It’s a chilly Thursday afternoon on the fringes of the Cass Corridor. New condo construction suggests that this tumbledown neighborhood is headed for a new era. But on the corner of Selden and Second, inside the apartment of local hip-hop renaissance man Nick Speed, the clock has been turned back, the present seems more like the past, and nostalgia is bliss.
Speed’s giant apartment could be abandoned. There’s a table, a couch, several scattered plastic chairs and a few dishes. That’s it. But down a narrow hallway in a bedroom sits a makeshift studio. It’s filled with records, old keyboards and stacks of vintage recording gear. Speed’s best friends, Jesse “Magestik Legend” Givens and Jason “Elzhi” Powers are here. Together they are 9-2-5 Colony.
Though Elzhi has gone international as one-half of Slum Village, Nick Speed is now known for his solo production work, and Magestik Legend is a focal emcee in the underground powerhouse label Subterraneous Records, 9-2-5 Colony is still as solid as it was six years ago. Only difference is then they couldn’t rub two nickels together.
“I can remember one New Year’s Eve when we were all at my crib,” Elzhi says. “Man, we were so broke, we were sitting down in the basement sipping apple juice out of little plastic cups — toasting.”
Thousands of fliers have just arrived for the upcoming record-release party celebrating Elzhi’s new two-CD mixtape Witness My Growth: 1997-2004. And the men of 9-2-5 are glowing at the thought of being on the same stage together for the first time in four years. The show will be an onstage reunion for this rap crew that only a few involved in Detroit’s late ’90s hip-hop scene can even remember. Yet the group has become a thing of local myth.
Born of the hood schemes of Speed and Legend, 9-2-5 Colony jumped straight out of Communication and Media Arts High School on Detroit’s West Side and landed in a melting pot of budding hip-hop talent. Wasted Youth, 5ELA, Fat Ray and DJ Dez were always around as sparring partners. Former classmate Askia “Skee” Gibson was a group original, but he soon bailed.
“We didn’t really get serious with it until around graduation back in ’98,” Speed says in a rhythm consistent with his moniker. “And right as the pieces started falling together, my man Skee went away to college. Then everything was all on me and Jesse.”
“We knew we wanted to keep the group going,” Legend adds. “So one night Nick snuck into St. Andrew’s with DJ Houseshoes, ’cause we were still too young to get in, and he ended up meeting Elzhi and OnebeLo from Subterraneous.”
That first meeting took Elzhi by surprise.
“When I first met Nick, dude was real energetic, and he came up to me like, ‘Yo, I been a fan of yours since you were in F.O.D.,’” Elzhi says. “’Cause Houseshoes used to have a radio show at Henry Ford Community College back in the day and he used to play our shit all the time. So Nick starts quoting my rhymes and I’m like, ‘Oh shit — that’s cool,’ and we exchanged numbers and started kicking it.”
Elzhi — who was involved in the quasi hip-hop group the Breakfast Club (which included future notables Lacks, Big Tone, 87 and Dwele) — joined Colony in late 1998. The three shared a mutual love of video games, old records and cannabis.
Creative sparks flew at late-night rhyming sessions. They began writing songs collectively and learning production work. But money was a problem. They couldn’t afford beats or studio time.
“Every time somebody had a dope beat that we wanted, they was charging like $300,” Legend says. “By the time we would scrape together $150, the beat was already sold. So me and Nick started trying to do production ’cause we had to.”
The crew hit up pal Houseshoes for cheap recording time. Houseshoes gave them dirt-cheap rates to use his equipment and loop beats. Eventually, he scratched the hourly rate altogether and taught Speed and Legend how to create their own beats.
Colony’s highs included unruly shows at the Motor Lounge, Magic Stick, Chicago’s Subterranean and the Blind Pig. Lows included having to split $20 three ways after gigs. They often rolled in to recording sessions on gas fumes. Something had to give.
“Finally we hit a point where it was like, ‘Dawg, we all gotta do what we have to do opportunity-wise so that we can start to put some food on the table,’” Elzhi says. “There was never any animosity about going our separate ways. It was really economics.”
Elzhi’s rhyming sessions at the Hip-Hop Shop piqued the interest of one-time Slum Village man Jay Dee, who put Elzhi on his 2001 breakout release Welcome 2 Detroit. By the end of 2001, Elzhi was an official Slum Village member. Legend, who converted to Islam, joined forces with fellow Muslim OneBeLo and helped Subterraneous Records get off the ground. Speed’s done production for Big Herk, Phat Kat and Slum Village.
This trio no longer survives on party store chips and apple juice. They talk of plans to create a line of designer gym shoes and an online publication called Vs. Magazine. Each agrees that what they do outside this group can only make 9-2-5 Colony stronger, and that their bond is deeper than the music.
This week’s release party stemmed from a lazy afternoon last month when Elzhi found a bag of old tapes. He laughs at the simplicity of being famous enough to transfer dusty tapes from the back of his closet to a CD and have a proper “release party.”
“Its funny to see it all go down this way,” Elzhi says. “This is definitely a manifestation of what the three of us spoke on like four years ago. We said we would branch out and then come back together at the end with more connections. And that’s exactly the way it happened.”
Much of the CD is drawn from 9-2-5 Colony, the Breakfast Club and Elzhi’s studio work with Wajeed, J-Dilla and Karriem Riggins.
The buzz for Elzhi’s release show is lighting up online chat rooms and barstool prattle.
“This is gonna be the best show that we’ve seen in a long time,” Houseshoes says. “Anyone even remotely interested in hip hop that misses this show is doing themselves a great disservice. This Witness My Growth mixtape that these dudes are putting out is one of the best collections of hip hop I’ve ever heard in my life.” OK, then.
Wednesday, Dec. 15, at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555). Jonathan Cunningham is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org