Cypher on Planet Iznak

see also: Finding Freestyle Community in North Carolina

Cypher on Planet Iznak

Clyde Smith (2001)

  This is a dispatch from Planet Iznak, the place that is hip hop, centered on the Abstractboro in North Kakalak, aka Greensboro, North Carolina. When I first started writing about the underground hip hop scene I focused on Lyrical Menace, a series of freestyle contests conducted in Greensboro and neighboring cities. My talks with the organizer, The Brown Recluse, and with other local lyricists introduced me to a network of folks that shifted my attention from the readily available connecting points of contests, radio shows and dance nights to sidewalk cyphers, home studios and chance encounters. This shift from the immediately visible to the submerged made me realize that understanding North Carolina hip hop went far beyond what was easily seen. So I began to follow the connecting points that weren't on the map in order to find the artists who had something real to say.

  [Note: "Planet Iznak" traces back to Cosmic Legaci and the "Abstractboro" was provided by Case Logic]

  My first piece for BLU #13 focused on community in Greensboro hip hop and this sense of connection came up in an interview for this article with el-Monte Slim, local lyricist and producer. He told me of his love for trains and stated that, "I can actually apply a lot of what I've learned from studying the railroad industry to hip hop." For el-Mont both railroads and hip hop are about linking things together and communicating. These connections are not just metaphorical as he points out:
The biggest thing when you talk about communications and the railroads, when it comes down to it, graffiti tags. You know what I'm saying? Somebody could tag a railroad car in California and they'll show up here on a tag.

  I soon discovered that Greensboro, the town that A&R forgot, is an important crossroads to the degree that the tzone, a local DJ originally from Miami, could state without a hint of irony that:
What I always thought was interesting is that Greensboro in a way sort of served as the center of the universe, so to speak. Cause it's like, everyone that's here from Greensboro is from somewhere else. You know, you've got those that are from here but, like you said, from New York. I've met cats as far as California, Chicago, New Jersey and Atlanta.

  While it may be difficult to picture a small city in North Carolina as the center of the universe, the Greensboro area is a surprisingly rich connecting point. Self Esteem, member of Mind Elevation, talked about growing up in a regional furniture manufacturing town:
I always had a pipeline to New York it seems, as far as music everybody I knew or somebody I knew was either comin from the city or had access. So I was getting Mister Magic and Red Alert and all that. So as far as Thomasville, I was like a hip hop kid.
While today every kid in Thomasville probably watches Rap City from day one, Self Esteem was into:
hip hop when that shit wasn't even cool back in the day. . . Back when we first got into it girls pretty much would probably avoid you for doin somethin like that cause you was kind of different.

  As I followed the tracks of various artists the railroad image shifted and softened from a visible network with a recorded history to a more diffused system where people had to ask permission to give me the phone numbers of individuals who wanted to be known worldwide and a small town rendezvous might occur at the only McDonald's in town. Along the way I encountered artists with as much heart as anyone I've known. Their love of hip hop was evident in how they talked about their work. Also evident was the complexity of this love as Case Logic, member of Brother Reade, explained when talking about his obsession with hip hop:
It's intense. It's like bein in love with somethin. . . It's somethin you wake up in the morning sometimes and you gotta fight with it. You get frustrated like it'll embarrass you in front of crowds. It'll bring you down to your knees. It'll open you up more than you ever had. It'll take you to places you never been. . . And you'll have bad nights and you can't get away from it cause you can't stop thinkin about it but it'll still be there.

  This intense love was also evident in their criticisms of an industry that they hope to join. One of the strongest statements emerged when I asked Massive Jugganott, a New York emigrant, about the fact that rap musicians talk a lot more about God than do rock musicians:
You listen to the albums these guys are comin out with. DMX, he's the perfect example I want to give. This cat gets on the album, talk about killin folks, it's just, rape, everything. And then will say a prayer at the end talkin forgive him for his sins and all his mistakes . . . When B.I.G. died everybody's like, oh, he's in heaven. He's with God. But this cat was on a album, talkin about, I don't want to go to heaven. I don't want a thing to do with heaven, forget heaven. I want to go to hell and all this stuff and I'm a bad boy and I'm gon shoot till I die and I'm gon get head and all this. And now we're all lookin, oh yeah, he's in heaven. He's lookin down on us and he's our guardian angel. What are ya'll talkin about? . . . A lot of people is lookin at hip hop already like it's negative. Now you add God who a lot of people worship truthfully and then you talkin negative things or whatever. It's really bad. I wish they would just leave God's name out of they mouth.

