Most folks, whether fans of hip-hop or involved in the hip-hop community in Arkansas, are aware that for all the rap scenes throughout the Southeast that have generated at least one popular star, Arkansas, for its part, is still lacking that one breakout. There have been a few hopefuls over the past few years, rappers still practicing many of the old-school methods of self-promotion: hand-to-hand marketing, driving around from club to club passing out CDs, paying club DJs to consider spinning their singles, all on a wing and prayer, funded entirely by their own limited finances. Of course, now everyone markets themselves on the Internet. Dropping mixtapes online has propelled independent rappers from other Southern locales — G-Side of Alabama and Big K.R.I.T. of Mississippi spring to mind. After speaking with several Arkansas hip-hop stalwarts and a slew of younger rappers from the up-and-coming generation, everyone agreed that Arkansas is still in need of a breakthrough. But no one is exactly sure how we're going to get it.
And what of the recent contenders? Of the several hopefuls of previous years, only a few remain working in Arkansas. Epiphany, who has done his part to promote shows and self-market via old-fashioned methods of passing out CDs and seeking Internet coverage, just released his album, "Such is Life." 607 recently announced he was taking a hiatus from releasing music. "I can't just keep putting out music like I have; it's like throwing it out in the air and seeing what happens," he told the Times back in May. "The money I make off of albums is increasing, but so is the cost of living." Goines, for his part, has semi-retired after the 2011 release of his album, "Something to Lose." He claims rap will always be a singular obsession he'll keep coming back to, but he's fulfilling a promise he made to himself as a young man: If he didn't make it by now, he'd be out.
S.L. Jones, a Little Rock native who's had national success on the mixtape circuit, collaborating with name producers and MCs, didn't start rapping until he moved to Atlanta in the early 2000s and he's not yet known enough to have much impact on the Arkansas scene. Rod D, despite having secured a distribution deal through a Universal Music subsidiary, is busy opening a club in Cabot, and continues to promote hip-hop shows, hoping to include more local artists as opening acts on the bill. There was some celebration surrounding Arkansas Bo, who, despite being based in Dallas for a few years now, recently collaborated with Houston legend Scarface on a track, and who makes sure to get hometown credit where it's due. Most notoriously, E Dubb, one of the most unifying presences on the scene, according to 607, was incarcerated earlier this year on drug and gun charges. For a limited community that harbors such high expectations for each other — each rapper both counting on and dreading the fact that his comrade might make it before him — it's quite a wound to lose a diplomatic figure like E Dubb.
However, you can't say that any of them have yet broken out. There seems to be a variety of theories surrounding why this is. The scene has grown significantly in the past decade. But where is the wider public interest? 607 chalked it up to a lack of venue support in the area — if club owners, promoters, DJs and event organizers created a cult of celebrity surrounding local artists, then the general club-going public would respond, saying "This is America, we sell celebrity." He believes that the success of nearby scenes in Memphis, Dallas, and Atlanta has depended entirely on this implicit "hierarchy" of local performers.
Others like Goines and Arkansas Bo speak with a sense of disenchantment, naming limitations like lack of exposure and most rappers' inability (or reluctance) to leave the state in order to promote their music. Bo, in particular, while in Dallas, drives around to communities in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri passing out CDs. He claims that he would have never gotten the chance to work with a figure like Scarface if he hadn't left Arkansas and moved closer to a city with an established hip-hop reputation. Knowing this opinion would be unpopular in such a pride-oriented community, he says, "We've got a lot of talent — but that's all we've got. If we don't have anybody to put the talent on, then it isn't going to get heard."
Of course, when asked what the current state of Arkansas hip-hop is, most of the rappers, especially ones who've been at it for a while, acknowledge that the scene these days has banded together in support of each other's projects. 607 mentioned the fervent support for Rod D's distribution deal. Also, the crew LabRatz, which consists of more than a dozen artists, including 607's brother Bobby, serves as a self-support system for many of the most ambitious rappers in the state. Bobby said that the crew formed officially back in August. The purpose was to unite as many artists as possible in hopes of dissolving the competitive hater culture characteristic of hip-hop and to present a united front where artists can all openly promote one another. Goines mentioned the general excitement surrounding the LabRatz, remarking that although Arkansas has perhaps suffered in the recent past by only having the limited influence of nearby scenes like Memphis and Houston to draw from, LabRatz seems to be a crew interested not only in making innovative tracks but also fresh lyrical content.
But, some older rappers see the flaws of having such interdependent support for a scene: all of the same people are always going to be at your shows, without expanding your audience. What could be the solution, then? Obviously, the dilemma is clear — in order to succeed, you need to build hometown support, everyone needs to support one another, and artists must reach outside of their own immediate communities to garner further interest. If the promotion machine of the Internet can't address this problem alone, what can be done?
Curiously, there is a new generation cropping up in Central Arkansas that has mobilized an entire movement. Inheriting the Internet as their playground, these young rappers (ages ranging from 17 to 25) and crews from Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Bryant have handled their own booking and promotion, befriended older rappers like Epiphany and crews like LabRatz, and created their own publicity machine with music video production, scene blogs, and even burgeoning fashion designers. They are motivated, organized, and undaunted by the thwarted reputation Arkansas hip-hop may self-consciously shoulder.
