Central Florida’s own Sean Shakespeare may be relatively new to underground hip-hop, but he spits like a seasoned veteran. One-third of the group Table For Three, Sean has been earning local props for his intense, in-the-pocket flow—and was even featured in Orlando Weekly as one of “14 local artists who are reshaping the Orlando music scene.” Teaming up with producer Swamburger and his Second Subject collective, the emcee and producer have developed a fresh sound—vaguely reminiscent of the early aughts-era Def Jux and Rhymesayers aesthetics that first introduced the lyricist to the underground, yet unique to the unofficial duo and perhaps a little more rooted.

On February 22nd, they are releasing Sean’s first solo studio project—a celebration of his ancestry and the evolution of Black music in America, appropriately titled Bloodline. UGHH got up with the emerging lyricist to discuss the project and his charitable endeavors, as well as discovering underground hip-hop (the genre) through a video game and our company’s unbeknownst role in inspiring him to start rhyming.

How’d you get your name? Why do you think it suits you?

I was born with the last name Shakespeare. Don’t know why my parents named me Sean, though. Sean’s an Irish name and I like whiskey, so I guess the stars aligned on that one.

I can’t front, when I saw the cover for Bloodline, I was expecting something much bleaker and maybe more angsty—but was surprised by how upbeat and energetic it is, despite touching on a variety of serious social issues. Was that a conscientious decision, or more indicative of who you naturally are as a person?

Yeah, I’d say it drops a clue on who I am as a person. I’m an observer and a calm dude. Bloodline is an observation of self and society. I’m always challenging the way I think. I flipped the map [on the album cover] as a play on perspective. There is no true up or down. As people, some of us tend to defend what we’re used to or comfortable with before applying any objective reasoning, you know? The list of things that applies to is almost infinite. I just wanted to shine a light on that a bit.

Tell me about the title, Bloodline. What does it mean to you, and how would you describe the underlying theme of this project?

I named the album Bloodline as a statement for my cultural identity and lineage. Slaves had their identity taken from them, which started the process of a people rebuilding an identity of their own. Slaves sang early versions of gospel hymns as we know them, which greatly influenced blues, soul and even jazz musicians. Disco came along with influences from those prior genres, which was the main ingredient for break beats in hip-hop. Eventually, I come into existence looking back at it all like, “Damn, I’ve got a pretty dope bloodline.” This album celebrates that.

Let’s talk about “Ghost.” You pack a lot into that track. What inspired it?

I’ve always thought of myself as a ghost in the flesh, wandering around, doing what I do. Other than that, I’m just a series of choices. I make the choice to get as good as I can at my craft. There’s no finish line. The lyrics in the song are just reminders of that.

The production on the album is really dynamic and compliments your rapid-fire style and complex rhyme schemes nicely. Can you elaborate on your process with Swamburger? How’d you guys link, and how would you describe the sound you two have developed together?

I met Swam at Austin’s Coffee in Orlando a few years ago during an open mic they do every Monday. He took interest in Table For Three—a hip-hop trio I’m part of with Jamar X and TKO—and started putting us on some of his shows. Some time after, he and I started working on music together. The process is dope. Usually, I’ll just go over to his studio and he’s already going ape shit on the MPC. We’ll talk concepts, and I’ll write as he’s building the beats. Swam’s got a seasoned ear for layering samples, choosing drums and creating patterns, which gives me room to stretch all the way out creatively. The sound is hip-hop, point blank—fresh and gritty.

The album also features veteran underground emcee Blueprint. How’d that come about?

I’ve been bumping Blueprint albums since high school and met him at a show he did in Miami like eight or nine years back. Since then, I’ve opened for him a couple times on shows Swam put together—once with Table For Three, then again with my own set. After I wrote the first verse and hook for the song “Be,” I just heard Blueprint’s voice and style being perfect for it. Swam agreed and hit him up. Swam laid a fire verse down too, and that was that. Definitely one of my favorite tracks to date.

What was your introduction to underground hip-hop? What [else] were you bumpin’ back in high school?

Story time: it’s funny ’cause I got into underground hip-hop as a fan through playing Tony Hawk on PS1 when I was a git. That’s where I first heard artists like Aesop Rock, Loot Pack, Busdriver, Murs, Eyedea & Abilities, Atmosphere and Del the Funky Homosapien. I was only like 10 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand how much more of their stuff there was out there. In middle school, my older brother gave me a CD that had a lot of Aesop Rock and Atmosphere on it. The more underground artists I learned about, the less I listened to the radio. Doing this interview is wild, ’cause in high school UGHH.com was everything to me. The music I actually wanted was always there. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have started rapping when I did, if not for UGHH.com. One day, I got an instrumental CD with my order. I listened to it in my car on the way back from skateboarding in Miami and started freestyling with my friend Matt Ramsey over it. After that we would freestyle pretty much every day. I was hooked.

Dope! Who would you like to work with in the future? Who are you checkin’ for, these days?

