Underground Rapper of the Week: Spy MC

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

I can personally attest that Spy MC is one of the hardest working underground rappers in the game right now. A San Antonio, Texas, native who started rapping at the age of twelve and came up as a drum & bass MC in the Texas rave scene of the early 21st century, Spy moved to the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2006. Along with his deejay brother and two producers also hailing from San Antonio. Together they formed the group SF Wrecks, which then morphed into the huge super-group Death Ray Scientific (DRS), with members of Wide Eyes, Matching Wits, Dialogue Elevaters and other underground Minneapolis rappers, deejays and producers.

Along with his own formidable work on the mic, Spy has always been a tireless promoter of not only himself (as most rappers are), but also of other artists he considers worthy. He has proven this time and time again in various ways, such as the open mic series “Switch,” run by DRS at Minneapolis’ legendary Dinkytowner Cafe. Largely organized by Spy, Switch gave many up-and-coming Twin Cities artists their first real sets, opening for more established headlining acts like Kanser, Carnage and even the late, great Eyedea and his group Face Candy. Spy continues to help build the Twin Cities’ underground Hip-Hop community through its otherwise largely stagnant battle rap scene. Having brought GrindTimeNow to Minnesota in June of 2009, he is now the Promotional Coordinator and co-host of The Loud Mouth League, which keeps GrindTimeNow’s tradition of a capella battle rapping alive.

With so much organization and promotion on his plate, it’s amazing that Spy manages to put out his own music, let alone music as dope as the work he has done with fellow DRS alumni Sean Anonymous and Shelltoe as Bottom Feeders, and his upcoming solo EP, Unfinished Business. Produced by MoonDoctoR and debuting online by the end of the summer, Unfinished Business is the kind of self-assured but still hungry solo debut you would expect from someone who got in the game at the age of twelve and hasn’t slowed down since. As he says on the Juice-featuring grind anthem, “Twenty Four Seven,” Spy is “planning domination / Verbally, locally, most certainly globally / Heard of me? Know me? Show-murdering dope emcee.” Bottom Feeders homie Sean Anonymous and Chicago’s Phillip Morris also pop up on “Room and Space,” which finds Sean and Spy seemingly competing for the fastest, freshest flow on the second and third verses. I’ll leave it to you to decide who wins that one, but rest assured that Spy MC does what he does, and likely always will.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Madd Illz

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Orlando’s Madd Illz is the definition of a beast – an insanely ferocious emcee who spits intricate but accessible, rapid-fire, multisyllabic rhymes that absolutely demand you press rewind over and over again. He could undoubtedly hold his own up against cats like Twista and Tech N9ne for the title of fastest rapper alive, and he boasts an extremely versatile flow with an impeccably crisp, clean cadence and perfect rhythmic timing. He’s also one of the kindest, most supportive rappers the global Hip-Hop community has to offer.

Illz was born to do this; in fact, his birth name, Matt Hills, practically is his stage name. He’s also the living embodiment of the idea that battle rapping, however mean-spirited, is really about building community, not just tearing another emcee down. For evidence of this, look no further than GrindTimeNow, the world’s largest Hip-Hop battle league, which he created and owns. With divisions ranging from Orlando to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, California and more, GrindTime challenges emcees to bring their best, most intricate and cleverly constructed punchlines to the table. Written verses are openly accepted and expected, but the best GrindTime rappers stay on their toes with sharp freestyles as well, flipping their opponents’ punchlines back at them. Though few of them are nationally famous, one of GrindTime’s best battlers, Dizaster, recently beat the legendary Canibus in an instantly infamous battle, and battle rap phenom Jin has also participated in the league.

Speaking of freestyle rap, Madd Illz is one of the sharpest you’ll ever see at it, and he’s often at his best when allowed free reign to riff on any topic that comes to mind, rather than being tied down to the focus of a battle. The speed of his delivery isn’t weakened by the lack of pre-written material, either, as he displays a remarkably extensive rhyming vocabulary and enviable endurance for long-form flows. I’ve seen him go off for several minutes straight multiple times in any given show without repeating concepts or rhymes, and always ending his extemporaneous verses strongly, rather than just trailing off when he runs out of ideas, as so many freestyles end.

