GET FAMILIAR: Raw Deff
Photo courtesy of   Brett North Photography

Photo courtesy of Brett North Photography

Raw Deff has been a standout spitter for years now, but 2018 saw him stepping it up on several important levels. There’s been a string of killer singles and guest verses, increasingly high profile shows — most recently, opening up for Jarren Benton in Manchester, NH — and he’s been working closely with the newly reunited So.802 crew, who are prepping for a huge 2019.

Here, though, we’re mostly looking back at some of the long, intertwined rap history shared by Vermont and New Hampshire. We’re also talking shop about songwriting, performance and influences. Enjoy.

VTHH: I first realized you were flames grade material when I saw that "40 Bars of Raw" video, but when I investigated, man, you already had a deep catalog. When do you feel like you started hitting the standards you heard in your head growing up?

Raw Deff: I mean, it seems like every year I look back and listen to my last project and feel like I’m already better than I was then. I think I reached a point of contentment with myself as an artist in 2016. Extraordinary Failure was the one that I really took seriously through the whole process of making it. If somebody who’s never heard of me asks me where to start in my catalog of music, I’d point them in that direction.

VTHH: I still think Uninvited Guest was one the best rap LPs of 2018. What was the process when you assembled that?

Raw Deff: The process for that project was pretty much just trying to find a perfect balance of substance and ignorance. I always tried to have a record for everybody on all my projects but at this point, I realized I just want to make the same kind of music I would listen to myself. Although I felt as if I kinda did that with Uninvited Guest unintentionally. But, I’d rather do it organically than forcefully so it worked out well.

VTHH: What is your process for writing verses? Are you an obsessive editor?

Raw Deff: When I write, usually the beat dictates everything. The mood, the tone, the cadence...is all a compliment to the beat (not sure if that’s a good or bad technique) but that’s just how I’ve done it for so long. Every now and then I’ll write in silence then surf through my beats and find which one it matches best with. I’ll usually write my rhyme, give it a day or two, go back and tweak a few things, depending if it’s gonna help in the recording process, then call it a wrap. (Pun intended.)

VTHH: When you started rhyming, where were you getting feedback and finding community? Were there locals doing hip hop yet?

Raw Deff: Yeah, I usually got decent feedback, I’ve been writing since I was 10 or so, I started publicly rapping in front of my friends around the age of 15. It was always positive feedback from them, but in retrospect that’s not really who I was looking for a reaction from. I didn’t know of too many locals who actually made records, just a few kids would rap in cyphers at parties with me. As far as cats that were actually recording, all I really knew was Breadtruck Productions. Then of course when XP came into the picture, he fucked up all my confidence in being the illest around. I wanted to quit after I first heard him.

VTHH: Amen to that. It looks like you managed to work things out with XP since you first heard him, though. How did the Hellrazors project with him come together? Is there more in the vault?

Raw Deff: Yeah, XP and I have put out a couple full length projects in the past. The first tape we did came about through mutual acquaintances. We linked up to record a song, found out we had similar interests, and within a few months we laid down roughly 20 records. We “released” our first project in 2012 then we dropped a follow up mixtape 2 Hell & Back in 2015.

Since then, we’ve just been focusing on our solo stuff with a few features from each other here and there but we’re still close. Music aside, that’s one of my best friends. And yes, there’s definitely music in the vault and new material on the way. Expect more this year.

VTHH: Who are you feeling in New England these days? Do you have local cats in rotation on your stereo?

Raw Deff: There’s a lot of dope talent in New England. Some are deservedly getting their shine. The ones that are are almost exclusively from Mass. Such as...Reks, Joyner, Millyz, Termanology, Slaine, Esoteric, Jaysaun, Krumbsnatcha, Edo G. I definitely gotta shout out the 656 Records crew up in Maine, all of them get busy.

Still, most days though, I find myself playing the same albums I grew up on from the 90’s. I definitely dig a lot of local cats too. As far as local musicians (VT & NH) that I keep in rotation...XP is always in there, The Aztext, Yung Breeze, Wombaticus Rex, Mike Wing, Maiden Voyage, Granite State, Drive, Jibba the Gent (just to name a few) there’s plenty more. There’s a lot of dope dudes around here at the moment. I expect to see a surplus in really good music come out of VT from here on out.

VTHH: You had a dope run of shows in 2018 -- do you have any favorites, in terms of crowds or venues?

Raw Deff: A versatile crowd is always a great crowd. To make fans out of people who not only don’t know who you are, but don’t listen to that genre of music on the regular, is always a dope feeling. My favorite show(s) this year was probably 656fest up in Maine this past summer. In terms of venues, the more intimate spots are dope because it makes the experience more personal on behalf of the audience. The bigger venues are fun just to wild out and be more physically expressive. Just to name a few, I’ve always loved The Shaskeen in Manchester NH. The Monkey House in Winooski is a great spot and always brings in a well educated hip hop crowd. And Higher Ground for the fact that it’s where I’ve seen some of the best shows I’ve ever been to. Hopefully I can scratch that venue off my bucket list in the very near future.

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Justin Boland
VIDEO: DJ Kanganade x SkySplitter - "Triage"

The tag team of DJ Kanganade and SkySplitterInk have just dropped a proper video for their single “Triage.” Filmed by the Church Street DJs team in some fairly iconic BTV locations, this is a fun, flashy and distinctly old-school treatment that suits the song. It’s awesome to see the non-rap elements getting represented like this, too.

No word on a DJ Kanganade solo album, but friends, I do hope that puppy is percolating in a studio somewhere. However, Equal Eyes Records recently announced that their next project will be XIX, a new LP from BTV producer, multi-instrumentalist, and ace recording engineer SkySplitter. He’s got chops that span many genres, from synth-trap luxury to future-funk R&B to EDM-infused rap bangers, so expect XIX to be a wild ride.

Expect more ill stratch tracks courtesy of DJ Kanganade, too. As the liner notes promise:

Shoutout to Colby Stiltz, MC Topic, Basic Brains, Mertz and Jibba the Gent for putting SkySplitter in the lyrics so Kanga could go all DJ Premier on “Sunken Treasure” 

XIX drops on Equal Eyes Records Friday, January 25th.

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Justin Boland
THE FIVE SPOT: Omega Jade
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Special thanks to guest writer Omega Jade.

New opportunities are all a part of the new year. With that being said, I have been given the opportunity to bring to you something new. Introducing The Five Spot, a series for Vermont Hip Hop News. Yay me! OK, so let’s get down to business. I’m going to give you my favorite songs done by local MCs and why I consider them a favorite. One of those will include one of my released songs. Are you ready? Doesn’t matter. Here we go:

D. French- Like Stockton

This one surprised me. He has a conscious message with a flow that says swag. It was a feel good track to me. What comes to mind is a lot of self determination. Specifically in the hook, we only got one option. Because lets be real. In a lot of situations, that’s all we really have. I look forward to hearing more from him. Thank you for your contribution to the community.

Joint Manipulation (ft. Learic)- Real Hip Hop

Oh my Lord! I fell in love with this track the first time I heard it. From the beat to the lyrics. This songs brings you into a state of nostalgia because it makes you miss the days of real Hip Hop. I am actually listening to it now as I write this. Learic brings some spiritual bars that has me believing that he’s more of a shaman MC. When he says, you hear the organ in the background cuz church is in session; I felt that shit. And JM has a style that really reminds me of Immortal Technique, if he had a brother rhyming with him. They are raw. They are real. And you hear that in this song. Its always a blessing to hear MCs who know how to bring the real spirit of Hip Hop. Thank you so much for what you do.

