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Collective Cool

Are you experienced?
Mark Poutenis

Aside from a bottle of wine and my couch, something that really makes a Friday night for me is music. Loud music, with hypnotic, booming bass.

On a Friday night not long ago, I've found it right in downtown Phoenix. I'm in the groove with hundreds of warm bodies at the Old Brickhouse, carefully weaving through the bohemian crowd -- girls dressed up in sexy blouses and dangly earrings, half the dudes wearing Castro hats along with their artsy tee shirts, faces rosy from a couple of pints of Kiltlifter -- to grab myself a vodka tonic. It's an insane melting pot of musicians and poets, anarchists and indie entrepreneurs. The air is heavy with smoke and paint fumes, the latter from artists decorating canvases with brushes, markers and spray paint, for onlookers.

Eye candy's everywhere, but I'm looking for music. When I finally make it over to the stage, I'm sucked into the MC's near-angry voice and the DJ's seamless samples. Every so often, the hand-waving, head-bobbing audience steps back when b-boys and b-girls get worked up enough to start busting some moves, and the musicians onstage get an obvious kick out of all the commotion.

This could be in L.A. or New York -- it's that alive, the music's that good. But the action is right in the middle of downtown -- five minutes from my own house -- and I couldn't be happier about it.

The event was called First Friday Artwalk Extensions at the Old Brickhouse, but you don't need to remember that mouthful, because the Artwalk Extensions are long gone, replaced by various weeklies and dozens of one-off concerts that crop up at different spots around town -- just as cool, just as transient. Before you get a chance to get tired of 'em, they're gone.

But the party planners aren't going anywhere. Look past the big names on those fliers you pick up and read the fine print if you're curious about who's doing all the brainstorming: Blow-Up Co-op. You may not know the name, but you've probably been to Blow-Up Co-op's proverbial house. This hip-hop collective is like an invisible army, everywhere and nowhere at once, contributing all kinds of things to local culture while still staying under the radar.

Think of Andy Warhol's legendary Factory back in the '60s -- someone was always snapping a picture, singing a song, or striking a pose. It was always in motion, and full of intermingling personalities. With Blow-Up Co-op, you'll find MCs, DJs and other musicians teaming up with each other for one show or a regular gig, doing double time as artists, promoters and designers. The freeform, improv mix is kind of like hip-hop itself.


From the time I moved to Phoenix in 2000, I began looking for this in the music scene. Something that connected the dots instead of making me bounce from one isolated niche to another. Something that was all about music, but also a lot more.

It took me a while to figure out why Blow-Up Co-op was one of the most intriguing things in my rock 'n' roll world. Then I started thinking about how stuff is so spread out and disconnected here, and how this group seems to overcome that with raw energy and tons of ideas. So what if a natural urban vibe doesn't exist in Phoenix? These people just make it happen, in their own way, usually on a shoestring. It feels familiar because it taps into some old memories for me.

As teenagers in rural central Pennsylvania, my friends and I grew accustomed to going the extra mile for anything underground -- music, comics, clothes. "Alternative" hadn't become mainstream mall fodder, and we didn't have the Internet to satisfy our obscure tastes. It took desperate measures to find a Fugazi seven-inch or buy a real pair of Doc Martens. It took some guts, too, because being into punk or goth or rap or anything remotely subversive -- ooh, swear words! -- made you a full-on freak in the land of white, conservative conformity.

We'd gladly drive two or three hours to see hardcore bands in Lancaster or Philly or New York. If the show was on a school night and I couldn't expect to be home until really late, my dad let me go as long as I didn't miss class or let my grades slip. Hey, whatever it took. And if any acts actually came to the boondocks, it was because we managed to find a VFW basement or a roller-skating rink that would put up with our racket. We made our own tee shirts, pasted together our own 'zines, and made friends with every weirdo within an hour's radius of our tiny, spread-out scene.

 

We embraced the D.I.Y. spirit because, well, what choice did we have?

So while Blow-Up Co-op is a major presence on the local music radar, it's still classic D.I.Y. This informal alliance of musicians, artists, b-boys and b-girls, and other creative, motivated types sprang up out of sheer necessity, scraping together an underground hip-hop scene and clearly filling a need.

It's the truth behind an old cliché: If you build it, they will come.


Back in the late '90s, members of local bands Morse Code and the Drunken Immortals conjured up the Co-op as their own East Valley hip-hop crew. But the idea was also a way of simply getting things done -- connecting people with different skills and resources to make more than just music. On a broader level, they were putting together shows, bringing together talent, and creating their own built-in network of friends and collaborators who'd spread the word, pass out each other's fliers, and maybe show up to dance or paint a mural.

For a while, the collective was growing so fast that there were meetings to keep it all coordinated. Nowadays, Blow-Up Co-op is so big that no one, not even its own members, can put a finger on just how many people are part of the network, but it's at least several dozen, if not something in the triple digits. And the Co-op's not just Valleywide, but has branched out to hip-hop shows in Flagstaff and Tucson. These are very busy people.

To a curious outsider, the thing is just decentralized enough to remain at least a partial mystery, and it's hard to quantify -- you'll find the Co-op's cryptic graffiti logo on fliers for countless concerts, like Aesop Rock, The Perceptionists, and Scribble Jam. And there are weeklies: Blunt Club, Boom Bap Room, Flavor Shop, and others that have already come and gone. Complicating things even more, it's spawned other crews and collectives that still operate under its umbrella, or at least within its orbit -- Avenue of the Arts, Antedote, The Feeblez, Versatile DJs, Fresh Out Da Box DJs, and plenty more. Where one ends and another begins, I can't say. But even beyond music, there's the Alpha Monsters artist collective, the politically oriented Mob Action, Nitty Gritty Crew's graffiti artists, and the b-boys and b-girls of Furious Styles Crew.

