I tell him what I think: that there's not much coherence in any of the music scenes here, especially hip-hop. The underground, backpacker sort of shit is probably the strongest in hip-hop, but, despite our urban demographic, there's not really a centralized mainstream hip-hop scene that's jelled the different components together.
"What do you think it would take to make Phoenix a hip-hop town?" he asks.
"More shit like this conference coming to town," I answer. That's a start, at least, getting the urban mainstream (read: non-backpacker) players all in one place to network.
This was the first-ever installment of the One Stop Shop producers' conference, and, as far as I know, the first conference of its sort to be aimed specifically at hip-hop producers. It went down February 10 and 11 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix. On the first day, Sha Money XL, CEO of Money Management and co-founder of G-Unit, tells the crowd of a thousand or so aspiring producers that he conceptualized the conference because there was never an outlet for producers to learn when he was comin' up. "We kind of like aliens; we just think differently," Sha Money told the crowd.
When I arrive at the Hyatt on Saturday morning, there's a grip of security dudes with G-Unit "Heavyweight" shirts on under dark sports coats, but despite appearances (an attorney friend of mine came by the Hyatt that day and wanted to know why all the gangsters had convened downtown), it had a congenial networking flavor to it.
While walking around the conference, I talked to aspirants from all around the country Chicago, Philly, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New York, even Saint Thomas but there were only a few people I heard say they were locals. I'm not sure if it was the lack of exposure for the conference (I first heard about it in Scratch magazine, a national DJ mag), but Phoenix was only really represented in the small booth area upstairs.
In a corner area tangential to the atrium, there was a small cluster of booths. A couple of the booths were sponsored by national companies such as Money Management and Serrato Sound, but there was also Another Level Barbershop, where dudes were gettin' their hair did, and a booth for Saltmine Studios, the local heavyweight site for which artists such as DMX, Rick Rubin, and, yes, G-Unit have worked. (Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Cassidy spent three months at Saltmine recording with Swizz Beats last summer, and in late March, we should hear the results on Bone Thugs' new album, Strength and Loyalty.). Phearless Records, the local home to Chicano rap group No Remorse, was up there, as well as XPOZ magazine, which puts out some nice local compilation and mix CDs, but is shoddily written and a bit too beholden to its advertisers.
On the whole, I thought that the local companies who were up in the booth areas did a fine job of representing Phoenix's hip-hop scene. When I was there, talking with the people manning the booths and other locals that I saw walking around, such as Sincer Jonez, who directs the show On the Grind on KAZ-TV Channel 27, it felt like Phoenix's urban hip-hop scene actually did have some coherency. I saw players from various aspects of the hip-hop scene just meeting one another and networking; that's the sort of cooperative spirit that I think the mainstream hip-hop scene here has lacked.
As for the conference itself, a lot of the seminars and panel discussions were spoken in the foreign tongue that producers and engineers use boring to a layperson, but invaluable for the attendees who got to ask questions of industry folk who have worked with virtually all of mainstream hip-hop's big artists, from Tupac to Dr. Dre.
The exception was the first panel, Art of Production, which featured DJ Premier, Swizz Beats, Hi-Tek, Fred Wreck, The Alchemist, Havoc, Sha Money, and more. If you don't read liner notes, then Premier (of Gang Starr) may be the only familiar name to you, but the assembled group onstage represented literally hundreds of millions of records sold. Much of the discussion focused on the difference between a producer and a beat maker as well as the importance of not biting what you hear on the radio, since what you're hearing is actually probably about two years old as far as its production goes.
Saturday was also the one-year anniversary of the death of J Dilla, a.k.a. James Yancey, the young producing legend whose much-lauded album Donuts was released just three days before he passed away from complications from lupus. The panel universally lauded Dilla, whose mention got nearly as much applause from the audience as Premier's introduction.
My focus during the conference was on what its impact on Phoenix could be. What I saw was a grip of potential, and a thousand-plus artists introduced to our city via CDs such as XPOZ magazine's Arizona Street Heaters compilation, which features locals such as Roca Dolla, No Remorse, and Mob Fam. It felt like the start of something there was an electricity in the air that made me feel proud to be in Phoenix. I left with a pocketful of business cards and a shitload of CDs, and the perhaps overly optimistic sense that Phoenix's hip-hop scene is finally coming of age.