Set It Off

A St. Paul hip-hop crew looks to the next stage

Though August Wilson used to write plays in Sweeney's, the St. Paul neighborhood bar sits on the "white side" of Dale Street, and it might be the last place you'd expect to find a hip-hop showcase. But tonight, the upstairs is filled with playas of all races, dolled up in their Friday best, nodding their heads to rap-along musings by the Stereo Type Click and the improv rap duo Sixth Sense.

Though the Native Ones headline tonight's mid-August refresher course in "St. Paul Style," the various members of the Abstract Pack are playing the host role, greeting guests and shouting encouragement to the other acts. The generally anticipatory mood before their set may be lubed by close quarters and cheap drinks, but when the Pack takes the stage and the crowd fills the floor, the excitement is palpable.

The buzz around the Pack is genuine, an old combination of underground pride and reluctant pop hopefulness that one would have thought died long ago in the uphill battle to break open the local scene. Not that the crew's debut CD isn't tailored to the streets: It's grounded in jazzy, stop-sign-rattling bass figures and the usual hardcore waterfall-of-lyrics. But the lush, fluid song structures of Bousta Set It (For the Record) contrast starkly with the dirty-snare minimalism and intricate thought balloons of rappers Atmosphere and Beyond, who each released remarkable underground breakouts last year on Rhyme Sayers Entertainment.

This latest album harnesses the Pack's long-cultivated live energy and distills it into hook after hook, sprinkling local references into the mix ("Shots Paul," "Minnesota nice") for flavor. "I think they're one of the first real rap groups ready to come out of Minnesota," says Smoke D, co-host of KMOJ's (89.9 FM) Smoke & Delite radio show, which has helped push the crew into regular rotation at the station. At the very least, Abstract Pack has dropped the local hip-hop album of the year.

Egging the Sweeney's crowd on to make noise, throw hands, and lay down bills for Bousta Set It, the Pack crew's four budding stars--Glorius L, MSP, Eklipz, and Rastadile Dundee--launch into the non-CD cut "Who Rocks" with bracing fury. "We the rhymers who started this shit in the STP," they rap in unison, bounding across the stage. If there exists a line between the charitable and the involuntary head-bob, most audience members cross it here.

"We incorporate hella energy," says Rastadile later. "That's the way we've always kicked it."

Less than a mile away from the bar is Glorius L. Martin's tan apartment building on Concordia, overlooking I-94. This was where the interstate tore up Rondo Avenue in the mid-1960s, bisecting the heart of St. Paul's oldest African-American community and obliterating its commercial thoroughfare. It was here, on either side of the highway, where most of Abstract Pack's members grew up, attending Central High School together in the early '90s and forming the group in their senior year, after a particularly exhilarating performance at a 1993 talent show.

Glo's apartment is child-friendly for his 4-year-old son, Storm, with a shag carpet and kid's toys and videos in evidence. On the wall are awards for Glo's work on KTCA's (Channel 2) Don't Believe the Hype, an issues-oriented show aimed at urban youth that he co-hosted for four years. The Pack joined Glo to perform for a special live airing in 1995, and the tape the MC lends me captures the mic skills of one Herbert Ford Foster IV. Known to his friends as Sess, the rapper, whose gravestone is pictured on the back of the Pack's disc, was killed in a car accident a couple months after the show aired. "We have no tolerance for those who cannot rock it," he raps on videotape. "And you best have your doctorate in your pocket."

On the Sunday afternoon following the Sweeney's showcase, Glorius reviews tapes of samples sent by the Pack's beat-maker, a 28-year-old Milwaukee police officer and hip-hop fanatic named Bill Landingham (a.k.a. SoulFinga, but known to the Pack as Mr. Bill). Slowly, the group members arrive for the weekly meeting: the lanky, low-voiced Eklipz, who at 26 is three years older than the other members; the big, mellow MSP; the wiry, mini-dreaded Rastadile, who would probably be the group's spokesman if he weren't so outspoken. Knowledge also stops by, and the only MCs absent from the meeting are R 2 Da Damn and Gambino.

Everyone present is coming off a late night at the Rhyme Sayers showcase, but they rouse from their daze when trading stories about their first dips into hip-hop culture. When Rasta puts down a bag of chips to confess that his first break-dancing crew was called Dean and the Rocket Breakers, his friends erupt in cackles. "I didn't even think to use an a.k.a.," says Rasta, who, like most of the rest of the Pack, prefers I not print his civvy name.

When I bring up Sess, they allow a pause before speaking. "Lyrically, the skills that we're just now tapping into, he had naturally," says Glo. His reverence for the MC, a year his junior, is obviously shared by other Pack members.

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