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Brotherly Luv

Thou shalt rhyme: The Ten Commandments, spreading the hip-hop gospel. Underground Empire's Michael Life is seated in the top row, second from left.
Paolo Vescia

As Bash & Pop reported last week, members of the Phoenix rap combo Underground Empire and a related side project, The Ten Commandments, were scheduled to perform at a postconcert party in Philadelphia on May 20 hosted by Jay-Z and Da Brat. Sadly, the gig was canceled after one of the event's promoters was killed during a robbery attempt.

Still, the trip proved to be an eventful one for UE leader Michael Life, who uses the stage moniker MTL. Life began talking to a handful of label suitors including old friend and 'illy gangsta rap pioneer Schoolly D.

Schoolly D. is looking to sign an initial roster of acts for his Start It Up label, which recently inked a distribution pact with Columbia and is set to begin full-scale operation in September. During his East Coast sojourn, Life also met up with the head of A&R at RuffNation (formerly Ruffhouse), home to Cypress Hill and the Fugees, among others.

Spurred by the high-profile success of a handful of natives, the City of Brotherly Love has become a hip-hop hotbed with talent scouts looking to snag the next big thing.

"In Philly right now people are getting signed every day," says Life. "After the Roots started doing well, then Eve blew up, now Beanie Siegel -- because of that, there's a lot of people getting signed."

Maintaining a long-standing relationship with Schoolly D. turned out to be a real benefit for the Phoenix crew. After receiving the last round of UE recordings in January, Schoolly suggested that Underground Empire's Zabdullah, a onetime Parkside West Philly resident, leave the Valley and return for a few months with an eye toward capitalizing on the recent signing frenzy.

"It was his idea that Zab should come out for a while and hang around and see what's going on," Life says. "[Schoolly] knows our stuff is a little different than any of the other things happening there right now. Everyone out there basically sounds like Jay Z, except for the Roots. So there's a good chance for us 'cause the [label] people are always looking for new stuff."

Aside from expressing interest in UE, both labels are also making overtures for Life's Phoenix all-star side project, The Ten Commandments. As Life explains, what was originally supposed be an off-hand collaboration proved to be an appealing bit of major-label bait.

"Originally, I had an idea for a song called "The Ten Commandments' that I would do with the best local rappers and producers that I knew," recalls Life. Once he enlisted a group of top Valley street MCs and hip-hop players to work on the track, things quickly broadened. "I started talking to them; after a while there were so many ideas we decided to do it as a full-on group, like a supergroup."

Ten C participants include the members of Underground Empire and Know Qwestion, Flossi, Tino and 2 Sicc from the Realm, and a pair of solo MCs, Goldie and J-Roc.

Providing the beats are a group of talented trackmakers: UE collaborators Joe Risk and DJ Needles, Twirp and Fingers (a young duo that's part of a local collective of producers called The Professionals), and Fade, of Know Qwestion fame.

Though the Ten C project began casually, things quickly intensified. "We met every Wednesday for about eight weeks, and wrote eight songs during that time," says Life. "The stuff was turning out real good, so we went into the studio the last weekend before I went to Philly and finished a bunch of tracks."

With the East Cost trip and label meetings looming, Life and the others decided to rush-mix five of the songs to have something to present to the label suits.

"The whole thing came down to some real short notice, but we hurried it along, doing all five in like three days. But we did that because collectively everyone was like, "You should bring this stuff with you.' And I'm glad I did because everyone up there loved it."

Aside from the completed cuts, the group has laid down basic blueprints for three others, with a full 16-song record in the works.

Life is rightfully optimistic about various UE-related projects, which include his own solo disc. "There's a lot of things going on. Not just with UE and myself, but you have Know Qwestion and the stuff they're doing on the side [The Associates] and the Realm with their thing. It's a lot of creativity happening."

The ultimate goal, Life says, is to do a full-scale package tour with the various members of this growing rap/hip-hop collective. "Like I was telling the record companies up there, eventually we could do a tour where they don't have to send anyone with us. There would be all these acts plus the Ten Commandments; it would be like a whole show."