Flex45- Flex45 Mash up

Now this one was very different than what I normally hear around here. I love that so much. He compiled multiple beats to rhyme his own verses to. Beats like 3peat-Lil Wayne, Southern Hospitality-Ludacris, Elevators-OutKast and even Rap God-Eminem. And there’s more! It is fire! His transition is flawless. He showed how versatile his flow, style and cadence is. First thing I thought of when hearing this, Papoose on Five Fingers of Death with Sway. He nailed it. If you don’t know who Flex45 is, you would be wise to learn. Thank you for your originality and contribution. Check it out.

Bitzzzzz- Chalked

You know I have to represent the female MCs in Vermont. Especially since there’s only a few of us. This track starts out with strong, powerful lyrics from the start. With a delivery that is comparable to Missy Elliot and a message that is just too real. You can tell her lyrics come straight from the heart. And the message is clear. The world is cold and you can’t always trust those you think that are for you. I look forward to doing a feature with her in the future. Because us women got to stick together. Thank you Bitzzzzz AKA Tonya Mitchell for your contribution.

Last but not least: Me.

Omega Jade – United States of Dope Men (Prod by Rico James)

This is just a piece of the story I have to tell. Its a personal look at my own issues with drugs, the crack epidemic, and the opiate crisis. It was inspired by a discussion I had recently about foster kids being fed drugs to be compliant. I was that foster child. I also lived in California during the crack epidemic. And with what is going on in Vermont and the opiate crisis, I felt a need to make it all connect. So why not write about it. It’s a favorite of my music simply because I hear what I have overcome. It also helps that I did a slight diss to Rick Ross. Because what’s Hip Hop without a diss track? No matter how small it may be. And so with all of that, I invite you to take a listen.

Well that’s all I got. But I want to take the time to say, Thank you Vermont Hip Hop News for asking me to do this. I hope we can work together again in the future. Peace.

Omega Jade will be performing at Comedy With a Splash of Color on Friday, January 11th at the Revelry Theater in Burlington.

Justin Boland
99 Neighbors - "Television"
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Seven short, cold days into 2019 and I’m already way behind on coverage. There is a lot on the way this week, including a new regular series, but first, well…this is the only place to start.

A year ago, 99 Neighbors didn’t quite exist yet — all the players were in place, but the name was still a work in progress. Their sound has been almost impossibly good since this movement kicked off in 2017 with Sam. & Somba’s The South Cove EP. That was a face-melter of a debut. Jordan Adams of Seven Days called it “astounding,” and that’s a pretty fair assessment.

That was happening right around the same time that Hank Collins got a Daysie Awards nomination for “Best Hip Hop Artist” — that wound up going to Lynguistic Civilians for the 7th consecutive time, but it definitely put him on everyone’s radar. His single “Mimosas” clocking over 80,000 plays on Soundcloud also turned a few heads.

By the time the 99 Neighbors crew came together, Collins — now HANKNATIVE — and Sam. were both just about finished with two strong solo projects. Sam.’s Collision EP dropped a month before Problem Child, and both were among the very best projects of 2018. So 99 Neighbors debut LP arrives, finally, with a lot of hype and lot of promise.

Television is very fucking good. You should listen to it, if only to appreciate the state of the art. I won’t belabor it past that. There are other points to be made here.

Although VTHH definitely has readers who are local fans, most of our readers are local artists. Almost all of them would very much like to be where 99 Neighbors are today. So it’s important to outline precisely why they are not.

First up, this is a crew with serious assets. Sam. and HANKNATIVE are both natural talents, but damn near any rapper alive thinks of themselves as exactly that, so let’s look past them. (But, maybe consider that you could improve in the booth.)

As a producer and engineer, Somba is doing professional work, every session. He really knows his shit, he has a great ear and he puts in billions of hours for his crew. Odds are pretty good you don’t have a Somba.

That counts for a lot. Not having to pay for endless studio time to tinker and experiment; not having to pay for beats; not having to pay for mixing and mastering. That’s a situation anyone in the business would envy, and a big advantage. In the case of 99 Neighbors, the advantage extends even further. Their crew of artists and photographers and musicians is, strategically speaking, a force multiplier.

Especially when you cultivate a culture of honesty. Although it can be difficult at first to create situations where blunt feedback is possible, once you get that going, it becomes a virtuous circle. You set yourself up to win long-term. In contrast, bullshitting your friends about their mediocre music requires constant maintenance. Your call.

Are you really winning? Do you have a process for re-assessing where your career is at — and where you want it to go? How do you measure your success? How do you learn from your failure?

Here’s something else to consider: 99 Neighbors don’t release demos. They don’t leak rough mixes. They cook every meal until it is finished, and so should you. It’s easy for new artists to feel like that kind of transparency is “fan engagement,” but that’s not what your fans want. They want your best work. Only give them that.

Finally, it is obvious that 99 Neighbors not only practice their live show heavy, they also put a lot of thought into their sets. Much like having a fanbase or selling out shows, this is not something you can fake. Artists either do the work or they don’t. Any adult can tell the difference 20 seconds into your first song.

Reality is inherently unfair: while doing the work is no guarantee of success, not doing the work is an effective guarantee of failure. Choose wisely.

Enough of all that, though. Just enjoy the music. 99 Neighbors will be playing at Higher Ground — the big room this time — on Friday, January 11th. If you want tickets, you should get them ASAP.

Cheers to a dope young crew doing it right.

Justin Boland
2018: Everything Happens At Once
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This was originally a long recap of a long year; all of that has been scrapped. Instead, this is a look at How and Why 2018 was the busiest, best year that Vermont’s hip hop scene has experienced so far. Along the way, there’s a playlist of twelve tracks I was bumping at the time.

This is both very long and completely unnecessary. Enjoy.

JANUARY

Back in January, this website didn’t even exist yet. Since then, I’ve managed to rack up over 150 posts here, which reached twelve thousand unique visitors. Which is cool. I did not expect to be breaking 10k the first year. Curiously, more than half of that traffic is coming from outside of Vermont.

One thing about having real web analytics instead of Facebook numbers is that it makes it easy to see who’s got a real fanbase and who’s … well, I hope you’re fooling yourselves, because you’re not fooling me.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that artists like Es-K and Jarv have serious juice. You’ve heard of 99 Neighbors by now, too. Overall, the most popular interviews this year were Pro of the Aztext, HANKNATIVE, DJ SVPPLY, Fattie B, Selfish Presley, and Yung Breeze each of those had over 400 unique readers this year. The most popular post was the Top 10 Albums list, which is predictable and sad.

Vermont Hip Hop Dot Com is a one man operation and it will remain that way, but obviously I owe a profound debt to the hundreds of artists who are covered here. Special thanks to Rico James, whose photography is frequently featured here, and Garrett Heaney, who designed the site’s clean layout & look.

The VTHH Reader Survey is still live for the rest of the week, and I’ve collected some of the best ideas here. There is a lot more work to be done covering the scene. Become the media. It’s easier than you think.

FEBRUARY

We’ve got a generation of young artists coming up taking a lot of opportunities for granted. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s also the result of decades of hard work, plus a couple of lucky breaks.

First off, Burlington is a college town that loves alcohol, and this supports a ton of venues. Those venues are mostly run by open-minded liberals who are happy to book rap shows. Even after two late-night shootings right downtown, one of them fatal, nobody is associating “rap shows” with “potential violence” around here. Artists in many US cities aren’t that lucky.

Better still, we’ve also got a lot of competent, hard-working bookers and promoters. There’s nothing like a Leedz Edutainment style monopoly in Burlington, it’s a diverse ecosystem. New artists have a lot of opportunities to get onstage without having to buy their way in.

