The story of how hard it is to break into the national rap scene is an oft-told tale. Breaking into the Phoenix scene? That's hard, too, says Tucson rapper Savant. "Tucson is Phoenix's younger stepbrother," he says. "You need a major co-signer. Someone from Tucson can't just come to Phoenix and start building."
Luckily, all it took for Wallace Taylor of Phoenix-based AWOL Productions and the weekly WTFunk Friday gig at Stray Cat to get on board with Savant was a quick spin of his music.
"He didn't really take me too seriously [at first]," says Savant, "But then he heard my music one day, and from then on, it was all systems go."
The music exhibited on the Crash Course Leaks Series, a mixtape released in monthly installments over the course of 2011, speaks for itself. "Valley of Doom," featuring Phoenix rapper Random, borrows some of that rapper's 8-bit fury; "Rely on Me" rides a vintage wave of synths; "Skin," a sexy R&B number, is bolstered by a sensual spoken word performance by Janien Hammonds and a Sade sample, and "The Truth," the tape's opening track, boasts funky soul horns and Savant's assured, laid-back flow stating his mission clearly: "Let every head say, for sure."
"The aim of the project is two-fold," Savant says. "It's to show people that it is possible to put together a high-quality hip-hop mixtape. A lot of people hear the term mixtape, and they assume it's a series of people rapping over other people's beats, all 'rappity-rappity, I've got ice, I've got this that and the third.' The idea behind Crash Course was to prove otherwise. The other idea was to release a new song every month — sometimes twice a month — from December of last year to this December, leading up to an EP called Crash [an EP to be released in early 2012]."
To put together the mixtape, Savant called on collaborators from all over the world.
"The beats are from all over the word," he says, citing Passion Hi-Fi, from the U.K., monkeymusician from Latvia, DN3 from Philadelphia, Jelo Jelen from Poland, Habeas Corpus from Tucson, and more.
The varied sound of the beats reflects Savant's musical sensibilities. "A lot of rappers nowadays grew up listening to more urban music," he says. "I didn't. I was the son of a minister. I wasn't exposed to hip-hop until I was 15, and even then, it was in small doses, I would listen to it between classes. I listened to gospel, classical — I'm a classically trained trumpet player, as well — so a lot of my musical sensibilities come from that: gospel, classical, jazz, my music composition classes, theory, training. Hip-hop is kind of tossed on top of it."
Savant heard Mos Def's Black on Both Sides when he was 16 and considers it a "life-changing album."
"Even though I liked writing, I didn't think I would have a viable name in the genre, until I heard Black on Both Sides. Prior to that, everything I heard was Biggie, Tupac, or Mace. If you weren't talking about the ice you had, the women you ran with, the cars your drove, if you weren't talking about that, your voice wasn't being heard. [Mos Def's record] stated there was another lane."
Savant says that resisting the norm is a goal, a mission even. "I try not to be predictable. I think I've done a good job of that."