 

On a related note, the Mason Jar marks the one-year anniversary of its weekly hip-hop night on June 1. To celebrate the occasion, Underground Empire and Know Qwestion will perform individual sets, with a final headlining slot that will feature the unofficial debut of some of the Ten C material. After that, Life says, the group hopes to do a full-scale Ten C show sometime in late June or early July, likely at Tempe's Bash on Ash.

Baby Blue: People often ask, "Who are the best young bands in town?" The answer is a lengthy one, as the past year has produced an impressive wave of fresh talent in a variety of genres. Regardless of the style, the boys in Big Blue Couch are definitely on the short list. Three fourths of this ragged glam quartet are Ann Arbor, Michiganers who relocated to the Valley in 1997. Singer Michael Brandon is the only Arizona native.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, Big Blue Couch is not signing up as part of Michigan's rock 'n' roll militia and jumping on the MC5/Stooges bandwagon. Bristling with jagged booze-and-blooze-fueled sentiment, the group instead manages a smart, arty brand of guitar-based rock and R&B. Tracing the band's musical genealogy is difficult, though its work incorporates certain elements of pre-Ziggy-era Bowie, bits of Television's punk pretension and the shake-your-moneymaker ethos of the Black Crowes -- while guitarist/songwriter Chris Doyle's lyrics are far less pedestrian than those of the brothers Robinson.

Brandon's cavorting Jaggerisms aren't the only live attraction. The rest of the band -- Doyle, bassist Jon Demrick and drummer Jayson Gilbert -- engage in some finely wrought posturing as well, the likes of which haven't been glimpsed on the local circuit since the earliest incarnation of the Beat Angels.

The group has issued a pair of cassette-only recordings -- Taste the Girth and After the Girth -- but is about to release its first proper album. Recorded at Mesa's Saltmine studios, the 13-track disc (likely to be self-titled) is to hit stores at the end of the month.

Those wanting to hear the band or preview the forthcoming record can access several songs at MP3.com (the Couchers just returned from L.A., where they played Hollywood's Garage club as part of the Web site's Angel City Music Market). Among the material available online is a trio of new cuts -- the old-school Brit-pop of "Volcano," bedroom angst anthem "Troubled Times" and the taut blues workout "Never."

Big Blue Couch plans to spend June at bass player Demrick's Artistic Noise studio, working on tracks for a follow-up, which it plans to release in late 2000.

Big Blue Couch is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 2, at the Big Fish Pub in Tempe, with the Glory Revival. Showtime is 9 p.m. The band is also set to perform on Saturday, June 10, at the Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Sugar High. Showtime is also 9 p.m.

Move It! As Bruce Springsteen once noted, "Get their asses moving and their minds will follow." Well, in the Valley music scene -- which is sometimes justifiably derided, sometimes not -- that's one sentiment that has gone sadly unheeded. Blame it on a bunch of talented, if immobile, Tempe rock acts, which spawned similarly static imitators throughout the '90s. But all the responsibility can't be placed on the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop -- although the former, not so coincidentally, stopped being interesting, visually and otherwise, about 1992.

And forget about militant hard-core theatrics -- most of which seem to border on fascist ritual -- or halftime white-boy funk. We're talking about some genuine rock stage presence. Nothing too esoteric, mind you, just the usual: some Otis exhortations, a little Stonesy swagger, some New York Dolls strut; hell, at this point we'd settle for the showmanship of the Debarge family.

Currently, the biggest exponent of the "get up, get on up" mindset is actually -- surprise, surprise -- another Michigan transplant. The Glory Revival, composed mostly of Motor City refugees, has been entertaining and liberating Valley audiences with its greasy Southern fried/assembly line rock for more than a year.

The band will begin hosting a regular weekly showcase, dubbed Electric Thursdays, at Chasers in Scottsdale. The Revival will open the shows before surrendering the stage to a pair of different headlining acts each week. The first month will see sets from trash rockers Sonic Thrills, alt-country burners Truckers on Speed, gutter punks Johnny Ace, funksters Kinetic, power poppers Zen Lunatics and the aforementioned Big Blue Couch. To keep the party's momentum going, the eclectic DJ Hugh will spin in between sets. The turntablist promises to keep his crates filled with everything from Motörhead, Massive Attack and Big Star to Tom Waits, the Dead Boys, Gang Starr, Kyuss, Funkadelic, CAN and other such esoterica.

