"This is the realest hip-hop spot in Arizona, yo," says rapper Kamillion, an energetic 25-year-old hopeful, to a control room full of amused, stoned onlookers. The young Hispanic dresses in a red University of Arizona baseball jersey and cap. "Yo, we so raw, we smell!" He strikes a mock muscleman pose.
Kamillion is one of around two dozen Valley rappers, producers, DJs, aspiring executives and managers who are scattered through the professional office suite or hang outside tonight; these twentysomethings represent a vibrant scene the year-old show, more commonly known as UTI, fosters three late nights a week, Wednesdays through Fridays. In effect, this in-studio crowd is Phoenix's hip-hop playing field. In short order, "Under the Influence" has become an underground radar. If you've never heard of it, then chances are you're clueless about hip-hop clubbing and the local artists who provide the soundtrack.
"They don't really care how many records you've sold, what you're doing on the streets. You can just show up, being anybody, and hand them a song and they'll say, Okay, we'll play it,'" says N.O.K., a 22-year-old who won a battle of the MCs contest sponsored by UTI three weeks ago at Coyote Wild in northwest Phoenix (I was one of four judges, so perhaps you should question the wisdom). "It's like a mecca for MCs right now."
So far, the show's thugged-out listeners are responding, too.
"We get a lot of calls from people in jail," says 21-year-old host Jason Horn, a white kid with short-cropped hair and an ultra-calm demeanor. Well, the cons aren't calling directly -- they listen after lockdown from headphones, then relay their shout-outs through friends on the outside. Still, that's some nice badass credibility to have.
Horn, along with fellow KFNX employee and hip-hop obsessive Ruben "RTC Shogun" Colombe, conceived the show, which airs from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, and midnight to 3 a.m. Fridays. The idea was to celebrate hip-hop and play all the stuff the pop stations ignore, or at least beat them to it. "I'm tired of [those stations] playing Ja Rule and Ashanti," Horn says. "I know those songs." (They'll proudly tell you they played Eminem's "Superman" months before it became a Top 20 hit.)
They also strive to have as much fun as possible. Horn's on-air interaction with collaborators Boss G and Peaches is low-key and friendly -- "Yo, why is everybody laughing?" Horn says at one point, to which Boss G replies, "Peaches pushed me and the microphone fell off the thing," sounding very much like a 21-year-old. Despite the silliness, together they manage to preside over what amounts to an oddly professional baggy pants hip-hop frathouse.
Most of the visitors draw liberally from a cooler full of Coronas and Budweisers; even more smoke blunts (always outside the studio), some from a bag of weed big enough to fry the whole 101st Airborne. Four men affiliated with the small label Wildin' Records talk shop and trade freestyles while they each work a blunt -- in the men's room around the corner. Even in the john, by now a walk-in bong room, rapper Heat Stroke can't resist tagging a passerby with a promotional sticker. Two others, in separate rooms, play an Internet game of chess. And everyone digs the music, which tonight comes from known established acts like Tha Liks, New Yorkers like Black Star and more obscure artists from California, including one song called "I Like to Smoke Weed and Listen to Hip-Hop." This doesn't even compare to the wildness on Fridays, they all say, when lots more hip-hop players show.
It isn't all a party, though. Most are down here to push their music, making sure to get their music played on the air and work each other for collaborations and publicity. No one acts like a total jerk-off. They come armed with CDs and fliers, and a rotating cast takes turns on studio mikes. The show also fuels their guests' competitiveness with on-air freestyle battles and promotions throughout town. "I won for about six weeks straight," says Chilee' Powdah, a 26-year-old MC, promoter and owner of Powdahhead Records. He co-hosts the local portion of the show. "They retired me."
"Everybody just shows up and pretty much networks, you know what I'm saying?" adds N.O.K.
As he'll tell you, UTI is a good professional ally to have in your corner in other ways. The expectant father, who spent his youth in New York and New England and brought an East Coast multisyllabic lyrical style with him to Arizona, is set to release a 15-track album called Live From Streetside late next month, and he'll do it with a local championship on his résumé. The MC, born Nicholas Byrd, beat out nine other contestants at the Coyote Wild event, doing so by showing off a butterscotch-smooth flow; a funky, psychedelic unnamed song featuring the hook "Get these niggas ready for this one/Hell no" and lines like "Trying to come up and live as large as Big Pun's gut"; and a knack for playing to the audience (he whipped out the old "when I say hip, you say hop" trick). While the styles on display varied between speed-rapping, old-school tag-team word play between two MCs and other juiced deliveries, N.O.K. stood out for his deliberateness and enunciation.
It helps, he says, to be in a town that's still forming an overall hip-hop identity. The majority of performers steal liberally from West Coast G-Funk but are also savvy enough to take bits and pieces from other regions of the hip-hop map as well. That keeps people striving to improve. "Half the people I know ain't even from here," says N.O.K. "It's like a little New York City here as far as different MCs. That helps out, because you try to be different than the next."
Colombe, himself an aspiring artist, says he and Horn understand the need for that diversity, which is why they keep away from making their own judgments and play everything they can. At this point, it's all inclusive and all instructive. "It's on its way," he says of the scene as he organizes his CDs and cues up his next song. "But it's going to take a while."
For now, though, they're content to build the show and its growing mystique. "We were pretty lucky to have this medium available," Colombe says. The rappers feel the same way, gravitating to the studio as they do. They don't need to say anything, and still the mood can be infectious. On this night, a room full of seven rappers stand around for a 15-minute stretch and say virtually nothing. They barely look at each other. Maybe they don't even know each other. But they all bang their heads to the beats in unison, enjoying the playlist.
Phoenix may not be hip-hop nation quite yet, but for the true believers, "Under the Influence" is the cooler full of Coronas, truly the smelliest joint in town. The party over the airwaves only promises to get bigger.
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