February, despite being a short, frozen month, was packed with awesome shows. DJ SVPPLY and company celebrated Dilla Day at Sidebar, Slaughterhouse legend Joell Ortiz played Social Club and Lounge, and the Perceptionists rocked a sold out Monkey House. Art rap luminary Milo came through Arts Riot, which has been making space for hip hop ever since they opened.

There’s also been remarkable work at the margins, with DIY house shows (props to BadArt and Zesty Boi), dinner hip hop shows down at Sherri’s Place in Springfield,  and a string of outstanding shows by Red Handed Records, a local music collective turned tastemaker x promoter. The Switchback Taproom hosted a late afternoon show by Mister Burns and Jarv — a treat for the working stiffs, and something that should happen more often. Finally, Swan Dojo hosted Building Blocks 2, their second blowout “block party,” charity fundraiser and breakdancing competition.

This is not a complete list and it’s not intended to be. The point is that these opportunities get created by artists and fans just like you. The point is that you’re got a much bigger network of opportunities — and mentors — than you probably realize right now. Reach out.

MARCH

March marked the first release from Equal Eyes Records, one of 2018’s most important developments. We’ve seen plenty of small imprints before, but a label on this scale is something new: they’re dropping releases every month, they’re reaching outside their circle & crew, and most importantly, they’ve got physical products onto store shelves and into the hands of the fans.

There are levels to this shit,” as Conway always reminds us, and Equal Eyes Records is the first time Vermont has seen a hip hop label operating on this level. Their debut was Tired of Waiting for Rappers Vol. 1, an instrumental collaboration featuring label co-founders ILLu and Rico James. Since then, they’ve racked up eight more releases, most recently Teece Luvv’s funky and personal LP !PLEH.

They’ve built a distinct brand, which is essential. Record labels aren’t a public service, after all, these operations rise or fall on the strength of not just their product, but their vibe. Nobody is checking out Rhymesayers for new trap records just like nobody expects Griselda to sign Talib Kweli anytime soon.

That means there’s still room in the pond for other labels, if anyone reading this is feeling frisky. It’s demanding, it’s expensive, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

APRIL

One of the reasons that young artists have so many opportunities here is Mister Burns. He is a humble beast and a non-stop worker, and from his Lynguistic Civilians days to his solo career, he’s always been spotlighting -- and mentoring -- new talent. This year he celebrated his 1000th show at Foam Brewing, along with his new live band lineup, The Hounds. Since his 2016 album Raised Right, he’s been drawing on his experience and his network to pave a tour circuit for independent hip hop in New England.

This is going to be important long-term infrastructure. This will create new opportunities outside of “blowing up” and working with the existing label machines. Mister Burns and Jarv have been running laps on this circuit and reaching tons of new fans in the process.

In April, Mister Burns embarked on the Preceding the Warmth Tour, which had Brooklyn legend Masta Ace headlining. It’s one thing to open for a famous rapper, it’s another to buy a verse from them — but going on tour with them, well, that’s a whole separate level of co-sign. That is heavy. That is official as fuck.

He’s also been bringing big names to Vermont (like Skyzoo and Sadat X!) and putting in work for the local scene, like the Waking Windows Hip Hop Showcase, which was a huge success.

What can you learn from this? Always show up & always do the work, for starters. Anyone can book a show, but you’re only getting invited back if you’re bringing in bodies and money. And remember, if you don’t practice your set -- you don’t have one. Pay your dues.

MAY

Over the past two years, I’ve been involved in far, far too many conversations about who was going to be the first to “make it” here in our humble state. Almost all of them were focused on rappers, which completely overlooks the fact we’ve already got Es-K, our very own superproducer. He’s been racking up points, month after month, for years now, and repping Vermont the whole time.

Producers succeed quietly. Part of that is because artists tend to be dipshits who think album credits are optional. (Pro tip: be a professional.) Most of that, though, is the nature of their work — magicians behind the scenes, facilitating and finalizing long-term projects. Es-K isn’t just making solid gold beats, he is an accomplished executive producer with a serious resume.

2018 was an incredible year for our spooky talented instrumental scene. It’s fitting that Es-K himself has been helping to showcase that, too. His Vermont Beat Cypher series has been impeccably done so far, working in collaboration with VMB Productions to deliver two flawless lineups of 802 talent. It’s been a roll call of our very finest: Crusty Cuts, David Chief, Dokowala, Flip Physics, Iman, Jarv, Loupo, Notation, Old Gold, and Somba.

(I have also enjoyed the work of ALXXXNDXR, Elder Orange, SkySplitterInk, Keegan Kilgore and the dark EDM-bap of FATE.)

So while all this means that the standards are high, it also means there’s a big community for new producers to plug into and learn from. For fans, if you’re unfamiliar with any of these names, you’ve got good times ahead. And finally, for emcees, it means there is no excuse for wack beats in 2019. Pay the producer.

JUNE

The month of June saw two huge events going down at the Swan Dojo, a performance / practice space for dancers on Church Street. The first was Building Blocks 3, and the second was a performance by Brand Nubian legend Sadat X. The common thread here is Steve “Wish” Shannon, b-boy for life, dance instructor, and community asset.

A member of the Rhythm Riderz Crew, Mr. Shannon is a good example of the multi-layered hustle it takes to make it in a state as small as Vermont, stitching together part time gigs and temporary positions, juggling hats, job descriptions and small businesses. This is what people do up here, this is how you build a life in the woods.

He’s also been a reliable source of real, blunt, honest feedback. This is true for me, and it’s true for dozens of other artists and hustlers I know. Having a good sounding board for ideas is an invaluable resource.

So while you probably don’t have the same specific set of skills Mr. Shannon does, you can be equally valuable to your friends: just be honest with them. No critic gets the final say. No single take is completely correct. Just the same, you were born the way you were born for a reason — if you’re not feeling it, say so. The world will be a better place tomorrow.

JULY

On July 27th, 99 Neighbors sold out a triumphant gig at Arts Riot: their Open House set the tone for the success story to come. I’ve been listening to rap crews insisting they’re “a movement” for so many decades now that I didn’t appreciate, at first, that 99 Neighbors was telling me the truth.

They have top-notch beats, art and videos because all those awesome artists are part of 99 Neighbors, too. Their internal process involves a lot of voices and a lot of ideas, and it shows in their final product. Their big Arts Riot debut was a feast for the senses, and their new LP, Television, is exactly the same.  This is urgent, exciting music.

So while Sam. and HANKNATIVE are the undeniable gravitational center, and born performers besides, their whole team truly deserves credit. Big props to their manager Cal Rawlings, too. The run that 99 Neighbors had this year is the stuff of legend, a mix of solid strategy and big ambition.

There is no secret sauce in the music business. All these blueprints are open books. Study the artists you respect and think about the logic behind the moves they made. Then get out there and do the work.

AUGUST

This August was dominated by the 5th Annual A-Dog Day, the biggest and most ambitious celebration yet. The extent of Andy’s legacy is nothing less than amazing. Our scene is inter-generational, strongly supportive of one another, and generally just inspirational as heck.

This year, it was all about the youngbloods, and it couldn’t have been any other way. DJ Kanganade and Crusty Cuts were on the tables, Jarv and 99 Neighbors and A2VT all delivered killer performances, and the evening saw some serious veterans come through, too — especially headliners Smif-n-Wessun. That is heavy. That is official as fuck.

Loaf Muzik, one of NYC’s most exciting (and talented) new crews, was rapping at the Andy Williams Memorial Skatepark for a crowd of local hip hop heads and skateboarders. That’s not even one of the biggest highlights, just a moment that really sticks with me, months later. It was a sunny day that will, I believe, have an impact for years to come, in ways we can’t predict.