 

Meanwhile, the Glory Revival -- whose recent opening set at the Cajun House in Scottsdale shamed Capricorn Records headliners Galactic -- has just completed construction of its own professional quality studio, where the band will begin recording demos for a follow-up to last year's Al Sutton (Kid Rock, Michael Penn)-produced debut. In between Chasers gigs, the band plans to head out to L.A. in June to open a handful of shows for Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise.

Also, Sonic Thrills, which will headline the first Electric Thursday on June 1, will finally be selling copies of its long (and we do mean long)-awaited "Beautiful Noise" seven-inch (Truxton Records). Worth noting is the record's cover and the group's tee shirts, both of which feature a stunning punk Aphrodite drawn by local artist Mike Mass.

Electric Thursdays with the Glory Revival are scheduled every week at Chasers in Scottsdale. Showtime is 9 p.m.

It's Tricky: Chandler-based alt hip-hop outfit Trik Turner is getting ready to drop (to use the parlance of our times) its latest CD on our collective asses next week. The group marks the event with a release/performance party for the disc, Black Seas and Brown Trees, at Tempe's Green Room this Saturday. A follow-up to its eponymously titled 1998 debut, Black Seas continues the group's penchant for tackling serious and often ignored themes in hip-hop culture. The band boasts a catalogue of material dealing with drugs (not the willful consumption, but, rather, perils of), AIDS, death, marriage and old age. Though eschewing much of the guns, blunts and bitches braggadocio common to mainstream rap, it hasn't diminished the group's ability to pull off a well-turned rhyme or beat. The disc will be available in stores and at the group's Web site (www.trikturner.com) starting next week. Trik Turner's CD release party is scheduled for Saturday, June 3, at the Green Room in Tempe. Catch Wreck, and Yoko Love are also on the bill. Showtime is 9 p.m. Bangs a Gong: If you're like us, you probably attended and were thoroughly disappointed by both recent Valley appearances of the Donnas. Over the course of the past year, the Bay Area all-girl quartet made a pair of highly anticipated stops at Boston's in Tempe. The group inexplicably cut off its July '99 performance after only half an hour, while the band's return engagement in March was spoiled by foul weather. While we haven't completely soured on the group, we are still eagerly waiting for the great "girl" rock concert. (And, frankly, the, ahem, "girls" in the Donnas are getting a bit long in the tooth to keep milking their status as guitar-wielding jailbait.)

But this week there's hope for those who yearn for the sticky sweet/snarling sounds of the Runaways and Pandoras. Bash & Pop urges you to run to Modified on Wednesday to catch the power-punk trio Bangs, which is on the Kill Rock Stars label.

Interestingly, the group's talented bassist/vocalist, Maggie Vail, is also KRS' in-house publicist, disproving the theory that all press flacks are utterly worthless human beings.

Bangs is actually Vail, singer/guitarist Sarah Utter and drummer Kyle (it's a man, baby) Ermatinger. And Sweet Revenge, the group's second long-player, is filled with the kind of snotty, hook-filled songcraft that makes it every bit the equal of the Donnas' hyped-to-death Skintight.

Starting with the infectious intensity of the 44-second opener "Fast Easy Love," listeners will no doubt be won over by the naive charm of "Docudrama," the perfectly captured adolescent innuendo of "Train Wreck" and the can't-figure-the-boys-out anthem "Schick Schadel."

Replete with all the right sonic touches -- guitar dropouts, handclaps, call and response vocal chants -- the disc is topped off with a deliciously belligerent cover of Cheap Trick's "Southern Girls."

Those heading to the show should try to check out the entire bill, which includes a rare performance from screech-punks Über Alice. Their recent local absence comes as the result of singer Leslie Barton's three-month trip to Scotland, something that has pushed back the release of their debut EP, Punkins to the Front, indefinitely.

Bangs is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 7, at Modified, with Über Alice, and Terror at Sea. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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