One benefit is that some of the rappers or promoters have affiliations outside the state. Malik Flint (who goes by MP the MVP), founder of Bryant-based crew Weekend Warriors, is originally from Denver, Colo. He says the music scene there was so broad and efficient that when his family relocated to Arkansas, it was something that he wanted to make happen here. And, for the most part, he has. Flint's crew consists of a group of fun suburban skater kids (black and white) whose songs have a chill party vibe over tracks culled from myriad genres. Flint also fronts an Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop band, Flint Eastwood, who are about to embark on an initial string of out-of-state gigs. Nick Ward, an independent rapper simpatico with all of the crews, attends school out of state in Iowa but never stops repping the Arkansas scene, even when he's booking shows at festivals as far away as Connecticut. Jay Smith, founder of another crew, Outta Here Gang, originally hails from Birmingham and became involved in Arkansas hip-hop after seeing a commercial for Joker Entertainment Studio in Little Rock. He found that when he set up time to record there, he met so many folks and received such helpful feedback that he knew it was a community that would foster other artists' growth, even if he was a transplant to the state.
Another affiliated crew, G3M (which stands for "Getting Money Making Moves,") was founded by Loso (Carlos Corbin), a 20-year-old promoter from Little Rock. G3M consists of 21-year-old rapper Lo Thraxx (Marlo Griffen), who grew up with Loso, and recent Central High grad, rapper J Mula (Justin McNeely). Most notably, G3M contains one of the only female rappers on the scene, Kari Faux, who began collaborating with MP and the G3M crew upon returning to Arkansas from audio engineering school in Atlanta. Kari has a palpable confidence and innovative sense of style — her rhymes are often about her flamboyant personality. As inclusive as the hip-hop scene seems to be these days, she still finds she's not taken as seriously because she's a young woman. To remedy this, she said she's going to "step it up" on her next EP to show the breadth her skills. She's hell-bent on proving that she's not just another "bubblegum rapper."
And these examples are just a taste of the newly assembled crews that are out there, hoping to break out.
With so many associations and origins in different parts of the city, a publicity apparatus more straightforward than mere social networking was needed. So in stepped Jasmine Blunt, who manages the site "Highly Influential," which serves as host for local artists' music releases and videos, but also as forum for the "Highly Influential" collective, the members of which range from 14-year-old dudes trying to get into fashion to photography students and video editors. (Their "crew" photos and bios can be found on the site.) "Highly Influential" even conducts interviews with local artists, like Kari Faux and Weekend Warriors crewmember BVMBINO. Sure, these kids are obviously friends, and it might seem a little excessive to do a formal Q&A with someone you know, but the interviews are undeniably helpful for someone who's looking to find out more about the artist and the their music. And, in a way, this is exactly the kind of "hierarchy" hometown star treatment that rappers like 607 suggest the hip-hop community lacks.
But the promotional techniques aren't limited to music. A video artist/editor like Jordan Lowe, a.k.a. Fresco Grey, provides an affordable way for these young rappers to market themselves by frequently turning out music videos — even better branding than streaming music is streaming video. It also serves as a showcase for his work, which, in turn, gets him more notoriety. Jordan Allen pulls double duty as a clothing designer and video editor, and explains the ascent of these crews as representative of a time when "everyone has decided to come out of their comfort zone and enjoy what they love doing." Also, to help with the branding of the movement, Brandon Burris, a rapper-cum-fashion designer who goes by Brandon Burrito, helms the clothing line, New Youth, in direct affiliation with the cool party kid atmosphere extolled by these young crews. He says that he mostly has just T-shirts and hoodies now, and sells them online and in sporadic trunk-show type sales, which he promotes on social media and which never last more than a few hours before he sells out completely, as he did with his last show.
While no one can guarantee that Arkansas will finally see its due as a hip-hop stronghold in the South, it's hard not place some hope in this generation of fashion-forward, DIY-oriented, hyper-ambitious kids who have ignored paradigms and statewide insecurities in order to create an entire scene on their own terms. While they readily embrace other more established rappers and crews — and in truth, they must, in order to reach a more expanded audience — it's possible that the whole Arkansas rap scene will receive what appears to be a much-needed shot in the arm. If there's anybody who believes we can get the start and the rep we deserve, it's all these crews who do what they love and love to support each other. They know that Arkansas hip-hop does indeed have something to show for itself, and that now is the time.
Several members of LabRatz, including Osyrus Bolly, Asylum and Kwestion will, perform at Stickyz Thursday night, with jazz musician J.White, AyeTell'Em JT, Sean Fresh, DJ Greyhound and host Tasha Warrior. The show is a release party for the Sean Fresh video "In Love with a Friend," Kwestion's latest album "Greater Than Great... 2nd Quarter" and Asylum's debut album "Asylum: The Crow." The show starts at 9 p.m. and it's $10 or $5 for ladies before 10:30 p.m.