The result of all of this networking is a huge web of nightlife around the Valley -- concerts, DJ nights, gallery openings, fashion shows, or some funky party with all of the above -- on practically any night of the week. Cooler still is how they're hooked up to similar organic organizations in other cities, like the Abstract Workshop Collective out of Southern California.

It would take a hell of a big chart to show all the names, affiliations, and six degrees of separation.

Here's one good example of all of this interconnectedness: the "hip-hop hostel," as Drunken Immortals manager Doug Quick calls the place where he lives with a couple of the Drunken Immortals and one of their girlfriends. Who knows how many touring MCs and DJs -- who might never had made it through these parts if not for Co-op support -- have crashed at their groovy west Mesa home while in town for a show? A lot of their names are spelled out on bold silk-screened posters from local gigs that paper the wall in the home office. (I'm a big fan of those posters, and not coincidentally, they were all designed by designer/beat maker DJ Pickster One, who's soon moving into the house, and artist/promoter Dumperfoo, who started doing live art with cartoonist Jim Mahfood back in 1998. Now Dumper organizes the super-popular Blunt Club at Hollywood Alley.)

This spot in particular is what reminded me of Andy Warhol's Factory -- with creative people coming and going at all hours -- or the quirky house full of grown-up kids in The Royal Tenenbaums, expressing themselves however they want. Okay, so they're not quite that eccentric, but the point is, the music doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it makes perfect sense that these core Co-op members thrive on each other's projects. On a recent night, Drunken Immortals percussionist Scott White stops by, fresh back from touring with Z-Trip, and later on, guitarist Kristofer Hill shows up, eager to chat about playing drums with Calo Flamenco.

I admit, I used to think people with too many slashes in their job descriptions were completely obnoxious, but then I realized that only applies to actress/model/pop stars from Hollywood. In Phoenix, we need all the multitaskers we can get, so slash away.

Drunken's drummer/producer/beat maker extraordinaire, Foundation (a.k.a. Jonas Hurst), bought the house a couple of years ago, converting the garage into a sweet little pro studio, with three sound booths, a huge mixing board, a couple of turntables, a computer, and two sets of speakers -- one large for blasting tracks, and one small for keeping the neighbors happy at night. He's managed to make a living out of all this, and you can tell he'd be content to spend every night in his sound laboratory. But on Mondays, he's out spinning wax with Pickster and Skip Skoolnik -- they all go by the name "Vinyl Rockers" -- for a new night they just started last month.

 

Foundation's girlfriend, Camille Messina, holds down the fort when the band's on tour, but she's got plenty to keep herself busy. These days, she's working on a friend's wedding gown, but she's known for making architectural, space-age dresses, which you might see at First Friday or SMoCA Nights. They're more wearable art than practical fashion -- kind of like how Messina herself is more a performance artist than an introverted seamstress. Her day job is as a hair stylist, and she experiments on herself, putting different colored streaks in her dark locks, depending on her mood. She's been putting together her first short film, and (no surprise here) she sings as well.

Another one of the housemates, Brad B, co-owns Resistance Printshop in Tempe with fellow Drunken Immortals MC Mic Cause, and they print fliers and posters for all kinds of Co-op happenings (like all those posters covering the office walls). It's a smart business to be in, because aside from word of mouth, e-mail, and the miracle of MySpace, their print pieces are a mainstay of the Co-op's grassroots advertising.

When I admire a huge, colorful painting hanging in one room of the hip-hop hostel, Foundation tells me that Brad painted it. Who knew he was a painter, too? "Yeah, we all wear a lot of different hats," he says.

Exactly.

And then there's Doug Quick, who now wears a ball cap instead of his once-trademark long red dreads, but he still doesn't look the part of band manager/tour booker/amateur videographer. Sneakers and baggy tee shirts aside, though, Quick still carries a briefcase and laptop so he can keep track of the band's commitments and work on projects for Universatile Music, the almost four-year-old indie hip-hop label and concert promotion business co-founded by Michael Horowitz and Pickster. UM is a big reason you see so many indie hip-hop artists coming to town, like Sage Francis or Cage.

Quick hooks up his computer in the living room to show me some footage for a live DVD documenting Drunken's spring European tour with Awol One and Existereo, and from the looks of the fist-pumping crowds in places like Germany and Sweden, Arizona hip-hop has global appeal.

It's about time, don't you think?

To be sure, it helps that these guys are name-dropping our state in plenty of their rhymes. The in-the-works album by Drunken Immortals, tentatively titled Hot Concrete, has eight tracks recorded so far, with lots of hard, deeply funky beats. I notice references to the desert and the Valley hip-hop scene, and smile to myself when I hear an Arizona-centric anthem with the chorus, "Praying for rain."

We need more of this local flavor. Because, ironically, it's going to take a strong Southwest identity for our home-grown hip-hop to get noticed anywhere else. I'm psyched to see Blow-Up Co-op put all those multitaskers to work, pushing the scene beyond the traditional four elements of hip-hop -- MCing, DJing, breaking and graffiti -- and into a full-blown urban community with no boundaries. Better yet, so many of the Co-op folks are trying to take things to the national level.

Some of them might be tempted to hightail it to L.A., but I think they realize how good they have it here. Even their well-known visitors remind them of that. Now that the Co-op is starting to live up to its name, I just hope Phoenix can come along for the ride.


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