By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
The story you are about to read is basically true. The names have been changed because, shit, that's what rappers do.
It's Sunday, July 23, and I'm wondering just how much of The Society of Invisibles' veil of secrecy is for effect. Having two or three aliases per crew member is one thing, but it's less than two hours before a pre-arranged meeting with the Phoenix rap conglomerate is to take place at its rehearsal/recording headquarters dubbed the Invisible Compound and I still don't have a street address yet. House & Garden would have an easier time photographing the Batcave, but at least the Caped Crusader doesn't get hassled by landlord Bruce Wayne. The Invisibles and their renter are having some kind of dispute at the moment (those late-night chain-saw recording sessions, no doubt), which means our summit has been relocated to the two-bedroom apartment on the west side that TSOI founder Erel the Rkatec shares with Indrid Cold. It's almost as difficult to pinpoint, thanks to the no-help "You Are Here" map in the complex, which I make a mental note to Sharpie question marks all over if I ever find my way back to it.
Three years ago, when Erel and the Facecrushers collective he was producing with Plan B merged with the similarly sick unit Dark Water, the union eventually formed a conglomerate of producers, beat makers and MCs, most of whom are assembled in this modest-size living room, along with assorted cronies and loved ones. If there was ever a couch in this room, it's now invisible that is, until the remote control for the four-foot TV goes missing and everyone seated starts what looks like a disorganized stadium wave.
Yet the vibe here is incredibly festive. In two days, the self-titled CD the band released independently on its Geist Audio imprint a year ago will be rereleased with a major push from Babygrande, the largest underground rap indie label operating today. Having recently signed the remaining members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Jedi Mind Tricks, GZA, Immortal Technique, and Apathy, Babygrande president Chuck Wilson saw the next generation of rappers in TSOI and its various offshoots a veritable Whitman's Sampler of hip-hop: the aforementioned Dark Water (Indrid Cold, Sun Sun Slaughterhouse, Jack Spairo and Conquest) and Facecrushers, Inc. (Nonsense, Joey Baggz, Gutta, Veteran Virus, Species and Judgment), the production prowess of Dead Beats (Erel, Eddie Satan, Plan B), and stand-alone MCs like Terminator Tragic, Rok the Spoken Word Phenominon [sic] and currently incarcerated Sneaky Pete (apparently not sneaky enough to violate parole and get away with it).
And what a difference a year of steadily accrued validation makes. MCs who previously dismissed the idea that a crew with this many members could prosper are begging to join the ranks. The band has an "Invisible Army," a pool of outside talents who are down with the Society and hope to advance their cause through the affiliation. Sponsors are paying for the Invisibles' tour bus to be wrapped with respective logos. Even the Arizona Republic has used its pages to give props to Geist Audio co-founder/guerrilla promotion man Caleb Winner and his golden dental work in its pages, declaring, "Grills, it seems, are no longer just for cooking hamburgers." Suddenly, everyone has respect for the Society.
Well, not everyone. The city of Albuquerque let the group know with a terse e-mail that it didn't appreciate the way the Invisibles literally plastered their town with posters that won't come off poles and trees. There's the guy who chased them with a slow-moving golf cart when he caught them putting up fliers God-knows-where. And there are still those in the rap community who want to keep the wordplay drugless, gunless and profanity free, and can't see how leading chants of "Kill people! Kill people!" from the stage like TSOI does could be in any way cathartic. In a drug-saturated, gun-toting, cuss-happy world, these people would be next on TSOI's hit list.
A year before putting TSOI in motion, Erel ran Master Class Media Mondays & Saturdays at Club Freedom, packing in 300 to 400 people on a Monday night doing MC battles with old-school hard beats and lyrics. So he knew what was out there.
"Dark Water was such a dope group the only other good underground rap group, besides Facecrushers, who I was producing with Plan B," Erel says. "I knew if we all pooled our resources together, we'd have a supergroup that no one could touch."
Not that many wanted to touch them, in the beginning.
"We were hated," Erel continues. "Our style of music is something we've always been doing, but it catered around the years ['93 through '96]. We've always done this stuff since that era. People said, 'Oh, you guys are trying to do that grimy shit.' We're not trying. We are."
