Out with the old, in with The Nu. That's the title of the new CD by Hunt, whom we all know as Approach. The Nu is also a byword for all that's enabling his virtual return to the hip-hop business.
One of those factors is DJ Sku (Corey Aguilar), Approach's musical accomplice and roommate, who maintains a clean-shaven pate and is one of the most cold-skilled turntablists in town.
After meeting on the Lawrence scene and practicing together for two weeks, Approach and Sku drove to Santa Monica, California, in 2003 for their first show as a duo. The trip took a brisk 19 hours with only three hours set aside for shut-eye at a rest stop. When they kicked it at the Temple Bar, a few celebs were in the crowd.
"People from The Real World were there, so I put their names in a freestyle, and they got all excited about it," Approach remembers, laughing.
Those were the days of Ultra Proteus. Approach self-released his landmark debut full-length in October 2002, then re-released it two years later through his own Datura Records, in partnership with a now-defunct New York label called Coup d'Etat that had the hookup to worldwide distribution. So while only a handful of locals owned Proteus, kids in Japan, the UK, Australia and other international markets were rocking out to the album even though they'd never heard of The Granada.
Distribution is the holy grail right now for Datura, and that's why Approach recorded The Nu in the first place. It's a mixtape, not an album, with beats mostly from other records rather than brewed up at home. Its 16 tracks were hammered out by a bevy of beatmakers: locals Nezbeat, Leonard D. Story, Johnny Quest, Been, Sleeper, Royce Diamond, Michael "Seven" Summers and S.G., plus out-of-towners Lazerbeak, DJ Trentino, Oh No and Salva.
Those last two names are key. Approach already has two all-original albums in his back pocket: Will Do, produced by Oh No, a rising figure in the prestigious Southern California Stones Throw collective, and Welcome to Share, produced by Salva, a relatively obscure electronic beatmaker from Milwaukee. If distributors or labels like what they hear on The Nu, then Will Do and Welcome may see national or worldwide action.
There's more to The Nu than that, however.
Sku's part in making the CD was to take all the tracks and mix them live in one recorded session, with no digital overdubs. He kept the music going between songs to allow for sound bites that mostly consist of phone messages from Approach's fellow artists. Making appearances are homeboys Joe Good, Grant Rice and Reach, and bigger-named cats like Butterfly of Digable Planets and P.O.S., who is Rhymesayers' latest wonderboy. Approach says 80 percent of these drops were not planned but are real examples of the kinds of voicemails people regularly leave on his line. (On one, a piqued-sounding Joe Good pats Approach on the shoulder, saying "Don't let these little ... no-time, no-money-havin', no-CD-producin', no-rappin', no show-havin' motherfuckers ... get you down ... 'cause you got my respect, and you deserve everybody else's respect for what you done did for the scene.")
"It's just love, man," Approach says. "I'm straight up with a lot of dudes."
As a sonic document, The Nu is a tour through Approach's everyday life. It's an existence characterized by a constant undercurrent of slinky beats, over which the MC's base shoots the shit, throws high-fives and then steps aside for the hero to come out and lay down his flow.
Like on Approach's previous recordings and unlike those of most rappers the rhymes on The Nu aren't fixed on social commentary, gangbanging, pimping or bragging. Rather, Approach is a vibe man. His delivery is as smooth and easy as pudding, his method like that of a jazz horn player. His words, his Midwestern drawl, his lithe enunciation all combine into a single, focused instrument.
Approach's allegiance is to party-starting, funky hip-hop, along with a live show in which he and Sku rock the stage with a spontaneity and deftness that make lesser performers look like an ill-conceived Mad TV sketch. That accounts for his local popularity. But as talented artists in the area know, getting widespread attention is tough. With few live venues for hip-hop, commercial radio stations that are indifferent to local music, and a largely anti-hip-hop populace, Kansas City wasn't built to kick-start the careers of its native sons. That's why distribution is so badly needed.
Approach's partner at Datura is a savvy, 30-year-old white guy named Jeremy Willis. The two met while working at the now-closed Blockbuster Music in Overland Park before Willis went to Los Angeles to work promotions and marketing for Loud Records, Jive Records and Suburban Noize. After a bad trip or two in the industry, he moved back and became part owner of Datura in September of 2004. Since then, Willis has helped push Ultra Proteus and the Deep Thinkers' Necks Move overseas.
Still, it would be nice to get some local love.
While Sku and Approach have an almost unflinching faith in the eternal If Only namely, the local scene blows up Willis is more circumspect.
"If it's gonna happen, it's gonna be, like, in the next couple of years," he says. "You got Mac coming out on Rhymesayers. We all see the potential in Joe Good. And then the Deep Thinkers record sales weren't amazing on the first record, but critically it was a success ... and what Sean's doing is good, too. Really, it's a good time right now [for KC hip-hop] because a lot of people a lot of publicity folks, and a lot of labels and distribution folks are getting stuff in their mailboxes from Datura, Black Clover, and they're gonna start getting stuff from Rhymesayers. They're gonna start wondering what the hell's going on here before too long."
But if Kansas City remains just a flyover zone in the hip-hop nation's eyes, that probably won't stop the rock. After all, both Approach and Sku are only 27 years old they haven't even hit their prime.