Talking Turntablism with DJ Kanganade
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DJ Kanganade has quietly evolved into a pillar of the BTV hip hop scene. A steady presence at events like the Yo! BTV Raps series and the legendary 3rd Thursdays shows at The Monkey House, he really came into his own with “Corduroy Caviar & The Whiskey Pillow,” a solo turntablism feature off the debut Self Portrait LP, Primal Union. He’s been racking up more album credits these days — most recently on MavStar & ILLu’s Gangsta Trail Mix and an upcoming EP project with producer / engineer / multi-instrumentalist SkySplitterInk.

While I’d intended to talk more about his career, his sheer enthusiasm for what he loves turned this into a clinic on turntablism history, technique and technology. Enjoy the meal.

VTHH: Back when I interviewed Self Portrait, in their origin story you just sort of show up, guns blazing, already a keen disciple of the cut. When did you actually start getting into turntablism?

Kanga: I started getting into DJing when I was about 14. So what was that, ‘02-‘03?  I had been saving up all summer by mowing lawns to buy an “all-in-one” kit from Gemini.  It came with two direct drive turntables, a slim “battle” style mixer (they don’t even make ones like it anymore), and some cheapo headphones and some actually halfway decent monitors.  All for 500 bucks, quite the deal back in the day, but still the most money I had ever spent at the time.

I remember I was at a gymnastics camp, cross training for breaking (what got me into hip hop in the first place) and I got a call from my mom that this huge, heavy package arrived.  I was so excited that even though the camp was all the way in the islands and I lived in Shelburne, I still made my mom come get me. I had already raided my dad’s record collection and was gracefully given a dope starter set of hip hop singles and LPs from an upperclassman at my high school.

I didn’t know what I was doing for quite some time, just experimenting and trying to emulate the things I was listening to.  My background in percussion helped me recognize rhythms, both in the beats and in scratches. I don’t know when I actually found out about “turntablism” specifically, but I know that when I did it gave me a sense of purpose with my DJing art.  

I never got into it to spin parties or to make money, but just because I was fascinated with how the whole scratching thing worked. So I studied it, all the time. I read articles, watched what little videos there were at the time (YouTube was still a ways away) and listened intently to any scratch CDs or mix tapes I could get my hands on.  Any time I could actually scratch with another DJ, which was rare in BTV, I would study the cuts the other DJ was doing and try to emulate and assimilate their style into my own. Over the years it all developed into my own style, and it’s something I’m still working on to this day.

VTHH: Who were your biggest influences early on?

Kanga: Like most kids growing up, I started out listening to the music my parents listened to.  The only rap CD my dad has ever owned was Tone Loc’s debut album, “Gettin Loc’d After Dark,” and that is my first memory of hip hop. My pops is into jazz, blues and rock, but for some reason he had this one rap record. I think he liked Tone Loc’s voice, and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?

Through the years I dabbled into hip hop.  I picked up Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” the week it dropped and was promptly never allowed to listen to it again after my parents heard a skit track titled “Fuk Coolio”.  After that, the ‘rents were a little tight on rap music. For example, I was able to get the Beastie BoysHello Nasty” because it was sans parental advisory and had to buy Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “E. Eternal 1999” at Walmart because they edited their CDs and it didn’t have the advisory.

Around this time, my dad came home with a CD called “Make Some Noise” by a Chicago funk group Liquid Soul.  It was the stuff I was used to from my Pops expect for one thing, this group had a DJ and they actually heavily featured him as a part of the band.  That was the first time I can remember hearing a DJ not just adding something to a song, but he was an integral part of the band. You could say it was my version of “Rockit”.  

After that, it was all about trying to find different DJs who scratched.  I stumbled upon Rawkus’s “Soundbombing Vol. II” fairly early thanks to one of my younger cousins.  That was my first introduction to the Beat Junkies, which I attribute a lot of my style to. Their DJs like Babu, Rhettmatic, J-Rocc and D-Styles were not only super dope at scratching but could also mix and juggle and do everything else there was with the turntables.  I soon found all the “The World Famous Beat Junkies” mix tapes and Babu’s “Duck Season”. DJ Revolution was the first DJ I ever heard make a complete scratch track, with scratching courses and verses and then incorporate it into his mixes.

Then, I found out about the Invsbl Scratch Piklz. Q-Bert, Mix Master Mike, Apollo and D-Styles were some of the first I had ever heard to do full turntablism production, where they literally built everything from “scratch”.  Q-Bert’s “Wave Twisters” and D-Styles “Phantasmagoria” totally changed the way I looked at turntablism. No longer did I think that I had to be part of a band or group, now I realized that I could produce it all on my own. That’s still something I’m working on.

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VTHH: Where do you personally draw the line with technological advancements past, say, the SL-1200? Is your setup computer-augmented?

Kanga: Technology and I are a fickle thing.  I'm a self proclaimed nerd and I love tech and it's advancements in all aspects of our lives but at the same time, when it comes to DJing I'm a purist.  When I first started DJing, the tech wasn’t as crazy as it is now. In fact, CDJ's that could "scratch" hadn't come around yet, the tech known as "Time Code" (read: Serato/Traktor) was just a glimmer in the eye of companies like Rane and Stanton and “controllers” were still something to be hooked up to your game station.

