Up Pops the Sac by local hip-hop group Starving Artists Crew sounds like the coolest house party where you could ever hope to get plowed. It’s like this: There’s plenty of microbrew (gratis) and no line to the crapper. There’s a tempting spread of grape leaves, hummus, and sushi on the dining room table next to a bowl of pre-rolled joints (dope!). The girls are all dancing kind of slutty; two of them can’t stop making out in the corner. There’s graffiti art in the basement and “Eric B. For President” spins on the Technics. Also, the neighbors haven’t called the cops yet, and, instead, are in the living room with a bottle of Boone’s Farm shootin’ craps.
So how did the Starving Artists Crew — a four-man hip-hop hodgepodge consisting of MCs Brainstorm, SP, IQ and DJ Phizyx — cram such a delectable party vibe into one LP? Aside from the three years it took them to cough up Up Pops the Sac, their first full-length, maybe it’s because they’ve had plenty of experience rocking some mighty fine parties themselves.
After a handful of self-released 12-inchers, said debut got the Michigan natives so much attention that they were quickly scooped up by the New York-based indie giant Fat Beats in January. They also saw their album hit top 20 on Tower Records/HMV charts in Japan and snagged four dates on this year’s Vans Warped Tour. It seems the jazz-based samples, talk-shit lyrics, and Souls of Mischief/Boom Bap sound the SAC has been honing since their inception is suddenly embraced by underground heads and Japanese crate-diggers alike.
Not bad for an indie quartet from the state’s boonies, eh?
On wax, the SAC is adamant that post-Y2K hip hop has gotten too serious, too blinkered and lost too much of the fun, drunkadelic simplicity that once defined the culture. So it wasn’t surprising to find the SAC with a pleasant hangover as we sat down at a Cass Avenue eatery to discuss one of the freshest old-school combos in town.
SP, the cat responsible for much of the album’s jazz sound, anticipates the first question and strikes in self-defense.
“I don’t drink, man. I was just out at a wedding all night and didn’t get much sleep,” he musters while simultaneously waving the waitress over to the table for a much-needed cup of coffee.
“Bullshit” is quickly coughed out behind muffled hands from fellow emcee Brainstorm, to a chorus of laughter that jars everyone awake, bringing life to the table.
At first glance, the Starving Artists Crew looks more like a cadre of techies than emcees. The specs and receding hairlines don’t instantly give off the persona of B-boy. But the well-studied hip-hop foursome has been ensconced in the local hip-hop scene since 1995, right around the time the true school sound of hip hop they’ve embodied was being hijacked by corporate marketing strategists from coast to coast.
Slightly oblivious to the changes in hip hop at the time, the SAC was born of individual quests for rhyming partners in the mid-’90s.
“We all met back in 1995,” says SP. “I met Brainstorm and Phizyx through a high school friend. They were already doing stuff separately and performing up in Flint back then. I was just basically looking for somebody to start rhyming with,” he says.
Phizyx, the musical guru of the group, quickly interjects. “But we didn’t hit it off immediately. It was like, ‘Hey, what up?’ but we didn’t really link up again until like ’98,” he explains.
In the meantime, Brainstorm and Phizyx found a home rapping and deejaying at Canelo’s, a small music venue in their hometown of Flint. Though the hip-hop scene in Flint was minimal then, Brainstorm, Phizyx and DJ Eduardo Scizzahandz (who guests on Up Pops the Sac) had formed a small alliance. SP and IQ had also met separately in 1998 — each was fishing for lyrical sidekicks. In an effort to combine production resources, SP and IQ linked up but continued working on separate projects. (SP released Beat Poetry on cassette and CD-R in early 1999; IQ followed with his first release, Pay Attention, later that year.)
“I listened to [SP’s] tape, thought it was dope, and asked if I could mix it for him,” Phizyx recalls. “It was the same with IQ, we were just moving in baby steps till something came out of it. Everything was all just four-track rough-sounding stuff anyways.”
Though both Beat Poetry and Pay Attention sold minimally (around 300 each), Phizyx felt such a connection to IQ’s terse lyrical style and SP’s poetry that he hopped on board as the group’s DJ in 2000. Still unsatisfied with the group’s dynamic — two MCs and a DJ — the crew sought a third emcee.
“I remember this one night at Cross Street in Ypsilanti when all these Flint dudes came down for an open-mic,” SP recalls. “At one point, I just remember seeing [Brainstorm] ripping in to this one girl pretty bad during a battle. Actually it was Miz Korona. After he got done rapping, I turned to Phiz and was like, ‘I think Brainstorm might be a good addition to the group.’”
It turned out to be the drop in the pot that made the potion turn color. Brainstorm added the edgy, mile-a-minute, talk-shit flow that the group lacked. The SAC immediately started working on Up Pops the Sac, though setbacks and distance would keep the group from finishing the album for three years. SP and IQ were living in Detroit while Phizyx and Brainstorm were finishing degrees at The University of Michigan-Flint. They were only able to record on Saturdays, dubbed SACturdays. (Working eat-shit jobs had helped them buy almost all of their recording gear; much of it would eventually be stolen out of SP’s Detroit crib.)
Still able to party, laugh off losses and rebuild, the crew went old-school — writing rhymes about everything from Peter North’s shaft to Chuck D Chaco Tacos and a host of other insidery quips — the SAC began incorporating breaks, jazz and funk samples and silly interludes into their recordings.
“We’re just having fun, man,” says SP, sucking on a cigarette. “We’ve heard that our music is trite or that it’s played out or been done already. We say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The SAC’s sound has since been compared to more subterranean groups like Ugly Duckling, Styles of Beyond and even People Under the Stairs. The latter befriended SAC early on out of admiration for the group’s throwback originality.
“When I first heard some of the beats off of this album I was like whoa; these cats are taking Detroit Jazz and flipping it in a way that I’d never heard before,” says Thes One of People Under the Stairs.
And on the Detroit milieu, the group doesn’t shy away from claiming the town, despite the fact that no group member actually lives in the city; both Phizyx and Brainstorm reside in Flint, IQ in Livonia, and SP in Plymouth.
“Hell, yeah, we’re a Detroit band, for sure, man,” says SP emphatically. “We use Detroit broadly like Kid Rock does. We draw our inspiration from Detroit, plus it’s where I grew up.”
His reasoning sounds fine; whether it’s new-school-gone-retro or 810 gone urban, the end result is exactly what the SAC has been seeking — a party on wax, where the music is all about get-shit-on jollity, tossing a few back, and talkin’ smack … exactly when did that become old school? Huh?
Starving Artists Crew appears at the Vans Warped Tour (Pontiac Silverdome, 1200 Featherstone, Pontiac) on Sunday, Aug. 15. Call 248-456-1600 for info.Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org