By Melissa Fossum
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Cappuccino and Cash sit outside Tempe's Coffee Plantation on an uncomfortably cold Thursday night. If it's a little ironic that many customers inside are plunking down cash for hot cappuccinos, no one bothers with such ironies. Certainly not Cappuccino, Cash, nor their producer P-body Scott, who sits to the right of the two rappers. Cappuccino and Cash pass a cigarette between them with almost as much frequency as they trade thoughts on the new CD they consider the product of all their life experiences.
The two voices of local hip-hop group Know Qwestion have established a rep for finishing off each other's poetic phrases, for supplying the yin to the other's yang, or dropping a dose of needed levity into the other's grim musical scenarios. It's a chemistry that illuminates Know Qwestion's debut CD, Eclipse, whose release will be celebrated with a February 25 show at the Bash on Ash in Tempe. Though their raps intersect so seamlessly that they often feel like gritty, unbroken chains of rhyme, the MCs' distinct personas reveal themselves over time. Cappuccino emerges as the sober, philosophical captain of the Enterprise, while Cash comes on like a brash, uncompromising first mate--not quite Flavor Flav to Cappuccino's Chuck D, but certainly a source of fun among the life lessons. The same dynamic that fuels their musical creations is apparent in their tag-team approach to conversation.
For instance, when asked how a Tempe hip-hop act like Know Qwestion fits into the eternal rivalry between East and West Coast styles, Cappuccino says: "We're making music--not gangsta rap, not crime rap, not trendy rap, but we share a lot of the same feelings with those people. We pride ourselves on sifting through the bullshit, and checking who's real out there, and who's coming with something intelligible, as opposed to just rapping fast . . ."
"Or finishing a line with a word that rhymes with the line before," Cash volunteers, finishing his partner's thought with impeccable timing.
Cappuccino and Cash often write together, as one crafts a fragment of a song, and asks the other to pick up the thread and take it as far as possible. But they have another way of working together, a method that Cappuccino describes as "kind of eerie," as one rapper will offer a song he's worked on, and find that his partner has a new song with a parallel theme and lyrical flow.
Their creative bond has developed through years of friendship, as Cash observed Cappuccino rocking street-corner crowds with his rhymes, and decided, "I can do that." About that time, the duo met Scott, an inventive producer looking for suitable rappers. Though Cash lacked Cappuccino's rapping experience, Scott says he saw a rapid growth in technique.
"Cash was advancing before my eyes," Scott says. "Every time I saw him, it was like another year had passed, within a week."
Scott's cinematic soundscapes add bold dashes of color to Cappuccino and Cash's journal entries. A bleak sample of dialogue from the film Dead Presidents kicks off the fierce "Glitter Ain't Gold," a shot of reality to rappers who get sucked in by the promise of wealth. "Paper Chase" takes an old Lionel Hampton vibes sample, speeds it up, and comes up with an artful mood piece. "Dedication" builds its foundation around a lush Billy Paul cover of Carole King's "It's Too Late," with Cappuccino and Cash warning, in unison voices, "I can see you like the money, I can see you like the power, but only real shit survives the game."
Eclipse can be seen as a concept album, vignettes that describe what the group calls "moments of darkness," both figurative and literal. It also illustrates Cash's view that Know Qwestion's creations represent an ongoing dialogue between group members.
"I feel like jazz teaches you, if you watch a jazz person that's heavy in the game, their expressions are trying to tell you something," he says. "So when you get to a certain point, it's like an opera, you get to a new scene, maybe it's a new verse. Just because we're the lyricists, don't think we're the only two people speaking. He [Scott] is talking to us through music, and we're making it intelligible for the masses."
During its three-and-a-half-year history, Know Qwestion has been the subject of some local jealousy and backbiting, because the group's manager, Ty Carter, also runs TMC Promotions, the Valley's dominant hip-hop promotion company. In the eyes of some, it's given the group an unfair advantage when it comes to booking shows and establishing a name for itself. But, at long last, Eclipse puts the focus where it belongs: on the music. And on that score, it delivers. Despite an error at the CD duplication plant--the last two seconds of each song were mistakenly snipped off--that pushed back Eclipse's release for several days, the group members are clearly confident about what they've created.
"We're just saying, 'Buy our record.' You won't agree with everything we say, but you might be able to understand this, or feel this," Cappuccino says.
As so often happens with Know Qwestion, Cash is ready with a quick, cocky retort to Cappuccino's thought. "I'd say, 'Buy it even if you don't feel it,'" he says with a laugh.