There’s a lot of artists I’d be interested in working with. P.O.S is definitely up there. We have a good bit in common, based on what he writes. I just did a short tour with Carnage the Executioner and we talked about working together soon. I’m stoked on that. Doing a track with Aesop Rock would be tight. Killer Mike and El-P would be tight. Sage Francis is definitely on that list too, as well as Brother Ali, Murs, Earl Sweatshirt, Homeboy Sandman, DJ Shadow, 9th Wonder, Madlib, Dope Knife, Toki Wright, Joey Bada$$, Anderson .Paak, Aftermarket and Alexandra from Solillaquists of Sound, to name some. [Those] are the same artists I listen to pretty regularly.

What do you like best about the Orlando hip-hop scene?

There’s a dope community vibe here. It’s small, but not too small. I like that I can go anywhere any given night and run into someone from the hip-hop scene.

From your experience, do you think it’s easier or harder to get exposure coming from a place like Orlando, as opposed to bigger cities like New York and L.A.—where a lot of the scene is centralized, but there are also many more artists trying to break through?

I’ll put it like this: a buzz or trend that starts in N.Y. or L.A. has a better chance of translating to Orlando than the other way around, for now. The city’s growing pretty fast, so I’d say that influence on the industry will grow with it.

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on the next album, as well as a new Table for Three album. Aside from that, I’m putting together a foundation that will buy instruments for high school kids that can’t afford to buy the instrument they learn in band. Ten percent of my album sales get tucked away for that, right now.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging emcees, producers and DJs on the scene.

Hip-Hop has defied consensus since its inception; even about its inception.  For example, while most would stamp Kool Herc’s 1973 back to school jam in The Bronx as the genre’s official birthday, Kurtis Blow might tell you for that for him it was more like ‘72 when he hooked up two component systems to rock his friend Tony Rome’s birthday party in Harlem. Either way, once the street born art form migrated from rec center and park jams to traveling DJ tapes and recorded vinyl, it created vocal factions that were loyal to two goals: purity or profit. In the years after Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” broke the seal by giving the lyrics of an established MC (Grand Master Caz) to a neophyte (Big Bank Hank) to perform, an uneasy alliance was forged between the MC and the corporate entities that sought to profit.

There was still a vocal and consistent belief that “skills” and “paying dues” mattered even as rappers became the default voice of popular culture. The rebellious, youth-driven lifestyle that informed and inspired the music still held sway on what was placed on record for mass consumption. As hip-hop’s mouth pieces in the ‘80s and ‘90s enjoyed the spoils of Gold and Platinum plaques, daytime radio play and award show recognition, they stood on the shoulders of the giants from the ‘70s who simply wanted to be recognized as “the best.” So a humbling exercise was instituted. Mantras like “keep it real” and “no sellout” were repeated with fealty in the early ‘90s. Much like the dystopian film The Matrix, the underground was conceived as a place closest to the core center where those born free, unplugged from the machines, would continue the battle for autonomy.  

At times, some of the “hardcore” would become too hot to contain, breaking through the layers of bureaucracy, spilling above ground like magma. Lyricists that were more substance than style could still garner the elusive and coveted recording contract and ascend to new heights, but they rarely strayed TOO far. If the label wanted a “hook” for a song, you got your DJ to scratch it or got your boys hanging out in the studio to scream into the mic. Some still held on to traditions like having an actual DJ, dancers and the like to complete “the crew.” But this wouldn’t last.

Those appendages were sacrificed in the name of fiscal responsibility and duos and groups became increasingly less common (only to be later manufactured into super teams of solo stars to bolster rosters and marketability. What? You thought the NBA started that?)  The hip-hop star was adorned in flashy clothes and paired with a beautiful woman to either sing his hook, dance in his videos or raise his sex appeal with female consumers. This would most visibly manifest on July 2, 1996 when Nas’s It Was Written was released on the same day as De La Soul’s Stakes Is High. On the one hand you had the underground Prince who’d clearly bought into the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the major label A&Rs. And on the other hand was the veteran group who was warning us all about what was at stake if we continued down that path. The purists and those for profit had their de facto leaders, but the schism wouldn’t reach its point of no return until a year later to the month in 1997.

In the world of music there was no more singularly impactful event in 1997 than the murder of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.  His March 9th death (a date branded into the collective memory of hip-hop fans thanks in part to an LL Cool J diss recorded by Canibus) was a right cross following the left hook of Tupac Shakur’s death just six months before on September 13, 1996.  It was a seismic event for those who knew and loved Biggie, but for one neophyte MC it had a particular resonance.

As a Philly born rhyme practitioner Tracey Lee was signed to Bystorm Entertainment and was part of the fraternity of Howard University alumni to find success in film, TV and music. His label owner Mark Pitts was managing The Notorious B.I.G. and his debut album “Many Facez” was one of the most anticipated debuts of the year thanks to his hit “The Theme (It’s Party Time).”

“It’s damn near surreal, man. Prior to his death it was sunny days, the weather’s perfect. The single is doing well, we got the record with Biggie,” Lee says of that pivotal moment in his career’s infancy. He’d recorded a duet, “Keep Your Hands High,” with Biggie for his debut and was with him that ill-fated night in L.A.