The Technics SL-1200 was kind of old news when I was getting started, although there were other decks pushing the limits of what you could do with an analog turntable.  The Vestax PDX-2000 could play at +/- 60% pitch, forward or backwards. You could also manually adjust the start and stop times of the super strong motor. Other turntables like the Stanton Str8-150 came with a Pitch Lock function that could keep the pitch of a record the same while adjusting its speed.  Today these features sound trivial at best when compared to the myriad of effects that controllers offer, but back then they were crazy new tools to do new things with.

And I think therein lies how I feel about DJ technology.  It has to be used right. A few years ago I went and saw Questlove DJ a set at Lift after The Roots played the BTV waterfront.  I was stoked because I heard he was actually pretty OG and could mix and scratch. While his set was dope, MJ had just passed so he did a crazy tribute all night, I did notice he used "hot cues" almost to a fault.  When juggling records, a DJ usually has to rewind the record (back cueing) in order to keep the loop they are creating going, but a mixer with assignable hot cues, such as Rane's TTM-68, enable the DJ to simply just press a button to cue the track to wherever they desire.

While convenient, and technically faster, I feel that by doing so the DJ loses a certain amount of integrity.  I'd compare it to a race driver driving a car with a computer controlled gear box as apposed to a manual one.  The computer controlled one comes on all the fancy cars and can technically do a better job than you can, but the old cars take more skill and precision to drive and a lot more time to master and driver ends up having a better understanding of the car. That's not to say you can't do crazy things with these cue buttons, just check out some of DJ Craze's recent routines.

I've had an "augmented setup" (I like your term there) since about '14.  I know, super late to the game. I held out for so long, but an increase in more mainstream gigs and the ability to play any music I wanted basically forced me to evolve.  I had been using digital DJing setups for years, since around '08 when I saw the first Stanton Final Scratch which actually predates Rane's Serato. Over the years I had used controllers as well, ranging from simple midi-assignable button pads like the Akai MPD's, to full blown mock turntable controllers like Numarks' N7.  I've also tried the range of CDJ's from ones that install in a cabinet (think “wedding DJs”) to the Pioneer CDJ 2000's.

Through it all, I always come back to the most simple of setups, just a turntable and a mixer.  Recently, I think the dopest tech coming out is all about making it even more simple. It's something that's been coined "Portablism". Portable scratching has always been a dream for turntablists. So many times, they are relegated to their bedrooms for so long that the idea of scratching outside in the sun almost seems scary.  Though there are portable turntables from the past, like the Crosley Suitcase and the Columbia GP3, none of them could really take the vigor of turntablism. Around '05 Dj Q-Bert and Vestax teamed up to create the "QFO" a rather large, albeit portable turntable mixer hybrid built for serious scratching. However, these were expensive to start out with, $800/$1000 depending on the model, and now that Vestax is defunct you're lucky to find one for under $3000 … and that's if you can find one.

Both Numark and Vestax came out with much more affordable portable listening turntables around '10, the PT-01 and the Handy Trax, respectively.  But again, were not made for turntablists to abuse, they were made to sample records while digging. What those companies didn't know is that eager turntablists were finding ways to use these cheaper, more available portables to scratch with.  Some of the first innovations were an external crossfader so you could cut without a mixer and 7" scratch records. Raiden was one of the first companies to make an external fader that could hook up to any audio source but there were a lot of external cords.  It wasn't until people like Jesse Dean Designs and companies like Audio Innovative started getting into it that things got more integrated.

JDD custom makes parts for the portable scene.  Everything from platter stabilizers, to crossfaders, target lights, start/stop button, even super-pitch and upgraded tonearms.  Audio Innovative who makes the ever popular and versatile "Inno-fader"  specifically designed their newest iteration to be used in the Portablist scene.  Dj Q-Bert's Thud Rumble record label puts out 7" scratch wax almost exclusively now because the scene has taken off so much.

I think DJ's will always push the level of tech because, like me, most of them are nerds, which is to say they are very interested and invested in furthering their art.  Though sometimes it can go off in the wrong direction like the now infamous "sync" button or even Pioneer's new "Scratch Pad" I know that people will continue to find things to innovate with.  Hell, maybe someday I'll get the cybernetic implant so I can just flick my wrists in the air and scratch on virtual turntables … we'll just have to wait and see.

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VTHH: Growing up, discovering scratch records and the world of breaks vinyl opened up a whole new Universe for me. Do you have any go-to favorites?

Kanga: It's funny we transition from DJ tech talk to break / scratch records.  While they may not seem related to most, old school DJs consider scratch records some of the most cheater tech there is.  They believe that if you want to use the classic "Ahhhh" and "Fresh" samples, you need to have a copy of Fab Five Freddy's "Change the Beat" single.  I however, was brought up in the age of scratch records and I love them. From the quirky art work and album names to various styles and arrangements, I can't get enough of them.