Contemplating the long, complex thread of friendships and mutual respect which made all that possible, well, it should give you pause. Life is incredible and life is fragile, and both facts are too easy to forget. Our traditions make us remember.

SEPTEMBER

September was dominated, yet again, by Above The Radar, the waterfront graffitti art festival hosted by Anthill Collective. This was a huge year for that crew, which saw them traveling and working more than ever, in addition to opening the AnteGallery down on Shelburne Road.

The biggest failure of this website, to my eyes, is the over-representation of rap music in the coverage. I don’t know if I’ve named more than five DJs, breakdancers or graf artists here this year. Changing that is a priority in 2019.

In addition to bringing world-class artists to Vermont, in addition to wrangling sponsors and responsibilities, in addition to taking on a new small business, Anthill Collective has also been the steady hand behind the 3rd Thursdays series at The Monkey House. Our longest-running hip hop monthly has been ground zero for culture-building and artist networking, here and beyond. Huge props a patient and generous team.

One more thing: September also brought the birthday of Brett North, BTV super-fan and scene photographer. Mr. North has been an essential asset for all of us, improving his lens game and helping new artists document & advance their careers. Big props to this hard worker. Tip the photographer.

OCTOBER

Fittingly, the first hip hop artist to “make it” is someone most Vermont artists had never even heard of. Nothing, Nowhere is a hella emo emcee and producer from Massachusetts who has adopted Vermont as his home. (Which is not a knock on the lad; most of you were born somewhere else. We’re all flatlanders to somebody here.)

One of the most popular articles on the site this year was my piece on who would be “Wikipedia Famous” next. My wager was that it would take awhile before that happened, and at least so far, I’ve been right. 2019 will be a real test for that theory, though, and I expect to see Jarv, Jamell NYT and 99 Neighbors make big enough moves to be contenders.

No need to repeat what I already wrote, but I do need to say this: beef gets attention, but attention is fleeting. In the end, 100% of the shit we talk is meaningless. None of it will advance your actual career a single centimeter. Only the work matters.

NOVEMBER

This website basically exists because nobody else was doing this. That’s how all platforms get created: someone decided to start doing the work.

This year, we’ve seen some excellent new experiments come together, and all of them will be a big factor in the year to come. Props to the team at Super Select for curating excellent playlists & content. Props to Big Homie Wes “The Best” for his Straight Outta Johnson show on WJSC — he’s a natural host and he’s been a real advocate for the local scene, bringing artists into the studio for interviews. Props to Colby Stiltz for working with Wes to create the Cellar Cypher Series — a hip hop weekly in downtown Burlington.

Another promising prospect: the Extra Mile Cypher series. Drive is a young emcee from Lamoille county who has been a standout human being this year, both as a rap talent and as a smart, honest kid who’s hungry to learn. His new cypher series, currently two installments deep, is a clever move, and he’s chosen lineups that compliment his style.

A lot has been written about the importance of online video, so it’s important to remember most of that is bullshit. The metrics are fraud, your “engagement” is mostly autoplays that register somewhere between a distraction and an irritation, and your content monetizes about as well as a song on Spotify. However, despite all that, human beings really do love to watch video, and I guarantee these cypher videos are reaching far outside the Green Mountain state.

There are more platforms on the way in 2019, too. A few I know about, many that will surprise me. Now is the time to make big moves.

DECEMBER

Why are Vermont hip hop releases sounding better than ever? In a word, SkySplitterInk. In two words, that’s Zach Crawford, one of the best, and most prolific, recording & mixing engineers in the state these days. He has also been a mentor and coach to well over a hundred of us in the past decade — the scene owes a lot to this man.

He’s moving his SkyLab studios to a new location this year, where he’s sure to continue racking up an impressive, diverse resume. And that’s the biggest thread here: it takes years to really see the results of the work you’re putting in every day. Do it anyway.

There are no shortcuts to any of this. Overnight success stories are myths.

While the internet has made it easier than ever to get your work out there, standards are just as demanding as ever. You need great art and you need great sound quality. Odds are pretty good you’re not qualified to do either one of those things. Hire professionals to get professional results.

Oh, and: Be Excellent To Each Other. I’m real proud of everyone.

Happy 2019. Don’t tell people this is your year. Show them.

Justin Boland
2018 Won't Let Me Chill
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As much as I’d like to just stay on vacation until 2019, there’s too much going on this week to stop. This is just a quick tour of the highlights, of which there are plenty. It’s also, accidentally, a meditation on what next year is going to bring us as this 802 scene finally hits critical mass. Cheers.

First up, an absolute knockout of a video from Chyse Atkins. “Look what you started” is a collaboration between DVP Cinematography and Pivot Media, and it’s a slick, professional showcase for a slick, professional single. Atkins is a natural talent, and naturally enough, he’s already left Vermont, too. He’s out in LA working to make bigger things happen — and clearly, that shouldn’t be too hard.

The music business is not a talent show, but having talent sure helps. Mr. Atkins has a skillset that’s in great demand right now. He’s old enough to have a work ethic and young enough to still be a product worth betting on at the national level. If you’re reading this and feel like you’re in approximately the same boat: consider leaving the Green Mountains to at least give that a shot. (Worst case scenario, you’ll be calling your parents from rehab, jail, or Pauly Shore’s house.)

Vermont’s hip hop scene is real, growing, exciting and surprisingly full of talent. It’s also a tiny, tiny fishbowl. Never forget that second part.

Up next: 99 Neighbors dropping a leak off their upcoming debut LP, Television, which drops on New Years Day. (After that, of course, we begin the march towards their Higher Ground show on January 11th, which may already be sold out as I write this.) “Redrum” is a fitting title for this dark, minimalist monument of non-stop bars. Everyone does superb work here and the video treatment is clever & effective stuff.

These guys are doing everything right, and fast, too. 99 Neighbors was the biggest story of 2018, period. Anyone that offends is fucking delusional, too — it’s not like this was a close contest, bud. There are a lot of solid teams making good moves right now, but none of them on this level. Part of that is proximity to Burlington, sure, but most of that is undeniable talent, long-term planning and just plain hard work.

Expect to see this crew continue to raise the bar for everyone in 2019. Because they will.

Colby Stiltz made a real splash with “Human,” and he’s already got a followup video out: “BODHI” is a dad rap classic and a great video. Colby’s recent work with producer / every-instrumentalist Jer Coons is certainly “alternative rap” material, but that doesn’t mean it’s niche — this is material with the potential to resonate way beyond the Green Mountains.

Mr. Stiltz has been grinding for a long, long time now. He’s had an especially busy 2018, hosting a string of “indie networking festival” shows that jumpstarted all kinds of connections and projects. That culminated in the launch of the Cellar Cypher Series, a weekly hip hop open mic in downtown BTV that he’s hosting alongside his STILTZgang affiliate, Wes The Best.

The issue of mentorship has come up a lot in my discussions this year with artists, promoters and community heads. Such arrangements already exist, of course: XP has been tutoring rappers for years now, SkySplitterInk is an excellent teacher and coach, Mister Burns is everyone’s cool older brother, and producer THEN WHAt has a real gift for helping to refine and reframe the artists that he works with. But how could we distribute the benefits of these informal networks better? Something to think about next year, bud.

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Finally, some beef. That’s what Christmas is all about, right? Word.