“But then March 9th comes and we walked out of that door of the [Petersen Automotive] museum together. For some reason I wasn’t feeling right and he asked me what was wrong because we were headed to an after party at the Playboy Mansion. ‘Put a smile on your face, we in LA. Let’s get it.’ So I perked up and we got in the car. Then like five minutes after, we get the call. Biggie got shot.”

Rapper Tracey Lee

Tracy Lee’s album Many Facez would be released on March 25th, 1997 the same day as Biggie’s Life After Death, the posthumous follow-up to the Ready To Die. If having to compete with that wasn’t hard enough, Lee’s heady, conceptual debut about navigating multiple personalities (ending with the murder of one) was a departure from his blithe and bouncy lead single, which leaned heavily on Malcolm McLaren’s “World’s Famous” for its infectious appeal. Where most MCs up to that point could get away with having a raucous lead single “for the radio” while satisfying the streets with album cuts, something was changing.

“Me being on the cusp of underground and commercial, I think it hurt [me],” Lee says in hindsight. “Back then people were so ‘You gotta be this way or that way,’ especially with the concept for the album. When people heard “The Theme,” this was the perception that you got. So anything following that record has to be in that same vein. [But] the rest of the album was very underground compared to the lead single. I had a song called ‘Repent’ that embodied the split.” The dark confessional opens with a preacher lambasting MCs who “make records for bitches” and scratched in a line from EPMD’s “Headbanger” (“To hell with the bitches and the so called fame!”) to underscore his point.

“I was a firm supporter of the underground and wanted to make a distinction between the commercialism side of hip-hop and the purity, as far as the music was concerned.” But Lee was stuck between a rock and a hard place, being held to the standards of the shiny suit soldiers but not benefitting from it. Puff had not granted him “sticker rights” to even advertise that Biggie was on his album, possibly fearing confusion since their releases were dropping on the same day. Lee was also slated to open for Biggie on his upcoming tour, which now wasn’t happening.

As Puff Daddy seized the Billboard singles charts from Toni Braxton and The Spice Girls by serving up sanitized versions of hip-hop classics like “The Message” and posthumous Notorious B.I.G records, veterans like KRS-One, The Lost Boyz, and the Wu-Tang Clan stood at the ready.  Balance was sure to be restored to the realm that Summer in ‘97, right?

Not quite.

The Blastmaster from The Bronx, KRS-One, borrowed from the Bad Boy playbook for his third solo release, building his lead single “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight)” on a mix of hip-hop nostalgia and pop appeal. Producer Jesse West layered The Mohawks “The Champ” with an interpolation of Blondie’s hit “Rapture” into an undeniable groove that was then remixed by Puff Daddy and Stevie J. The combo gave KRS the biggest single of his career, and his third album I Got Next peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, becoming his highest selling album to date. The man who once rapped that “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” had colluded with reigning avatar for excess in rap. And won.

It’s crazy to think that a rap group could out underground KRS-One, but 1997 was that kind of year. Two years prior, the son of billionaire Rupert Murdoch invested in a hip-hop label called Rawkus Records, founded by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer. After building a catalogue of 12-inch releases, they signed the New York based trio Company Flow (comprised of rapper/producer El-P, DJ/producer Mr. Len and rapper Big Juss) and released their debut Funcrusher Plus

If Puffy was hip-hop’s ringmaster—an accessible, charming crowd pleaser with a 1,000-watt smile—Company Flow was the drunken carny with elephant shit on his shoes banging the ringmaster’s wife.

Company Flow

Their sound was defiantly cavernous and muddy, the perfect soundtrack for anyone looking to take a hot, steaming dump on whatever was moving “above ground.” Intentionally or not, they became the vanguard of Rawkus’s anti-establishment rap brigade.

The group’s DJ Mr. Len cut his teeth interning for a management company whose roster included CeCe Peniston, DeVante Swing from Jodeci, and Poetical Prophets (who would later become Mobb Deep). That led to a gig at Jive Records in their dub room where Len got a crash course in record label politics. So—for better or worse—he knew what a major label was capable of when his group signed with an indie like Rawkus.  

“I remember having a meeting up at Rawkus about where they were NOT going to concentrate on pushing Funcrusher Plus,” says Len. “They were like, ‘We’re not going to concentrate on the urban market,’ and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ I’m from the Bronx and I live in Brooklyn. Why wouldn’t kids like me [be the target]? And that was a sign that there was a difference between what Puffy and Company Flow were doing. Puff had Stretch Armstrong do a mixtape, and I remember Stretch proposed to put a Company Flow record on there and Puff said no. It had nothing to with him being on some ‘Fuck Co Flow,’ it was him not knowing what we were about. This was like ‘95 or ‘96. I’m trying to remember which song. If it wasn’t “8 Steps” maybe it was “Corners” or “Vital Nerve.” He just wasn’t into it. I remember not taking it personally. I thought it was weird that Stretch wanted to try it but you gotta test the waters.”