My first one I can recall was from the upperclassman who gave me a little starter stack of records before I even owned turntables.  It was one of DJ Rectangle's "Ultimate Battle Weapons" but I'll never be able to recall which one.  Back then, I didn't really understand scratching a given sample, I would just scratch whatever the needle happened to land on. So scratch sentences, arrangements of sound of effects put one after the other, were largely lost on me at first.  I have old tape recordings of me just playing scratch sentences in some of my mixes because I thought that what you did with them.

For a long time, I never understood why someone would want doubles.  Most scratch records advertised that you would want two and every now and then a scratch record would come with doubles.  I didn't understand juggling and thought it was a marketing ploy, or they were saying you would use the record so much it would get worn out, hence needing a back up.

Through the years I studied and got learned on how scratch records work and how to utilize them.  One of my most memorable naive young DJ moments was getting the courage to go into Flex Records/L Burners and ask if they had any of the records "with the little marker lines on them" that I had seen scratch DJs using.  Big Dog or C-Low politely replied, "Pretty sure you put those markers on yourself, dude..." I was little embarrassed, but I was stoked to get home and start marking up my records.

Turntablists basically read the record like a clock.  They use marks such as a sticker, marker, or even the label itself to tell where a sound is according to a clock face. For example, a turntablist would know that when the marker got to 12:00 it was going to play a certain sound, "ahhhhh" and when it got to 6:00 it would play "freshhh".

Soon I started buying up all the break records I could.  Some of my early favorites are DJ Babu's "Super Duck Breaks", A-Trak's "Gangsta Breaks" and of course Q-Bert's "Super Seal".  That last record on the list revolutionized scratch records. Q-bert figured out how to make "sealed," loops so that on every revolution the sounds would land in the same places.  So on track one for instance, the sound "Beep, ahhhhh" would play over and over. If a DJ marked the beginning of the "beep" sound at 12:00, they would know every time the mark came to 12 it would play the sound.  This enabled DJs to quickly drop the needle on the desired sound in quick transition mixes. The looped nature of the tracks means that is impossible for the needle to skip a sound because the record plays the same thing in the same position on every rotation.  While some turntablists originally called the skipless tech cheating, most scratch records put out today at least feature one or two such closed loops. The skipless format exploded once portablism took off.

Some of those most interesting scratch records being put out right now don't adhere to this formula at all.  Records like Knick Knack's "Sound Craftsmen" series are set to turn the turntablist world upside down. Though they have been available for quite some time now, turntablists are still figuring out how to use them.  Instead of the classic DJ sounds and cuts, these records feature real instrument sounds. Not only that, they are arranged in correct keys. This allows a turntablist to literally compose music from the ground up. Using something like a Roland RC-50 looping station, a DJ could create like turntable production and actually construct a beat using nothing but scratches.  I think this is pretty much the epitome of where a turntablist could go with scratch records.

Justin Boland
GET FAMILIAR: Fattie B (Belizbeha / Eye Oh You)
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I have often called Fattie B "the elder statesman of Vermont hip hop" here, but perhaps that's unfair -- it makes it sound like he's John McCain or something. Nay. Fattie B is still putting in hard work, still doing his damn job, and he's as sharp as ever. (Possibly sharper.) He's an accomplished businessman who's still so into hip hop he actually geeks out about it. Regularly.

He's also still the same humble, self-depreciating dynamo that's been making friends and connections around the country & beyond. DJ, graphic artist, cultural sponge and perpetual momentum entrepreneur -- that's about half of his resume, too.

That all started with Belizbeha, a world-class trip hop outfit who will be reuniting for a huge celebration on Burlington's beautiful waterfront June 9th. Here we're talking 802 hip hop history, the meat grinder of the music business, and the current scene.  

VTHH: It's 1990. You're dressed to impress, still coping with the shock of Compact Disc technology, and looking forward to Die Hard 2. What was your sense of a "hip hop scene" in Vermont then? Were people rapping onstage in Burlington?

Fattie B: The scene then was just starting to take off. I remember in '91 I was in an emcee contest at Club Metronome. I came in second to a guy/girl duo from St. Mike's. That was my first time on a stage (although I used to rhyme over instrumentals when I DJ'd at house parties prior to that in and around Burlington).

VTHH: How long had you been rapping when you made the connection with Belizbeha? Did you get on the mic by necessity or by accident?

Fattie B: I was at a party in '92 and was rapping on the mic when Jeremy Skaller (Belizbeha's keyboard player) heard me and invited me to a tryout for a new band he wanted to assemble. His vision was a combo of The Brand New Heavies, Digable Planets and Stevie Wonder-ish vibes. At that time, I was in a duo with my good friend Geoff Garrow (whose emcee name was G-Wiz) and we were called Da Numbskullz.  We had 2 full albums that were mostly our rhymes on others instrumentals and were 75% about weed. Jeremy loved the back and forth Run-DMC style rhymes Geoff and I did, and the band was started.

I always loved hip-hop, even when I was young and lived in rural Bristol VT.  My early years were shaped by KRS-One, Rakim, Heavy D, Big Daddy Kane, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, MC Lyte. I wrote songs and recorded them in my parents basement and always wanted to prove myself. I took it as a challenge to make people see that a white kid could have flow and be seen as legit, not a stereotype or gimmick.

