Ann Arbor's Athletic Mic League has been holding down ace-deuce-style indie hip-hop since the mid 1990s, fitting easily into the J Dilla era with conscious, soulful rapping and inventive, R&B-flavored tracks.
So why you haven't heard more about them?
After 12-plus years in the game, life caught up with them: kids, college ... you know the drill. But, hey, AML has re-emerged as a solo vehicle for emcee Buff 1 (aka Jamall Bufford), backed by AML cohorts (beatmakers the Lab Techs) as he prepares to drop Pure, his solo debut. In anticipation of his CD release party March 31, Buff tells us how many people it takes to make a solo record, what's right about Detroit hip hop right now, and how an Athletic Mic Leaguer gives it the old college try.
Metro Times: What would you improve about Detroit hip-hop? I mean, as far as getting it out there, or better managers to get it out there? Or what do you think needs to happen?
Buff 1: Things are looking really good right now, actually. One Below [aka One Man Army] from the Subterraneans, he's released Sonogram on [Los Angeles' premier indie rap label] Fat Beats. He's from Pontiac. And Black Milk's Popular Demand is on Fat Beats now too. Guilty Simpson signed to Stones Throw; it doesn't get any better than that. And all these people are on my album!
MT: Yeah, for a solo record, you had a lot of help.
Buff: I've been working on songs since 1994 for this. But I have beats from D-12's Denaun Porter he's worked with Snoop, Busta, Dr. Dre. I got Invincible on there. I wanted to put her on a real serious track because she's this community activist and you just can't dumb that down. But she said, 'Naw, I just want to spit,' so I put her on a track with Guilty Simpson. And then I got "True Colors" with Nowon and Monica Blair. She's the best vocalist in Detroit right now. She sings, dances, raps; she's real ill.
MT: You're from Ann Arbor. Do you think of yourself as part of the Detroit hip-hop community?
Buff: Since Proof and Dilla passed away, I see a lot more unity and support. That's not the issue. I don't know if it's managers stepping up, or people just want something new. For so long, hip hop was dominated by the East Coast, but then Outkast and Goodie Mob made the South big. Then Em came and people were like, 'This is the Detroit sound.' But it kind of put a stamp or a stigmatism on Detroit. People are starting to realize there's more to it than the 8 Mile hype.
MT: What does Pure bring to Detroit hip-hop?
Buff: What I can definitely bring is just a different voice. I'm a college graduate. I didn't grow up poor, but I wasn't rich. I had a single parent mom growing up in Ann Arbor. I have a different voice, but I'm part of Detroit and they show me love.
MT: How so?
Buff 1: I touch on politics a lot. A lot of cats don't. In "House of Horrors," I'm talking about us getting too caught up in what the government is doing. We need to take control by taking control of ourselves. Then I got "Pretty Baby," talking to a female in a strip club. I don't have anything against strip clubs, I have enjoyed them. But the song, it's this fictional conversation, like, "Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? Because there are better things for you." The second verse is about talking to a kid on the corner, talking about other things he could be doing.
MT: How do you feel like you can offer that kind of advice?
Buff 1: I grew up around drug dealers, but I saw where that ended up. I was fortunate enough from an early age to have an education. In December 2005, I graduated from the University of Michigan I made that promise to my mom that I'd finish college. I have to believe it gives you an advantage. I actually didn't enjoy it, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment.
MT: Why didn't you like it?
Buff: It sounds crazy as an emcee, but I don't like to read. I watch a lot of TV and movies. I don't like showing that extra effort speaking up in class and showing up at teacher's office hours. I was like, "Yo, I just want to do my work and be out."
Saturday, March 31, at Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. With Now On and S.U.N. For more Buff 1, visit www.myspace.com/buff1der.Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org