When Funcrusher Plus dropped in late July of 1997, Puff’s “solo” debut No Way Out had already been out for several weeks and was marching towards 24 consecutive weeks of chart dominance. The “suit and tie rap” was in full effect for juggernaut visuals like “It’s All About The Benjamins,” but he still kept a pair of Timbs under the bed for album tracks like “Young Gs” and Black Rob’s “I Love You Baby.” But for those that slept in their hoodies and liked their “bubbly” brewed with hops, there was no compromise.

“I didn’t really know about the whole DIVIDE thing until way into it and the album was out,” says Len. “In the UK they were yelling at shows that ‘Puffy is a Poofter!’ Which is like calling him a f*ggot. People were like ‘Fuck shiny suits!’ But it was funny to me. If you saw me walking down the street in a shiny suit, you would laugh and ask ‘What are you doing?’ You talking about dudes from Harlem and The Bronx, hardcore dudes. So when you see them dudes in shiny suits you gotta laugh, whether you know them personally or not. That turned into ‘Fuck mainstream.”

The mainstream—what was easily identifiable, marketable and adaptable—fueled the entertainment economy. If something worked, you could best believe there would be twenty copies in the pipeline right behind it. But things didn’t always become popular organically. Some would even argue that organic popularity is a pipedream and that it’s ALL manufactured. While some form of audience manipulation has always existed in music, it seemed to come to a head in the late ‘90s.

Thanks in part to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated the cap on nationwide radio station ownership, one singular entity emerged as the dominant force in radio and music, Clear Channel, now known as iHeart Media. In 2002 The FMC (Future of Music Coalition) released a report “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?” which distills the impact of Clear Channel’s radio monopoly:

Consolidation is particularly extreme in the case of Clear Channel. Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations — 30 times more than congressional regulation previously allowed. No potential competitor owns even one-quarter the number of Clear Channel stations. With over 100 million listeners, Clear Channel reaches over one-third of the U.S. population…

Format consolidation leads to fewer gatekeepers. A small number of companies control what music is played on specific formats. Coupled with a broad trend toward shorter playlists, this creates few opportunities for musicians to get on the radio. Further, overwhelming consolidation of these formats deprives citizens the opportunity to hear a wide range of music.

In short, a paradigm shift in music distribution was occurring which would have an undeniable impact on a genre like hip-hop that was still growing. Payola was already choking out access, but now playlists were ensuring that only a limited number of artists would get played on the air regardless. This facilitated widening the chasm between “commercial” and “underground” hip-hop.

“Although looking back it would seem that the Telecommunications Act helped shift the power toward the majors in 1996, I must be honest to say that at that time, when I was an A&R at Profile, I had no idea it existed,” says Will Fulton, a veteran label executive who signed acts like Camp Lo and Smooth Da Hustler at Profile and Ja Rule and Mic Geronimo at TVT.

“It did seem like it was becoming more of an uphill battle for independent labels, though. There had been a number of labels in the early to mid ‘90s (Profile, Nervous, Select, Wild Pitch among them) that had been able to make an impact. The independents (and those independently controlled labels with P&D deals like Loud) could move faster, and were generally more in tune with the hip-hop fans. You know, a lot of larger labels fit that GZA line, “he don’t know the meaning of dope, when he’s looking for a suit and tie rapper that’s cleaner than a bar of soap.”

“They had people up there at the top who didn’t know what they were doing regarding hip-hop,” Tracy Lee says of his label’s distributor, Universal. “My man Garnett Reid, God rest his soul, was an integral part in taking Universal where they needed to be in regards to promoting hip-hop records. If it weren’t for him I can’t imagine where that place would’ve been.  They didn’t know what to do with ‘The Theme’ until Garnett got it to Red Alert. That was the tipping point because everybody followed suit.  We took the record to Flex and DJ Clue but none of them would touch it until Red Alert played it.  That was our gateway to the radio.”

But before long, the labels adapted. According to Fulton those “Mountain climbers playing electric guitar” realized they needed to bring the Garnett Reid’s of the world in-house to not just work the records, but to make them.

“A&R-producers like Irv Gotti figured out how to get the street and the radio. And of course, Roc-A-Fella and Bad Boy. The majors were making good records; Universal, Sony, Arista,” says Fulton. “I remember one day in 1996 or 1997, Profile president Steve Plotnicki was looking at Billboard, and he asked me and fellow A&R Chris Landry if we liked any records in the top ten. I don’t know what was selling at that time, maybe Fugees? B.I.G.? But I said, yeah, there’s a lot I like there. And his response was that meant it was time for independents to get out of hip-hop. That the only way indies could have a shot, he argued, is if people in our position hated the top ten. That stuck with me.”