VTHH: What was it like laying down tracks for Charlie's Dream? Had you done recording sessions before that?

Fattie B: My only recording experience prior to Belizbeha was in makeshift studios in my (or some buddies') houses. When we did the sessions for Belizbeha's first album, it was so cool to lay multiple tracks and have an input in the sequencing and creative process. I also loved dropping in samples within the rhyme scheme. Often for that album, we would get drunk and go to bed just to wake up at 3:30-4 am so my voice was deeper and raspy.

I knew when we were recording that album that it was something special that would change my life's path. It was a universal sound that a wide spectrum of people loved. From a six year old kid to a 70 year old Granny, it wasn't like a lot of rap music coming out then - and that's what we wanted. A new, un-catagorizable genre and style.

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VTHH: At what point did it all click for the band -- do you recall a point where everyone realized that Belizbeha was about to get very big and fast and weird?

Fattie B: Right after Charlie's Dream (the first album) came out, we started touring and the press was insane. Billboard magazine labelled us "the next big thing" and we had labels knocking. When we recorded the 2nd album (Void Where Inhibited) with Yoko Ono's producer Rob Stevens, it got out of hand. We began working with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston publicist Susan Blonde, and that sent us into another stratosphere. We were the first unsigned band she ever worked with and we went from playing 300-400 person venues to doing 2500-5000 person gigs. We opened for Kool & the Gang at the House of Blues in LA when their music was seeing a comeback (due to it's use in movies at the time) and I got drunk that night with Ed McMahon and Peewee Herman. We were road warriors - playing over 200 shows a year for 6 straight years (in a time before cell phones, internet and Facebook).

PBS actually shot a documentary about us (one of the first music related reality shows) that never aired because we broke up right before we were going to get signed. I have the edit of it if you'd like watch it... it's hard for me to watch, honestly. Mainly because it's crazy that we begin it so hopeful and at the end we all are angry, beaten down and dejected.

VTHH: What was the spark that made the upcoming reunion show possible? Were you the catalyst for that?

Fattie B: When we got together 4 years ago and played at the Waterfront tent for the 2014 Jazz Festival, we came within a few hundred of setting the record for crowd size at that venue at a Discover Jazz event (2nd only to Jimmy Cliff).  The entire band couldn't believe the energy that night from that huge crowd - in fact, it was the only show I ever played that I can honestly say I felt a physical "energy" from the crowd when it surged that "moved me backwards."

We all wanted to experience that energy once more, and when Discover Jazz asked us to come back and play again, we had to say yes.  We had reunited and sold out 2 nights at the Rusty Nail in Stowe 2 years ago, but all of us wanted to play that Waterfront Tent again. And with Madaila and Dwight & Nicole on the bill too, we are hopeful to break the attendance record.

VTHH: In the past year, I've heard a number of people hoping that The Beat Biters would make a comeback -- any chance of that?

Fattie B: You know, I'd really love to... Konflik and I have been talking about doing a re-vamp of Eye Oh You (as a tribute to A-Dog) but kind of a live 'Beat Biters' type of off-shoot with just me, Konflik, a drummer and a stand up bass player.  We are trying to find a funky, jazzy, hip-hop influenced stand up bass player, so send one our way if you know of any…

VTHH: How do you feel about where the 802 hip hop scene is at now?

Fattie B: I am a huge fan of Jarv.  He is a talent that I believe will only keep getting better. I'd love to collab with him someday. And I need to check out 99 Neighbors...been hearing great things about those cats. I am also a giant fan of Learic (always have been) and a have a ton of respect for Mister Burns and his grind.  That dude does not stop... reminds me of us Belizbeha when we first darted touring - just go out there and get heard. Also, tons of respect for Learic and my man Konflik, who will be rhyming with us at the show on June 9th. Oh, and Vader The Villin! He is from Vermont but now lives in NYC. He is killing it and I’m a huge fan of his music and graphic art.

VTHH: For awhile, you were the foremost A&R in the state, thanks to all your excellent local compilations. Do you have any advice for the enterprising young bucks trying to get local labels off the ground in 2018?

Fattie B: If you are going to make them, do them for the music, not to make any money off of them or to garner attention for yourself. Do one just to put shine on some of the talent that exists here - that's why I did the HOP series and the L-Burners comp.  So much 'bedroom' talent now, there needs to be more venues to cop a package that's all-inclusive. And stop hating on others just because their style if different. If it's talented and well-made, it's still good.

BELIZBEHA REUINITES ON THE WATERFRONT SATURDAY, JUNE 9th - TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE. Cheers.

Justin Boland
GET FAMILIAR: Pro (GOOD WTHR / The Aztext)
 L to R: Pro, Learic. Photo by Brent Harrewyn.

L to R: Pro, Learic. Photo by Brent Harrewyn.

Pro is a hard-working, genuine Vermonter. He's a busy dad, a career man, and doomed to rap for the rest of his life because he truly loves the artform. His rapid, precise flow gained acclaim with The Aztext, one of the more successful rap groups BTV has ever seen, alongside emcee Learic and DJ Big Kat.