Last week, Raw Deff released a track called “IDC,” which was a pretty straightforward “Fuck Wack Rappers” cut featuring verses from XP and Alpha. Heartless Ent founder and publicist BL Spitz took it to be a subliminal diss, and responded with the cleverly titled “IDC MORE.” Raw Deff has since retaliated with “Poor Stevie,” and it’s a serious escalation. Rather than fire back with another sixteen, Raw Deff goes in for three minutes, blending old school storytelling flows with multisyllable insults.

This is one of the best diss tracks I’ve heard locally. It’s certain to further enflame the feud between Heartless Ent and Street Religion, which will — hopefully — get aired out in a live emcee battle event at some point in 2019. “Keep it on wax,” as the old heads say.

Diss tracks are a lot like school shootings — they tend to result in copycat attacks. Yet as much as rappers love this shit, we also under-estimate how boring it is for pretty much everyone else. Facebook is an engine for conflict, but just because you’ve got a 100 comment argument blowing up your timeline, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be immortalizing your .gif-fights here. Expect coverage to skew towards actual achievements. Aspire to accomplish actual achievements.

Or just make your diss track really good.

Let’s all find ourselves in a better f’ing place this time next year, personally and professionally. Amen.

Justin Boland
Top 10 Rap Albums of 2018
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Why not, right? After doing the Top 10 Singles list, obviously this was next. In the years to come, I’ll definitely be putting more time into these, and assembling a panel of experts, too. For now, though, you’re stuck with me and my opinions.

Let’s begin.

Rebirth of the Slickest was the best rap album from Vermont this year. While VVS Verbal is a Bucktown USA artist from Flatbush, it was Es-K who produced the entire project — and brought along keyboardist Danny Whitney and DJ / producer / man of taste Crusty Cuts for some proper scratches. This is a serious LP, stacked with features from General Steele, Buckshot, Sadat X and Craig G. There are levels to this, and Es-K is patiently putting in work to reach the top.

Jarvage Vol. 2 was a knockout release. This is a perfectly constructed homage to 90’s rap that transcends being a tribute project. That’s largely because Jarv has become such a beast on the production front: not only are these all throwback bangers with big, beautiful mixes, but the album has been assembled with obsessive loving care. You will be picking out references and jokes in your headphones for weeks to come with this one.

Problem Child has to be one of the best debut albums Vermont has seen so far. Young artist HANKNATIVE poured his soul into this one and worked with a smart, self-critical team of creators to make it shine. And hot damn, does it shine, bud. Somba’s engineering work is impressive, and so is the sheer range of this album, sonically and topically.

Ewe Gross was a mostly instrumental project predicated on sheep puns. Despite that, when Wool See — f/k/a IAME of Oldominion and Sandpeople — steps out front to rap, he’s dropping some of the best verses I’ve heard this year. He can go political without sounding like a boring scold, and he can go personal with the emo journal trappings so many other writers have to lean on. This has never left rotation since I got it.

Uninvited Guest was a lean and mean album from a master at work. True, Raw Deff is technically a 603 artist, but 1) we’ve always claimed him as family, and 2) every guest feature on this album? Is from Vermont. Raw Deff is, without question, one of the most gifted rappers we’ve got, and the scariest part is, he just keeps improving every couple months. The cover art is hilarious, too.

ILLiterature was a real achievement of a project. The crew at JynxINC has been making rap music — lots of it — for a long time now. In recent years, their quality control took a quantum leap and they’ve been securing top-notch features from the underground ever since. When Eyedos dropped his Guerrilla Bars album last year, it was a statement much bigger than Vermont’s borders. (Really, tho.) ILLiterature is cut from the same cloth, and he’s got a posse this time. This is a wall of crushing, cut-throat, boom bap lyricism.

Gangsta Trail Mix was one of the biggest surprises of the year. The homie Mavstar has evolved into a completely different emcee and he did justice to every track here. ILLu, of course, continues to whump out bright, catchy soul chops and cinematic beats. That combination goes a long way here, and I’ve been surprised by how many artists I’ve spoken to in the past week who said this was their favorite local album of the year. Props to the team.

Collision would be ranked a lot higher if it wasn’t such a fucking tease of a project. Sam. can really spit when he wants to; he seldom does that here. It’s not like he has to — dude can really sing, and more importantly, he’s not trying to bar out on this project at all, it’s an artistic statement. As a business card, this is a small, perfect slice of R&B infused rap music from a natural talent. Besides, teasing is good business: just about everyone is looking forward to Television, the debut album from his 99 Neighbors crew, which drops on New Years Day.

Alabaster Samovars gives zero fucks about your opinions or expectations. Their eponymous-ass debut is a weird, uncompromising album built around luxury space jazz beats and one of the most distinctive emcees Vermont has ever heard. That would Philly producer Remington Iron and Burlington (soon Chicago, alas) rapper The Marijuana Pot Man. This LP is a fully-formed universe unto itself; this is bespoke flames.

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Considering the fact that 2018 was the single biggest, busiest year in the Vermont hip hop scene to date, it’s remarkable how few albums came out. Huh. There are a lot of big names conspicuously absent here — which suggests that 2019 might see a lot of long-awaited, heavyweight LPs dropping.

This is both good and necessary, because that, that is the next level for our barely-born 802 “scene.” I’ve been alive long enough to have seen albums declared dead about a dozen times now — and each successive wave of world-changing technology has failed to make good on that threat.

(Hell, I still remember back when our albino intern Miguel first hauled a eight-track tape machine into our lushly carpeted leather control room, ranting about car stereos killing radio, and how the future was disco singles. He was right … for about eighteen months.)

It’s still all about selling records. Nothing is going to push this wave further than a few choice albums blowing up outside of state lines. So, do that. Make great records. Pay for great art. Get someone qualified to mix and master your tracks. Think strategically about how to promote it and release it.

See you next year.

Justin Boland
GET FAMILIAR: Teece Luvv of Maiden Voyage
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It’s a rainy, ugly Friday, but Teece Luvv is still living his best life. After a string of luxurious side work & collaborations, Teece Luvv is back with a self-produced set of proudly retro future funk and a lot more on the horizon. Today he celebrates the release of !PLEH, his latest album for Equal Eyes Records, and tonight he’ll be rocking a show at Windsor Station with his rap crew, Maiden Voyage. We caught up first thing this morning over a plate of yak gravy poutine and some oolong tea. (Really.) Here’s a transcript.

VTHH: From the early demos to the first releases there was a lot of evolution -- not just the quality, you mutate your sound a lot. Do you feel like you're reaching for something specific, or do you just enjoy exploring?

Teece Luvv: Animals are always evolving, and people forget humans are naturally animals. To quote myself, “You’re the main animal you see on Nat Geo.” I do enjoy exploring, though I think I’ve found “my style,” it happens to cross multiple genres. My brother is 10 years older than me, and my mom is an eighties lady, so I grew up listening to anything from DJ Green Lantern’s In The Lab album to Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” I would go to my brothers bass competitions (car audio comps) and then fall asleep to classical music. Shoutout big bro for introducing me to anything from A Tribe Called Quest to The Offspring

VTHH: You've been hella creative on the vocals and production, but as I have mentioned to you in the past: you still have bars. There will be bars-related projects at some point in the future, yes?

Teece Luvv: All in all, yes. Maybe not a full project of just Hip-Hop, but it will be in there. Yer boi’s got flows. On the low (not so low now) I have a 19 track album that’s currently being mastered by JARV. It starts with new wave rock and roll and transitions to rap through my lil’ R&B style of music.

VTHH: Has your songwriting process been consistent or does that morph a lot, too?

Teece Luvv: Process is always the same. It starts by making a beat, or receiving a beat from Teeba, SkySplitterInk or Es-K. Heavy name drops, sorry. Of course I have a bottle of pinot grigio in my right hand, no glass. I replay said track until I become mentally unstable, writing from things I experience in life and in my head. Just kidding. I’m always mentally unstable.

