By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Local MCs, go ahead and be "real" in the sense of being true to yourself--but why be realistic? If everyone from Urb magazine to your friendly neighborhood promoter thinks Minnesota hip hop will never get the respect it deserves, why not dream of an even less likely scenario? Why not imagine it getting the respect it doesn't deserve?
Inflated optimism is a tool of trade for unknown local rappers who don't make purist distinctions between art and the art of getting over: Witness Dead End's ambitious double-CD debut. No wonder the lofty Young & Da Restless made their live debut opening for none other than Naughty by Nature--albeit in Ames, Iowa.
"We never thought about doing talent shows," says Eric English, a.k.a. Tommy Real. "I'm not saying they're bad, we just didn't want to do nothing unless it was real big." He extends his long arms outward for emphasis.
The neatly corn-rowed English is relaxing in the St. Paul apartment of the more diminutive Damien Foster, a.k.a. Chase Manhattan, who is seated on the shag carpet where the two MCs rehearse. "Even if we wasn't big," Foster interjects, "even if we thought we was just mediocre, we were still trying to think like that."
For the moment, Foster seems more preoccupied with the art of the virtual three-pointer. In his hands are the controls to the Sega Dreamcast videogame NBA 2K1. Onscreen, Larry Bird passes the ball to Wilt Chamberlain, his virtual Dream Teammate. "This is what we do all day, man," Foster laughs sheepishly. "It's addictive."
In front of the TV cabinet sits the ASR-10 sampler that produced every note of the lush g-funk epic The Motion Picture, Y&R's debut. Following a release concert on Monday at South Beach, and a June 22 opening slot for Juvenile at the St. Paul Armory, the album will be distributed nationally via New York's Alternative Distribution Alliance.
Y&R are now their own virtual dream team--a hopeful duo well-removed from the dues-paying reality of the local rap grind. Instead of building their reputations slowly from small local performances, they immediately began opening for such major headliners as Scarface and DMX. The MCs attribute such biz-connectedness to their executive producer, Urban Lights record-store owner Tim Wilson. Yet they have earned their own live rep by playing to the notoriously opener-indifferent audiences that attend national shows. "You start with an F when you walk onstage," says Foster. "You have to work hard for that A."
Y&R have also pulled off a rare coup de cool by befriending local hip-hoppers without condescending to open for them. Since graduating from North High School in 1994, the MCs have recorded promotional jingles for KMOJ-FM (89.9) and Beat 96-FM (96.3), and have cut an unreleased track with R&B superstars Next, whom they've known since childhood. With all those helping hands, they're proud to say they produced their debut themselves.
The Motion Picture's tracks have the same relaxed vibe as the low-energy sport of virtual hooping--indeed, English and Foster make Snoop Dogg sound manic. And the highly personal lyrics are no less vivid for erring on the side of cinematic melodrama. "Unborn Son" is based on the real-life coincidence of both MCs simultaneously dealing with the guilt of an unwanted pregnancy. "I'm only half a man," Foster raps, seeking punishment from the Almighty after his girlfriend has an abortion. "Just reduce my body back to grass and sand."
The rest of the album features half-sung refrains and catchy chant-alongs, with Roger Hill doing his best Nate Dogg impression, and Danielle Pierce and Kat honey-dipping the R&B choruses-within-choruses.
"The hook is the most important thing," remarks Foster before trying another virtual hook shot. In the rap game and Dreamcast alike, your aim is as crucial as your height.