So-called nerd rap is a way of life for the Def Jux family.

Revenge of the Nerds 

So-called nerd rap is a way of life for the Def Jux family.

C-Rayz Walz likes to freestyle. A lot.

The Bronx-born rapper, whose persona lands somewhere in the cosmic space between George Clinton and Old Dirty Bastard, is constantly prattling off an endless chorus, whether he's discussing his music or reciting from a stereo manual.

The man's dexterous rhymes never seem to stop. In a recording studio or a grocery store, he speaks in perpetual freestyle.

"I think freestyling's the art of being retarded," Walz explains over a beat thumping only inside his brain. "Finding something new that's old, and you'll be discovering something that's taught again. Without the pen. It's a manifestation of the mood you're in. It's Rome without the ancient ruins. It's what I'm doing."

Um, yeah.

So anyway, Walz is hyped. Hyped because he's holed up in a New York studio honing tracks for Black Samurai, an EP that, according to its creator, is full of "superior cuts, discipline and honor, patience and loyalty." And he's hyped for the Definitive Jux Presents III tour, a cross-country romp that teams the veteran Walz with a slew of his labelmates from Def Jux, perhaps the premier purveyor of underground hip-hop.

But whereas Walz is a heavyweight alongside below-the-radar heroes Murs and Mr. Lif, the tour will forsake some of Def Jux's biggest names (El-P, Aesop Rock, RJD2) to showcase several recent label additions, including Hangar 18, a New York trio that has just completed its wryly titled first opus, The Multi Platinum Debut Album.

"You always gotta think big," Alaska from Hangar 18 explains, shouting over the cacophony of a rowdy Manhattan bar on St. Patrick's Day. "Maybe we can fool a couple of thousand people into buying it because they think they should have it."

Hangar 18 is just one member of a new school of hip-hop up-and-comers fixing to fill the void left by the crossover of acts such as Talib Kweli and Atmosphere into the mainstream spotlight. New acts like Hangar 18 and the rest of the Def Jux roster ("Jukies"), alongside like-minded peers such as Sage Francis and Brother Ali, may well represent a new era in hip-hop.

"I think we all need to work a few more years before it's going to be the next thing that's going to blow up, but there's definitely a movement going on," Alaska says. "The other movement -- the Biggie Smalls era, the Chronic era -- pretty much ran its course. That was a movement, and hip-hop really changed, but it became a mockery of itself very much the way hair metal did."

Hangar 18 tries to avoid that trap on Debut by focusing on the lyrical interplay between Alaska and fellow MC Windnbreez. And though the group's skills have not gone unnoticed, already it has been tagged with the same "nerd rap" label familiar to those carrying the conscientious trend in hip-hop.

"You go onto message boards and everybody's talking about nerd rap," Alaska sneers. "People sitting in a room on their computers all day talking about nerd rap! There's a whole generation of people that were raised on hip-hop. I was raised on hip-hop. It's part of my life. It's not something that I need to consider. It's what I am."

Back in the studio, Walz continues to freestyle about anything and everything that comes to mind. Later this spring, he will embark on a major tour with legendary rap duo Pete Rock and CL Smooth.

"I think touring is a funny word," Walz raps. "If you turn tour around, you find out tour in reverse is route without the E, and that's excellent. I feel my life is a tour, and I'm bent on the resident. The route that I'm going is that of a nomad. I'm like a homeless freestyle artist with no pad. When I'm onstage, it's terrifying, like the thought of when your mother could die. My stomach is filled with thousands of butterflies. It's like when you like a pretty girl that you just don't wanna fuck, and she makes your stomach ugh. It's that feeling of love, that feeling of being vulnerable, that feeling of truth."

Uh huh. Speak the truth.

Walz built a reputation in the New York underground as a member of Stronghold and with mix tapes and guest appearances by Jukies such as Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox. But Walz came into his own with the release of his 2003 effort, Ravipops.

The album brimmed with hard beats, far-out philosophy and poignant social criticism, and tracks such as "Dead Buffaloes" caught the attention of the hip-hop nation. The album was named after Walz's son, Ravi, whose name comes up often in his dad's songs. Walz's own father was a drug kingpin who was shot to death.

"I'm connected with my son," Walz says. "And I feel great, 'cause that's something that me and my father never had done. He was gone before we ever got the chance, so now this is the remix of life. I think hip-hop is an overcompensation of me not to be able to speak to one person. So I speak professionally and successfully to crowds of thousands without rehearsing."

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