Music News

Lifesavas Take Portland to School

In the late '90s, after a mutual friend was murdered, MC Vursatyl (aka Marlon Irving) and producer/MC Jumbo the Garbageman (aka Solomon David) formed a group called Lifesavas to honor his memory. Portland audiences quickly embraced the duo, but its big break came when Chief Xcel of Blackalicious inked the group to Quannum Records and released the critically acclaimed Spirit in Stone. This past April, the pair, joined by DJ Rev Shines, released Gutterfly, a concept album dripping with greasy funk that follows the exploits of three superheroes who battle the villains of Razorblade City. For inspiration, the group drew from classic blaxploitation movies such as The Mack and lesser-known cult faves like the Ralph Bakshi-penned Coonskin. We spoke with Vursatyl about Gutterfly and about cultural outreach, Lifesavas style.

Westword: In many blaxploitation movies, like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, there is always a social and political subtext. In what ways did that influence the themes of this record?

Vursatyl: A lot, because the characters we wanted to play were superheroes in this quote-unquote ghetto. If you look at certain images in those blaxploitation movies, they really become something to look up to. Some of them had negative connotations, but then you have movies like Black Caesar, where he is taking down The Man. It's an empowering image, and he becomes a hero in his community. Even in The Mack, you see Goldie's character going to the neighborhood. He pulls up in his big car, the kids all looked up to him, and his message to them was, 'Hey, if you don't stay in school, I'm not going to give you more bread, you dig?' In terms of hip-hop, we've used that in a similar vehicle; we're trying to reach the young generation with hip-hop they can dig, as well as put out empowering messages like 'Shine Language' and 'Freedom Walk' on the record.

'Freedom Walk' is an inspired collaboration with Dead Prez and Vernon Reid. What is the song's message?

It's to take action — not just talk the talk, but walk the walk, to stand behind what it is you're saying, be as active as you can be. We did the song with Dead Prez, and they weren't recording with a lot of artists. They made it clear that the only way they were going to do the song was after they did their research and they knew we were active in our communities.

One way you have given back to the community is by teaching a Hip-Hop 101 course. Can you tell us about that project?

Hip-Hop 101 was a nine-week course that we just completed. It was for high-school students in Portland, through a local community center and a youth organization called Wyden Kennedy. We covered the history of hip-hop, from its evolution through Kool Herc moving to New York, from Jamaica to the present. We wanted to give the kids the whole foundation and then guide them through how it has evolved to today, so hopefully they would have some perspective on what we need to see consistently in hip-hop to keep it in its true form. So the goal of it is to make sure kids don't lose the spirit of why hip-hop came to be in the first place.

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James Mayo