With the AZT on ice and Learic on a solo streak that's taken out of Vermont and back again, Pro's been pouring his heart into GOOD WTHR, his new group with emcee Kin. Formed in the aftermath of DJ BP aka Ryan Morin's passing, they are honoring their friend and delivering an incredible run of new material so far in 2018. We caught up to talk shop, reminisce on what is now ancient history, and take a look ahead.

VTHH: What was your first introduction to hip hop? Who were you idolizing early on?

PRO: I credit House of Pain’s “Jump Around” for being the track that really helped me fall in love with hip hop. I remember where I was when I first heard it (my cousin’s house in Hamilton, NY) and that it only took me a few listens to feel like I had it memorized. Once I heard those drums, Everlasts' energy and that patented Muggs scream…I was hooked.

In no particular order, my favorite rappers early on were Everlast, B Real, Method Man and Nas.  I was the nerd that followed MCs wherever they appeared, so if Nas showed up as a feature, for example – I’d buy the album. That helped me uncover a ton of new music and rapidly expanded my horizons.

VTHH: Were you part of any rap crews before Aztext came together?

PRO: No. I recorded a lot of music as a solo artist (Prolific) and did several shows as such.  Many of the producers who contributed to The Aztext albums started as producers for my solo projects.

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VTHH: How did you wind up connecting with Learic and Big Kat?

PRO: I met Big Kat when I was 17. He was releasing mixtapes in Burlington that were almost exclusively Dance Hall remixes over hip hop beats. I was a fan and we started recording tracks together under the label Big Kat Productions. Big Kat was also the DJ at all of my solo shows.

Learic and I became friends in high school, and spent a lot of our time freestyling together. In fact, the first track that I ever recorded in a professional studio was with Grandtheft (of Team Canada) in Montreal. Learic was visiting from Brooklyn, so naturally he was a feature.

Years later, we were both opening for The Loyalists as solo artists and we performed that one track together. After the show a handful of people asked if we were a group, and they were all disappointed to find out we weren’t.  

As impulsive as it sounds, that night we decided to re-locate to Burlington (him from NYC and me from Rhode Island) to get a spot in Burlington and start working on an album together. Our group was originally going to be called Abbott and Costello.

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VTHH: What were the biggest lessons you learned from your debut LP, Haven't You Heard? Do you have any hard-won advice for young heads working on their first album?

PRO: I learned a ton following the release of Haven’t You Heard?, although this many years later it’s hard to say when I fully learned and implemented each lesson!

Just because you record a track, doesn’t mean it has to be on the album. I’ll keep you in suspense, but suffice it to say that if we were to re-release Haven’t You Heard? today, it would not have been 16 tracks.

You only get one shot at a first impression, so make it a good one.  There is no rush, aside from the excitement of sharing your music. Temper that excitement and take your time - especially during the recording process.

Don’t buy features. In addition to doing very little to legitimize your project, it can actually have the opposite effect. Spend that same money on proper mixing, mastering and most importantly, promotion.

VTHH: That is surprising to hear now, especially since The Aztext landed so many top notch features. When The Sacred Document dropped, I remember everyone being stunned with how legit that LP was. What was the process behind that album? Where were you recording then?

PRO: Me and Learic were roommates through the production of both Haven’t You Heard? and The Sacred Document, and we worked out of an in-home studio.

So the process for both records was very similar, except that everyone involved was that much more practiced in their craft. We were blessed with a network of incredible producers, too. That really worked in our favor because when producer A heard the beat Producer B sent us… their inner need to compete meant they had to send us something even better!

As far as songwriting, me and Learic work at much different speeds when it comes to writing verses. So, we’d almost always start writing the concept and hook collaboratively, and once those components were nailed down, we could go away and write on verses at our own pace.

VTHH: The Aztext managed to have a big impact in Europe, which is wild. Did you guys strategically aim to do that or was it mostly happy accidents?

PRO: I’d say it was a combination of the two, because it started as a happy accident and became more intentional.  We were establishing ourselves as a group at the height of the MySpace boom. And while I will forever be torn on how much MySpace helped vs. hurt, it did turn music into a global community.  We started getting beats emailed to us from all over the world, and if it was dope, we used it! Some of those producers went on to put out albums of their own that they pushed heavily in their countries, which expanded our listenership a great deal.

We were doing a lot of shows back then and many of the bigger artists we opened for gave us the same advice: Tour in Europe.  They’d go on and on about how that classic underground hip hop sound was more appreciated outside of North America, and thought we’d fit in nicely.  So, we weren’t blind to the opportunity that existed, but what drove us initially was really dope music. Then, that turned into friendships and trusted collaboration partners.

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VTHH: So that takes us to right around when the "Who Cares If We're Dope?" series was going, right? That was such a great run, and a consistently surprising one, too -- were you feeling boxed into boom-bap?

PRO: Who Cares if We’re Dope? remains my personal favorite Aztext release.  We were a few years removed from the self-imposed pressure of following up The Sacred Document and able to move at a more relaxed pace.

