Before digital music players were ubiquitous pieces of art capable of housing thousands of songs, pictures, and videos, they were bulky, expensive, and limited pieces of plastic.
Then 2001 happened. That year, Apple introduced the first iPod and the digital jukebox iTunes, and everything changed. Since then, MP3 players have evolved in size, shape, and capabilities, but they have become the standard, delivering the flow of rhythms and rhymes flow from silicon to eardrums via tiny white buds. If the 2000s proved nothing else it was this: plugging in and tuning out has never been easier.
For Tempe-based rapper Bill "Mouse" Powell, the digital revolution was the start of an education. While his classmates at Agua Fria and Millennium high schools struggled to comprehend postulates and theorems, Powell was plugged into his MP3 player, breaking down rhyme patterns and beats.
"I was always the kid with the headphones," says Powell. "During class, I used to put 'em up my sleeves — just run them all the way up there and sit with my hands over my ears, and it'd look like I was paying attention."
Powell was paying attention, but it was bands like NOFX and NDK that provided his curriculum in those days. "Basically, all of the band names that could get you in trouble were the ones I wanted to listen to," he says. Like most kids discovering music, his palate changed as he grew. Pop punk matured into classic punk, then ska music, and eventually reggae. Then Powell discovered hip-hop.
The classroom eventually proved an inadequate learning environment for Powell. "I wasn't at school too often," he says. "I ditched a lot, and when I was there, I was just sleeping. I'd rather be skateboarding or smoking weed."
He could get away with both at Desert West Skatepark, off 67th Avenue and Encanto Boulevard. There he found 25,000 square feet of concrete, curbs, and steel-edged ledges. It provided everything he needed to board and focus on two of his favorite local lecturers; ILL AL the Anglo Saxon, and Brad B of Drunken Immortals and The Insects.
"I had seen Brad at a Talib Kweli concert; he was the opening act," he says. "He killed it. I remember he was rapping about all the stuff I liked, things like skateboarding. And he had a lot of energy behind him, so I kind of just instantly fell into it. After that, Drifter became my staple album growing up. His tone and the way he stretches syllables really left a mark on me. His complete style is just so unique.
"AL's music is just phenomenal. That dude's rhyme patterns are crazy. He does a stutter-step rhyme pattern that's really difficult. I remember when I got his CD, Unplug. It was a burned copy that somebody had scribbled with a Sharpie 'AOTA' [Avenue of the Arts] on; like it didn't even have his name on it. And now we're in the same crew together, so that's actually really, really cool.
"What I liked about both of those dudes is that they were both completely themselves."
All these years later, ILL AL and Brad B join Powell on a song from his 14-track album, Where It's Cloudy, a funky, slick and soulful debut released in late 2011. Largely autobiographical, the record draws influence from the rapper's experiences walking and boarding the streets of the Valley. ILL AL played a large role in the project, overseeing recording and engineering duties.
"AL did a good job of taking everything and making it one fluid thought," he says. "A lot of those tracks had been written for a year or two and then rewritten and then rewritten again, so he was good at making me accept the tracks for what they were and helped me to move on to the next one."
The result is an almost voyeuristic look into the 21-year-old's life. "Holding Home," a track that samples Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," features raps about his first show at Modified Arts and his favorite haunt, The Blunt Club (which now goes down Thursday nights at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe). The album's title track starts with a phat beat and ends with a candid phone call Powell received from his mom while he was in the studio.
"I just had a nice dinner with your sister and wondered what your day was like," she says.
"My day was good. I finished my album. Are you proud of me?" he responds.
"I am," she replies.
"Do you think it was worth dropping out of school for?" he asks.
"I don't know yet; we'll see. [But] you know what, Bill? Anything you do is good," she says after a pause. "So I'm sure it will turn out good."
She's a supportive mother, Powell says, and the one responsible for Powell's rapping about Arizona and not the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. When he was younger, Powell had put it in his head that he was going to move to Los Angeles to pursue rap, but it was his mom who persuaded him to stay after graduating from high school. He studied audio production at Glendale Community College for two years before leaving to devote himself more to music.
After pounding the pavement and making the rounds in the Valley's hip-hop scene, Powell has witnessed enough to make him smile about choosing to stay in Arizona.
"I like the fact that it's untapped. You know what I mean?" he says. "There's so much room for growth out here that you could pretty much do whatever you want. And if you do it well, it gets respected. I like that a lot."
Although there is something he'd like to change.
"There are quite a few artists out there that sit on a high horse, and that bothers me," he says. "As much camaraderie as there is in some circles, there's a huge distance in others. But I think I'm doing a pretty good job of bridging that gap, because I don't have a hidden agenda."
Agenda-less or not, Powell's already succeeded in a small way, crafting something worth tuning in to when you're plugged in.