  Though I interviewed one or two artists at a time, their statements related strongly, so for this article I cut and pasted them together, inspired by the idea of a cypher as a remixed dialogue. Since most readers will be unfamiliar with these artists, let me begin with introductions in alphabetical order.


Abdu & Self Esteem - Partners in Mind Elevation currently in the lab producing their followup to the Born Day ep.
Case Logic - A complex freestyle artist working with True Boogie and the ill crackah as Brother Reade, a group inspired in part by Case's autistic brother Reade with whom he communicates through art and music.
Cosmic Legaci - Underground lyricist and major connecting point for the NC scene. Works with The Prophecy among many others.
Massive Jugganott - Hard working young professional who works with Midnite Sunshine and remains strongly connected to the New York scene.
el-Monte Slim - Local star off his single, Mouth of the South. Production partner with Toddy Rock as The Burnt Peanuts and member of the hip hop collective Grand Sound Alliance.
Treasun - "Local herbalist" and skate community educator currently finishing an ep tentatively titled Enlightened Path.
the tzone - DJ of many modes from radio station WQFS 90.9 FM to DJ crew Kaos Mathematics with Stevie Mack and DJ SK to hip hop group jurx with anon, jesuus, eville and snafu.

Early Memories

Let's start with some early memories of hip hop.
Cosmic Legaci - My father used to be a DJ. Before I was even born he was a DJ. So he had a lot of records and . . . the memory that I have was when I stood behind his turntables. I was real young . . . I actually stood on a crate and got behind his turntables and put my hands on two records. Thought I was scratching at the time.
Self Esteem - I remember bein a new kid in class, my third grade class. This kid came in and he was doin Sugar Hill, The Rappers Delight. And it just blew my mind. Whenever the teacher would leave the room, he was the cutup kid. He bustin it out and I was like, yo I want to make people, you know what I'm sayin, get that energy like he was.

Any early records come to mind?
Case Logic - The first rap record that I got . . . I always say I was 8 but its probably like 10, I was a baby. . . I was in Raleigh at the North Hills Mall and I was trying to convince my mom to buy me Fear of a Black Planet . . . And my mom was like confused about whether she should get the record for me. When I'd been buggin her and buggin her and we were finally in the store and I had it and it had a parental guidance sticker on it, you know. . . And there was this guy standing right beside us. He was like about 24, a 24 year old African American man wearing like, you know back then the whole style was like African medallions and a little leather hat and he had a sweater on and stuff. And my mom asked him if she should buy this for her child. And he was like, definitely. Definitely that was an incredible opportunity.

What about early freestyle sessions?
Case Logic - So when I was like 12 or 13 we always used to freestyle like on the bus or like at school inside by the drink machines. We'd bang on the drink machines and freestyle. I just sort of did that for years.
Massive Jugganott - I practiced hip hop during my late years of junior high towards high school . . . I was a comedian. I didnt rap just to be serious. I rapped in junior high to be funny. Take other people's songs and rewrite em to just joke around and whatever. There was a kid that was in junior high that was real nice and everytime I was battlin at lunch time he would just wipe me out. . . After a while I just got real serious with it and started writin, everyday battlin that cat. And the whole crowd, everybody lookin at us, he'll blow me out. I was just gettin practice, more and more and more and more. He was like, yo, you gonna get nice one day. And I think that last day of school I wrote one piece and the crowd was feelin it. They realized I had the potential then.
Cosmic Legaci - I wasn't actually battlin guys until I hit the university. That's when I got on the battle scene. I would just go against cats every day, just every day, practicin, freestylin. Or if we were just to kick somethin written. I would just do it. It was just practicin, everyday, everyday. That's what you had to do.

el-Mont, I know you're producing as well as writing and freestyling. Do you remember the first beat you made?
el-Monte Slim - I think the first beat I actually made was Crowd Pleasers.
Treasun - Really? Damn, that's a phat ass beat. Pretty good for the first time.
el-Monte Slim - Yeah, Crowd Pleasers was the first beat I actually done. I took a record, breakbeat, and just punched the sampler. And recorded on tape and just punched a train horn blasting. And I took another track from a freestyle cd we did at one of our old spots . . . Actually I didn't have a sampler, I used a cd player and punched it at the same time as the record was spinnin, recorded it and just used a crossfader and switched back from cd to cd while punchin as the turntable was spinnin.