Before long, many of those smart and agile indie labels were bought by the majors—who then consolidated the talent, budgets and influence. The music oligarchy had two dominant hands, the labels and radio, pulling all of the strings. In some instances, artists fought back. The Wu-Tang Clan released their long awaited group follow-up Wu-Tang Forever in June of 1997 but found themselves in a war with their hometown radio station, Hot 97. They were slated to headline the annual Summer Jam concert but were on tour in Europe with Rage Against The Machine—a paid gig. The radio station refused to fly the 9-member plus crew to New York for the show, so when they eventually touched the stage Ghostface Killah cussed out the station and on air personality Angie Martinez. This led to them being blackballed from the airwaves and the physical building for a decade.  While they had a hand in this, it became a rallying point for artists and fans who didn’t like the direction New York radio was going in anyway.

Adding to the anti-radio fervor was a KRS-One interview about his record “Step Into A World.” Despite boasting on the record that he was “relying on talent, not marketing and promotion,” he in fact did pay Funkmaster Flex’s Franchise Marketing company $40,000 to promote the record and play it on the air. The latter did not happen and he blew the whistle so to speak. But in a 2006 interview with writer Thomas Golianopoulos Funkmaster Flex flat out denies KRS’s claims: 

“You paid me to do something and the record didn’t play because I wasn’t supposed to play your record,” he counters. “That’s not what you asked me to do. You asked me to promote your soundtrack. You asked me to put up posters. I play too many nightclubs to take money for records. In a nightclub, you can’t bribe a guy to dance on the dance floor. I can’t have a record that I play on the radio that I won’t play in the clubs.”

So in essence, what got played on the air and in the clubs became synonymous. And what got played in the club in 1997? Lots and lots of Bad Boy.

Already scarred from the “East Vs. West” feud that resulted in the deaths of two mega stars, Puff Daddy went on the offensive against faceless “haters” who wanted to stop his ascent. It was a genius bit of gaslighting that underground fans fell for hook line and sinker.

“If I’m shadow boxing, I’m not fighting you. However, you’re now able to stand in front of me and say you dodged a punch and you hit me,” Mr. Len explains. “So underground heads, as we’re now known, we’re all shadowboxing. So Puff comes out saying ‘You guys are haters’ and we’re like ‘We’re not even talking to you, b.’ And then he adds, ‘Haha and you not makin’ any money! We ain’t never gonna stop!’ Stop what? What are you talking about? And you do end up hating these motherfuckers. You seriously gonna make a $500,000 video and wear a shiny suit and I can’t laugh at you? No one trolls harder than Puff, and it’s beautiful. No one rises to the top without some competition or drama. But you never heard Co Flow diss Puffy. If you heard me DJ a party you heard me playing Black Rob’s ‘Whoa!’ and Biggie records. There wasn’t a cat in the underground who could say they didn’t like ‘Unbelievable.’ That shit was incredible.”

Granted, there were definitely men like Jeru The Damaja and Suge Knight who took direct shots at Puffy and his ilk on and off record. It wasn’t all in Puff’s head. But he did masterfully manipulate the culture by taking away the ability to critique what he was doing. No one wanted to be a player hater.

Maybe it’s being a DJ and having a direct connection with audiences on a regular basis, but Len has a more pragmatic perspective on the rift twenty years later.

“The people could have revolted against the [Bad Boy] sound. But they didn’t. The underground embraces the elements of hip-hop more and are gung-ho about culture. But there are kids who just want shit that sounds cool and get amped to it. We got into this competition and two decades later you really start to understand the casualties of war. Most of the artists you looked up to and loved, they’re fuckin’ broke. That’s what that line did. You’ve got at least 10 years of songs about haters and can’t name one. It’s fucked up. Then you got a whole other half-decade of hip-hop songs about hip-hop. The shit becomes redundant. That’s what that separation did.”

But with the diminished utility and influence of both the major label system and the radio, where does this leave the “divide”? After two decades of war, do we even know who the enemy is anymore?

What exactly is ‘underground’ when Souls of Mischief’s ‘93 Til Infinity’ is being played in national TV campaigns to sell Gatorade and a Yasiin Bey instrumental like “Twilight Speedball” is used to promote hotels in Las Vegas? Sprite may have swapped Nas and AZ for Lil Yachty, but Kendrick Lamar is the voice of the NBA Finals. Run The Jewels—which features El-P, an alumnus of Company Flow—is being played in trailers for Marvel movies and video games.  The purists are more profitable than ever.

Between satellite radio and streaming services like Soundcloud, Pandora, Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music you have to work to NOT find music you like, so we can’t place blame at the feet of the Funkmaster Flexes of the world anymore. However, with hip-hop’s continued splintering across style, age and sound we will keep fighting under various banners, because sometimes what we dislike defines us more than what we support. Plot twist. We’re all players and we’re all haters.

Take that, take that.

Some music is so original, creative and straight-up good that it never gets tired or played out. Actually, timeless is such an appropriate one-word account of the Juggaknots’ catalogue that, despite only dropping two studio albums literally a decade apart, the all-sibling trio has managed to maintain their status as underground legends—still invoking excitement in the most dedicated hip-hop heads, even over ten years after their last release.