VTHH: The Teece Luvv catalog is varied but ... rather funky. Is this something you'd like to take to the festival circuit? Live bands in coordinated clothing and such?

Teece Luvv: Eric Burdon, The Animals, decked out in suits, all there is to say. Here’s more anyway: a live band is in the works as I’m typing this, and is something I’ve always wanted…to make the new wave more legitimate. Suits necessary. As far as the circuit, I’ll play anywhere. Any festival, grams nursing home, funerals.

VTHH: So when the Maiden Voyage LP drops, are you going to be crooning all over that puppy?

Teece Luvv: Heck yeah, bud. We’ve been on that lately. Some day.

VTHH: You gentlemen will be convening this evening for a show at Windsor Station. That place seems like a second home. Do you guys have personal chairs or stools that nobody else uses?

Teece Luvv: I’m there at least 3 nights a week if that says anything. It’s the spot around here, one of only two. I do have a spot where I stand and observe the scene/music. As far as proclaimed seats, when I die I’ll have 3rd seat from the left, where I’ve sat tasting virgin drinks since I was five.

You can get !PLEH right now via Equal Eyes Records, and see Maiden Voyage live this evening at Windsor Station. Everyone stay safe this weekend.

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Justin Boland
Good Suggestions from the VTHH 2018 Readers Poll
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Since the VTHH 2018 Readers Poll opened — and it’s still going — there have been a lot of excellent ideas submitted. So many, in fact, that I’m going to take some time this evening to do a quick write up.

Not because I think most readers will even be interested; but because I know that a few hard workers out there are very interested, and have the means to do some of this.

First up, thank you for the responses. As things stand, Chittenden County accounts for 54% of the answers, folks who admit they don’t buy local music are at 15% (props for your honesty, I’m not even mad), and about half of you think the music roundups are the most important coverage, with artist interviews at 35%. Now, for some meat.

There is a lot of demand for video content, especially video interviews and some kind of performance series. I am absolutely not doing that, for any of you, because I know all too well how much money and time is involved. Whoever does get involved here has a large potential audience, though. Take a look at the work Noise Ordinance is doing before you get your feet wet.

One thing these responses make clear is that a lot of artists want good management and guidance. While it would be cool to have “A list of all the VT artists with bios and links to their music,” I’m not paying for that and I’m not setting it up, either. There were six different requests for a “music store” feature so independent artists could sell their wares here — get Bandcamp. That’s free, set it up today.

Artists are mentioning wanting help with photography, music videos, distribution, and getting coverage in other media. Those are all good ideas, and I will get to some basic How To material in 2019.

However, I also recall Big Heavy World holding more than a few seminars over the years where artists can do boot camps on subjects like this and talk to expert panels. This is probably a good idea to bring back. Daytime sessions held somewhere other than a bar would go a long way, and there’s a ton of new artists with questions right now.

There is also a lot of talk about getting honest feedback on music. Both from artists who want it for their own work and readers who want to see it applied to mediocre rappers and producers. That’s a completely valid complaint. My writing here is often lazy as hell, too. However, I’m going to continue to err on the side of being blandly benign.

However, I have participated in the past in “Rap Clinics,” which were events where local emcees would come and perform for a panel of judges, for the purpose of hard, unvarnished feedback. It wasn’t a mean-spirited spectacle; the audience was small and almost all other artists. This would probably be a good idea to steal outright. Done right, this would in fact be legendary, and the 802 has enough talented veterans to keep the panel respectable.

Folks who identified themselves as local fans (or other music writers) expressed a desire for curated playlists, the Guided Tour, the Best Of. Once again, more energy than I am going to give this on the regular, and besides, anyone doing that much work should make money off it. Props to Super Select, a quiet brand that’s been doing great work in 2018. Props to 99 Neighbors, doing heavy curation & creation and always partnering with the local arts scene.

Finally, I was surprised to receive a few messages from brands looking into the local scene. Be advised, that’s real, and that’s happening right now. A big holiday cheers to all the nerds who actually read this. Go forth and conquer.

Go to 3rd Thursdays tonight at    The Monkey House in Winooski   .

Go to 3rd Thursdays tonight at The Monkey House in Winooski.

Justin Boland
12/20: 3rd Thursdays Hip Hop @ The Monkey House
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You’d think this year was already over, the way I’m dropping Top 10 lists and retrospectives: nope. There are a lot of hot tickets between now and 2019, starting with tomorrow’s 3rd Thursdays lineup in Winooski. Safe to say that Anthill Collective has had a triumphant twelve months, making waves way beyond the state borders, pulling off an even bigger & better Above The Radar festival, opening an actual storefront on Shelburne Road, and…oh yeah, running Vermont’s best & only hip hop monthly concert series. Thanks, guys.

The Joint Manipulation crew came through in September and they’re back to host this time around. It’s fitting. They’re rap purists, they’ve got bars for weeks, and they’re bringing along a whole lot of St. Albans talent along for this one. I told you about the Cambrian Explosion that was coming in Burlington this year, and lately, I’ve been ranting about the St. Albans Wave that’s coming. Because it is.

Consider D.FRENCH, who has gone from new name to one of my favorite 802 emcees in the past 24 months. He’s working on a mixtape and if this single is any indication? Flames, verily. He’ll be at The Monkey House tomorrow rocking a set with co-conspirator Saint Money R.O.D. (That beat is from Dok Sterling, aka Dokowala, another St. A disciple who’s been representing big lately: he scored a spot at Es-K’s second Vermont Beat Cypher, and you can catch him at the Super Select 2K18 Party on Dec. 29th at Half Lounge, alongside some of the very best.)

Bulletproof Dolla is another standout talent. He will be playing with Zay of Valid Gang — check out their recent collab track, “LOCKED DOWN” — bringing plug stories & precise bars to the table, like always. I strongly suspect he’s poised for a big 2019, with more projects on the way.

To top it all off, two 3rd Thursdays vets will be there, too: Eyedos and Colby Stiltz. Props to the Anthill team for always over-stuffing the turkey on these shows. As ever, all this talent is still a FREE SHOW. 9pm. 18+.

Justin Boland
Top 10 Rap Singles of 2018
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In the course of wrangling up a big dumb “2018 In Review” piece, I’ve spent a lot of time bumping local music. It’s not enough, though. Know that I’m not an expert. Really establishing a list deserves a panel to hash things out, brackets to argue about details, and days of listening & talking. Who has time for that?

So, here’s a quick and dirty list of my favorites, looking back. Props to everyone hustling hard this year. It was actually difficult to narrow all this down. These are my personal picks, pal. There are more than a few huge, obvious omissions, too. Forgive me in advance. Let’s begin.

Overall, I’d say this was one of the very best rap songs of the year. Jibba “The Gent” built a real hit here. New Jersey rapper Ren Thomas is the spotlight secret weapon, but everyone comes correct, especially Rico James on that beat. Video coming soon.

That whole So.802 camp finished strong. While it’s not the most socially conscious track to come out of Vermont this year, “Murda” was still a standout. The composition helps this one shine, the opening verse leads off at a great pace and the hook is genuinely catchy. All the verses are on point, too — when these cats try to one-up each other, we all win.

When I first heard this cut, it was deep into random Soundcloud autoplay while I was working and DZY’s verse immediately grabbed me. The beat here is great, everyone flexes a different style, and I still bump this at work, just not on accident. 2018 was a year when new heads really impressed me. Either I’m getting soft or they’re getting good.

