By Benjamin Leatherman
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As Bash & Pop reported last week, members of the Phoenix rap combo Underground Empire and a related side project, The Ten Commandments, were scheduled to perform at a postconcert party in Philadelphia on May 20 hosted by Jay-Z and Da Brat. Sadly, the gig was canceled after one of the event's promoters was killed during a robbery attempt.
Still, the trip proved to be an eventful one for UE leader Michael Life, who uses the stage moniker MTL. Life began talking to a handful of label suitors including old friend and 'illy gangsta rap pioneer Schoolly D.
Schoolly D. is looking to sign an initial roster of acts for his Start It Up label, which recently inked a distribution pact with Columbia and is set to begin full-scale operation in September. During his East Coast sojourn, Life also met up with the head of A&R at RuffNation (formerly Ruffhouse), home to Cypress Hill and the Fugees, among others.
Spurred by the high-profile success of a handful of natives, the City of Brotherly Love has become a hip-hop hotbed with talent scouts looking to snag the next big thing.
"In Philly right now people are getting signed every day," says Life. "After the Roots started doing well, then Eve blew up, now Beanie Siegel -- because of that, there's a lot of people getting signed."
Maintaining a long-standing relationship with Schoolly D. turned out to be a real benefit for the Phoenix crew. After receiving the last round of UE recordings in January, Schoolly suggested that Underground Empire's Zabdullah, a onetime Parkside West Philly resident, leave the Valley and return for a few months with an eye toward capitalizing on the recent signing frenzy.
"It was his idea that Zab should come out for a while and hang around and see what's going on," Life says. "[Schoolly] knows our stuff is a little different than any of the other things happening there right now. Everyone out there basically sounds like Jay Z, except for the Roots. So there's a good chance for us 'cause the [label] people are always looking for new stuff."
Aside from expressing interest in UE, both labels are also making overtures for Life's Phoenix all-star side project, The Ten Commandments. As Life explains, what was originally supposed be an off-hand collaboration proved to be an appealing bit of major-label bait.
"Originally, I had an idea for a song called "The Ten Commandments' that I would do with the best local rappers and producers that I knew," recalls Life. Once he enlisted a group of top Valley street MCs and hip-hop players to work on the track, things quickly broadened. "I started talking to them; after a while there were so many ideas we decided to do it as a full-on group, like a supergroup."
Ten C participants include the members of Underground Empire and Know Qwestion, Flossi, Tino and 2 Sicc from the Realm, and a pair of solo MCs, Goldie and J-Roc.
Providing the beats are a group of talented trackmakers: UE collaborators Joe Risk and DJ Needles, Twirp and Fingers (a young duo that's part of a local collective of producers called The Professionals), and Fade, of Know Qwestion fame.
Though the Ten C project began casually, things quickly intensified. "We met every Wednesday for about eight weeks, and wrote eight songs during that time," says Life. "The stuff was turning out real good, so we went into the studio the last weekend before I went to Philly and finished a bunch of tracks."
With the East Cost trip and label meetings looming, Life and the others decided to rush-mix five of the songs to have something to present to the label suits.
"The whole thing came down to some real short notice, but we hurried it along, doing all five in like three days. But we did that because collectively everyone was like, "You should bring this stuff with you.' And I'm glad I did because everyone up there loved it."
Aside from the completed cuts, the group has laid down basic blueprints for three others, with a full 16-song record in the works.
Life is rightfully optimistic about various UE-related projects, which include his own solo disc. "There's a lot of things going on. Not just with UE and myself, but you have Know Qwestion and the stuff they're doing on the side [The Associates] and the Realm with their thing. It's a lot of creativity happening."
The ultimate goal, Life says, is to do a full-scale package tour with the various members of this growing rap/hip-hop collective. "Like I was telling the record companies up there, eventually we could do a tour where they don't have to send anyone with us. There would be all these acts plus the Ten Commandments; it would be like a whole show."
On a related note, the Mason Jar marks the one-year anniversary of its weekly hip-hop night on June 1. To celebrate the occasion, Underground Empire and Know Qwestion will perform individual sets, with a final headlining slot that will feature the unofficial debut of some of the Ten C material. After that, Life says, the group hopes to do a full-scale Ten C show sometime in late June or early July, likely at Tempe's Bash on Ash.