The project wasn’t necessarily a reaction to feeling boxed into boom-bap so much as it was us, trying to showcase the producer’s signature sound in tandem with our own.  For other projects, someone might send us 5 beats - of which we selected only the 1 or 2 that fit our sound.  During the mini-series, we wanted to respect and highlight the producer’s signature sound and stretch our comfort zone.  For example, Touchphonics is an established label owner and DJ in Drum & Bass, E Train’s sound had become slightly more west coast influenced after 10 years in the Bay, Dub Sonata was producing for a modern rock band called Like Diamonds, etc.

Learic and I both share an extremely deep love for music of all genres.  The concept of co-branding a project as The Aztext + The Producer meant an opportunity to work in genres we otherwise might not have explored on a solo Aztext record.  We never took it quite as far as we’d like, but that was the intention, and one I’d like to re-explore.

VTHH: How did the "I Make Records" video come together?

PRO: The ‘I Make Records’ video was truly a family affair.  It started with Touchphonics lacing us with that beat! Once that track was mixed, we were certain it needed a video.

Brent Harrewyn shot, directed and edited the video. Brent is a longtime friend of ours. When he was in college, Devon and I acted in several of his short films and he was always open to doing a video for us in return.  Years later, even though he was extremely busy and getting paid well outside of our price range, he was happy to help.

The dancers were a combination of The Rhythm Riderz Crew who we’ve always had a good relationship with and big respect for; and a local dance class courtesy of a friend/dance instructor Rose Bedard.  The shoot turned into a straight up dance party. It was such a great moment in time.

Once we had the producer, general concept and dancers, we just needed a location.  A friend of ours owned Rasputin’s and was happy to open the doors for us for a day… and who can forget Steez?! Fattie B was always something of a mentor to us. We spent a lot of time in Steez both as patrons, or just asking him questions over the years, so we were so excited to shoot in there.

VTHH: How has your songwriting process evolved over the years? Do you have any advice for young writers?

PRO: I’ve had two major evolutions in my songwriting process, and they both service as advice for young writers.

The first is that I do not work on songs that I don't connect with personally. I get sent a lot of beats and collaboration requests, and most of them are great, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a fit for me.  If I hear something and am moved emotionally, I write to it; if not, I politely decline.

The other thing that’s changed is that I’ve grown completely comfortable being me, and my writing reflects that. This is a lesson that I wish I had learned earlier when I burned a lot of useless energy wondering how others would react to a given song/verse.  As advice to young writers - anyone can write a dope punchline, but there is only one you.

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VTHH: That definitely shines through with the GOOD WTHR material. What do you think set you free? What changed?

PRO: I think it’s just a function of growing up.  I have an awesome wife and two beautiful children. When I am making music these days, I think of it as a journal that my children will ‘read’ years later, and am conscious of what lessons/takeaways I want to impart to them specifically.

That’s not to say that every track has to reveal some major life lesson, but it is to say that every lyric has to be rooted in my truth and defensible under that microscope.

My grandfather was an artist, a pianist and published author. When he was alive I loved asking him about his motivations for specific works, and now that he’s gone I appreciate speculating what drove his projects.  In the event my children (or theirs) share a similar curiosity in our family, they can analyze my music.

I also used my grandfather's art as a way to cope with his death. Here is a track that I made using sampled piano that he played (at age 89 with arthritis), audio from an interview I did with him, and me speaking words that he wrote in a poem called Maverick. So essentially, 100% his art to power my own artistic creation.

VTHH: Looking back, what are some of your favorite shows you've played?

PRO: There were so many that it’s really hard to choose, but here are two stand outs…

We opened up for Snoop twice in Killington.  The shows were wild on so many levels, but the craziest part was that the audience assumed we were on tour with Snoop. What that did to their psyche in terms of responding to our music was very powerful. When we said jump – they jumped. When we did a call and response – it came back at full volume.  For one night, we felt a glimpse into what it must feel like to be Atmosphere. The energy it provided was unforgettable.

The first time we performed with Brother Ali, he actually made his way out from back stage and stood front and center during our set. After the show, he was extremely complimentary of our energy and told us it was one of the better live shows he’d seen in a while.  A compliment that powerful would be huge coming from anyone, but when it comes from someone as talented (especially in the live show department) as Ali… it’s still surreal in retrospect.

VTHH: Do you have more projects on the way in 2018?

PRO: Yes.  GOOD WTHR will release a lot of music this year. We plan to release individual songs as singles opposed to saving up for an ‘album’ release, in addition to working on some focused EPs.  We just recorded our first track for a collab EP with SkySplitterInk.

Outside of that, Learic and I recorded an Aztext track over a ridiculous beat courtesy of Rico James.  Where we take it is still TBD (new album? single release?), but I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of The Aztext.

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Justin Boland
GET FAMILIAR: Jibba "The Gent"
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Jibba "The Gent" is rap entrepreneur from southern Vermont who is hard working, outgoing -- and increasingly successful. Here, we're talking shop about ... well, everything. Enjoy.

VTHH: What was your introduction to rap? Were you hooked immediately?

