In one corner of his midtown apartment, a small sculpture collects dust. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Amen still sculpts as often as possible, and his works -- including the oversized panels in front of the H&R Block Art Space and a maple bench on permanent display at the Art Institute -- can be found around the metro area.
"Sculpture to me is pure art," the Los Angeles native says. "Good music considers the audience. Sculpture does, too, but because [music] is entertainment as well as art, there really is a greater consideration for the audience. It's not just this introspective dialogue."
Introspective dialogue, however, is part of the Guild's claim to fame. The trio, which includes verbal sparring partner Vertigone and DJ Clever Reverend, has just completed its first full-length CD, ReCollection, having already issued a pair of well-received underground EPs. In fact, FedEx just delivered half a dozen cardboard crates containing 1,000 shrink-wrapped copies of the newly minted disc. Amen is a fit of nerves, excited one minute and anxious the next. Sleep doesn't come easily these days, he says, mostly because of apprehension about how the new album will be received. After all, the Guild creates music that flies far below the mainstream radar, thick with tongue-twisting raps that sound as if they were inspired by graduate-level sociology courses.
"It goes from interpersonal and government conspiracy to rah-rah shit," Amen explains. "Whatever we're doing, keep it honest, tell the truth, expose as much as possible. Part of what discourages me about popular music is that there's this fad right now where awareness is not cool. Have fun, party, have sex, drink. All that's good and fun -- to let go and enjoy yourself is important. But that whole genre of stupid, make-your-money type of music, it discourages thinking. That's what we're trying to do differently, but [hardcore] rap is so popular, it's very difficult to break through. We force ourselves to think about things, and that's going to be our benefit and our challenge."
Challenge is a big part of the Guild's story. The trio met as students at the Art Institute and formed a prototypical version of the group in late 1998. Initially the collective struggled to find an identity, partially because it was just out to have a little fun.
"Me and Rev and Vert started freestyling together -- the worst collection of freestyles you've ever heard," Amen recalls with a laugh. "All of us had talent, but we didn't know each other, so it wasn't comfortable yet. We had hours and hours of these horrible tapes, so we decided to start recording."
Almost as soon as Guild set foot in the studio, the group began taking its craft more seriously, poring over its lyrics line by line and injecting heavy doses of highbrow philosophy into the mix. In due time, the complex poetics for which the group is now known replaced boisterous freestyles.
"Freestyles are great and fun and enjoyable," Amen explains. "But when it comes down to it, the time you have to speak on that is too precious to fuck with. Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote a book called The Complete Perfectionist, and his whole thing is revision. If you look at a verse, it's not like this clean [piece of paper]; it's scribbled, rewritten, distilled. Get to the fuckin' point. Cut the fat off."
As Amen and Vertigone toiled to put their thoughts on paper, other members came and went. (DJ Jester, Kid Called Computer and Ces Cru MC Godemis were all Guilders at one point.) But the original trio stuck together, playing the Fuse Box with punk bands and banging Club Mardi Gras alongside KC's hard-rap contingent. With its erudite lyrics, space-coaster backing tracks and gloss-free aura, the Guild was ridiculed as everything from backpackers to gangstas to purveyors of "art fag shit."
"When we came into the scene, we had to battle everybody," Amen admits. "There was a lot of angst. We were too street for Lawrence and too artsy for KC ... I fought the whole fuckin' Bottleneck one night -- literally. I was at a Del show, and these frat dudes were giving me beef. I was just trying to watch the show. They kept on standing in front of me. I was like, 'Dude, can I see the show?' He turned around, and he was like, 'What?' and swole up to me. Then it went down. I got him, and the whole crowd was, like, whoosh. It was madness, man."
But that was then, and this is now. The Guild has matured personally, professionally and musically, and created a place for itself in the local underground's elite -- building a small but devoted fanbase and getting love from peers. It's an evolution that has occurred hand in hand with a number of area favorites, all of whom have released new works in the past year.
"Everybody's gotten really serious about their product, professionally mastered CDs," Amen notes. "This is the first time in our history that we've had this kind of product, besides Tech N9ne and the Rogue Dogs. This is a very different time. Everyone's coming together."
"Among the core groups in this larger circle, there's a league," agrees Sike Style, a longtime friend and collaborator. "That goes across the board from everyone who's down -- Hip Hop Addicts, Mac Lethal, Approach, SoundsGood, Archetype, Ces Cru, the [Human] Cropcircles. A lot of those bigger groups have mutual respect for each other. It's been really positive."
Not all positive, though. Though the Guild has fought its way into the local limelight, the outfit still ruffles feathers from time to time as it fluctuates between Lawrence and KC's polarized hip-hop scenes.
"I think there's more support in Lawrence," Amen says. "If you're in college, you're learning, so you're already in a mind state of being open to new information. Most working people and most inner-city people aren't open-minded. Kansas City's, like, show me. I never realized what that fuckin' license plate meant. After a few years of being here, I was like, oh, I get it. You have to get recognized outside your city to be recognized inside your city."
Fortunately, the Guild has been doing just that, gigging with brother band Ces Cru at a recent High and Mighty show in Milwaukee and sharing bills with national acts such as People Under the Stairs. The group also found time to hit the studio, putting in a marathon seven-day session to spawn ReCollection. Looking to achieve a diversified sound, the Guild recruited a number of local hothands to produce, including Eggnogg, Surgeon General and Kid Called Computer. Other guests included TJ Dovebelly's Aaron Osborne and Ces Cru's Godemis. But group harmony was hardly par for the course during ReCollection's demanding creation.
"We didn't sleep for a week," Amen says. "We recorded everything over at Vert's house. We did the whole album in a week. We started throwing headphones and yelling at each other. It got pretty ugly towards the end."
That ugliness wasn't manifested in ReCollection's determinably positive vibes. The record bursts with experimental beats and complex poetics delivered with mile-a-minute verve. It's a challenging effort, one that will thrill purists but won't win over many Snoop Dogg fans. That's not the goal anyway, says Amen, who prefers to travel hip-hop's underground railroad of dingy DJ dives and shadowy nightclubs.
"Hustlers, drug dealers, lawyers and hardcore, cutthroat businessmen created an industry that totally fucks the artist," he says. "When you're looking at EMI, Capitol, Warner Bros., that shit is straight gangster. We're trying to revolutionize the industry. At this point I'm thinking of the Dave Matthews approach: Tour, do shows for five people or 500 and promote the hell out of yourself. For a group like ours, I don't see any other way. Every poet's a beggar."