So tzone, what was your first DJ experience?
the tzone - I'd say it was 95, the summer before I came to Greensboro, down in Miami. I was exposed to the pirate airwaves. . . And I got on the air DJin for a pirate station.

You just went on the air?
the tzone - Yeah. I just grabbed a crate, went up there and just killed it from there.


When I talked to The Brown Recluse he told me that freestyle was the "basic element" of MCing. What do you folks think about that?
the tzone - For MCs period? Yeah, yeah, I think that says a lot about an MC if you can just freestyle about anything, spur of the moment, drop of a hat.
Case Logic - I feel like freestylin is somethin that people who have the ability to do it have the luxury of sayin it's the most important thing. And I feel like there's a lot of artists that I've appreciated their work, that have not freestyled and have not done that. It's just one of those things. It's probably more what I feel comfortable doing but I don't think it's necessary. On the one hand, there's a comfortable element of freestylin that's as real as it gets as far as MCin goes. But I wouldn't discount somebody's work if they wrote an incredibly blissful album, like just perfect, and they couldn't freestyle.

What really impresses me is when Cosmic just looks around the room and plays off the people and light fixtures and shit.
el-Monte Slim - Especially when you throw him words. We set outside of a restaurant about a month or two ago and I just kept throwin, we drew a little audience around us too, and I just kept throwin words, just different things, pointin out different things people had on. Signs, billboards, anything I could think of right then and there and threw it at him and he would freestyle until he ran out of breath. And he's long winded too so don't think he's gonna run out of breath too quick.
Treasun - See the thing is with us there's no question. If we say this shit's freestyle, it's freestyle. There ain't no question. Cause it ain't no fun if it's not.
el-Monte Slim - One time me and Treasun tagged up. We used to always tag up and go to these cyphers over in Winston and when it came our turn to rhyme we freestyled the whole section.
Treasun - The whole song, yeah.
el-Monte Slim - When we got on stage we said, okay, we don't want the DJ. We want my man who's actually organized it . . .
Treasun - To play the djembe. It was hot, yeah. That was the shit.
el-Monte Slim - We said we want to rhyme off of his drums so we tag teamed our whole set. But cats was still like, did ya'll prerhyme?
Treasun - Yeah, they thought we wrote it before the show. . . Hell nah, we just decided to do it when we got on stage.
el-Monte Slim - We hadn't seen each other for two weeks. And seen each other that night, just that hour beforehand.
Treasun - That shit was beautiful.

Any other thoughts about freestyle?
Abdu - Actually, just to touch on that, back in the day I can remember in New York, thinkin back . . . We really didn't consider comin off the top of the dome, freestyle. Everybody would go home and write they rhymes and then bring em back the next day to the lunch table and recite they rhymes. That was freestyle to us. Freestyle was like, it not bein a song. So even though I wrote it, I'm on the corner and we battlin and I'm sayin these rhymes. To us and to the listeners, we considered that freestyle. And then as time progressed the spontaneity started comin into it . . . OK, let me talk about, oh he's got some funny shoes on today. You add that into it. So those were the people who started to stand out from the people who were writin cause they could talk about your shoes, your coat, whatever.
Self Esteem - That's bringin the crowd in right there on a bigger level. If you're sayin somethin that you may have written. They may be a bunch of inside jokes to me, sound wild to somebody else. But you really want to see the effect that it has on that person because only he knows. Whereas if you talkin about that person's shoes, everybody . . .
Abdu - Everybody can look at his shoes . . .
Self Esteem - And they are fucked up!

Rap vs. Hip Hop, Underground vs. Commercial

Back in the day, rap was the music and hip hop the culture. What's the difference between rap and hip hop today?
Massive Jugganott - I mean, I'm older now so I think differently than I did before. Before it was like, rap is different from hip hop. Hip hop is real, rap is just fake. And all these artists, like these big cats like Jay Z, DMX would be rap, you know, and Common or Mos Def would be hip hop. That was my mind state and I don't look at that anymore. . . I mean rap and hip hop is the same in a sense cause it's all music. It's all one thing.
Cosmic Legaci - I just think, it's music to me. You gonna have good music. You gonna have bad music. Simple as that. That's how I feel it. That's just like divisions of leagues. For example, major league baseball or basketball. It's all the NBA or it's all major league baseball. But you have your divisions.
Massive Jugganott - Some players you like. Some players you don't like. It's all the NBA.

