"That isn't me," Savage assures. "We take parts of our real personalities and embellish them to make them more interesting. Johnny Dare's the biker ringleader scumbag, Murphy's the voice of reason, Tard is the slow kid who gets himself into all kinds of trouble and I'm the hip-hop wanna-be kid who wants to be hard-core so bad."
A real-life model for Savage's character, Limp Bizkit's rap-metal clown prince Fred Durst, brings 98.9 ("The Rock") as close to it gets to programming hip-hop -- which is to say, light years away. "I love The Rock," Savage says, "but hip-hop is where my passion lies." No longer content to channel his affection for beats and rhymes into an occasional spinning of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Savage began soliciting demos, hoping to start an entertainment production company that focused on rap acts. He discovered Ground Zero, a man-mountain with a knack for nimble rhymes; Mr. Loonz, a smooth-flowing Hispanic MC; and Curv, a female freestyler with a brash, confident delivery. Speedy, who had volunteered to assist the group as a financial manager, became an official member after his gravelly voice proved a perfect fit for one of the group's tracks. This hip-hop collective dubbed itself Vertigo and, hooking up with Surgeon General, a prolific producer (Mac Lethal, Veteran Click) whose sample-free beats are one of the leading causes of area dance-frenzy outbreaks, quickly composed a club-ready demo.
On "Forever," the first of the disc's three songs, Ground Zero, identifying himself as a thug/baller/ex-banger, describes moving to a life of love from a life of danger. A female vocalist pledges her devotion, crooning an R&B hook over sprinkled springs and easy-going thumps. Later, her voice gets filtered through dance-diva distortion, ending up as artificial as Cher's "Believe" chorus. The next track opens with a Latin piano feel, then a synthesizer-heavy beat echoes and reinforces the initial melody while Curv makes her hard-edged debut. An overwhelming array of vocalists overlap during the chorus, all making the same inquiry: "Watcha Gonna Do?" Then "Off in the Club" decorates a spare, bass-heavy beat (partially created by Savage) with squiggly keyboard melodies as Vertigo's vocalists recite a litany of club commands: Work it, make that body drop, grind, shake it fast, get loose, bend it over.
Bend it over is about as explicit as this outfit gets. Curv censors herself on a few occasions, shushing shit into shhh, but there are no beeps on the disc. During his love song, Loonz makes only gentle, vanilla sexual allusions. Vertigo might never get play on The Rock, but it's friendly to any station catering to urban sounds.
"We want to keep it real poppy, like one of those crossover groups that makes the big cash," Savage explains. He cites Ja Rule, Ludacris and Ashanti, but critics of commercial rap might point at MC Hammer, Will Smith, and Vanilla Ice, all of whom made "the big cash" while forfeiting credibility.
"I'm not worried about what people say," Savage responds. "Those guys haven't changed to do this project." (Fans of Ground Zero's early work with Surgeon General in the gritty duo Dos Loc might raise eyebrows at this assertion, but Savage says Zero, in a bid for radio play, penned "Forever" before meeting Savage.) "All the music is still coming from them; all the lyrics are still coming from them. I'm not the evil white dictator who comes in and says, 'This is what we need to do.' It comes from their hearts, and I'm real proud of it. We're not worried about people saying 'They're soft; they're weak.'"
That's not to say Savage isn't concerned about industry opinions of Vertigo. In fact, he's a serial demo distributor, passing discs along with the glad hand to studio guests such as Kid Rock and Tommy Lee. Savage's connections, strengthened by years of booking guests for the morning show, have already paid some dividends. Following a few leads, Vertigo landed its first -- and, to date, only -- gig, opening for Digital Underground, 2 Live Crew and Rick James in Las Vegas. Savage struck up a friendship with the most reputable artist on that bill, DU mastermind Shock G (a.k.a. Humpty), who had kick-started 2Pac's career and contributed impossibly funky beats to Raw Fusion's underground classic Live From the Styleetron.
"He's super-interested in us," Savage says. "He's going to take us under his wing. We're going to go out to L.A. with him and start recording."
It's often puzzling when a group that has yet to establish a local presence starts making cross-country trips, but occasionally that strategy works. Downthesun, a Canvas offshoot that's little-known even to devout followers of the area scene, recently signed to Roadrunner Records after conducting a travel-intensive campaign. Besides, Savage reasons, playing shows wouldn't serve much purpose at this point.
"We're not concentrating on live performances until the album is done," he says, "because people have to vibe on the music first or else they're not even coming in the door." When Vertigo does take the stage, Savage says, fans should expect a charismatic, high-energy show reminiscent of -- and perhaps influenced by -- Tech N9ne's patented set.
"I'm sick and tired of going to rap shows and just seeing twelve people standing around," he gripes. "Tech is so successful because he realizes it's all about how people perceive you, about giving back to the crowd and making yourself proud. It's like Billy Goat [an early-'90s regional outfit whose concerts were known for Dionyssian excess]. You'd go to their shows even if you didn't like the music."
Savage would prefer that people did like the music. "I don't want to go through all the trouble and energy just for people to hate it," he says. "I just want to make these guys proud."
Castles Made of Sandstone
As of June 3, ostensibly to better serve Kansas City, Sandstone Amphitheatre has become Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (note the abandonment of ye olde Renaissance Festival-friendly theatre spelling). Media conglomerate Clear Channel and Verizon, which has attached its name to fourteen other venues around the country, tag-team-delivered this announcement on Monday, tossing in a pair of concert announcements (a Run DMC/Aerosmith double-bill, date to be announced, and a mid-August return stop from Tom Petty and Jackson Browne) after unveiling the venue's bold new corporate logo. Verizon signed a seven-year sponsorship deal, resulting in an undisclosed financial windfall that Clear Channel will use for everything from facility upkeep to luring higher-caliber superstars. (The Who, already with two Verizon amphitheaters on its itinerary, has an open Midwest date in August -- Tommy, can you hear me now? Good.) Unlike the fake-last-tour repeat offenders who dotted its schedule, Sandstone's nine-year-old name won't go out with any fanfare -- on-site signage, uniforms and tickets will all read "Verizon" in time for Thursday night's Diamond Dave/Hagar the Horrible pairing.
Last but Not Least
There seems to be a natural relationship between ghosts and exits: See a specter; sprint for the door. But fans who see the Ghost at El Torreon on Friday, June 7, might want to stick around to see the Exit's take on the warped emo-indie sound the groups share. Ph Balance, an Atlanta-based fusion outfit, is made for a woman -- specifically, singer and spoken-word artist Pam Howe, who alternates between wispy vocal hooks and poetic interludes. The group rolls on into the Hurricane on Tuesday, June 11. Club Chemical (1111 Grand) continues to cement its reputation as downtown's dance destination, inviting another impressive international lineup (DJ Keoki and Hawaii's DJ Kekoa headline) to an all-night party on Wednesday, June 12. Kansas City's DJ Nitro and DJ Booth open the affair. Running on the fumes of the recent One Love Fest, Black Uhuru and the English Beat's Dave Wakeling power another outdoor reggae extravaganza in the parking lot across from the Beaumont Club on Saturday, June 8. Secret Machines, whose piano-pounding antics and cathartic blasts roused fans two weeks back when the trio opened for ...Trail of Dead, returns to split a bill at the Hurricane with the Feds on Saturday, June 8. Earlier (6 p.m.) at the same venue, Shiver celebrates the release of its latest disc. Under Skin takes more of a raw, bar-band rock approach than the group's polished previous work, maintaining a persistent percussive stomp. Shiver reprises its big chills later that evening, holding a listening party at Tanner's, 12906 West 87th Parkway in Lenexa.