Wanna know what city has some of the most talented artists in the state of Michigan? C’mon, say it with me.
Ann Arbor. No, seriously. They’ve known what I’m telling you for years. Check the résumé.
Shaky Jake. S.U.N. (from Ypsilanti, but with a large A2 following). Subterraneous (not all from A2, but heavily represented there). Then there are the four crews and individuals who are the focus of this column. Funktelligence, Athletic Mic League and DJ Graffiti will converge on The Blind Pig on New Year’s Eve to bring 2003 in with a bang, and an announcement. In tow will be this little lady named Invincible. There’s a whole lot more to Ann Arbor life than the Wolverines.
Future of the funk
Funktelligence, “Funktell” for short, a seven-member band that formed in 1996, is arguably Michigan’s first alternative-hip hop-soul band. They actually coined the term to describe their sound, a combination of hip-hop, rock, soul and thought-provoking messages.
To say Funktell has a following throughout the Midwest is an understatement. They are mainstays on college campuses from Kalamazoo to Chicago, and toured California earlier this year, lighting up clubs and gaining the interest of a few record companies in the process. And few would doubt that they own The Blind Pig.
Funktel consists of leader Jackson Perry, MC Michael Dempf, vocalist Melody Betts, guitarist Ian Lawler, drummer Quentin Joseph, bassist Matt Henninger, and keyboardist Hubert Alexander. In 1996, Jackson Perry and Ian Lawler were in a group that broke up, leaving them to restructure and reroute. Funktell became the new crew. Six years, two albums (Until Now… and Earthtones) and a number of membership changes later, Funktell has honed its sound — and trained a keen eye on the future.
“The industry tells us it’s hard to market our sound,” says Perry, “but when we go play places, we’ll play in front of old geriatric crowds, teenybopper crowds, middle-aged, punk rock, whatever. Everyone digs it.”
Jackson says Funktell’s popularity is the result of “incessant fliering” and sacrificial shows. “There was a point where we’d play five shows a week across the Midwest, just trying to get our name out. Cats saw all these fliers and said, ‘Shit, they must be doing something.” Surf to www.funktelligence.com.
Jump on the jocks
Some say the best things in life come naturally. The Athletic Mic League might agree with that sentiment, since the transition from “hops” to hip hop could mean a meaningful career for the seven-man crew.
Friendship and basketball preceded hip hop for the members of AML — Tre Styles, aka Sonny Star, Buff (1), 14KT, Texture, Vital, Grand Cee and DJ Haircut. As it goes, hanging out with each other fed into wordplay and rhyme-writing, which fed into recording basement tapes, which they distributed to teammates and other students at Ann Arbor Huron High School. When schoolmates began suggesting that their skills and chemistry was more than a notion, they thought less about doing it for play — and more about doing it for pay.
AML’s first album, The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat, was released in 1998. They encountered their share of growing pains.
“We’ve been recording since we were 17, coming out of our pocket,” says Texture. “Everything was real stressful. Now, when we get in the studio, it’s a little more relaxed feel.”
AML pride themselves on applying the competitive mentality they utilized on the ball court to their music. They’ve banged out two albums, one EP and three 12-inch records. The latest, Sweats & Kicks, is receiving good reviews, and has been included in Bushman’s rotation on WJLB-FM 97.9.
“Sweats & Kicks was definitely an extremely thought-out concept,” says Haircut. “It goes much deeper than a title or the clothing. It was an extension of the way that we live our lives. The idea of being comfortable with yourself, and being stress-free, went into that.”
Wu-Tang Clan demonstrated how cluttered a show can appear when a pack of MCs take the stage, walk around just rhyming, and call it a show. AML avoid that by giving their audiences energetic, focused performances. Their freestyle ability has earned them the respect of peers and fans alike, and they can often be found rockin’ jam sessions with Funktell and Invincible on the regular.
“AML shows are fun, interactive,” says Tre Styles. “But it also helps when you have a crowd that doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a fishbowl.” Point your browser to www.athleticmicleague.com.