In addition to freestyle and battle rap, however, Madd Illz is also an excellent songwriter, with diverse topics ranging from the personal (“If I Get Famous”) to the political (“Be A Patriot,” “Sick of the Lies,” “Katrina”) to his love of the art form itself (“Music”), as well as songs simply showcasing how sick he is as a rapper (“His Name’s ILLZ,” “Put on By the Spit”). His sharp, autobiographical anthem, “Underground Hip-Hop” could also serve as a statement of purpose not only for this column, but for any up-and-coming emcee, as well as veterans who may have lost their way. Fierce, uncompromising and wise, Madd Illz is at least as deserving of mainstream success as any underground rapper out there, but he would never sell out his vision to get it.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Solillaquists of Sound

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Normally this column is devoted to a single rapper that deserves your attention, but Orlando’s powerhouse group Solillaquists of Sound are so completely unified that it often feels as though the four-person collective is a single artist, albeit one capable of incredible feats no one human being could manage. Though emcees Swamburger and Alexandrah are each among the best underground rappers I could possibly profile (though Alexandrah is really more of a jazz and soul singer, who nonetheless spits rhymes with the best of them), it is their unique collaboration with poet Tonya Combs and one-man-band DiViNCi that really makes them stand out as one of the most original and vital forces in music today.

Solilla began in 2002 as a collaboration between Swamburger and producer DiViNCi, before incorporating fellow Orlando artist Combs and Alexandrah, who originally hailed from Chicago. The nascent group spent a great deal of time together in the studio, quickly recording their first full-length album, 4 Student Counsol (Running from Precedence), before ever performing together in front of an audience. 4 Student Counsol is a wonderfully warm and welcoming musical experience, full of laughter and the sort of endearing mistakes most artists would leave on the cutting room floor. Though the lyrics and production are tight, there is a loose feeling to the recording that gives the listener a feeling of being a part of the creative process itself.

This immersive feeling is very much a part of Solilla’s ethos, which is amply evident in their live show, an experience that simply can’t be reproduced. However, until you get the chance to see them live, their 2005 follow-up album, Solillaquists Live (The Truth Don’t Need Support), is a great appetizer, and their live DVD, Fam Glorious, comes even closer. Solilla’s live show is truly amazing, a galvanizing event filled with laughter, tears and joy. Unlike the average Hip-Hop show, where emcees and deejays generally stand posted and deliver sound, Solilla really make use of the whole stage, and Swamburger is often known to jump off it for an impromptu breakdancing session amidst the audience. However, more than anyone else in the crew, DiViNCi is a maniac live, playing two to four MPC drum machines in lieu of the traditional deejay’s two turntables. He often plays them with his feet or even his face, generating unparalleled enthusiasm from the crowd.

After catching the ear of kindred artist Sage Francis, Solilla signed to Anti-/Epitaph in 2006, touring with him behind their first major label release, As If We Existed, which shows an admirable maturation without sacrificing any of the emotion or vitality of their previous independent releases or their live show. Witness the way they blend Swamburger’s ferocious, rapid-fire rapping with the swelling beauty of Alexandrah’s vocals and DiViNCi’s production on tracks like “Ask Me If I Care,” or the highly thoughtful message mixed with satirical humor of tracks like “Black Guy Peace.” For a deeper look at DiViNCi’s stellar musicianship, this video documenting his creation of the synthesized “guitar” solo at the end of “Berlin” is also a must.

Solillaquists of Sound have been gaining in popularity ever since, garnering a great deal of attention for their stellar single, “Death of the Muse,” featuring J-Live, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, and the mother of the late, great producer J Dilla, to whom the track is dedicated. With the release of their second Anti-/Epitaph release, No More Heroes, they have also branched out into the field of music videos such as “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel” while continuing to represent at live shows all over the world, and they are from slowing down. Part one of their new two-part album, 4th Wall, is now available in a limited edition.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Sean Anonymous

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Undoubtedly one of the most gifted and hard-working emcees in the Midwest, Minneapolis’s Sean Anonymous has been steadily on his grind for at least the past seven years now, since joining the Twin Cities crew Wide Eyes in 2005. Having toured extensively throughout the U.S. as a solo act and with a variety of other groups – including Wide Eyes, Death Ray Scientific and Bottom Feeders – Anonymous is now poised to take on even greater acclaim with his upcoming solo EP, Anonymo, produced by DJ Corbett and set to drop in June.