Well what about the difference between underground and commercial, other than being signed or unsigned?
Self Esteem - Underground to me is like a home cooked meal. Commercial is like fast food cause it's made for the masses, packaged. Whereas underground is gonna exist regardless.
Abdu - It's like when you get a home cooked meal, you get underground. You taste the potatoes or that stuffin, you like, yo, what you put into this? How you make that? Whereas I'm drivin through Burger King, I don't even care. I don't even care that they had it under lights for two hours or whatever. I'm just eatin it. Whereas, for some reason, a home cooked meal or underground or whatever, you want to know the elements of it. You want to know that it's the rawest elements. How did you do that? How did you write that? Where was that comin from at that particular point in time? Yo, did you hear that beat? Or listen to the slang he usin in that.

the tzone - There's no creativity in a lot of these songs nowadays, a lot of the commercial stuff. You can go up and down the dial and you hear the same snare, same sample or the same riff, same chords, same topics. It's money, hos, cars, getting drunk, intoxicated or whatever. And one thing about underground artists, there are a lot of them that can just make a song about your glasses. That's creativity. Or just sit outside and make a song about a blade of grass. A blade of grass! I mean that's creativity.

So what about the equation, underground equals hip hop and rap equals commercial?
Case Logic - See that's the thing, the dichotomies become commercial rap and underground hip hop. I feel like those are the two easiest things to say, you know. Like that's the first thing I identify. But when I listen to a record, like any Outkast record, it's a nuance. . . Outkast consistently does meaningful music that is challenging, taking whatever genre of music they would apply. . . I've heard plenty of groups that were underground, you know like underground at the sake of they don't make no money and they sell their CD-Rs out of the back of their Jansport, but I feel like the feelin isn't there and if the emotion is lackin it's just a pantomiming thing. It's just a matter of playin rock star until they eventually either become successful and flood the market with the garbage or fall off or do something else.

Do you think you can still sell a lot of records and be underground or at least credible to the underground?
Cosmic Legaci - To me it's just another stereotype. You can sell as many records as you want to. If you're an independent artist and you sell a million copies of your cd or a million copies of your 12 inch. Cool. It doesn't necessarily change that person. . . When you're unsigned everybody considers you underground, that's cool. But I know a lot of people also who are unsigned they don't consider themselves underground. They just consider themselves as artists. And a lot of commercial guys, a lot of guys and a lot of girls who are in the industry who are quote what the industry says is mainstream, they don't feel it that they're mainstream. They just feel they're producing and writing their type of music. It's all about the love and respect that you have for hip hop.
Abdu - To me, the fact that somebody in Beverly Hills is feelin me, buyin my records, stomachin my truth or stomachin what the truth is and want to listen to it, to me that don't make it any less credible to me. . . Like I say, truth is truth. So if you feelin the truth, more people are goin to buy your stuff. So the fact that more people is buyin your stuff doesn't in no way dilute it.
Case Logic - If you take your art seriously and if you respect the art form in itself, I don't care if my mom cops 600 copies and listens to it with all her friends.

The State of Hip Hop

Overall, what do you think of the state of hip hop today?
the tzone - Hip hop, I think it's in a state of emergency, personally. . . The whole hip hop thing, the culture in the United States, I think it's just sad. . . You get these big company cats that want to put their fingers into it. It taints it. Throw a little money here and there. Bring in some guy that you never heard of. Polish him up or whatever. Sell a few million records and then he's gone. It's like a factory just spittin out stuff. Spittin out seein what's gonna catch certain people.
Cosmic Legaci - I just look at hip hop right now as a confused state. We could go on and on about that. . . A lot of artists they don't realize how much of an effect they have on people. And it's like when they say, yo, I'm a commercial artist. I do this for nothin but the money. That's bringin a negative vibe back to the fan. When you say that to a fan that's like I'm telling the fan the only reason I'm doing this is to get on tv.
Massive Jugganott - One thing he did touch on, a lot of commercial artists, they swear they don't make a difference as far as the music. They're just artists. There's this war going on that rap or hip hop music doesn't create violence in the city. They don't make children or whatever do the things they do, act hard or everybody tryin to kill each other and all that stuff. And that kills me cause I can purchase that man's album and all he's talkin about is shooting somebody or doin this and etc. And I'm like you're gon sit up here on tv or on the newspapers and say your music just doesn't influence people in that negative sense. That's all on them. And it's really messed up.

