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For Cash and Cappuccino, it was not brotherhood at first sight. 1991, sophomore year, Cortez High. "We was both the pretty little niggers in school," says Cappuccino, now 20. "The girls be likin' us. But we was competitors, see? Girls he be dating wanted to talk to me, and girls I be dating wanted to talk to him." The two were acutely aware of each other for several months before their first interaction, what Cash diplomatically refers to as "a small conflict" on the Metrocenter escalators. "But then we got smart," he says, hitting his partner's right fist with his own. "We teamed up."
The partnership was cemented a few months later, when Cappuccino called Cash with an offer not to be refused: a girls' soccer team on a weekend trip to Pinetop, in need of escortation. "He knew all these females, and they had invited him, and he invited me," says Cash, 21. "We wound up in like this $180,000 cabin, with eight rooms and pool tables and eight or nine females . . . and we've been more or less joined at the hip ever since. Hardly a day has gone by that I haven't seen or heard from him. We're the only motherfuckers that understand one another."
Around the time they met, Cash (legal name Corban Carson) and Cappuccino (Alafia Long) also both started to rap--"freestyling," or improvising rhymes, in the lunch room and the after-school parking lot, trading lines to a hand-clap beat in spontaneous circles with other would-be MCs.
After high school, the two moved in together and became, according to Cash, ". . . hustlas, moneymakers. We were in situations where fools have died. We were carrying heat right with the next people. We were in dump-outs [gunfights]." He stops, realizing perhaps he should hold his tongue, which, for Cash, is like a crackhead realizing he shouldn't take another hit. "Don't put that in about the dump-outs," he says, although later in an interview he will repeat the boast with a tape recorder still rolling. "It doesn't even need to be in the newspaper what we used to do."
Point being, that's all behind them, metaphorically and chronologically. Because now Cash and Cappuccino no longer just rap--they are MC rappers. And when the query is which Valley group has the sickest shit on the streets, the answer is Know Qwestion.
As any regular reader of this space knows, I do not issue such praise easily. But when it's due, it's due. I've had my ear on Know Qwestion since late January, and I feel solid predicting that, in the next year, this group is going to blow up like a jar of nitroglycerin on a Tilt-a-Whirl. The group's six-shot garage demo Conversation and Public Speaking has stayed close to my automobile's audio system since it came out in June. The shaky recording levels and intermittently choppy mixing are dead giveaways that Conversation is strictly local product. So is the amateurish, overambitious inclusion of a female vocalist on "AZ." Her voice is golden honey, but she sounds like her needle's stuck, simply phrasing the words "In AZ/We are crazy" over and over. However, that's the only glaring misstep on the tape. The fresh, laid-back, often eerie beats (courtesy of producer P-body Scott); clever, informed lyrics; and the strong, smooth flow of Cash and Cap's tag-team delivery indicate all this crew needs to build a bomb are studio time and label money.
Easier said than done? Maybe. But unlike that for any other form of popular music except techno, the market for hip-hop is expanding. As a result, labels are looking more and more to urban centers beyond L.A. and New York for new talent from scenes that have developed outside hip-hop's traditional nerve centers and the distracting artistic/ideological feud between same. (Cash is originally from Chicago and Cappuccino from Louisville, Kentucky.) Which means if Bone Thugs N Harmony can bust out of Cleveland with, as Cash puts it, ". . . all that 'hummina, hummina, hummina' shit they be sayin'," then surely the rap industry will draw a bead on Phoenix in good time.
Not that Know Qwestion is waiting for the mountain to come to Mohammed. Based solely on the strength of the demo, the group has started to book shows outside Arizona, starting with a gig at Club Mecca in Boulder, Colorado, over Labor Day weekend. Cash and Cap recently bolstered their live show with the addition of Fade, a local battle DJ with a fat bag of speedy, flashy tricks, and Cappuccino brags the Boulder show will be "off the hook."
The Know Qwestion rappers brag a lot. Too much, some say. Cash and Cappuccino did their first show, an opening slot for Digable Planets, last February. P-body had come across the two rapping in the parking lot of The Works five months prior and introduced them to his music, the beats they needed to evolve from the street-corner circles and to the nightclub stage. Since then, Cash and Cappuccino have caught a huge rep as cocky punks, as well as exceptionally talented MCs.
Specifically, Cash and Cap have recently had problems with the TBK Crew, a local set of graffiti artists, DJs and MCs centering on the rap act Supermarket. Cash and Cap say the disrespect reached a head one night this summer on Mill Avenue. On weekend nights, the TBK Crew usually hangs out on the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Mill. As Cash and Cap walked past one time, they say, TBK members called out a challenge to "battle," a freestyle war of words. The Know Qwestion rappers declined. "If we had a battle at a show, and the winner got paid $2,000, I'll battle anybody," says Cash. "But if it's just on the corner and someone's just going to be writing down my lyrics anyway, I'll save my shit for the album or a concert."
Here's Cappuccino: "It is on extremely rare, like Bigfoot-sighting, occasions that we will come with blatant disrespect for someone. We don't bang on [insult] nobody from the stage, and none of these crews can ever say we hassled them on the street. The funny thing is, we knew all these crews before we were rapping. But once the music and the money and the girls and the little street fame come into play, then everybody wants to shoot the other ones down, rather than to work for the common good and put Phoenix on the map."
Sore winners or not, so far Know Qwestion has exhibited the skills to back up the bravado. Check Cash's free-associative lyrics in "In the Zone": "Rhyme schemes unorthodox/Crazier than snortin' rocks/Sportin' Glocks and hollow tips will cost your life like holocaust." The two MCs' styles contrast and complement.
Where Cash likes quirky, staccato bursts, Cappuccino favors a rich, seamless flow. Here he is on "The Paper Chase," which details the two's "hustla, moneymaker" days: "I was a vandal, these niggas they wanted proof like Jack Daniel's . . . I'm out here just payin' dues, with careless niggas' revenues/Got ice like Liberace, I'm kinda shady with Versace."
At the end of a recent interview, I challenged Cash and Cappuccino to freestyle on the spot. P-body put on a beat and they proceeded to bust off-the-cuff rhymes almost nonstop for 20 minutes, working in random words I'd throw them every few lines to make sure they weren't handing me prepackaged poetry. Here's a short excerpt:
Cash: Well, let me bust two rhymes, some new lines for New Times. This is Know Qwestion givin' blessin': I freestyle, meanwhile to this phat, new P-body track, nigga's got my back/Now I'll pass it to my partna, he'll go ahead and rock ya.
Cap: I'm gonna breach like security--you're sure to see, that you don't wanna get in face mine when I hear a bass line.
Cash: Where you kickin' it from?
Cap: I'm kickin' it from here to Alabama, when I go and rock the fuckin' grammar like a hammer, never jam up when I'm catchin' rep from here to China, I'm the fly rhyme-ya.
Cash: Well, I be drinkin' Hennessy, from here to Tennessee. You want some lyrics I'll tell ya, I rock from here to Australia.
And on and on.
"See, you can not like Mike Tyson," says Cash. "You might say his voice is funny, or laugh at his big, ol' snaggly toothed ass, but I'll bet you don't say shit about his boxing, 'cause he's knocking fools out."
Cappuccino picks up the flow: "That's what we're doing. You can say we're wack, that we think we're all pretty, or we're girl-hungry or money-hungry, but you can't say shit about the way we rap, and everyone knows that."--David Holthouse
Know Qwestion is scheduled to perform on Sunday, August 4, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Brothers Grimm. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all-ages).