Jibba: My introduction to rap came from MTV in the early 90's. I remember artists like Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, B.I.G., Tupac, Queen Latifah, Onyx, LL Cool J, and Wu-Tang Clan being in heavy rotation. The baggy clothes, the attitudes, the gangster shit, the late night top ten count downs … growing up in Vermont, I had NEVER seen anything like it. Yeah, I was hooked immediately. As soon as I got one of those Columbia House ads with CD's for a penny each, I would be buying 10-15 CD's a month!

I remember my first actual album I absolutely loved was Warren G's Regulate G Funk Era album. From the skits to the smooth melodies and funky west coast production, I was a huge fan. I knew it word for word, cover to cover, probably still do. That album not only got me hooked on hip-hop, it got me focused on West Coast hip-hop.

VTHH: Did you have outlets and venues for your work, early on, or did you have to create your own scene?

Jibba: Ehh, not so much in Southern Vermont. I really started from the ground up out here. There was nobody really mentoring me and my friends that were vital to creating a scene there, but we did have acts to look up to. Like Rhythm Ruckus, I never did meet those guys, but I followed them closely in the days of Myspace. Also, the VT Union crew was super cool. I met Dakota first, then S.I.N.sizzle and DJ A-Dog, we worked a few shows together back in the early 2000's. It was really nice to get that love from up North, I always looked at them as the ones running the Vermont hip-hop scene. Them and The Aztext, though I never got to meet any of them until these last couple of years.

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VTHH: What do you think the most important change was, in terms of finally bridging that gap between the two Vermonts?

Jibba: For me, it was as simple as communication. Just reaching out to who I saw as the players up North. Once we started talking, I realized just how great these people are. Dakota, S.I.N.sizzle, Nastee, Learic, etc. I really look up to these artists and they were willing to work together on projects or shows or whatever. It was a really cool feeling to know that these artists are also really great people. The same goes for the old Vermont Hip Hop blog: all I had to do was reach out. I think it's important to say because a lot of people might be nervous to send an email or message through because of some preconceived notion. Communication seems to be the key to life!

VTHH: From the outside looking in, it seemed like 2017 was your best year ever, in terms of impact and reach. Does it seem that way to you? What keeps you motivated?

Jibba: I think that's true as a solo artist, it's the year I really started working on myself as an act. I finally learned a bit about the business side of music and was able to apply it. I started investing in myself and have seen great results so far, I'm finally peeking over these Green Mountains into other markets and gaining some attention by striking while the irons hot.

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VTHH: Dropping "The Broccoli Tree" has been a real breakthrough for you. What was the process behind that LP? Was it a long time coming?

Jibba: Phew! That one was a long time coming! I have been working on solo music for years and just kind of stockpiling it, doing test releases and performances locally. I had a really great run as one half of Causin' Effect, so I was really putting my all into the group effort and holding back from running as a solo act. The whole group thing slash studio venture from 2016 wasn't feeling right for me though, so I walked away from it. It actually ended kind of bitterly, I'm sure a lot of VT locals remember the social media drama for awhile...

In 2017, I really made a deal with myself to either stop making music all together or drop this music I've been holding onto. Give it a good push outside of Vermont and see what happens. Well, it has snowballed into some new ventures, collaborations, growth in my network and some great new features for my next album, which will be coming much quicker then The Broccoli Tree did.

VTHH: Do you think the next LP will be a 2018 thing? What has made the process easier this time around?

Jibba: Yes, 2018 for sure. I'm being a little more selfish this year. I really enjoy helping others, to the point I will put my own interests second, a lot. So this year I have been really focused on my own music. I still have been taking collabs, but people may tell you I'm pretty slow with them. I will be the first to admit I'm being selfish and putting my own music first. Opportunities come and go quick, so sometimes I strike while the irons hot and projects get pushed back. Well this next album is unapologetically put first, above all. I'm in a really good zone for solo music, I want to capitalize.

VTHH: What advice do you have for artists looking to do their first music video? You've got more experience in this department than most around here.

Jibba: Honestly, I've really lucked out with being friends with some super talented people. Like, Matthew Dean Russell, Matt Graham and Nick Deistler. It's also been great getting to know another great talent in Miles Goad of DVP Cinematography. Without these folks, my videos would never have been as great as they have been. I do have some advice beyond that, though.

My first bit of advice would be to plan ahead. Write a script, include scenes with places to shoot at. It doesn't have to be a certified Hollywood script but having an idea of what you want before it comes down to hitting that record button will really go a long way in saving time and also the outcome of the video will look more professional.

My second bit of advice might seem tough or out of reach to some but, get sponsorship! If you're going to wear a certain brand of clothes anyway, why not reach out to that brand? You would be surprised with the amount of clothing lines that will send you some threads to promote in your video. You could also ask for monetary sponsorship from local businesses looking to branch out and promote their brand in your video. Which is huge for your video budget. Just remember what would mesh well with your videos content. For example, a family restaurant may not want to sponsor a video promoting violence, drinking and blowing ungodly amounts of herbs. Find the right sponsors for your content.