Self Esteem - You know, a lot of stuff that's bein recognized right now is pretty simple. And in my mind it reinstates and reinforces a lot of the oppressor forces that hip hop . . . tries to deal with. You talkin about poverty. Why you havin cats in videos with mad jewelry on out in the middle of the shabby ass houses in the projects and everybody hungry? . . . So that's got people who are desperate in their situation who may have a talent but they're puttin their talent to some faulty ass bullshit use. They do it because they want the chains and the girls or whatever. They don't really have a sense of themselves. They in turn sold their souls to that shit. I still want to keep my soul when I go to the other side. So I want to go and do what I know to do.
Abdu - I feel if you got the power to touch that amount of people and, like Esteem said, you in shabby projects and you want to get out. OK, use that creativity. Use your talent to actually help and benefit the people that's in that shabby condition wit you to get out.
Self Esteem - Cause there won't be any equality until everybody has an equality.
Abdu - Exactly.
Self Esteem - Or it's not going to be peaceful ever, ever.

So is there any hope for hip hop?
Case Logic - Boy, the state of hip hop and the state of music are potentially opening up a lot. In most types of art, most artistic fields, the independent artist has become in more ways the focus of a lot of people's attention. At this point, I think more and more given a lot of technological shit that's happened, distribution's gotten a lot easier. I think that things have gotten a lot less expensive to create your own record now. Home recording studios have gotten small. All that stuff. Now anybody can do their own records more so than before. I see that happening in hip hop probably more. It's just blaringly obvious. . . It's just like a thriving underground culture right now. And it's goin through this thing where it seems to be wide open like a lot of cities are showin up now. You got stuff goin on in cities that you would have never imagined before. And so the state of hip hop looks pretty good.

The Future

I know from talking to you guys and the work you're putting in that you all are interested in seeing just how far you can go in hip hop. What are some of your goals besides just blowing up?
Cosmic Legaci - My goal or goals are to leave a positive impact on hip hop. Everytime that I drop a verse, everytime I'm featured on somebody's album or everytime I'm doing my own projects, I just want to have a positive effect on people.
Case Logic - I want to move on, push myself further just as an artist myself. . . I want to write more songs, feel em out in the context of the live performance. That's really where I'm at right now. I want to push that live performance. I want to do that more and more and more and connect with that and see how my actual material changes. . . The live element is something that's really important to me just because I feel like that's what I want in my life. That's why hip hop. Because it's the actual direct communication with human beings.
the tzone - When you drivin around the city or you at work you hear the same stuff time and time. It's so repetitive. I feel like I'm stuck in a movie or somethin. New World Order type stuff. I'm bein forced to listen to this stuff around the clock and I hate it. That's why I try to expose the other stuff. Hopefully I can crack through to the programmed people and be like, look, there's other stuff. You don't have to listen to that. That might be your thing . . . but this is what's happenin over here on this side.

Self Esteem - We ain't tryin to be the next cats to be on fifteen minutes and then you've forgotten about us. I want to be like a jazz musician. We have like fifty albums, you know what I'm sayin? Be like, hey, did you get that Mind Elevation Number 23? Like a mix tape. You just come out with it constant, you know what I'm sayin?
Treasun - If anything just be in a position to put music out, just continuously be puttin the shit out. So that it could echo for eons basically.
el-Monte Slim - I look at hip hop albums as similar to books.
Treasun - Yeah, like that.
el-Monte Slim - They're like recorded history, you know. They reflect eras.

Do ya'll have other business goals beyond going down in history?
the tzone - The ultimate thing that I would like to do is to start a label here in Greensboro, a hip hop label period. And a lot of cats that I know on the scene, definitely my group will come first, but definitely I want to put a lot of cats that I know that are doin their thing or tryin to do their things here in Greensboro on so they can be heard to a bigger market.
Massive Jugganott - There's a lot of guys in New York. They don't have any funds . . . but they have a lot of talent and they have nowhere to go. And it's sad and I know a lot of people like that, a lot of singers, a lot of hip hop artists who have the talent but dont have the money for that. I want to get in there. I want to set my foot in there. I want to be successful and I want to help those guys out, bring em in there.

Any other thoughts on what's driving you?
Self Esteem - If you have any type of spiritual base, you know that a time will follow . . . where you have to account for all the things that you've done. We're not perfect but at least our music will help offset some of the crazy stuff that we may have done or whatever. We are makin a divine effort to try to make things better.

Sounds redemptive in a way.
Self Esteem - Pretty much. We're goin through Pulp Fiction.
Abdu - Yeah, we're just makin it right. Tryin to man.

So does anyone have a final comment to wrap things up?
Treasun - Y'all remember to eat right, think right, live right so you can be right. Peace.

(c) copyright 2001-2008 clyde smith