Posted by: Addison – Oct 16, 2012
GWAR's shadow is long.
Scan the show calendars of Kingdom or Strange Matter and you're likely to find a litany of grimly named hardcore/metal acts. At some point in the late '80s when most cities wanly eyed the dregs of punk and shunted the bottle aside, Richmond flagged the bartender down for a harder cocktail with a keener edge. Blast beats and sub-120 second nihilism put down their roots in the former Confederate capital and found rich soil. Why exactly RVA musicians dove headfirst into hardcore punk is an open question, but to me the disconnect between our homegrown scene and the national soundscape stands out like a boil-red zit.
A glance at the last two years of top Billboard albums shows that, in general, Americans choose to drop coin on pop, rap, and the hybrids born thereof. Rick Ross recently celebrated his fourth chart-topping album with over 218,000 copies sold, and Nas held the number-one spot with Life Is Good two weeks earlier. Meanwhile, R&B artist Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is one of the most-talked-about LPs of 2012. If Jay-Z and Kanye weren't sufficiently ham-handed on Watch The Throne to get the message across, contemporary hip-hop is Big Time, Big Money, and probably cracking open the night’s first Ciroc while Mr. Indie Rock anxiously strokes his beard at the club door.
Richmond might bleed punk, but that hardly means we’re immune to national trends. As you march down Main Street into Shockoe Bottom, syncopated bass booms and hi-hats marking manic 32nd notes doppler in and out. These days, hip-hop dominates the airwaves while its sensibilities leak into other genres like a breached dam. So even in a town of diehard punk rockers, it comes as no surprise that RVA natives are grinding in the studio, laying down their own raps.
When I first meet Cons, we are at his apartment, located a few blocks from Kingdom in Shockoe Bottom. It's a humid night in July and the living room is crammed full of musicians, artists, and friends stretched across couches listening to instrumentals. After expansive spitballing about the Flower of Life, attaining spiritual self-knowledge, meditation, and the veracity of life truths imparted from alleged alien abductees, I sit down with Cons to talk about his music and Richmond hip-hop.
“The more you learn about the rap scene in Richmond,” he says, slouched on the couch, “there's really not much.” He sees a lot of aspiring rappers and producers in Richmond but few who seem willing to dive in headfirst and devote every fiber to their work. “It becomes an essential part of your life when you do it for real,” Cons says with evident conviction.
Cons can speak with some authority on dedication. He tried his hand at production during high school by fooling around on GarageBand like other enterprising teens, and found early inspiration in Kanye West’s samples. Over years of tinkering and tweaking, he began to perceive music as a serious endeavor. A bright student, Cons gained acceptance to William & Mary but decided after his freshman year to make bold moves and drop out in order to focus on music.
To be clear, Cons is a young artist still cutting his teeth. Loops feature prominently in his productions, especially earlier material, but check the progression of his work on SoundCloud from past to present and you get the feeling of a flower gradually unfurling. Over time, songs incorporate lush samples with increasing fluidity. They blossom from basic loops on “Ponderings” to greater structural sophistication on “Thru The Window” and “Where I Am,” a Charles Diamond track that flips a contemplative Postal Service sample to great effect. Even the instrumentation visibly expands. Though Cons was trained on piano as a kid and the instrument pops up often in his melodies, lately he’s toyed with sampling a croaking frog. Moreover, he’s drawing on musical influences far beyond those of Kanye. Cons calls Richmond rapper Lil Ugly Mane, whose overlooked 2012 horrorcore masterpiece Mista Thug Isolation should not be slept on, a musical revelation. Talking with him, I feel I’m getting a snapshot of a musician in the process of finding himself. Not yet beholden to ingrained habits, he’s feeling out his sound with each fresh experiment.
Fortunately, Cons has more than enough outlets to cultivate further skills. His production and mixing know-how are in demand among local rappers. A week after our introduction, Cons sits cross-legged on his bed and plays me a few tracks off of a new mixtape, KVRMA, he's mixing by RVA rappers The Terrorist Posse. “You get an ear for putting the vocals in a space, for creating the right space for the voice inside of the instruments,” he explains. There's a pause as he queues the next track, and then “Laidback Remix” begins. I can see Cons' tongue move, silently tracing the contours of each rhyme as he mouths Lex The Pharaoh’s verse. Cons didn't produce this EP, but mixing is itself a laborious process that requires countless attentive hours of fine-tuning. I’m certain he’s replayed “Laidback” a thousand times over, yet any observer can see he’s still enamored from the way his head nods. The track pops, and I'm impressed.
Terrorist Posse is a mix of rappers and producers with a decidedly dark signature sound who run in the same circle as Cons. Three members--Nova, Lex, and Karmah--are part of the lounging crowd on that first steamy July visit. So is reedlike Jo Casino, another up-and-coming RVA rapper you may recognize from his “16 Bars” video series and Gritty Gully, released earlier this year. On my second visit, Avance of heavy-hitters Mix Breed Entertainment relaxes on a back room mattress. Cons collaborates frequently with all of the above, and, from my perspective, these Richmond rappers and producers of many flavors appear in loose orbit around some central locus. The apartment unquestionably provides a convenient space in which to congregate and work at double-time to create music in intimate back-and-forths, but the particular contribution of Cons' production plays no small part in their collective bond.
Mix Breed, Jo Casino, The Terrorist Posse, BLACK KRVY, Creeper Da Reaper – this is far from an exhaustive list of Richmond hip-hop. It is, however, a highly visible chunk, and that's not only an indicator of quality music and good fortune. The buzz they’ve garnered, or rather earned, also reveals willful marketing hustle. Each musician leverages technology to the hilt to pump their music out to potential listeners and engage with fans. Image and backstory often propel an artist almost as much as their art, and Cons & co. are savvy about crafting their brand in all the right ways.
In the midst of thick smoke whorls and emphatic chatter, Cons’ residential pressure-cooker has inevitably generated artistic cross-pollination, in the Realm Musical and elsewhere. Cons’ roommate is graphic designer Tom Hart of NoNameNoBrain Productions, and wherever you look Hart's stickers brighten dimly-lit surfaces: furniture, cabinets, even the iron spiral staircase. In dozens of striking styles of saturated colors, these adornments proclaim the name of Seven Hills, Hart's brand and line of streetwear. Perhaps it was inevitable that the images would seep from their adhesive-backed prisons into the minds of the apartment's denizens. But whether through act of inspired metonymic appropriation or heartfelt embrace of Hart’s branding, the several artists who make this their second home have found their name.
These days anyone with internet access and a halfway decent USB microphone can declare themselves the next hip-hop great, but few exude the energy and work ethic that places the Seven Hills crew in the field of true contenders. Making a name for yourself in the rap game is a tough gig, a battle of tooth and nail that requires wading past a deluge of street corner lyricists. Ultimately, only the cream will rise to the top. Breaking through won’t be easy but each late night toil brings the Seven Hills one day closer. “I can't really say what's about to happen, but I'm looking to make moves, and make the right ones,” Cons says. In the meantime, production is ongoing for Jo Casino's upcoming project, Spacebound, and Cons promises to showcase his own lyrical chops on a future release. Self-produced, of course.
From a cozy squat on the living room floor, Jo Casino chimes in with wisdom learned from Richmond rap/R&B veteran Nickelus F: “Don't have a Plan B.” Cons agrees. “If you only wanna do music, only do music,” the 20-year-old says. Here, enmeshed in a circle of smoking, contemplative musicians trading shop talk, the decision to renounce academic hoop-jumping and meritocratic baubles for creative immersion seems like a risk worth taking.
By Sean Schultz