Juggaknots

In fact, their discontinued debut became such a sought-after cult classic that original vinyl pressings of the album supposedly sold for upwards of $100, before its eventual re-release. Unfortunately, while definitely celebrated within certain circles, the Juggs never achieved the widespread notoriety they deserved—remaining somewhat of a well-hidden secret, albeit a personal favorite for many.

Early in their career, however, the Bronx-bred group seemed destined for a different path—penning a major label deal with East West/Elektra Records circa 1994 and joining the ranks of signees like Das EFX and Missy Elliott. At the time, the Juggs consisted of brothers Breeze Brewin and Buddy Slim. Queen Herawin, their sister, “kind of fought her way in” later, as Breeze joked on Rap Is Outta Control with DJ Eclipse last year.

Incidentally, Slim had earned himself a reputation for producing R&B tracks, allegedly working with acts like Horace Brown and Missy’s seminal group Sista, which helped the Juggs secure their contract. Regardless, the siblings’ stint on the label was brief, and they lost their deal without even dropping a single. Toward the end of their tenure, the group was called into a meeting where various East West artists were instructed to share what they’d been working on. “You heard like a Missy joint, and this joint and that joint. 8-Off [Agallah] had ‘Ghetto Girl,’” Breeze recalled. “We played ‘Jivetalk’ … and it was like somebody died.”

Although East West may not have shared their vision, someone else did—Bobbito Garcia, who hosted the fabled Stretch and Bobbito radio show on WKCR in the ’90s and owned an influential, mostly-vinyl label called Fondle ’Em Records (a “division of Tickle ’Em Label Group” and “subsidiary of Squeeze ’Em Entertainment,” as was proudly printed on their early 12” records). Bobbito built his brand working with artists who’d been dropped by majors, and would eventually help launch the indie careers of emcees like MF Doom (another Elektra castaway) and Cage (who was previously signed to Columbia). Following their first release, a project by Kool Keith and Godfather Don as the Cenobites, the ragtag label put out the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut—a roughly mixed nine-track masterpiece of material that East West hadn’t known what to do with.

While Slim definitely held his own trading “Troubleman” verses with Breeze, it’s a shame he didn’t rap more on the project—as his gruff baritone voice and in-the-pocket delivery perfectly juxtaposed his brother’s higher-pitched timbre and frenetic, multisyllabic rhyme schemes. That being said, the Brewin established himself as an exceptional lyricist and songwriter throughout the LP. With advanced wordplay, strong punchlines, original concepts and a distinguishing flow, it’s not hard to understand why in-the-know fans consider him one of the best lyricists to ever touch a mic. Most impressive on that album, however, was his knack for imaginative storytelling. “Breeze should write movie scripts, with his intuition and wit,” Bobbito affirmed in the liner notes of the indie’s 2001 closure compilation, Farewell Fondle ’Em.

According to the label on the original pressing of the Juggaknots’ first LP, the album was technically self-titled. It has also been referred to as Clear Blue Skies, however, after one of the project’s most revered cuts. The de facto title track featured Breeze rapping as both a white father and his son, arguing about the latter’s interracial relationship.

The harrowing song “Loosifa,” another poignant hip-hop mini-drama, told the tale of Smokey—a reformed stick-up kid who got a job in a maternity ward and lost his shit after being forced to discard a stillborn crack baby. He then decided to dole out some street justice and take down a local crack house, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving his pregnant wife a widow.

Breeze’s personal favorite, however, was a thriller titled “I’m Gonna Kill You”—on which the rapper accounted a torrid love affair and ensuing death threat, resulting in a paranoid episode with an unexpected plot twist.

Although its original run was limited, the Juggaknots’ LP grew so popular that the group decided to put it back out as Re:Release in the early 2000s, along with eleven new tracks. On CD format, the album was more accessible than its predecessor and flew off the shelves of indie record stores like Fat Beats (where, incidentally, Breeze worked for some time). It has since been reissued twice more, most recently as a blue vinyl double LP with three new mixes earlier this year. The 500-copy limited edition may be worth investing in, even to owners of the original, just for the nod-inspiring “Supaman Original Tape Mix” of “Watch Your Head.”

In between reissues of their classic debut, the Juggs have managed to stay considerably relevant—although only releasing music sparsely, mostly in the form of singles and guest appearances. They formed a short-lived supergroup called the Indelible MC’s with J-Treds and Company Flow (El-P of Run the Jewels, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len), dropping two singles in ’97 and ’98, respectively—one of which (“The Fire In Which You Burn”) was featured on Co Flow’s influential Funcrusher Plus LP, as well as Rawkus Records’ famed Soundbombing mixtape, and the other (“Weight”) on the first Lyricist Lounge compilation.

Breeze has typically been at the forefront of the effort to uphold their legacy, appearing on projects by J-Zone, Marco Polo, Tame One of the Artifacts, Cannibal Ox, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock and as one of the Weathermen (alongside Camu Tao, El-P and more). Most memorable, however, was Breeze’s work with legendary producer Prince Paul—starring as Tariq on his sophomore album A Prince Among Thieves, the bar-setting hip-hopera, in 1999.