My last bit of advice is to be creative. Think outside the box of just rapping into the camera with your homies behind you. I mean, that's cool and all, and works for some of us sometimes, but if you really are looking to stand out I suggest putting some thought into your video. That's pretty much what I've learned through trial and error. Plan ahead, get sponsorship before shooting the video and think outside the box.

VTHH: I've seen you play mentor for a lot of local artists online. Do you find yourself doing that locally now, too? Do you see a new scene coming together down south?

Jibba: I would really love to see the scene unite down south, it is a goal of mine for sure. If not people working together for a common goal in our area, at the very least help set people up with the tools to make the dream a profession instead of a hobby. I get really tired of wasted talent. It bothers me more then it should probably. I've actually branched out to helping young artists in different states with the business side of music. It's pretty fulfilling to watch someone take advice and run with it, watching them succeed and get wins. I like it just about as much as recording a song I'm proud of. I've been testing the waters of artist development inside the HLR camp, it's been fun and rewarding helping these guys put the work in to advance their careers. It seems I've naturally found a future in the music industry beyond just writing tunes, so that's exciting.

Justin Boland
GET FAMILIAR: Self Portrait
  Photography by  Colette Kulig

Photography by Colette Kulig

Self Portrait are days away from dropping their second album, Primal Union. This is a classic rap lineup with a lead emcee, a rapper/producer and a real live DJ tearing it up onstage. The new album showcases features from some of the hardest working people in Vermont hip hop, like Anthill Collective maestro Eskae, who juggles a couple hundred hats any given month. He shares a cut with SkySplitter, a prolific producer and one hell of a recording engineer, too.

These lads are embedded, in other words, a central hub of the new hot shit, and a home team a lot of folks are rooting for.

Primal Union is a big step for the Self Portrait crew, but they've been on the rise for awhile because they stay busy. Last year they were featured on the latest A-Dog Day compilation, the kind of honor that doesn't come lightly. Ringtone rap might be making money now, but albums still matter, and Primal Union is a professional product.

I got to talk with two thirds of the team about their sordid past, their violent beefs, and the upcoming HBO documentary. Dig it.

Thirtyseven: How did your crew come together?

RICO JAMES: Me and Trono met in 2007 while living in Plattsburgh, NY. I had just graduated with an art degree and Trono was still attending the college at the time. We hit it off immediately and started designing a clothing company, and writing rhymes together. This was before I even started making beats. I ended up moving to the west coast for a few years, so we continued to create long distance. I started making beats while living out west, so it was only right that we jumped back into the music when I moved back east to Burlington.

I met DJ Kanga through a mutual friend here in town, and we clicked immediately through our shared love of hip hop. I was blown away when I saw him scratch the first time. Right after we hung out, I hit up Trono and told him we gotta link up with this dude and get to work. I was amazed that Kanga hadn't been snatched up yet by another group. Dude is an unbelievable DJ. I sent him some of our tunes, while simultaneously reaching out to some people trying to book a show. We booked our first show in Sept. of 2013, and have been rockin' together ever since.

Thirtyseven: Has your songwriting process changed over the years?

TRONO: The songwriting has changed as my style and Rico's style has changed. Rico has taken a lesser role in rhyming, but when he does, his flow is on point and his one liners are hilarious. He has come a long way building a confidence you can find in his verses.

I have tried to develop my skills by being more concise. My thoughts need to convey the point that I want while also becoming one with the beat. I allow - encourage - beats to take me over, to lead me down the path. Emotions and what the instrumental pulls out of you are what need to be put into words. I need to explore that however possible with pin point exactness when translated onto paper. Its a ever growing process, forcing me to learn myself and to learn from others. 

RICO JAMES: The process for the group as a whole is pretty simple. My main focus is the beats. I make the beats for the crew, so we start by sending a batch of beats to Trono. He picks and chooses the ones he likes and can get into and starts writing. I give Trono complete freedom to write whatever he feels. He usually comes up with the concepts and I just step in lyrically wherever it is needed. Trono is the lyricist of the crew. He is the true writer. I like writing rhymes for fun, but he is the true talent with the pen. After we get our songs all layed out, we send rough mixes to Kanga to add his magic. 

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Thirtyseven: How did you wind up with such an awesome cover? 

TRONO: We discovered the artist, Evan Book, through another VT hip hopper that goes by Mycelium MC. He put us on to his work and I knew it would be a perfect fit for our album art. We had the album name, Primal Union, picked out for about a year and knew that was going to be the next album name. We had the concept that we wanted, with the cavemen in a cave listening to records by a fire, have Trono eating another emcee, etc... We through it out to Evan Book, told him the basic idea, and he absolutely killed it. His style works perfectly with what we wanted and had imagined for the album. He is a super talented artist, and everybody should hit him up on FB and check out his work.

Thirtyseven: Approximately how rich and famous do you plan on becoming on Feb. 24th?

TRONO: As rich and famous as I was the day before. 

RICO JAMES: I'm hoping for a crispy $20. Will hit those dollar bins hard.

  Photography by  Colette Kulig

Photography by Colette Kulig

 

 

Justin Boland