Peace, Love and Understanding

Can East Valley collective Morse Code change hip-hop conventions by preaching the positive?

Talk to most of the artists or enthusiasts in the burgeoning East Valley hip-hop scene and you'll hear a recurring theme creep through their conversation -- positivity, unity, sharing . . . love, kids, love. Perhaps the most vocal proponents of this utopian philosophy are the members of Morse Code, a six-man DJ/MC collective that's been hosting the Wicka Wicka Wednesday night at Billy Gordon's in Tempe since last August. The interviews conducted for this piece were full of quotes like, "Everyone shows love up here . . . ," "We're trying to glue people together with our positivity . . . ," and, "This scene is my heart."

Looks like the clichéd rave concept of PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) has bled over into its normally confrontational hip-hop cousin. Not that such beliefs aren't noble, it's just that that kind of rhetoric makes a reporter, a critic, search for the holes in the agenda or in the actions of those espousing it. It's a logical course, at least in an effort to find out what could inspire such an uncommon approach to a genre historically identified with violence, misogyny and ego-trippin'.

Morse Code's manifestation of its philosophy seems bulletproof. Wicka Wicka Wednesday has become ground zero for a newly emerged battalion of DJs, MCs and hip-hop bands flourishing in the Valley. And it's become the blueprint for several subsequent hip-hop nights taking place in the unlikeliest of urban music venues; the collective's practice of having guest musicians and spontaneous performances on a regular basis has been imitated by nearly all its successors.

MCs Ru-Ski (left) and Cas: "We're working so hard to bring musicality to turntablism. We're trying to raise the bar."
MCs Ru-Ski (left) and Cas: "We're working so hard to bring musicality to turntablism. We're trying to raise the bar."
We’re the DJs ... : Morse Code’s turntable team manning the vinyl.
We’re the DJs ... : Morse Code’s turntable team manning the vinyl.

Morse Code practices its righteous, all-inclusive dogma through an integration of diverse musical styles both within and without the group; a couple Wickas ago, the bill was opened by the Metamorphosis Quartet, four youngsters who soaked the delicately lighted Billy Gordon's with soft, groove-heavy lounge sounds, eventually drawing Morse Code's MCs onstage to bust rhymes and oral rhythmics along to the music. The parameters of the guests' musicality aren't limited; the band (yeah, we're referring to four DJs and two MCs as a band) hosts house DJs, junglists, jazz cats, funk bands, whatever. Their own music is peppered with a mix of styles -- they're proficient in drum 'n' bass, dance-hall, house, jazz, nearly anything you can nod your head or shake your ass to.

"I think most of us have a solid hip-hop foundation that we grew up on," DJ Picks explains, "but as the years progressed, I think we've all pretty much took on other types of music. We all took on other influences and it comes through when we're performing. We'll be doing a hip-hop song and look at each other and go, "Jungle?' "Yeah, jungle.' And all of a sudden it changes."

The collective's sound is so complex; with four DJs each on a turntable simultaneously, it's often impossible to tell which of the quartet is doing what. Add to that the percussive emissions of MC Cas' beatboxing mouth, and you've got a cacophony that rivals any producer's multi-track work. "Our whole point is for it to sound so deep that you don't know where the sounds are coming from," says MC Ru-Ski, Morse Code's primary lyricist.

The words behind the beats are locked into a positivity theme as well. The often freestyled word games are filled with references to unity, world peace, love, and even hugs.

The sentiments are not merely transient themes in their songs, but part of a larger mission -- one the group says is paramount to its music. DJ Jimi the Mantis Claw defines Morse Code in multiple terms: "One, we're a group of people who get together who enjoy creating music together. Second, we're a group of people who are getting together to create an alternative way to live, to change the way we live -- not having regular jobs, being able to make music and make money. Third is the spiritual growth of each other, the whole finding people you are attracted to; with each other we learn different kinds of fundamental things. Especially if you don't have close family right around you a lot, you attract yourself to some sort of group."

The sources for Morse Code's positive inclinations are fairly easy to pinpoint -- besides the family-like dynamics of the group, two members, Ru-Ski and DJ Sembilan, are of the Baha'i faith, known for its "one planet, one people" theology. "Our faith definitely bleeds into the band," says Ru-Ski. Add to that the neo-hippie stylings of blond dreadlocked Jimi the Mantis Claw, whose recently released solo tape is dedicated to "all those who reflect on who they are and what role they play in the unfolding of this cosmic drama," and the foundations of their philosophy seem obvious.

But the affirmative attitude is also a means -- part of a support system -- to achieve two ends: the continuing battle to establish turntablism and what Morse Code calls "turnstyle" (an amalgamation of turntablism and freestyle) as valid musical forms in the eyes of the public, and to have artists support themselves through their work, free from the trappings of corporate/commercial America.

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