Phoenix's hip-hop scene is running out of excuses. For years, local rappers and producers could blame their abject failure to crack national markets on the city's B-market status. Hip-hop, the story went, was run by a vast coastal conspiracy that, on principle, shat on artists from landlocked states. Unless you moved to L.A. (as did the Valley's best-known hip-hop export, DJ Z-Trip) or New York (as did former Power 92 programming director and now one of the industry's most powerful executives, Steve Smith), the best you could hope for was a few Southwestern props, which will get you as far in national hip-hop as a Phoenix bus pass.
But then rubes like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony began hitting platinum while claiming Cleveland, and Nelly managed to blow up from a home base of St. Louis. This week, the Cajun House is hosting the gold-selling Nappy Roots, a group that hails from the decidedly Z-market environs of Kentucky (see page 74 in this issue). With cities a fraction of Phoenix's size now boasting full-fledged rap stars, our blame-it-on-the-boondocks alibi is quickly expiring.
But then, right out of nowhere, a Phoenix hip-hopper hits the charts the top of the charts.
Irin Daniels has been struggling for more than a decade to end Phoenix hip-hop's national blackout, and this month, he's finally done it. "Bang My Shit," a track he produced from his studio in Peoria, charted at number one on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles on June 7, sitting above such payola-propelled radio mainstays as Naughty By Nature's "Feels Good (Don't Worry about a Thing)," 'NSYNC's "Girlfriend" and P. Diddy's "Need a Girl (Part 2)." Not bad for a single put out on a start-up label with little promotional muscle (from the L.A.-based Brainstorm) and credited to a rapper who still hasn't made a name for himself (Skubie).
Daniels scored his collaboration with Skubie through the network of southern California rappers and musicians he met through his cousin, a veteran producer who helped break New Edition back in the day. Now Daniels regularly flies to L.A. and keeps company with some of the West Coast's most respected producers DJ Quik and Battlecat among them. Skubie is a protégé of Greedy Greg, the entrepreneur who discovered and financed Quik.
Since Skubie is from L.A., he doesn't make any mention of Phoenix in his lyrics, so it's not exactly like we're in the rap lexicon yet. Don't expect to see any videos showing Escalades on 20-inch rims rolling through Papago Park right away. This is a decidedly indirect come-up for the Valley, but it's a come-up nevertheless. Daniels, for one, is chalking it up as a score for Phoenix.
"Phoenix has always had lots of rappers, but not many producers," he says, sitting in the studio he had built in his modest suburban home. "For there to be any sort of rap music coming from here that's going to do anything, the producers need to step up."
If even only a few local beatsmiths start making instrumentals as scorching as "Bang My Shit," no one will need to make any more excuses for Phoenix hip-hop. Daniels, who works under the name Iroc Beats, cooked up the most urgent drum patterns this side of a military march, layering them with heavily syncopated synthesizer blasts and chopped-up vocal fragments. It's an ornate, maximalist stomper of a tune, with all the urban pop bells and whistles: a female R&B singer purring after the rapper's verses, ultra-high-tech sonics, a twitchy digital bass line. Skubie himself is an able if lackluster MC; clearly the song's meteoric rise has been on the strength of Daniels' uncommonly infectious beat.
Daniels, though, talks about his long-awaited commercial breakthrough as the inevitable outgrowth of years of diligence. "I've never once thought I wasn't going to make it in this game," he says. "I opened my label [Iroc Records] back in 1991, on 27th Avenue and Thomas. I was a young entrepreneur. I was barely, barely making it for so many years. But I knew that all the time and money I put into it into would one day pay off like this."
But as he pulls out the copy of Billboard that lists his track at number one, Daniels flashes a quick grin that suggests he's at least a little giddy from the song's overnight success. He's playing it cool during this brush with fame, however. Back in 1995, when he was trying his hand at rapping, he released a solo album as Mr. Iroc. It featured a cover with the ballsy title Finally on tha Map written under an image of Phoenix. For a record put out on a shoestring budget, Daniels managed to sell a modest number of copies (he says around 4,000), but he obviously fell well short of introducing Phoenix to the hip-hop nation.
Daniels is still working various angles to get local talent into the mainstream; he's just taking a subtler approach this time around. He's churning out beats for Jaun Doe and Pokafase, two Valley MCs signed to major labels (Epic and Artist Direct, respectively) who have forthcoming debut albums. Pokafase, he figures, has the best chance of anyone to blow up and take Phoenix with him. Daniels has already submitted half a dozen instrumentals to Pokafase's disc, one of which is in contention for lead-single status.
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Daniels also is lining up investors for an ambitious music and film company that will promote Phoenix artists exclusively. He has plans for a documentary about the early history of the local hip-hop scene, and he's an avid scriptwriter himself. "The treatment I'm working on now explores fatherhood," he explains. "Let's put it like this: Any deadbeat dads who watch the movie are going to be very uncomfortable."
Based on "Bang My Shit," Daniels has been inundated with offers for more high-profile production work. He's just finished a series of remixes for urban boy band B2K, and an upcoming project will see him reworking a track from rising R&B star Glenn Lewis. Daniels says that the remix gigs are lucrative his fee per song is up to $5,000 now but he's being careful not to let them derail him from his goal of breaking local talent.
"Right now, I'm just producing whatever work comes along," he says. "I want to get to the point where I'm just working on my own acts and having some fun with it. Right now it's just stressing; you're always under the gun as a producer. If you're not constantly on the grind with this shit, you won't survive.
"But for Phoenix to blow up, it'll take someone putting in a lot of extra hours. For my city, I'll do whatever it takes."