Speaking of dope new cats: Asah Mack has been on a flawless run this year. I’ve always been impressed with Sasha Travis / NOtation, he just started much further along the growth curve than the average artist does. These two going in over some David Chief raw shit is…well, there should be an album of this. Their styles are a great contrast.

XP is a veteran and a legend. He’s mentored and influenced a lot of talented artists here. His catalog is insane. He’s been a steady presence this year, working with new proteges like Alpha, working with old friends with Raw Deff, but this particular track blew me away. It’s deeply personal and written with a laser engraver. Dig it.

The Aztext crew never left. They scored a hit this summer with “Everyday Sun,” a Rico James banger with a Xenia Dunford hook, but I think my favorite joint this year from the extended crew was this GOOD WTHR single. It’s a beautiful beat and both verses are honed nicely — it takes a lot of experience to make conceptual tracks like this sound this effortless. Looking forward to what AZT fam brings us in 2019.

Eyedos has been relatively quiet in the second half of this year, but that’s only because he works so hard. Besides, the Minds Eye Tribe project ILLiterature was an extra-large statement. This “MET Cypher” was the manifesto, a long burner that kicks off with a killer Sa-Roc verse.

Alabaster Samovars dropped a dope album this year. Their self-titled debut was a polished gem. Producer Remington Iron has all kinds of flavor on deck and rapper The Marijuana Pot Man has some sly, hilarious bars on deck. “Against Nature,” however, was my single favorite slice.

Choosing my favorite Freddie Losambe single was tough. Rather than continue to fret over what was most representative, I went with “Good Health,” a pure take laid over a real nice beat that showcases some of his range and all of his character & heart. Turn this one up. This is medicine, right here.

…damn, that’s almost a Top 10, huh? I can’t let this go without giving Yung Breeze a shout. He’s been stacking bars and singles from all kinds of subgenres this year, and promises that what’s to come is even better. Still, this is my favorite track he’s dropped this year — a sermon of a performance split into two monster verses.

Shout out to some close contenders: Mavstar, Juni, Drive, Teece Luvv, D.FRENCH, and Bulletproof Dolla. Also, big thanks to BL Spitz for giving VTHH a shout on his single “KULTURE VULTURE.” Appreciate the support!

Justin Boland
Happy National Maple Syrup Day

There’s only one right thing to post on National Maple Syrup day, you know? Time to revisit this classic Jibba “The Gent” video, which features Jun Fargo, Yung Breeze and Vazy, who is lacing verses as Gringo Montega these days. THEN WHAt on the beat, too: this is a very So.802 affair.

Justin Boland
The VTHH 2018 Reader Poll
Photo from   Above The Radar   2018, courtesy of   Anthill Collective

Photo from Above The Radar 2018, courtesy of Anthill Collective

It’s been about a year here on the dot com, so it’s time for something new: the first ever VTHH Reader Poll. It is quite short and simple: three questions and a suggestion box.

I can confirm it has been a great run on this end. “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt,” as Kurt once put it. All the beef, the threats, the bullshit: necessary community building. There’s still so much work to do, too. Thank you all.

Justin Boland
VIDEO: Sasha Travis - "What It Is"

Earlier this week, rapper/one man wave Sasha Travis dropped a new video for “What It Is,” the opening track off his recent Ego EP. Which was excellent. This cool, grainy throwback was directed by Matthew Vinci for VinciVisuals. The beat is courtesy of David Chief — who got interviewed here back in September.

Expect a lot more material from this whole crew in 2019.

Justin Boland
ROUNDUP: Ice Cold Cuts
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We’ve survived another week, and to celebrate, here’s a selection of recent releases worth your time. It’s been a busy December, and this weekend has a lot of promising shows coming — check the lineup here. If you’re in Burlington tonight, check out Maine emcee B. Aull at Sidebar; if you’re near Brattleboro, there’s DJ Lucas & Friends at the Stone Church. Time for some tunes.

First up, we’ve got R.O.D. — which stands for Real Ova Deceit. He’s been prolific and hard-working, especially during the second half of 2018, dropping a slew of videos and singles. His output has been improving fast, and on this latest cut, “Animal,” he’s catching a killer wave. Everything works here, this slaps. Props.

Yung Breeze has been dropping almost too many gems lately. Almost. “Song Cry” is his ‘BreezeMix’ take on the Jay-Z classic. Since that Just Blaze instrumental is one of the most blapping rap ballads of all time, Breeze opts to just flex bars over this one. It’s another strong piece of work, and more proof that he’s in the studio building a monster.

Up next, a new track from BL Spitz — who is scheduled to battle Yung Breeze onstage at some point in 2019. “BARZ PLEASE” is cold, non-stop wordplay & threats over some dark, funky Face One production. His label, Heartless Ent., is currently doing a radio promo campaign for “After The Storm,” a single they haven’t released yet. Check his Facebook for more details.

Finally, a slice of summer from SynCro, the interesting & hyperactive emcee formerly known as BioZone. “I’m Back” is precise flows over a stripped down funk breakbeat. I dig it. More like this, please. And welcome back.

PSA: DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE. DO NOT. THANK YOU.







Justin Boland
Catching Up with Colby Stiltz
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Tonight at Drink Bar in Burlington, the debut edition of The Cellar Cypher Series will be kicking off, hosted by Big Homie Wes and Colby Stiltz. This is an idea that Stiltz had been juggling for months now and it’s awesome to see it happen. The time is right and the talent pool is deeper than ever.

Mr. Stiltz has had a tumultuous couple of years, and still got a staggering amount of work done along the way. I caught up for a quick conversation that turned into a short history lesson on STILTZgang. Along the way, we’re about talking keeping scenes alive, re-starting your career, and learning every day. Dig it.

VTHH: It's great to see BTV getting a hip hop weekly -- what inspired you to make that happen?

Colby Stiltz: I believe a weekly hip-hop event is a necessity for any growing scene. I grew up on the Maine Hip-hop scene and we had one every week which eventually turned into the brand "Rap Night."

Locally, it’s important to network, practice the craft, and most importantly have something to look forward to each week. It’s great for new comers that have never touched a mic and for artists that have been doing it for years.

I look forward to building this event into a great weekly gathering, and even more so, I look forward to meeting a ton of new hip-hoppers in the area.

VTHH: "Human" is very Colby Stiltz, but also still a big change for you. What has the process been like working with Jer Coons?

Colby Stiltz: "Human" is a change to my authentic self. I covered up alot of emotion with drugs and alcohol for a long time. Even getting clean but still using marijuana had me rapping and acting like someone I wasn't. Getting completely sober, and working with Jer has been amazing. He is an incredible musician and singer. We both love this melodic instrument based hip-hop that we've been doing.

I go in the studio with lyrics and an idea and we build live instrumentation based around that. Usually we start on the piano, then he'll pick up a bass guitar, then sit down at the drums, and finally we'll add vocals. We have alot of new material, about 10 other songs together. “Excited” is an understatement.

VTHH: What have you been learning as a club DJ in the past year? Has that experience surprised you?

Colby Stiltz: Being a DJ is awesome. It has been a big surprise, in that if I knew I'd be doing this well?? I would have been doing it years ago! I get to continue to perform/entertain people with music and it's a lot of fun.

I've known how to use turn tables and mixer for years (Thanks Dakota and TJ) but my Ego as a rapper wouldn't allow me to step into that role. After getting sober (about 1 year ago now) D JAY BARON took me under his wing, let me shadow him at events, and taught me all the skills I have now. And I'm still learning more and more on a regular basis, about DJ’ing, sound engineering in general, and the business of it all. I couldn't be happier.

VTHH: How did the STILTZgang crew come together? They've been having a strong year.

