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.
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.
"We want to bring this music to more than hard-core scratchheads," says DJ Jay Why?. "We want to play it for an old jazz cat and have him see the composition behind it. Morse Code is a band and we play instruments, we make the audiences groove rather than amaze them. We try to blow you away with our musicality."
Morse Code puts a heightened focus on composition in the orthodox musical sense -- on phrasing, accents, rhythm structure, transitions. Picks explains, "That's the difference between us and most DJ collectives; they're gonna get up there and see who can scratch the hardest or who can do the craziest thing on the turntable, whereas when we get up there, we break it down as music, like theory. It's like "You got the rhythm, I'll get the melody, you get the alternating melody, and then he'll grab the drums' and we'll rock out and see what happens."
The emphasis on theory is less surprising when you find that Sembilan and Ru-Ski are students at the Conservatory for Recording Sciences in Tempe, and that Ru-Ski has a formal jazz background dating back to his elementary school days. He was originally brought in to do sound for Morse Code because of his technical skills, but once the others heard him on the mike, he was invited into the group as a permanent MC. "I bring a method of thoroughness to every option we explore," he says. "I'm the glue, always looking at everybody up there, coordinating the freestyles, making sure that everybody's getting down with each other."
"We want to bring turnstyle to the masses," Ru-Ski continues. "We're working so hard to bring musicality to turntablism, proving that the turntable is an instrument and that MCs are true artists and not just guys saying words that rhyme. We're trying to raise the bar with Morse Code."
"We try to make people think a bit," adds Jay Why?. "When you see what you can do with a mixer and a turntable, you realize you can do anything with your life."
Ru-Ski adds, "Collectively we're trying to bring a greater understanding of how humanity can interact with different non-traditional things. Look at the turntable -- it was made to play records, now it's making music."
With the amount of time, effort and passion Morse Code puts into its work, it's no surprise that the band is intent on earning a living off its art. "Our first goal is to live off the music," says Sembilan, "not lavishly, but to make a comfortable living." To that end, the band puts a large amount of its energies into the business side, meeting at least once a week to discuss the behind-the-scenes mechanics.
Each member expects a career outside of Morse Code in the future, most of them in a production capacity. "We've got more producers than we've got room for beats," says Picks, laughing. They also have established themselves as part of a network of similarly minded Valley artists likely to last well into the future.
"No matter how long Morse Code lasts, I want to continuously network with people so that we all have independent careers, so we don't have to depend on Morse Code to sink or swim," says Sembilan.
Morse Code is also part of a larger collective, the Blow Up Co-op, which also includes the Diversoul Descendants (of which Ru-Ski and Sembilan are also members), the Drunken Immortals and DJ Terra. Blow Up Co-op has released two compilations featuring its members and expects to put out another in late July or early August.
"Recently it started coming together where all the DJs and MCs chill together," says Picks. "And you'll be onstage and see somebody in the crowd from another group and you pull them onstage and be like, "Get down with us,' y'know. You put them on, next thing you know you're playing at their night; it's like a whole ecosystem."
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The search for lapses in Morse Code's doctrine not only came up clean, but left Urban Sprawl considerably more impressed than at first with the members' dedication to their music and goals. Perhaps the only complaint is that their pervasive influence on the East Valley scene leaves little room for artists whose repertoire includes playing records or rapping about bitches and gats, equally valid subject matter in the hip-hop landscape. Still, Morse Code speaks loftily, but has the kind of skills and dedication to its craft to back it up, something rare for artists of any style.
Morse Code hosts the weekly Wicka Wicka Wednesday at Billy Gordon's in Tempe. Shows begin at 9 p.m.
Shadows and Fog: The streets have been rife with rumors of an impending local performance by the inimitable DJ Shadow. The Mo' Wax icon has kept busy working with some of the biggest names in hip-hop and dance including recent turns with Blackalicious and Handsome Boy Modeling School.
Shadow's rumored appearance is being touted for Tuesday, June 27, during the Funky Cornbread night at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Though the word on Shadow's Valley visit is thoroughly unofficial, we have it on good authority that the appearance will happen. Funky Cornbread mastermind Z-Trip wouldn't comment on the record, but be assured the Sprawl won't be anywhere else that particular evening. Most exciting is the prospect of Shadow playing a spontaneous set, a big departure from his normally strictly choreographed shows. Yet another reason to see what happens Tuesday.