gangsta-type stuff, with borrowed loops and samples, and I wanted to do original stuff," says Garvin.

At first Machete wasn't too interested in Muhammad's punk background, but eventually the men became friends. Both were Muslims, and beneath Muhammad's punk-rock surface was a fan of jazz, R&B, hip-hop -- you name it. Machete says that after hearing some R&B tracks Muhammad had laid down some years earlier, "I was like, 'Cool, man, we should hook up.'"

The result was Can I Touch Somethin'?, a debut album that Machete describes as a demonstration of his skills, as if he were Babe Ruth pointing his bat toward the bleachers in left field. "The sound is universal," he says. "I'm just trying to display skills in as many different genres as possible. I'm lyrically superior on every level."

The album is filled with similar boasts and challenges. On one track, "Raw Deluxe," Machete envisions ripping opponents' CDs "like Zorro with a lyrical slash." And on "Who'z Mecca," he claims he "backs my raps/with the edge of an ax, like a butcher/Now I gotta cut you/Now where's your head at?/Steady rollin'...heads be rolling."

Yet Machete also shifts gears into loving grooves that are macho without being unromantic, and elegiac tunes that address the realities of the banger's lifestyle. In "Manhood," Machete's narrator reflects mournfully, "Damn, I never thought I'd live past the age of 25. I might have done something better with my life..."

Machete's flows are framed in Muhammad's toe-tapping grooves, grooves that on some tracks have just a trace of that lazy, straight-from-the-islands vibe, and on others sound almost as smooth and silky as modern R&B. But it took a while for the rapper and the producer to click. At first Machete says he just wasn't feeling Muhammad's reggae-tinged "Spanish-style stuff." They worked on a half-dozen tracks in frustration, but stayed optimistic and finally got the right feeling with "Play on Playa" -- a track about the art and artifice of the Mack. "Jamal introduced some new percussions different than anything I'd heard," Machete explains. "I started with the drum beat, he did everything else. He added in congas. It was just off the hook. I know ain't nobody ever came up with anything like that. It was like, 'Let's build on that.'"

"The real cool thing about him is you hear about rappers 'keeping it real,' when what the majority are doing is riding off the testimonial of others," says Tony Morrison, the owner of Studio A, where the album was recorded. "With Detric, I believe him when he speaks about something he really believes. A lot of times he'll get in there without any lyrics and just come up with something."

"I'm serious about this," Machete says. "I'm trying to make it all the way to the top -- people knowing who Mecca Machete is all over the world."

Machete, 29, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Colorado. He started rapping when he was eight, but it wasn't until age 22 that he realized he could make money as a rapper and got serious. He perfected his flow through years of jazz-style cutting sessions, where young rappers would get together and throw down. On his block, before school, after school, during lunch, or when he and his mates ditched school altogether. All to play out the primal drama of men: Who's the best?

For years Garvin had gone by the name Mecca, a reference to the Muslim holy city and an Arabic word that means the center of attention or attraction. That's how Mecca saw himself on stage. During cutting sessions, bustin' flows against rival rappers, he picked up the tag Machete, for the way his raps cut straight to the chase and buried his opponents until "they wouldn't want to rap anymore."

"I'm not always talking about thuggin' it and stuff like that," he says. "What's selling right now is the thug shit and talking about hard times. That's cool and everything, but I like to talk about good times, and I like to talk about solutions. The thug stuff is gonna rule for a while, but it's gonna get more into realism and solutions."

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T.R. Witcher