Even before the release of their first EP, Situation, in early 2008, Wide Eyes was a force to be reckoned with in the Twin Cities’ Hip-Hop scene because of their intense and energetic live show. Anonymous in particular is known for a stage presence that can best be described as “wildin’ out,” as he truly puts his whole body and mind into every live show. In his best performances, Anonymous often appears to be on the verge of exploding, but at the same time never loses focus as he delivers intricate, versatile flows with a rapid-fire delivery that remains accessible even at its most technically challenging. This summer, you can catch him performing live at the Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Bonnor Springs, and Maryland Heights stops on the Vans Warped Tour.

Perfectly complementing the rest of Wide Eyes – fellow emcee Tony Phantom and producers Dimitry Killstorm and DJ Name – with his sound, Anonymous can’t help but stand out on certain tracks, such as his mind-boggling first verse on “Borrowed Time,” from the 2009 Wide Eyes album, Hands Tied (pay close attention beginning at about 0:56 to hear how hard he goes in). Since the release of that video, Anonymous has been hard at work capitalizing on the advantages of this visual medium with stellar new videos for “Fast Forward” and the upcoming Anonymo track “Hot to Death” (coming in August), both directed by Dave Wilson.

The great thing about the music of Wide Eyes is how simultaneously old school and forward-thinking it is, with undeniably head-nodding production by Killstorm and Name layered under thoughtful but gritty flows by Anonymous and Phantom. Anonymous has also found success collaborating with other notable Twin Cities emcees Spy MC and Shelltoe in the darkly humorous group Bottom Feeders, and shows great comfort joining in live performances with some of the finest underground rappers in the nation, such as Ohio’s Blueprint, L.A.’s Abstract Rude (both of whom will be guest-starring on Anonymo), Chicago’s Phillip Morris and Juice, Minneapolis’s own MaLLy, Toki Wright and many more. Incidentally, Anonymous is one of the friendliest and most approachable emcees you’re likely to meet, and his goofy, unpredictable sense of humor is especially evident in his latest music video, “Name Droppin,” which you should watch at least twice below.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Phillip Morris

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Chicago-based international emcee Phillip Morris is in a league of his own in so many ways. He celebrates his nerdiness on tracks like “Must Be a Nerd” and “Get Your Nerd On,” but he is not to be pegged as “nerdcore” by any means, and he goes harder than most gangsta rappers on tracks like “Words Are Gunshots” and “True Calligraphy.” He’s an undeniably charming ladies man who actively cautions women to stay away from himself and any other performers on tracks like “Trouble is My Middle Name,” while acknowledging that “I got no swag, so I understand that it must be the words.” He is an unapologetically party-oriented rapper who is also a well-informed activist – see “Pass Me a Light” for the former and “Revolution Knows No Compromise” for the latter.

By the way, that “international emcee” moniker is no joke. Morris has played all over the United States, as well as various parts of Spain and the Dominican Republic. In addition, his excellent 2010 album, The Truth Campaign, was entirely produced by French beatsmith Tha Truth Tella. Morris has shared stages with the likes of Dead Prez, Souls of Mischief, Kool Keith, Devin the Dude and Guante, among many others. He has also performed and led workshops at a number of schools in the U.S., from Columbia College on down to Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, where he presumably focused on his less raunchy verses. This activity points to his efforts to bring his unique style to everyone from inveterate Hip-Hop-heads to folks who normally don’t even like rap. As Morris himself says of rap, “I’m further than that, creatin’ snuff music with the way I’m murderin’ tracks.”

As innovative and complex as Morris’ rhymes are, perhaps the best way to experience his work is a live performance, where he blends his consummate rapping skill with a wildly expressive and idiosyncratic stage show. He is often known to engage the crowd directly, which may or may not include crowd-surfing while wearing a kilt, which he did at a recent show with Minneapolis-based “Hippie-Hop” collective Wookiefoot. His next live show is in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which he informs me is where volleyball was invented, and he has a new album in the works with Minneapolis-based Hip-Hop crew Wide Eyes (Morris has almost as big a fan base in Minneapolis s he does in his hometown of Chicago). In the meantime, I highly recommend picking up any or all of his four albums, especially The Truth Campaign and his latest full-length, Lady Liberty is Wasted, which is available on a sliding scale from free to whatever you want to contribute.

  

Related Posts