Last year, Mac (real name David McCleary Sheldon) signed to the prominent indie label Rhymesayers Entertainment, on which he'll release a solo album this spring. An area favorite, the Raytown-born, Overland Park-raised MC is known for his acerbic, confessional and often hilarious rhymes and outlandish stage presence.
Midtown native Joe Good (real name Jamal Gamby), on the other hand, is familiar from his work with Miles Bonny, a talented DJ and producer with a good ear for thick, slinky bass, syncopated beats and jazzed-up production. Good and Bonny make up SoundsGood, and they recently toured DIY-style in support of their second album, Biscuits & Gravy, a classy, party-starting local record that stood up to the best nationwide hip-hop albums of 2005.
Though they're both part of the same nongangsta camp of local hip-hop, Lethal and Good haven't had much in common other than friendship and many shared concert stages. Now, the two are closer than anyone could have predicted.
Shortly after the Pitch ran a cover story on Mac last November, the ambitious rapper began dropping hints about starting his own label. The idea seemed far-fetched, considering all the work he had been putting into his Rhymesayers debut. He had a name for his enterprise, Black Clover, but the project was easy to dismiss as a pipe dream. All doubts were hushed, however, when Good recently came by the Pitch office with two CDs in hand. One was a solo mixtape-style album under his own name called Hi, May I Help You? The other was Mac Lethal's Love Potion Collection 2, essentially a companion record to his upcoming Rhymesayers release.
Both CDs are quality. Each rapper appears on the other's album. And both records bear the very real Black Clover imprint.
The label was all Mac's idea. He'd been saving money since his tour with Sage Francis in 2004, and when he had enough, he approached Good with a plan in mind.
The Pitch caught up with Mac on his way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the 21st stop on a 46-show tour with fellow Rhymesayers artist P.O.S.
"I think he's extremely gifted as a rapper," Lethal said of Good. "And I love the SoundsGood records, but I've always thought there's a lot more potential than what he was doing with those records."
SoundsGood confined Good to making fun music, Lethal said. "He needed to be rapping his ass off and making cool songs, harder songs, songs that are better for dancing bangers and he needed to be addressing a lot of the stuff that he had problems with as far as his views of hip-hop, his views of society, his views of Kansas City in particular on this mix CD, and I just kind of sat with him, and I was like, 'Why don't you be my first artist?'"
It turned out that when Lethal approached Good, the latter had already written new material. They finished Hi, May I Help You? in two months. Both parties consider this CD to be the prelude for an upcoming full-length to be released on Black Clover. Meanwhile, Mac is giving out a free copy with every Love Potion Collection 2 disc he sells on the road, and copies of both discs are for sale at 7th Heaven.
If this is just a prelude, then KC better watch out.
Joe Good is hanging out in the control room at 64111 Studios. His brother, Jaz Brewer, owns and operates the studio, which operates out of a low, red-painted building at 17th Street and Summit. Vending machines hum in a corridor, incense burning in the lounge permeates the air, and BET videos play in the booth (for inspiration).
"He's always been extending a hand to me, since the first SoundsGood album," Good says of Lethal. "I thought it [Black Clover] was a great idea because I've got nothing but respect for the dude. I spent 22 days cooped up in a van with the dude."
In contrast to Lethal's lingo-free, irony-laced verbosity, Good speaks with a smooth, street conciseness. On the new record, he uses an impeccably rhythmic baritone with an edginess that at times sounds as if he might step out of the speaker and smack somebody upside the head. The name of their joint venture symbolizes the difference between Good and Lethal: One's black, and the other's Irish. But, as Lethal points out, they've both seen their share of bad luck. Together they hope to bring a little luck to the local scene and this is where Black Clover becomes really exciting.
"A scene can't blow up if it doesn't exist, and there's no scene. There's just a bunch of solo artists, solo groups and crews of people, but there's no scene," Mac says. "There's not a lot of clubs that play a lot of only Kansas City and Lawrence hip-hop records. There's seldom a record that's getting tons of spins out of Kansas City and Lawrence. There's people that are hot, there's people that are really doing their thing, that are making records that could blow up, but in order for Kansas City to blow up I don't think that's gonna happen until there's a very, very active local scene."
Kansas City hip-hop faces several major obstacles. The first is that the top two commercial urban stations in town, KPRS 103.3 and KCHZ 95.7, don't play local music alongside national hits unlike stations in St. Louis, where radio play for locals has produced world-famous results (see: Nelly). Even without stable live venues for hip-hop (that's obstacle two), radio play would make a world of difference to Kansas City rappers. But that's for another story.
The third roadblock is that there's a distinct division in the scene between the socially conscious, non-gangsta camp, from which Mac Lethal and SoundsGood sprang, and the G-heavy, inner-city, Bay Area-influenced camp that's home to local underground legends such as Rich the Factor and the Popper.
Whereas Lethal talks in more general terms about uniting the scene, Good is already building a bridge to the other side.
"I grew up looking up to Tech N9ne, looking up to the Popper. He [the Popper] took me under his wing a couple of times and fed me some game I needed to hear" he pauses "when I was in high school."
Being around his brother's studio where most of the clientele is from the other side of the tracks Good has talked to a lot of G-flavored artists who feel alienated by the indie-worshipping, backpacks-and-b-boys clique that holds court at the Peanut Downtown every Sunday, that puts on shows at the Record Bar and the Jackpot and that turns out for Urban Culture Project openings. Traditionally, that's the way the indie crowd has liked it they don't want no gangstas around.
Joe Good thinks that's bullshit.
"I don't know why somebody would feel threatened by somebody else's music if they can't relate to it," he says. "This segregation isn't helping the scene."
Besides, he says, "I don't wanna be lumped in with a certain crowd I just wanna be a Kansas City dude across the board."
He's gone so far as to perform at the gangsta-rap open-mic night on Tuesdays at G's Jamaican Cuisine on Troost, where, he admits, he had the least amount of street credibility of anyone present but got a fair and respectful audience.
Good hopes to find like-minded artists around town who are interested in exhibiting Kansas City pride, forging a clear local identity and taking it on the road. Nowhere is this more evident than on the eighth track of his HMIHY. Along with arguing that local rappers shouldn't have to leave town to get heard, "In Ya Mouf" repeats the chorus: KC, get that East Coast dick outcha mouf/KC, get that West Coast dick outcha mouf/KC, get that down-South dick outcha mouf/That makes it hard to understand what you talkin' about.
"I need the city to certify me," he says. "We wanna go somewhere and say, 'Kansas City in the house!' and feel like we do have Kansas City with us."
Good and Lethal hope to use Black Clover to bring this dream to fruition. Even though they don't plan to sign any new artists until Good has been successful enough to bring others on board, both talk about creating a label that's supportive of everyone making good hip-hop in the city. Lethal will remain a Rhymesayers artist, pushing his partner exclusively and working Black Clover from the managerial side.
"If there's somebody that I think could help bring the scene together, it's gotta be somebody that's nothing short of absolutely amazing, and that's Joe Good," Mac says. "When I look at rappers, he's in my top five, and I don't mean in Kansas City and Lawrence. He's somebody I look to for inspiration. I pay attention to the way he raps. He inspires me, and if I'm gonna do something with somebody, I'd like it to be somebody I'm a huge fan of."
That sounds good all the way around.