When Kavary “Magnif” Capsico and his cousin Alfred “Griot” Austin of Detroit’s hip-hop duo Lawless Element were but pint-sized playmates (6 and 9 years old, respectively) they didn’t waste time messing with toys. No, as impressionable children of the ’80s, these pup prodigies were wrapping their sticky fingers around hip-hop culture and little else.
“We wanted to be rappers even back then,” Griot says, smiling wryly. “We started out by beat-boxing into an old radio and recording it. Then we’d play the beat-box back and rhyme over it all day.” He pauses, and then he adds, “I think Mag’s been making beats since he was in the first grade.”
A sit-down conversation with the duo and their manager, Joel Maljak, at Honest?John’s Bar and No Grill in Detroit reveals the gents of Lawless Element to be shy and humble. Griot, 21, and Magnif, 19, seem a little too grateful to be interviewed. After all, the group is about to release a single (“High”) this week with rising star producer Madlib (MF Doom, Peanut Butter Wolf, etc.), gets radio spins overseas, and routinely records inside Dearborn’s fabled Studio A (Common, N’Sync, Madonna).
True, the name Lawless Element might mean little to many Michigan hip-hop aficionados; the group hasn’t done a local show in nearly a year. Also, fans of mainstream rap (think Chingy) and underground heads into LE rarely mix. And despite releasing “The Shining” 12” last year (which featured the production work of Jay Dee), and working with Big Tone and Phat Kat, LE’s upward mobility in the local scene is slow going.
No big deal, the duo says. It’s all part of the plan.
“We’re not really concerned with the hip-hop scene in Detroit,” Maljak says. (Maljak also owns Raw Material Records, home to Lawless Element.) “The people we roll with like Nick Speed and Big Tone, they don’t really play a lot of local shows either. We just let our music speak for itself.”
Sound like arrogance? Well, maybe — they are young. But the music is doing much of the talking. The group’s first single, 2001’s “Mic Check,” was well-received, getting love on Internet and college radio stations throughout the country. With few local live shows under their belts — the MCs were too young then to get into bars — the stellar single appeared out of nowhere and caught many in these parts off guard.
“When we recorded ‘Mic Check,’ Mag was only 15 years old,” Maljak says. “He couldn’t get into any of the clubs for open-mics. G[riot] didn’t have any transportation either. So back then, playing a show at a club wasn’t happening. It didn’t mean they weren’t working hard, though.”
At 19, Magnif’s self-taught production skills are considered by some area producers like Tasherre D’ Enajetic and Nick Speed to be far beyond his years.
By the time Maljak discovered him, Magnif was a 15-year-old who routinely churned out stellar beats on an outdated sampler. Upon signing with Raw Material, Maljak presented Magnif with a new drum machine as a signing bonus, so the young producer could hone his skills. The production style that’s since developed is both smooth and bass-heavy — with an array of chopped-up drum patterns reminiscent of early ’90s boom-bap.
As for Griot (which in West Africa means “storyteller”), his skills represent the group’s grimier aspects; he can sling antagonistic and narrative-driven raps about you, your mom and your chick in all of four bars. A longtime fan of story rappers like Slick Rick and Nas, Griot attempts to live up to his nom de plume with each verse.
“It’s the cadence and the dopeness of the flows that makes me want to write,” Griot says. “I got a passion for getting in the booth and just letting it all out.”
Of course, the group’s lyrical brashness has sparked minor beefs with local MCs. Both Griot and Magnif have traded barbs with solo-lyricist Finale at open-mic nights on several occasions. The beef landed on vinyl several months ago during a recording session for their upcoming (due this spring) debut album, Sound Vision: In Stereo, in which Griot takes shots at both Finale and his sometime partner Invincible.
Griot claims the beef was overhyped.
“Basically we were just testing each other,” Griot says of the Finale dis. He adds that the beef is “squashed now but the song is already recorded. We can’t waste money redoing the song.”
The same situation may account for a touchy verse on the group’s last single, “Rules Pt. 2,” in which Magnif raps, “Stay one below ’cause we always coming in first/It seems hatin’ is the only thing these niggas rehearse.” Before the single hit the store shelves, some suggested the line was an attack on respected Subterraneous label head One Be Lo (aka OneManArmy). Though the group claims innocence, Lo was less than amused.
“Those cats ain’t been in the game long enough to come around and start dissin’ folks,” Lo says. “I just overlook it ’cause they’re young. I think deep inside they’re good people; they just need somebody to give them the right advice.”
With an already fragmented hip-hop scene in Michigan — one that often breeds heady beefs — all parties involved say they’d rather put the mic jabs behind them and let actions speak louder than verbal assaults.
Thus far, the pair maintains that they’re not only walking the walk, but that the group’s “focus beyond Detroit” strategy is paying off. Chicago lyricist Diverse, best known for his collaborations with Mos Def and Prefuse 73, recently purchased three beats off Magnif for his own upcoming album. Considering said record also features production from RJD2, Prefuse 73, and Jeff Parker of Tortoise, Magnif’s contribution is impressive. And Madlib’s work with LE on the new single won’t hurt the group’s rep.
While Griot and Magnif both say they were elated to collaborate with Madlib, they were especially honored to work with Jay Dee (aka J-Dilla) who also lent vocals to Sound Vision: In Stereo in addition to his production work.
“Dilla showed love and looked out,” Magnif says. “He’s a real humble dude; that’s not what I was expecting coming from a legendary cat like him.”
Sound Vision resonates with a songcraft that might woo both mainstream and underground ears. Rhyme schemes change as often as the production, and listeners may detect various stages of Lawless Element’s growth. As a bonus, Pontiac chanteuse Melanie Rutherford lends her powerful voice, as do Phat Kat, Diverse and Big Tone.
Beyond Sound Vision, Griot and Magnif are excited about the more personal projects they have on the table. Mag is currently working on his Super Beat-Maker Mixtape, which will drop as a precursor to LE’s main album this spring; Griot is finishing up an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. Although some rappers like Kanye West emphasize the merits of skipping school, Griot sees structured education differently.
“My father died hustling in the streets trying to make sure I got a good education,” Griot says. “The least I can do is finish college — it’s not just an opportunity for me, it’s a responsibility.”
Performs Tuesday, Feb. 15, with DJ Primeminister, SelfSays, and P. Dot at Alvin’s (5756 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-4577). Jonathan Cunningham is a Metro Times intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org