Playa's Paradise

"This is where we do it," Survivalist's most garrulous MC, Preacha, welcomes you upon your arrival at Fo' Life Records, the tiny independent record label from west Phoenix that has somehow produced a Top 5 song on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart, Survivalist's laid-back, catchy "Bounce."

If there were an office building version of MTV's "Cribs," the personable Preacha would already be primed for a hosting shot. Leading you quickly down the hallway with a constant flow of camera-ready, over-the-shoulder commentary, the young rapper pauses to open the door to a conference room that suddenly billows more fragrant smoke than a pulled-over Chevy in a Cheech & Chong flick. Shrugging sheepishly, Preacha shuts the door and smiles back at you. "Probably shouldn't go in there just yet," he laughs.

Taking you down the hall through a rec room outfitted with an inviting pool table and an even more inviting poster of Lil' Kim, Preacha ends the short tour in the recording studio, a big boys' playground of state-of-the-art recording gear and mixing boards centered around the studio's main toy: a shiny new Apple G-4 computer running the new killer app of today's digital recording houses, Digidesign's Pro Tools.

Bowed before the monitor, an intensely focused Jubal, the baby-faced member of the crew, fiddles with the mouse while silently mouthing the rapid-fire rhymes his recorded voice booms out on the studio's bass-heavy speakers.

"Listen for the hook on this one," tips the group's smooth R&B voice, Kumandae, kicking back on the studio's plush black couch. Like the sparingly used field-goal kicker on a star NFL team, the slick-voiced R&B singer has become the secret weapon for today's rap groups, breaking up the barrage of wordplay with the repetitive, infectious melodies that have helped bring hip-hop even more into the mainstream. The hooks that get otherwise reasonable people humming lines like "H to the izz O, V to the izz A" at work even if they have no idea precisely what (or where) Jay Z's nizzle is.

And Survivalist's Kumandae delivers the goods, pumping out melodic, memorable song hooks between the raps of his four partners. Listening to his vocal track, a contented Kumandae just bobs his head and smiles.

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Out around the pool table now, a few more brawny brothas start dropping in, bearing munchies and refreshments and joking around. They trade tall tales of their workdays that wordsmiths Bookie and Sabataj already appear to be rolling around in their heads. You can imagine them already editing out all the excess "aiight"s and "know-what-I'm-sayin'"s, and crafting their buddies' everyday language into some hot new Survivalist raps.

It's 7:30 on a Monday night, and virtually everybody in this sprawling, nondescript looking office complex -- including the owners of this little hip-hop hit factory -- has long gone home. But for Bookie, Jubal, Preacha, Problemz and the other friends who've been helping Survivalist put down the 21 tracks on its debut CD, 602 Celsius (due out in mid-October), the work -- and the fun -- is just beginning. After all, with thousands of dollars of high-tech equipment at their disposal, enough room for their friends to hang out and a no-host management set-up that apparently makes it okay to share more than a coffee carafe in the conference room, it would be hard not to create some pretty dope hip-hop tracks in this environment. But that's not to say these urban twentysomethings carry on like overgrown kids in a candy store when they're laying down lyrics in this gangsta's paradise.

"We know we're blessed to do what we really love -- and maybe someday get paid for it, too!" laughs Bookie, the baritone-voiced rapper in the crew. "We know we got something good here."

Of course, you don't need all the accoutrements of a growing recording studio to make hit hip-hop music today. With instrumental tracks becoming sparser, more stripped-down, and with the electronic gear necessary to make those tricky sounds becoming more and more affordable, hip-hop is the genre open to anyone with more cleverness and creativity than cash. Walk into a Comp USA on any Saturday afternoon, and you'll likely come across one or two sixth-grade Lil' Romeo wanna-bes scratching some radio-worthy beats on the $99 Mixman DM2 Digital Music Mixer displayed right next to the Playstation 2. You don't even need a computer to create your own cool jams: a remix of the Bubba Sparkxxx breakout hit "Ugly" features the tune's Missy Elliot-lifted hook played on what sounds like a cell phone.

Survivalist's newest rapper Sabataj crafted his first raps accompanied only by the sound of his Size 7 sneakers pounding the pavement on his way home from fifth grade.

"Me and my brothers used to mess around with raps when we would walk the walk to school and back," he says.

Cohorts Bookie, Preacha and Jubal all started working on their rhymes at about the same age. "Yeah, I was freestyling when I was about 8," adds Preacha with a sly smile. "Some of the weakest freestylin' in the world!"

How the guys went from the schoolyard to the Billboard Top 10 is a bit of a mystery -- even to them. Sure, they paid their dues, rapping in whatever shows they could get, and practicing their writing and delivery whenever they could.