Colby Stiltz: First of all STILTZ has nothing to do with me.... Its an acronym for Stepping Towards Infinite Love Through Zen. It's about doing what you love, and what inspires you... Whatever makes you feel connected to the love that we has humans are made from. (Pretty deep, I know.) Also it's an analogy for being on a higher plane of existence using ones’ "stiltz" to grow above the things in the world designed to bring us down.

The STILTZgang came together in a very organic way. A 16 year old, now Faded Flow, emailed me to express his gratitude for a performance that he saw me at opening for Immortal Technique. He told me I motivated him and that he was into rapping but had very few resources. I listened to his underdeveloped style and was impressed by his honesty. Rapping about being in high school, and misunderstood by his peers and teachers.

We began talking weekly via phone as I would send him beats and critiqued his songs. Then DZY came into the picture by hitting me up when he visited Orlando shortly after I started talking with Faded. He said he wanted to "meet me" — which seemed very weird to me — but I said Fuck It, and we met up. We hung around Orlando, listening to new music I was recording for "Down To Earth" at the time, and we also peeped his Soundcloud. I was VERY impressed by one song in particular (Epard In My Chest) and told him to focus on that.

As we talked more, I learned he actually knew Faded Flow, and they lived in the same town, although they were very different in age and circle of friends. From there, they connected in Morrisville and DZY would pick Faded Flow up in school to go record — and he got school credit for it, too. It was totally legit, set up through the school, and all came together nicely.

Wes “The Best” now dubbed Big Homie Wes was their friend. He was making music out in Colorado after going away to college, and moved back to VT to get involved with what we were doing. A year later, I moved back to VT and we really got started as we brought their other homie "The Big Scrilla" (singer/rapper) on board as well as DJ/producer Jeremie Mali aka "Jay Attick". We made music, filmed videos, started a friendship, and supported each other.

From there STILTZgang turned into the friend base/fan base, you know? It extended to the other artists and producers we worked with, and the crew that come to our live events. There's people that are STILTZgang and don’t even know it. It's not so much a group name as it is a vibe. I’m very happy with where things are going and with the progress we all have made personally. Also I heard there might be a STILTZgang mixtape coming soon.

Whoa... I think that's the first time I've ever typed all that out. Sorry for the long response.

Remember, The Cellar Cypher Series kicks off tonight in the basement of Drink Bar on St. Paul. It will run every Thursday except for Anthill Collective’s 3rd Thursdays shows. Bring beats and come early. 21+ $3 / 18+ $5



Justin Boland
GET FAMILIAR: Big Homie Wes
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Every Tuesday night from 10pm to midnight, you can catch Big Homie Wes playing rap and holding court on WJSC 90.7 FM. This cat has a voice for radio, no question, but he’s a got a lot going on outside of that control booth, too: emcee, producer, and a constant collaborator who’s been leaving his mark on the scene. I caught up with him to talk about his own work, running the FM airwaves, and the growing Lamoille County hip hop scene.

VTHH: Your catalog so far has one of the craziest quality control curves I've ever heard; your product has improved a lot in the past 12 months. Where were you learning to do that? Was it mostly self-taught?

Big Homie Wes: Self taught, but within the past year I’ve done more work with other Vermont hip-hop artists than ever before. Escaping from solely working on my own music has given me a lot of fresh ideas and some irreplaceable engineering/mixing experience.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time listening to my favorite albums and comparing them to my own music which has been heartbreaking at times, but helps me steer my sound towards higher quality mixes. 

VTHH: You seem kinda born for the role of A&R / executive producer. Do you see your role as developing everyone in the #STILTZgang circle? 

Big Homie Wes: In one way or another, definitely. I’ve had my hands on tracks both on Faded Vision from the homie Faded Flow that dropped last year, and The Missing Peace by DZY this year. “Sauce on Deck” just dropped this week, that’s a track featuring Colby STILTZ I orchestrated, which is only the tip of the iceberg.

My influence goes further than just #STILTZgang though, I really try to work with every artist that comes to my studio with the intention of creating the best music possible.

VTHH: What do you have cooking for solo material right now?

Big Homie Wes: This past month or so I’ve been working on honing in final mixes on a handful of songs that I’ve been working on since well before Presidential

I have a vision for a full length project, but I want it to be a big step so I’m planning carefully.

VTHH: Now that you're a DJ and tastemaker, what advice do you have for artists thirsty to get a spin? What do you look for in a single?

Big Homie Wes: I’ve had people send me a lot of awesome tracks so far, what I’ve really been looking for though is good mixes with dope lyrical content. 

It has to fit in the mix with classic hip-hop records we all know, and new rap songs. I’m open-minded though, and I’m all about giving local emcees exposure.

VTHH: Was radio important to your musical upbringing?

Big Homie Wes: Pandora Radio, yes. AM/FM, not so much. Any streaming service I’ve used has been more of a playlist but they’ve introduced me to a lot of the music I listen to or have even sampled. 

My motivation to become a radio DJ is more due to my passion for music, hip-hop/rap specifically, plus using the airwaves as a platform to promote the local scene. 

 With streaming and podcasts being such a huge trend, I’ve made a point of promoting my live link and recorded interviews too.

VTHH: The Lamoille County hip hop scene has been making real noise this year -- what do you think is driving that success?

Big Homie Wes: I believe a huge part of that success is artists focusing more heavily on branding. From social media presence, to networking with other artists outside of the area in turn building larger fan bases.

I’m excited to be bringing live hip-hop to Moogs on December 30th, because it’ll create an outlet for the scene here. Often artists in the Lamoille area travel out of state or to Burlington to perform, so it’ll be nice to have a local venue to collaborate with.

In 2019 my goal is to build relationships with more venue owners in the area to continue the momentum.

VTHH: What do you think the Mo-Vegas scene needs next in order to grow?

Big Homie Wes: Consistent hip-hop shows would be the big one on my mind. A local compilation mixtape series featuring artists from the area would be really cool to see, and could spotlight artists who otherwise aren’t plug’d in.

You can stream WJSC 90.7 FM right here. Enjoy.

Justin Boland
ROUNDUP: Fresh Tracks
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As winter sinks those fangs into us all, there’s been a lot heat coming out. This latest weekly roundup is a bit over-stuffed, but listen, it’s all quality produce. Make some time to take some time, and as ever, turn it up.

Ferragamo Face dropped his first new track in awhile, and naturally enough, it’s wall-to-wall flames. Unfuckwithable flows and he can kill a hook, too — hopefully this is the beginning of a new wave of material.

Here’s another recent flawless banger I missed: NOtation and Asah Mack trading bars over some glossy David Chief production. You can tell they had a blast making this and that counts for a lot in any genre. An album of this would be most appreciated. In the meantime, check out his Ego EP if you haven’t.

A new XP verse is always good news. “Can’t Help U” is a posse cut with two of his young proteges, Alpha and Prophet. Two young hungry artists trying to compete with a vet is a classic recipe, and it definitely works here.

I don’t know what the fuck is in the water down in Windsor, but damn. Too much talent out of one little down, this is getting ridiculous.

“Bossa” is a tasty, polished piece of jazzy boom-bap from THEN WHAt — hell, this would have been “Acid Jazz” two decades ago, and probably released on Ninja Tune, as well. The rapper/producer is currently locked in the lab completing his next LP as Selfish Presley, “No Sleep.”

Finally, Es-K is wrapping a busy & impressive 2018 with a new instrumental LP, Right On Time. He describes it as a collection of his factory seconds and abandoned demos, but it is very damn good just the same. I had this on repeat all day yesterday; it was the right decision.

Justin Boland