"We're free speakers," Judgment says. "Just because everyone else is singing about their rims, or making music for girls or about drinking crunk, we're not gonna do that."
"A lot of the scene here is backpack style," Indrid says. "That tree-huggin', we-love-everybody style. It's basically more of the positive movement in hip-hop."
"Fuck that, we're positive!" a dissenting number of voices shouts back as Erel interjects. "We're positive. We're also grimy, hardcore and intelligent. All that stuff . . ."
"But we were totally on the other side of the spectrum," Veteran Virus says. "Talking about smoking crack, smoking weed, killing people, burning the Bible, all this crazy shit, so people were like 'oooh' and nobody was giving us two seconds to hear what we had. Even gangsta hip-hop [doesn't] talk about any of those subjects."
"The things we speak about, we don't necessarily do, but it's on our minds," Joey Baggz explains. "In our everyday lives, everyone here is a responsible member of the community with the exception of Gutta. He's a hooligan."
Everyone laughs. As for the FAQ of being a role model, Baggz maintains, "I think we are role models. If a kid came up to us for guidance, we'd give them the right answers. But we're entertainers, too, and sometimes you have to push a couple of envelopes. That's what gets people to listen."
In the whole crew, there's probably no one who's pushing more reams of envelopes than Sun Sun Slaughterhouse. On the new video for "The Hack Pack," a comedic takeoff on the smarmy Frank-Dean-Sammy axis of Vegas schmooze, Gutta reiterates the brutality he will inflict in gangsta matter-of-fact terms, and Indrid breaks down the violence in surgical detail, but it's Sun who derives the greatest glee in reminding the audience "it's time for y'all to die" and then starts to riff on cannibalism, necrophilia and Christianity. In that order.
"He says shit the average person might think but is afraid to say," Erel says. "We got a song on the record called 'Down' that says . . ." at this point, a half-dozen of the crew chime in "I'm down with the Ku Klux Klan, down with the Satanists, I'm down with the Black Panthers, down with rapists."
"It was done right after 9/11 and everyone was uptight about everything," Judgment says. "When we did 'Down' at the release party and said 'I'm down with the Twin Towers,' people got really offended and walked out."
Far removed from his blood-splattering second self, Sun thoughtfully allows, "It's just stating the fact that it's up to the person to decide what's good and what's not. So basically I'm just saying, 'I'm down with it all, the good and the bad.'"
Judgment adds, "Just because everybody might be afraid to touch a 9/11 topic, Sun's gonna do it. Jack Spairo's gonna do it."
Spairo's one of the few crew members not present today. "He just got his green card," Erel says. "He's an actual refugee from Iraq and one of the dopest MCs in the world. He'll kill Bush in one verse, Saddam the next."
Armed with all this talent, the Society set out to make sure people heard of them. "From 8 o'clock to 2 in the morning, we were putting up 800 posters a night," Erel says. They've also done something unheard of in band marketing promotion tours where all they do is go into a city they're not even playing in and totally bombard it with fliers. They managed to sell more than 6,000 copies of that first CD through the Internet, guerrilla promotion and word of mouth. "A lot of people have been in the AZ scene for years and still don't have that respect. We gained that respect by taking that respect," Erel says.
The Babygrande four-record deal allows for this first record to come out as a "buzz-getter," letting people know who they are. "This record we're releasing now is a lazy record, to be honest with you," Erel says. "We didn't even try, that's how good it is. I know it might sound conceited, but we were just getting drunk, high, partying and said, 'Let's put down a verse.' The next album (Episode 19, due out in March 2007), we're gonna put our whole heart into it. The next album will go down as one of the 20 best hip-hop albums. That's on the record."
Even before that happens, you're gonna hear a Dead Beats instrumental album and a Rok spoken-word album. Sneaky Pete has two albums completed, but he's in prison now, so you may hear a bootleg release of one of them, but they will all be released through Babygrande in conjunction with Geist Audio Records.
Without any intended irony, Erel promises, "You're gonna see a lot of the Invisibles."