Local hip-hop sensations Brent Smith and Bryan Lackner may seem like an odd couple of sorts — until you come to realize that their association with each other dates back to their early teen years inside the walls of Rochester Hills' Hart Middle School. Their formative years were spent apart, but they reconvened years later in the early 2000s when both started becoming fixtures in the burgeoning Detroit underground scene. Now known as Blaksmith, Smith was a spoken word artist and member of Cold Men Young. Lackner was rapping as a solo artist under the name Mister. The two now comprise the group Passalacqua.
"I was doing solo stuff and Brent was with Cold Men Young," Smith says via a three-way phone call during an off day in Portland, Ore. "And then via Internet shit we connected again. We were doing shows at this place in Rochester called the Factory. It's not a venue anymore, but Brent saw one of my solo performances. Then I did a show with Cold Men Young and Brent started being the hype man for my solo shows. The chemistry started to work from that, and we decided to make songs. That sort of started the Passalacqua journey."
Hillbom was another name that the guys tossed around before eventually settling on the one they chose. Mr. Hillbom was their science teacher and it was the only class Brent and Bryan had together. Their other option was to use the unique last name of another one of their middle school classmates — Dan Passalacqua.
Early attempts to contact Dan Passalacqua were futile, but eventually through a random interaction with his brother, the wheels were set in motion to actually connect with him. After a few moments of hesitancy, Passalacqua gave the duo his blessing and has even gone on record in the Right Brothers documentary Groove With Us, saying that he likes their music and hopes that they give him another CD since he scratched the last one up from playing it so much.
One of the first songs that the duo Passalacqua cut together was the appropriately titled "Been a Minute." The track was the closing song on their 2011 self-titled debut, an EP that was met with acclaim. The guys were also praised for their approach to live performances.
Following that EP, Passalacqua went on to release Zebehazy Summer, including a remix version. Late last year they released Church. For portions of their shows, the two emcees would rap while wearing oversized masks in the likenesses of legendary artists Tom Waits and Bootsy Collins: on other occasions they have been known to stage pizza deliveries and also wear astronaut helmets while performing in slow motion. The masks don't get taken out as much during concerts in and around the Detroit area anymore because it started to be an expected part of the show — but the duo readily admits that when they're on the road, the masks often make all the cameras come out.
"I think it comes from doing so many shows together and just being together," says Smith when asked what makes the group function so well. "We know what works and what doesn't. Even with the Rap Round Robin Tour, we've got our own roles and responsibilities. There are things that I do well and there are things that Mister does well. We're supportive of each other and everything just piggybacks off of that."
The Rap Round Robin Tour with Eze Jackson and Height Keech, which kicked off in March and runs until the beginning of May, passed through PJ's Lager House on April 11. The setup of the show is worth noting. It's a bit different than that of a typical concert as there are no opening acts or headliners, just nonstop music.
"There are three touring acts and three local acts in each city," Lackner says. "There's three stages and two acts per stage. Everybody does a song before passing it to the next stage. So as soon as it starts, it doesn't stop until the show is over. People are excited to see this because it's different. People are blown away by how seamless it is and how it flows really well. It originated in Baltimore with Height, and so far it seems to be really popular."
Aside from the tour, Passalacqua just released an excellent four-song EP titled Banglatown. And there is always more music in the works.
"We've been getting a lot of beats from rappers on the tour," says Smith. "A lot of people come with flash drives and they'll actually leave the drives on Bryan's computer, so we've got songs on top of songs on top of songs. We might end up making a Rap Round Robin mixtape or something like that. We also have another album that we're working on that's probably going to be kind of different, and we might even put together a project with Eze Jackson and Height Keech while we're still out on the tour. We're just always working."