"We did a lot of shows and had a lot of trials and tribulations, but we didn't give up on anything," Preacha notes.

But there was also a lot of work going on behind the scenes at the fledgling label.

"There's a lot of networking involved, too," admits Jubal. "Scoping out the surroundings, making connections, you know."

Label exec Claude Thomas agrees that not all the nationwide recognition the group is receiving is due to sheer talent.

"A lot of it is good word of mouth, but a lot of it is also getting out there and digging in the trenches," he says. "Doing whatever you have to do to get the group known. A lot of it is also who you know, making sure you get in with the right contacts, people who can actually help you. Because there's a lot of snakes out there, too!"

Survivalist's music-making process is also dependent on more than a few team members.

"It isn't a one-man army," Bookie admits. "We all collaborate and put all our input together to create the project."

Indeed, one of the keys to Survivalist's early success seems to be its awareness of what the group brings to the music and what the other players on the team, from the producers to the label owners, contribute to the mix. There's a clear division of labor in hip-hop hitmaking today, one that many would-be rap stars have a little trouble seeing over the size of their self-inflated egos.

"We're no better than anybody," says a humble Jubal. "The only difference between us and some of the rappers who are not making it is we recognize there's more than one side to everything, and using your brain."

Today's rap hits, as the members of Survivalist acknowledge, depend more and more on the producers. In fact, as in-demand mixers like the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, Mannie Fresh and Dr. Dre have proven, sometimes it doesn't matter much who's on the mike as long as the track is brimming with the requisite mix of clever samples and tricked-out beats. A recent review of the latest CD from the duo Philly's Most Wanted on the popular hip-hop Web site 360hiphop.com criticized the performers as "two of the most forgettable rappers currently populating the radio," but praised producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (the Virginia production duo known as the Neptunes) for "taking source material that is almost charmless, and still giving it a sheen of excellence that's seamless to the listener."

For their part, the individual members of Survivalist bring plenty of natural charm to the table. It's a combination of personalities the group insists is not manufactured specifically for the radio.

"When you start rapping at, like, 10 years old," says Bookie, "you just rappin' about what everybody else is rappin' about. You just following. But as you get older and time progresses, you start focusing on the important topics, and you get more in the game, and get more knowledge."

The key to being a good rapper, they say, is getting to like yourself first.

"A lot of people in hip-hop, they weren't actually comfortable with themselves before they got involved in music," Sabataj theorizes. "Which creates a situation where they end up having to manufacture a certain kind of character to sell their records.

"With us, we just all authentic. We just do us. And I think everybody who listens to us is gonna be able to respect that. We are holding ourselves down, and people are gonna love us for us and our natural character. Not for some images we invented."

You walk though the unmarked door of Fo' Life Records struck by the apparent positiveness of the name and are instantly confronted with a wall mural that paints a whole 'nother side to the label's moniker: the image of a black man in prison garb, shown from the back, peering through the bars of a jail cell. In the corner of the building's recording studio, a black male mannequin in striped clothes also peers out on the rec room through a barred window. Fo' Life, indeed.

"We picked the name not for its negative connotations, but from a positive standpoint," says Claude Thomas. "Basically, it means we're a family organization, for life. We tried to make a family label, where everything is in-house, and keep it on lock-down."

Not that the Fo' Life inner circle is impenetrable. "Each individual that we've let in the circle has had a similar chemistry," Bookie explains. "That's how we all click, and how we get along so well. 'Cause we have a lot of things in common."

Now that the group is making some in-roads on the national charts, Survivalist would like to open up the family circle to some other local artists with whom they feel an affiliation. As possibly the first rap group to gain national attention from the state so famously attacked 10 years ago in Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona" -- a forceful outcry over the state's refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday -- the guys in Survivalist know they've got their hands full trying to put Phoenix on the hip-hop map.

"I feel like a lot of people in the hip-hop community here just have a yearning to see someone come up from Phoenix, you know, to represent them," says Sabataj, an intense young man who comes across as the deep thinker of the bunch. "So it can be like, 'Yo, it's not all about cactus and tumbleweeds and cowboys!' Everybody who tries to make it in music here has this sort of fire in them, and they're gonna have some representation for that. The world deserves to hear what Phoenix is bringing to the table."

Preacha agrees, but has a little trouble nailing down exactly what constitutes the Phoenix hip-hop sound. "We're just trying to capture the atmosphere here, but we're also universal, 'cause down here is like a melting pot."

He does allow that Phoenix rappers may have an advantage creating that laid-back style so many rappers seem to be going for nowadays. "We got that Southwestern drawl around here," he chuckles. "And that laid-back style comes naturally in the Valley. I mean, let's face it: We got the sunshine here. It's hot! How else are you gonna be?"

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