Music News

Raising the Stakes

Pokafase knows he's in for a geographic challenge in the coming months -- and relishes it.

"I blew from Phoenix/Only shit harder than that/Is leaving the club without getting martyred and back," rhymes the local rapper on "Gangsta Alone," a vintage West Coast G-Funk track from Mastermind, his major-label debut on ArtistDirect Records due this summer.

Can't blame the guy for having a chip on his shoulder. Phoenix doesn't exactly lend itself to a hard-core, African-American hip-hop aesthetic. Yet Pokafase, born Alafia Long, understands that to get love out of the mountain states, where the hard living doesn't evoke Compton or Miami's Liberty City, you have to earn it on your own. Like St. Louis' Nelly, he has a chance to put the Valley squarely in the national crosshairs with simple tools -- namely pride in the neighborhood and an ounce of sexual charisma. He has the kind of authoritative voice and brash tone often associated with Southern rappers, but can style a narrative and use internal rhyming patterns to compete with New York traditionalists like Nas and Jay-Z. That makes him unique.

"Coming from where nobody's looking, you've got to work twice as hard, you know what I'm saying?" says Pokafase, lounging at the Vault, his posse the League's studio and chill space tucked in a north Phoenix garage. His deep baritone and deliberate attention to diction give him the gravity of a preacher.

For the next few months, the rapper, who was known as "Cappuccino" in the Valley duo Know Qwestion before (thankfully) changing handles and going solo, will be a roving Phoenix Chamber of Commerce on ArtistDirect's dime. A three-song vinyl single featuring "Gangsta Alone" (a duet with Snoop Dogg associate Kokane) was shipped to hip-hop radio stations across the country last week.

He also has an aggressive touring strategy. He'll be hitting Denver and Boulder, Seattle and San Diego, Las Vegas and San Francisco, trying to make a name for a place he acknowledges is better known for "saloons and shit."

"We've got some of the hardest slums. By the same token, [Phoenix] has its Beverly Hills, if you will, in Scottsdale," Pokafase says. "On top of that, we have the good climate, you know. All the good points, they'll be brought to life once people start to look down here and realize we're out here.

"The first words out of everyone's mouth is, Phoenix . . . what's it like being out of Phoenix?'" he says later, shrugging his shoulders. "Shit, you know. It's cool. I like the fact everybody's so curious."

ArtistDirect's roster of other rappers might also help Pokafase's cause. The label, started by Interscope Records co-founder Ted Field and supported by Universal Music Group, has also signed veteran MC Lyte, rising star Poverty, and Florida duo Smilez & Southstar, whose single "Tell Me (What's Going On)" just cracked Billboard's Top 40.

Field also had enough clout to help Pokafase attract producers from the A-list. Dr. Dre's kid brother Warren G and Roots collaborator Scott Storch created beats for the album, which as it stands now will feature 17 songs.

Clearly, the rapper is living large as he prepares for what may very well be Phoenix's big urban break. He toured with Wu-Tang Clan founder GZA in December, has high-powered record executives on speed dial and wears a fat gold watch on his left wrist. He's even found the nerve to turn down a tour with one-hit wonders Onyx.

"So far, it's been a dream," he says. "It's been a lot of hard work, but we're kicking doors down and climbing faster than I ever thought we would."

Phoenix's hip-hop output doesn't stop with Pokafase. As he's quick to point out, it ain't all about him. Here's a sampling of other recent offerings:

Morse Code, Turnstyles (Universalite Music): Conceptually, Morse Code is a standout among Valley hip-hop hopefuls. The group takes two old-school groupings -- the three-man turntable crew and the progressive tag-team rhyming duo -- and combines them into a highly unusual formula. Ru-Ski and Emiliano craft lyrics to match the textures, moods and weird scratches that the Mantis Claw, Pickster One and J-Why churn out. Some of the mixing on Turnstyles is so odd, the source material on "Avant Garde Hip-Hop" is virtually undetectable amid all the scratches and spaced-out manipulations. One complaint: While the rappers are certainly agile ("On this turf called Earth/Recognize your self-worth"), they rush through some songs like they're double-parked, making it difficult to discern the lyrics.

Outside the Box: A Dance Odyssey: The 20-minute video, produced cable-access-style by Arizona State University student Brad Hasse, puts its young dancers in seemingly foreign territory -- on rock formations, in grassy parks, in living rooms otherwise populated by overweight couch potatoes, even underwater. One clever sequence turns Mill Avenue's hipness on its ear. A young male dancer lays out a mat across the main drag's sidewalk and fluidly steps and spins on it. A casually strolling white guy in a tie and horn-rimmed glasses walks in from the background. When he steps on the mat, he can't help but bust a move. Neither can the cell-phone-chattering chick in sunglasses and dress pants a few minutes later. Breakdancing fever hits Tempe, and yuppies be b-boys too, yo.

AZ Mike Mill, "What Up Doe": "What do you know about keeping it gangsta, homeboy?" rhymes Mill on this single, released by Big Feve Entertainment. Judging from the clichés, our guess is that the producers of this record don't really know the answer to that question themselves. Must admit, though, that it is kinda cool to hear a pimp "rollin' west down Indian School" on a hip-hop song. Phoenix definitely isn't hurting for quality cruising strips, and these guys at least capture that spirit. A promotional copy of the single contains four versions, including one done a cappella. It also includes snippets of three other low-riding songs, all of which, curiously enough, seem much more promising and original than "What Up Doe."

-- By Christopher O'Connor

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