Set It Off
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.
"He was definitely born to rhyme," says Rasta, "and he was a very smart person. He was one of those people who could do whatever he wanted to and be good at it. He was the bomb cook. We could sit here all writing verses, and two hours later we'd be still working on the first paragraph, and Sess would be done with a page."
"And have it memorized," adds Glo.
If Sess inspired Glo to take his fan's obsession with hip hop seriously, Glo passed that enthusiasm on to the group, encouraging them to take their rap obsessions to the talent-show stage in '93. The group began practicing in their friend Eric Goodlow's basement, where they soon roped in Eklipz, a college student from Denver attending Hamline and living with the Goodlows. "I was doing laundry one day, and they asked me to come to the show," he says laughing. "We all might as well have been living there."
"And after we graduated, we had nothing but free time, as far as we were concerned," says Rasta wistfully. "We were over there every day and every night all summer." The Goodlow family still lives in the big brick house pictured on the inner sleeve of the CD's flap, at the intersection of Aurora and St. Albans, just across the highway from Glo's Pack headquarters. This was where the group answered the increasingly performance-oriented wave of local hip hop--driven by crews like the Micranots, School of Thought, and the Eloquent Peasants--by juicing up their own hectic brand of posse interplay.
"Finally we had some people around here that you could see doin' the same shit we saw on TV," says Rasta. "And by the time we got into it, we had to take that to another height. We were the first crew in all of Minnesota with more than two people on stage at a time. When we came on stage with six heads, people were like, 'What?'"
With St. Paul hip-hop Renaissance man Stress, a.k.a. Brent Sayers, the Abstract crew formed Headshots in the mid-'90s, an extended family of MCs, DJs, and producers that came to encompass many of the artists now under the Rhyme Sayers umbrella, including Atmosphere and Beyond. But the group broke with Headshots, and the resulting rift hasn't yet mended. Stress attended the Sweeney's gig (though this may have been a function of the Rhyme Sayers groups sharing the bill) and the Pack attended the RSE showcase the following night, where Stress approached Knowledge about resolving the "beef." That said, one of Bousta Set It's catchiest moments is the chorus of the dis tune "High Octane," with a refrain aimed at MCs building reputations strictly on underground success: "I don't give a goddamn/All the shows you did/How many rhymes you got/Or who knows you kid."
"Wherever you go, kids smell their own hype," explains Eklipse. Pack members say local hip hoppers aren't thinking nationally, and they see gaining exposure on the coasts, especially New York, as the key to putting Twin Cities hip hop on the national plate. "You ain't a true Muslim until you go to Mecca, and I ain't a true MC until I done tested my waters in New York," says Glo.
Others--friends and strangers alike--have come to share a similar vision for the crew, and have proved instrumental in their progress. Before the split, Stress introduced the Pack to SoulFinga and his treasure trove of rare samples. And when twin brothers Darrell and Terrell Bland saw the crew rip up the Fine Line stage two years ago, they offered on the spot to finance an album. The two 26-year-olds had also attended Central and now work for Burlington Northern Railroad, where they put in overtime to help fund the Pack's hip-hop aspirations. And though it may seem strange, funding one group's success is worth the overtime for the Blands. "The reason they trust us is we aren't trying to get no money," Darrell says. "All the money goes back into them. Me and my brother's goal is to say that we helped somebody get to that next level. That way, we can get other groups to that level too."
The twins paid for the Pack's studio time, employed SoulFinga as sample-maker, and hired Shane Stoneback from Oarfin Studios to mix the recordings. As the results took shape, the fraternal investors became more and more excited. "I knew these guys were gonna be good, 'cause they're not gangsters, and they don't talk about 'bitches' or demote women," says Darrell. "It's real music. And that's what a lot of people like about them."
The admiration runs both ways with the Pack, who think of the Blands as family. "They came down to Rondo Days where we had a table with CDs just after they came out, and they bought two," says Glo, laughing.
If the Pack are immodest about their aspirations to take Twin Town hip hop from Sweeney's to the coasts, they also carefully weigh their debts, taking their traditional album-sleeve thank-you list to heart. "This is some real black struggle shit," says Rasta. "I can honestly say this album ain't because of a few brothers, that's for sure. This whole shit is maintained off community."
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