Breeze got the part after sending Paul an early Juggaknots demo while still signed to East West, hoping to enlist his services on their would-be label release. Much to the Brewin’s surprise, years later, it was Paul who would recruit him—supposedly seeking him out and finally getting in touch through Eclipse at Fat Beats, who hired Breeze to work at the iconic store.

Although the concept album featured guest spots by legends like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X, Kool Keith and De La Soul, Breeze was selected to be the classic LP’s protagonist—and the honor was not lost on the grateful MC, who killed the role. Unfortunately, though well-received, the Tommy Boy gem failed to propel his career in any significant way, however—and he didn’t end up dropping another proper studio album until seven years later, with his brother and sister.

Following a few dope singles, as well as a 2004 conceptual compilation mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement, the Juggaknots finally put out their second LP in 2006. Use Your Confusion was noticeably different than their first, in that everything about the project seemed more polished, marketed and deliberate—from celebrity features (Slick Rick and Sadat X) to expertly-executed thematic concepts (like a whole song about smiling). Even its advertised “hologram cover art” was a far cry from the Juggs original Fondle ’Em white label.

Herawin also really came into her own as a lyricist, on the project—skillfully going bar for bar with her brothers. Eventually, she even beat Breeze to a solo release, dropping her own album, Metamorphosis, in 2015.

Of course, the Brewin has remained active over the years, himself—sporadically dropping singles and videos. He even penned a response to Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse a couple of years ago, triggered by Kenny’s line “the juggernaut’s all in your jugular” (most likely intentionally taking it out of context), as well as the Compton emcee’s claim to be the king of New York. Unlike some of his peers’ attempts, Breeze’s diss was more the good-natured imparting of elderly wisdom from an underground veteran to a relative newcomer than it was a straight up schooling.

In fact, as a whole, the Juggaknots have aged gracefully—never seeming out-of-touch, despite prolonged hiatuses, perhaps indicative of their shared vocation as actual school teachers. Their last project, however, was another collector-oriented vinyl release, a 2015 compilation of pre East West demos called Baby Pictures (c. 1989-1993).

They really haven’t put a body of new music out together since 2006, considering, making them a year overdue on their one album per decade average. It’s all gravy, though, because their existing catalogue is ageless enough to hold the group’s legacy down for a lifetime.

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Some artists are more celebrated in death than they ever were in life. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, true for posthumously-crowned hip-hop royalty like J Dilla and Big L—who, despite impeccable talent and significant influence on their peers, were rarely regarded as hip-hop elite outside of in-the-know creative circles until after their passing.

MC, producer, vocalist and cancer victim Camu Tao, on the other hand, has never been shown the appreciation he deserves—neither before, nor following the loss of his year-and-a-half long battle with the deadly disease, which took his life only a month before his 31st birthday in 2008.

Like Dilla, Mu was equally talented as both a lyricist and beatsmith. Similar to L, he refused to be boxed-in by convention—toying with Horrorcore one moment and attempting party music the next, yet always in his own unique way. Too ahead of his time to be fully recognized in it (yet too unacknowledged at his death for it to properly uphold his legacy), Mu has remained in relative obscurity—a largely unrecognized subject of tribute verses by former collaborators and an all-too-often overlooked footnote in the indie hip-hop history books.

He was, however, an integral part of a few influential projects that came out of New York City’s flourishing underground scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s, usually alongside various members of The Weathermen supergroup: a Suicide Squad-esque assembly of hip-hop antiheroes mostly affiliated with the popular Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux indie labels that, at different points, included El-P of Run The Jewels, Tame One of The Artifacts, Breeze Brewin of The Juggaknots, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Cage, among others.

Named after a revolutionary anti-imperialist student organization that declared war on the U.S. government in the ’70s, The Weathermen never got a chance to stage their musical coup or release their promised studio album, The New Left. Instead, they only dropped their mixtape The Conspiracy in 2003 and then unofficially disbanded, allegedly due to internal arguments that arose within the clique after Mu’s untimely death.

Before The Weathermen’s formation, however, Mu cut his teeth with another prominent underground crew from his Columbus, Ohio hometown, the MHz. Comprised of fellow Weathermen Copywrite, Tage Proto and Jakki Da Motamouth, as well as sample-chopping maestro RJD2, MHz earned a rep on the indie rap circuit with a couple of 12” singles released in the late ’90s on Fondle ’Em Records—Bobbito Garcia’s mostly vinyl label, best known for reintroducing KMD’s Zev Love X to the world as MF Doom.

On those early records, as well as the group’s 2001 compilation album Table Scraps, Mu’s rhyme style was noticeably more abstract and animated than in later work. For example, on “Magnetics” (his 1999 solo offering off their second Fondle ’Em single), Mu spat intricately-rhymed “metaphysical metaphor[s],” vocal timbre wildly fluctuating.

Two years later, he dropped the lesser-known 12” “Hear Me Talkin to You,” utilizing an equally original, oddly-syncopated rhyme scheme (albeit significantly less wordy and much easier to follow). On “Open Hands,” the single’s second cut, he also sang the hook—a hint at the direction of his future music.

