Playa's Paradise

Survivalist is taking west Phoenix hip-hop national, with smooth R&B hooks

"This is where we do it," Survivalist's most garrulous MC, Preacha, welcomes you upon your arrival at Fo' Life Records, the tiny independent record label from west Phoenix that has somehow produced a Top 5 song on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart, Survivalist's laid-back, catchy "Bounce."

If there were an office building version of MTV's "Cribs," the personable Preacha would already be primed for a hosting shot. Leading you quickly down the hallway with a constant flow of camera-ready, over-the-shoulder commentary, the young rapper pauses to open the door to a conference room that suddenly billows more fragrant smoke than a pulled-over Chevy in a Cheech & Chong flick. Shrugging sheepishly, Preacha shuts the door and smiles back at you. "Probably shouldn't go in there just yet," he laughs.

Taking you down the hall through a rec room outfitted with an inviting pool table and an even more inviting poster of Lil' Kim, Preacha ends the short tour in the recording studio, a big boys' playground of state-of-the-art recording gear and mixing boards centered around the studio's main toy: a shiny new Apple G-4 computer running the new killer app of today's digital recording houses, Digidesign's Pro Tools.

Survivalist's infectious "Bounce" was a surprise entry in the Top 5 of Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart.
Kevin Scanlon
Survivalist's infectious "Bounce" was a surprise entry in the Top 5 of Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart.

Bowed before the monitor, an intensely focused Jubal, the baby-faced member of the crew, fiddles with the mouse while silently mouthing the rapid-fire rhymes his recorded voice booms out on the studio's bass-heavy speakers.

"Listen for the hook on this one," tips the group's smooth R&B voice, Kumandae, kicking back on the studio's plush black couch. Like the sparingly used field-goal kicker on a star NFL team, the slick-voiced R&B singer has become the secret weapon for today's rap groups, breaking up the barrage of wordplay with the repetitive, infectious melodies that have helped bring hip-hop even more into the mainstream. The hooks that get otherwise reasonable people humming lines like "H to the izz O, V to the izz A" at work even if they have no idea precisely what (or where) Jay Z's nizzle is.

And Survivalist's Kumandae delivers the goods, pumping out melodic, memorable song hooks between the raps of his four partners. Listening to his vocal track, a contented Kumandae just bobs his head and smiles.

Out around the pool table now, a few more brawny brothas start dropping in, bearing munchies and refreshments and joking around. They trade tall tales of their workdays that wordsmiths Bookie and Sabataj already appear to be rolling around in their heads. You can imagine them already editing out all the excess "aiight"s and "know-what-I'm-sayin'"s, and crafting their buddies' everyday language into some hot new Survivalist raps.

It's 7:30 on a Monday night, and virtually everybody in this sprawling, nondescript looking office complex -- including the owners of this little hip-hop hit factory -- has long gone home. But for Bookie, Jubal, Preacha, Problemz and the other friends who've been helping Survivalist put down the 21 tracks on its debut CD, 602 Celsius (due out in mid-October), the work -- and the fun -- is just beginning. After all, with thousands of dollars of high-tech equipment at their disposal, enough room for their friends to hang out and a no-host management set-up that apparently makes it okay to share more than a coffee carafe in the conference room, it would be hard not to create some pretty dope hip-hop tracks in this environment. But that's not to say these urban twentysomethings carry on like overgrown kids in a candy store when they're laying down lyrics in this gangsta's paradise.

"We know we're blessed to do what we really love -- and maybe someday get paid for it, too!" laughs Bookie, the baritone-voiced rapper in the crew. "We know we got something good here."


Of course, you don't need all the accoutrements of a growing recording studio to make hit hip-hop music today. With instrumental tracks becoming sparser, more stripped-down, and with the electronic gear necessary to make those tricky sounds becoming more and more affordable, hip-hop is the genre open to anyone with more cleverness and creativity than cash. Walk into a Comp USA on any Saturday afternoon, and you'll likely come across one or two sixth-grade Lil' Romeo wanna-bes scratching some radio-worthy beats on the $99 Mixman DM2 Digital Music Mixer displayed right next to the Playstation 2. You don't even need a computer to create your own cool jams: a remix of the Bubba Sparkxxx breakout hit "Ugly" features the tune's Missy Elliot-lifted hook played on what sounds like a cell phone.

Survivalist's newest rapper Sabataj crafted his first raps accompanied only by the sound of his Size 7 sneakers pounding the pavement on his way home from fifth grade.

"Me and my brothers used to mess around with raps when we would walk the walk to school and back," he says.

Cohorts Bookie, Preacha and Jubal all started working on their rhymes at about the same age. "Yeah, I was freestyling when I was about 8," adds Preacha with a sly smile. "Some of the weakest freestylin' in the world!"

How the guys went from the schoolyard to the Billboard Top 10 is a bit of a mystery -- even to them. Sure, they paid their dues, rapping in whatever shows they could get, and practicing their writing and delivery whenever they could.

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