When Survivalist became the first Arizona hip-hop group to crack Billboard's Top 10 Hot Rap Singles chart in 2001 with the aptly named "Bounce," its members felt they were strapped in for a rocket ride to Ballersville.
Instead, when all the big-label contracts the suits flaunted like origami for their tiny west Phoenix management team failed to pan out, and the group was left on its own to capitalize on the momentum from their single, the four MCs felt more like crash-test dummies on a half-built carnival attraction.
"We kind of just got on this roller coaster, thinkin' we gonna go on this wild ride," says 27-year-old Sabataj (born Tahmir Sharp). "It took us where we wanted to be, but then it kind of dropped us. It took some turns we didn't expect."
"It was like, "Boom!'" says Jubal (Julius Lipscomb), 24, borrowing the metaphor. ""Here it is! We're on the top!' And then we look down, and it's, "Oh, no!'"
Survivalist didn't exactly plummet into one-hit-wonderland, however. With the same local team that had fashioned "Bounce" into such a catchy club hit, Sabataj, Jubal, Bookie (Bryan Matthews) and Preacha (Kevin Wilson) plugged away in their Slave Entertainment label's topnotch Glendale studio and cooked up a full CD's worth of similarly hook-heavy hip-hop. A first single, "Immaculate," is already at No. 7 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles sales chart (and at No. 99 on the more important chart measuring both record-store sales and radio airplay), and the group's debut full-length album, titled Retribution, is set to follow in May.
Still, it's been almost three years since their first chart flirtation, and MTV Cribs isn't quite beating down their doors. "We should be taking you through one of our mansions," laughs Bookie, settling down at the conference table at the Slave studio, hidden away in an anonymous industrial park beside the Meat and Fish Fellas warehouse. "But this is still home."
Slow starts like Survivalist's are common in the music business, and in rock, that struggling working-stiff look is almost a requirement. In hip-hop, though, where chart success is reflected almost immediately with supersize shopping sprees, landing a Top 10 single on Billboard without also scoring flashier rims can be downright embarrassing.
"A lot of people were like, "Oh, you ain't ballin'. You just a scrub,'" says Bookie, 24, recalling the days after the royalty checks from "Bounce" began to dry up and the guys found themselves still cruising around in stock hubcaps and yesterday's Sean Johns. "It was like it didn't matter what we achieved. You gotta have the big wheels, and the spinners . . ."
"And J.Lo in your passenger seat," interjects Jubal, with a laugh.
"And if you ain't got all that, you ain't stunnin'," Bookie continues. ""Go back home to your mama.' There's a lot of people like that in the game. But I'm not feelin' them right now."
If anything, Survivalist's small taste of fame, doled out like a mama treating the kids to a spoonful before the food's done cooking, only deepened their respect for the meal they're still waiting on.
"You can't feed a baby steak," says Jubal. "You gotta give it to him in bits and pieces, until he's grown. We had to learn the ups and downs of living that kind of life to get the maturity to handle it later on."
It also taught the friends that the high life they see in hip-hop videos is simply an advertisement for a lifestyle few up-and-coming rap stars actually lead.
"You got all these guys who talk like they got a hundred thousand dollars in their pocket when they only got 10," says Bookie. "They look like they got money, but they just portraying that image."
For his part, Jubal, a baby-faced new father wrestling with role-model issues, says he's working on cleaning up his language -- something none of the guys show much concern for on Retribution. In conversation, the four also slam other rappers for continually churning out bubble-headed party anthems with no social consciousness -- yet their scheduled next single, "Bang Bang," is a standard hands-up-in-the-air club joint that proclaims nothing deeper than "We love to bang bang the chicky-chickies."
Regardless, the young men of Survivalist at least sound like they've already matured beyond the personas captured on their debut album. One thing they're careful not to front about on record, however, are the economic realities of a struggling rap group trying to make it in an unlikely hip-hop town like Phoenix.
"Coming out of Arizona, we had that extra grain going against us," says Bookie. "But it's hard for any rookies. Life ain't like what you see in the videos."
"It makes people feel like the blessings they do have ain't worth nothing," adds Sabataj. "The guy who pulls up in the Escalade next to you in your Yugo or whatever suddenly makes you feel like you're worthless."
Never mind that the baller in the Escalade is probably putting off buying baby a new pair of shoes just to make those car payments. "Ain't nothing wrong with telling the world what's going on in your life," says Bookie. "You're not gonna sell less records just 'cause you broke. In fact, more people will probably relate to that."
Speaking for the strugglers is what the Survivalist members, befitting their name, say they're in this game to do.
"There's nobody rappin' for those people no more," says Preacha, the youngest at 23 (but ironically, the one with the most weathered-sounding voice of the bunch). "It's all about the spinners and the candy paints. But hip-hop is supposed to be the voice of our community. It's a medium that activists and the people that died for us throughout the generations would have loved to have had, and it's being wasted."
Whether Survivalist's hedonistic odes to hemp ("Gettin' Blowed") or macho boasting ("We Run the Streetz") would make any civil rights martyr proud is up for debate. But there's an admirable doing-it-for-the-community focus behind their drive to make it big.
"There's a big picture Arizona doesn't see," says Sabataj. "More things will happen if we can show people there's a culture out here." Preacha feels that "Bounce" already put a few more Fubu jerseys into the Scottsdale Wal-Marts. "There was a growing hip-hop community before we hit the Top 10," he says. "But "Bounce' lit a fire for the city. And other people in the industry began looking at Phoenix. It was like, "Y'all got black people there?'"
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This time around, if Retribution really propels Survivalist into the hip-hop stratosphere, there will be plenty of other hopeful Valley rappers waiting to ride behind them.
"When we get into that roller coaster again," says Sabataj, "we'll have an idea of the twists and turns that are to come. We'll know where the ride's going."
Jubal laughs. "Plus, we'll have our seat belts on this time!" he says.
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