In 2002, Mu released his first studio LP, Nighthawks, a hastily conceived concept album in collaboration with Cage—loosely based on a 1981 Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams cop thriller of the same name. On it, the two emcees rhymed as a pair of crooked detectives engaging in all sorts of corruption and debauchery. The album fared about as well as the film, receiving generally favorable reviews but failing to make an overwhelming impact.

Earlier that year, however, Mu had released his first single on Def Jux, “Hold The Floor,” which ended up being one of his most sought-after cuts. Before 50 Cent had popularized half-sung rap hooks on hardcore hip-hop tracks about a year-or-so later, Mu belted out an infectious melodic chorus with a simple message: “Y’all don’t really want it.”

“Hold The Floor” stood out from the rest of Definitive Jux Presents II (the compilation on which it was featured), in that the song—although still distinctive to Mu—was more catchy, rooted and universally digestible than the majority of the project’s otherwise spacey material. Most notably, it was also much harder.

Founded by former Company Flow frontman El-P at the turn of the century, in its formative years, Def Jux was defined by his “dusty but digital” sound and launched with the group’s mantra “independent as fuck” at heart—pushing the kind of artists who definitively juxtaposed the perceived superficiality of mainstream rap’s shiny suit era, but without strictly adhering to the sample-driven boom bap aesthetic typical of other underground movements at the time.

Def Jux carved out its own niche, as a result, stressing musical and conceptual deviance—priding itself on being different. Its well-marketed brand of offbeat hip-hop became increasingly popular among angsty stoners and Brooklyn hipster prototypes, somewhat alienating the label from the culture that birthed it—and eventually even a couple of its original signees, as well. As it progressed, Def Jux quickly earned a reputation for being out of touch with hip-hop at large.

Even early in the alternative indie’s conception, however, it was clear that Mu didn’t quite fit the Def Jux mold. His first full-length record for the label was another collaboration, this time with partner-in-rhyme and fellow Columbus native Metro, unlike anything the indie had ever promoted.

Or ever would again.

In 2003, S.A. Smash released Smashy Trashy, their ode to smoking, fucking, fighting, stealing and getting blackout drunk—glamorizing all things gutter over thumping, head-knockin’ beats. With songs like “Love To F*ck,” “A.A.” and “Slide On ’Em,” not to be taken too seriously and almost seeming satirical at times, the album was unfortunately lost on many critics and Def Jux groupies, despite featuring some of Mu’s most dynamic production (and simply being plain old fun as hell to listen to).

In a scene where being different was the norm, and broody intellectualism reigned supreme, appealing to less-lofty tastes was the ultimate act of rebellion. Def Jux’s increasingly homogeneous, predominantly white fan base was not unnoticed by the group either—and was even acknowledged on the song “Weird,” in its hook: “And I know it seems weird to you, we the only n***as in the room.”

“[Mu] was always bucking back against what anyone ever thought of him,” El-P explained to Columbus Alive earlier this year. “If you thought he was at the vanguard of the so-called backpack-rap style, he’d buck back and say, ‘I’m going to do this [S.A. Smash album] called Smashy Trashy,’ and it was party music… It was almost like he never wanted anyone to be able to tell him who he was.”

Following a series of captivatingly ridiculous Blair Cosby mixtapes, self-distributed over the next couple of years, Mu’s aversion to being pigeonholed became abundantly apparent on his genre-transcending LP, King of Hearts—which fused hip-hop with elements of post-punk, new wave, electroclash and even uptempo electronic pop music. Tragically, Mu would not live to see his solo studio album’s debut—or even complete it, for that matter. Still, El-P decided to put the unrefined gem out in 2010 (two years after his passing), as Def Jux’s final release before shuttering—along with a similarly experimental free collaborative EP (Forever Frozen in Television Time) that the two had been working on as a duo called Central Services.

Strikingly, most of the album (as well as the EP) was sung, as opposed to rapped—which really shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise, in retrospect, as Mu had flirted with singing throughout his career. It should be noted that, given the project’s unfinished nature, several of its tracks only featured choruses—so how many rap verses were actually intended for the final product is really a matter of speculation. A testament to El-P’s theory, in the moments where he did spit, Mu showed considerable range as a lyricist—commenting on America’s post-9/11 political climate with “Ind of the Worl,” then skillfully weaving in and out of intricate flows on “Major Team.”

Much of the project’s material handled some appropriately dark themes, most apparently death. Recorded with one foot in the grave, Mu’s piercing melodic shrieks were as haunting and mysterious as they were beautiful—especially considering the album’s posthumous release. In contrast, however, it had an overall upbeat, energetic undertone, and Mu’s message of non-conformity rang throughout.

King of Hearts offered a heartbreaking glimpse of what could’ve been for the multi-talented artist, who died when only beginning to tap into his own limitless potential. Happy Birthday to Camu Tao, on what would have been his 40th birthday.

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