This year marks the 10th anniversary of Datura Records, the label that Lawrence rapper Sean Hunt, also known as Approach, runs with his sister, Rolanda Suter. But Hunt, who was raised in Overland Park, has been active in KC and Lawrence for longer than a decade: rapping, producing, collaborating, even composing film scores. In 2007, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked, networked, made some music — and then returned to Kansas.
"I'd work 60 hours a week just to make rent," he says, sitting outside in Lawrence on a recent muggy afternoon. "But I got to meet and work with the people I wanted to, and now I can work with them from here. ... Innovative music is something the Midwest has always been good at. There are a lot of origins of funk in Ohio, and then jazz. I like the word groovy: The grooviest stuff can come out of the places you'd least expect."
In recent years, Hunt and Suter have cultivated an impressive, tightknit hip-hop collective around Datura, known as Datgang. It includes Soul Servers members Deuce Fontaine, Smoov Confusion and Louiz Rip, as well as Royce Diamond, MilkDrop and Atilla. As Hunt explains it, Datgang came together organically. Royce Diamond gave Approach some beats to rap over that were so dense, they "required some outside help" to do them justice. Smoov Confusion and Hunt had collaborated during Hunt's stay in San Francisco, and Hunt saw him as a natural fit for the new music. That led to the involvement of the other members of the Soul Servers. Atilla, brimming with energy, was "an obvious addition," Hunt explains. MilkDrop, Datgang's only white member, rounded out the crew. (MilkDrop later married Suter, adding to the family feel of the enterprise.)
The collective's rap styles range from nerdcore to conscious to street, and the members' diverse skills add a foundation to the endeavor. Atilla, for example, is a graphic designer and directs videos. Royce Diamond has worked as a sound engineer for Herbie Hancock and Tony Toni Toné. "The talent level ... I'm not trying to be arrogant saying this, but I don't know of one group in our area that covers so many bases and is so exceptional ... all members make beats, and everyone can record themselves," Hunt says.
The idea for Datgang began as a way to brand and market the group, but that idea has evolved: They're now close friends and collaborators. Explains Louiz Rip (also known as Jevon Fisher): "We all want each other to win, and each person will do whatever they can to pull the other one up." While Datgang members often perform together or support each other at shows, the group rarely works in the studio. "We all have our own studios," Hunt says. "In Kansas City, there are three [studios] in Kansas and three in Missouri and then me in Lawrence."
That helps explain how one label is putting out nine albums this year. That's one album per artist, plus one group album. Hunt's project, which he has been working on for the last couple of years and plans to release this fall, is a concept album called Makeout With Violence. Royce Diamond's album, Mirrors and Smoke, was released March 17. Louiz Rip's Joe Average was released May 11. Work from Atilla, MilkDrop, Smoov Confusion and Deuce Fontaine will be available in late summer or fall. This does not include the mixtapes. Hunt is soon releasing I Heard Some Things, a collaboration with DJ G Train on which a swath of Hunt's guest verses from other albums will be mixed onto one comprehensive tape.
No sense in waiting until the landslide of material is released, however. This Friday, May 18, Hunt has put together a varied showcase at the Bottleneck featuring not only the entire Datgang crew but other local hip-hop luminaries: Miles Bonny, Deep Thinkers, iD (in a rare performance), Bear Club and Winners Circle, among many others.
"To put someone like iD on the bill with Winners Circle, who are more conscious, will surprise people," Hunt says. "You can expect to see some interesting surprises. I just think it's important for artists to be around other artists."