Little big girl
Alana “Invincible” Weaver, a rather petite woman, has a big alto voice and an even bigger spirit. She’s the type of woman who can’t really be characterized. She teaches children. She’s a community activist. And with a personal style that’s more pigtails and denim than sex appeal and attitude, she’s a very intelligent MC who will beat yo’ ass and embarrass you on the mic.
Ypsilanti’s legendary MC S.U.N. was the first to capture Invincible’s voice on record. Soon after, she turned up as a semifinalist in the 1999 Blaze Battle. Turns out she’d saved money, graduated high school a semester early, packed up and moved to New York City. Her plan: go where the action is, get in on it, make her impression felt.
Invincible hooked up with the Anomalies, a crew of female MCs. She gained allegiance with underground sensation Jean Grae, and Rawkus recording artist Talib Kweli. She earned a rep, wrote sketches for the short-lived “Lyricist Lounge” television show on MTV and wound up the subject of a feature article in a recent edition of XXL magazine. New York was a good fit.
“In New York, like, in freestyle ciphers (groups of rappers who gather and take turns rhyming), the vibe was totally different from what my experience was in Ann Arbor and Detroit,” she says. “A lot of times, the ciphers in Ann Arbor would be with people from Detroit that were in town for a hip-hop night. And it would always be battles. No one could just build off the next person. But not at all in New York. People were just vibin’ off each other. That attracted me.”
Invincible started rapping at age 9. By her teens, she was sneaking into parties at Eastern, or the Heidelberg. But these were all male-dominated environments, and men who didn’t want to be upstaged by a little white girl constantly challenged her.
Invincible returned to Michigan when Detroit hip hop began to gain national attention. She now works part-time with a grassroots organization that restores homes in Detroit’s impoverished neighborhoods. She also hooked up with old friends Funktelligence (Mike Dempf once offered her refuge at age 15, after she ran away from home) and Athletic Mic League (who moved to Jersey City after Invincible and stayed a year to pursue their musical career).
Invincible’s main concern is the preservation of hip-hop culture. She has been courted by record companies here and in New York, but turned them down because they wanted to change her image. “I can’t let them use me to fulfill their vision,” she says. For now, wrecking microphones, and wrecking the social barriers that impact the lives of the youth she mentors is sufficient.
Oh yeah, she needs to find an apartment. Rent’s a bitch, y’know.
Graffiti on the wall
DJ Graffiti calls himself Michigan’s mix-tape king, and many DJs throughout the state may wage a debate against that title. The truth, however, is that Graffiti moves like a man who would be king.
His Bling Free CD series packages the releases of local and national acts, with a special emphasis on MCs Graffiti knows personally. Bling Free has sold well, but it also serves a greater purpose. Graffiti is a student at the University of Michigan’s law school preparing to enter the entertainment industry. Part of his preparation included a job working for Arnold Reed, the Southfield entertainment attorney who has represented jessica Care moore and LL Cool J.
Graffiti moved to Ann Arbor from Southfield to attend the university. After going to parties around town, he decided he didn’t like the way the local DJs spun records. “I said this is horrible,” he recalls. “And people told me, ‘You complain so much, why don’t you start DJ’ing?’”
Law school fueled his desire, and he hatched a grand plan. A Web site, break-bread.com, preceded the Bling Free series. The site provides a forum for the hip-hop community by giving artists and writers a platform to hone their craft and enhance visibility. It became a community site when Graffiti began posting audio.
He sent up a parent company, Rapture, to funnel his business affairs. The son of a preacher, Graffiti’s projects carry positive, even spiritual titles, though he patterns Bling to be the common ground where so-called positive and negative artists meet.
“I’ve always had a real close bond with God,” he says. “I know with all the stuff that I’m doin’, it’s not me alone. My dad, he knows where my head is. He loves it.”
Graffiti is poised to move from backpacking CDs to retailers to blowing his spot up nationally. With the necessary components in place, he wants to use his soon-to-be-obtained law degree and turn Bling Free into a fully-licensed mix CD, which will legitimize it for sale in major chains.
Funktelligence, Athletic Mic League (with special guest Invincible) and DJ Graffiti will perform New Year’s Eve at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor). For information, call 734-996-8555.Khary Kimani Turner dissects the beat Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org