Nine years between recordings is a long stretch for any group. Even one that remains visible in the meantime risks falling not just out of favor but also permanently off the dial. For Stacy "Reach" Smith, though, the near-decade silence between his Soul Providers releases has run alongside his ascendance from hip-hop artist to something like elder statesman.
The imposing 34-year-old rapper — and lifelong KC resident — is a veteran whose work with Kansas City Young Audiences and UMKC's Upward Bound Program has earned him respect outside hip-hop circles.
But 2013, Smith tells The Pitch, is shaping up to mark a Soul Providers renaissance, with a full-length album in the works and a serious rebranding effort. The group, he says, is ready to be reintroduced to KC's hip-hop landscape.
To take it back to the early '00s: The Soul Providers started out as a three-man DJ group — Bryan "Ataxic" Fisk, Kiz-One and Mix-o-Flix — with Smith as MC. "The original thought was simply to be known as a crew of hip-hop heads that all shared the same taste and passion for the music," Fisk explains. "As time progressed, we started meeting like-minded MCs and DJs that we wanted to partner with, so we began accepting additional members into the group."
In 2004, Soul Providers picked up rapper John-Alan "MilkDrop" Suter. "Over the next three years, I watched us, as a collective, grow from five core members to having an umbrella of 15 different, eclectic artists," Suter says. "And as we got bigger, so did both the challenge and responsibility to carry the proverbial Soul Provider brand. Each song, release, show, and even the smallest appearance garnered a different intensity and purpose."
That brand started to fully blossom in April 2008, with the inception of the Soul Providers' Summer Block Party, a free outdoor gathering held on First Fridays in the Crossroads District outside Birdies on West 18th Street. "We were able to create a crowd for a couple of hours, and it happened to be the right block with the right business owner," Smith says, referring to performing adjacent to Peregrine Honig's underwear empire.
But in the years since, Smith says, Kansas City's hip-hop scene has become oversaturated. "People are just playing to play, and there's really no hip-hop community," he says, admitting, "I've been one of those artists who's kept a busy local performance schedule. But I think for a while there were more shows than a sometimes finicky fanbase can handle."
Enter — re-enter — Soul Providers. The current lineup boasts a collection of local artists that Smith calls "left of anything else going right now." It includes Dutch Newman, an outspoken, high-energy hype man; Les Izmore, a restless rapper (he moonlights in Hearts of Darkness and, more recently, Heartfelt Anarchy Project) whom Smith likens to "a controlled explosion"; MilkDrop, a self-described "diligent worker bee" whose second-in-command status helps steer the crew straight on logistical matters; Hozey-T, a sharp-spitting MC with a strong background in the spoken word; Show, a powerful lyricist whose execution translates to wide listener appeal; DJ Skeme, a turntablist who has an ear for gems before they hit the street; and the youngest member, Head Fella, a 20-year-old Johnson County MC, producer and DJ who started out as one of the Young Lions, an informal group of young up-and-coming talent handpicked by Smith himself in 2010.
Next year, they're "re-upping the SP Block Party for a sixth year, in April," Smith says. "We've got some new wrinkles planned for it." After that, the group will release its first full-length album since 2004. And how else could Smith send the signal but with a lead track titled "Worth the Wait." Produced by Smith, this product of what he calls the band's "fourth or fifth iteration" features mic turns by Izmore and Suter. That song is in the can, he says, and more are in the pipeline.
"Our new songs will build momentum," Smith says. "We're finally going to start making music as a crew. This is about camaraderie, not about setting trends."
But why such a long wait? "Imagine trying to gather 15 of your friends for a lunch, much less a recording session," Suter says.