Ecorse-based Bananas Recording Studio reeks a funk of sound and odor, like a total dive bar from the time before the smoking ban. A combination of live instruments and technology makes the space feel modern and antique. Some nights Bananas is full of bands rehearsing and recording while other days (like today), it's full of emcees hanging around waiting to record or checking out their friends about to. Origix, Jimbo Slice, and Benny Barrz are all Lincoln Park-born emcees who call Bananas home. They're part of a bustling group of Downriver, blue-collar hip-hop artists who also happen to be white.
"This studio has been around for four years," says lead engineer Anthony Rizzo. "I produce tracks myself. But mostly I work on everybody else's music." Bananas is more than a studio, it's the X-Mansion for emcees from around here. Some come to get their tracks mastered others come to lay vocals. But they all come. "If you haven't done something in here, then you're probably not doing too much," says Origix, who is also a radio show host at Henry Ford Community College's 89.3.FM.
Rizzo is the linchpin, a soft-spoken Professor X of sorts. The Lincoln Park native is the only engineer any of these cats will work with. "I've been involved with this scene for 15 years," Rizzo says while sitting at his work computer. "I've worked with many of the people on this scene and some that aren't." "Tone knows the sound of the emcee," Origix says. "The scene goes wherever he goes."
The suburbs that comprise Downriver (Allen Park, Brownstown Township, Ecorse, Flat Rock, Gibraltar, Grosse Ile, Huron Charter Township, Lincoln Park, Melvindale, River Rouge, Riverview, Rockwood, Romulus, Southgate, Taylor, Trenton, Woodhaven, and Wyandotte) have historically had an interesting relationship with the rest of metro Detroit. Downriver has never had the ritzy suburban aura of Oakland County, nor the same blue-collar street cred as Detroit. Instead, it's the middle child, stereotyped as Taylortucky, Detroit South, Hillbillyville. The preconceived views may also be a factor into why the Downriver hip-hop scene has stayed well below the radar until now.
"Cats hate on Downriver, and I don't know why," says Jimbo Slice. "We feel like Downriver is Detroit too," Origix says. "We don't feel like this is the suburbs."
Hip-hop's presence Downriver goes back to the 1990s when groups like South Side Asylum and Rising Suns were mainstays. They have never had a breakout hip-hop star (unless you want to count Kid Rock's hype man Joe C). and their most recent notable music act has been Southern rock specialist Ty Stone. It also seems to be more about getting out of Detroit's shadow than blaming the lack of exposure on race.
"We don't have a lot of black dudes down here putting out music," says Barrz. "I feel like it was hard for white dudes to get accepted before Eminem, but music has grown and people are more accepting."
What surprises and separates the Downriver area is that they have their own unique flavor. The sound has a more '90-ish feel. It's got Brillo Pad-like gritty beats combined with rhymes that display influences from various East Coast and Detroit artists. The emcees pride themselves on being lyricists first. Many have engulfed themselves through the trenches of battle rap as a way to earn respect. Barrz is a wordplay artist, while Origix is a natural storyteller. Every emcee here spits hard, like they're standing right in front of your face.
"You can do wicked, trap hip-hop. But people down here don't like that super-pop pop stuff," says Origix. "If you got skills, you got skills," adds Jimbo Slice. Despite the Downriver headquarters, everyone goes to Detroit often and has built relationships with many of the emcees there.
"Everybody in this room will drive to wherever the hell they gotta go to make sure they know this music exists," says Origix. Ultimately, for the estimated 30 emcees in this area, hip-hop is more therapy and pride than a wistful lottery ticket. They care more about their own brand of music than how to fatten their pockets. They all would like to blow up in the traditional sense, of course, but holding onto their Downriver grind and pride is just as important.
"All of us here have jobs. And you can have a 12-hour shift and will hit the studio or a show right afterwards," says Barrz. "8 Mile was a great movie but [that lifestyle] is continuous down here," adds Origix.
Of the numerous emcees that call Downriver home, Chris Parrish embodies the spirit and culture the hardest. The Taylor native goes by Mr. Furious and has been a constant on the scene here for almost 20 years.
"When I was in school, people around here were into the makeup clown rap, but I was into real hip-hop," he says between cigarette puffs in his River Rouge home. Parrish talks about how he made a name for himself rocking house parties, battle rapping his way through high school, and how being one of the only white kids into hip-hop never deterred him. "All the black kids in school knew the white kid with long hair could battle rap his ass off," he says. "Even back then I never compared myself to local folks, I compared myself to the national and big-name artists."
In the years that followed, Parrish performed on every stage in Detroit he could find. He befriended, battled, and featured with several other Downriver and Detroit artists. He even dabbled a bit on the rock side of hip-hop as a vocalist for the group B.L.A.Z. and four other groups. "I was good with the raps in my scream voice," he says. "The sound was heavier than Limp Bizkit [and with] better raps."
Parrish's music is lyrically aggressive with a lot of tenacious egoisms. Sometimes he raps like he has a chip on his shoulder, and other times he's simply showing off his lyrical agility. Parrish is also not shy about dropping a rhyme on the spot. "You goddamn right I'm a hip-hop head/I'm the truth, never lied and said hip-hop's dead. The most valuable thing I own is my music/inclusive, exclusive, all rights to it," he raps to my face.
Parrish doesn't mince words when explaining Downriver's lack of attention to its hip-hop community. "Downriver has always been Detroit's redheaded stepchild. But Downriver hip-hop is dope, it's a diamond field, this is goddamn Sierra Leone," he says vehemently. "Detroit is the hater city capital of the world. Why would anyone want you to know about us because you would stop fucking with their shit and fuck with us."
In 2014, Parrish was nominated for best battle rapper in Detroit's Underground Hip-Hop Awards. He's gearing up to release his first album, The Music Made Me Do It, which has been 20 years in the making. "I've always had a viable project, but it never came out," he says. "Either it was alcohol, bitches, or ego that got in the way."
Parrish doesn't plan to stop creating music or speaking his mind anytime soon. "Anybody that knows me knows I will spit my teeth out, and if you go against me, I will knock your teeth out. Lyrically, that is."
The two servers at Simon's After Dark in Allen Park are working the bar like an alcohol assembly line while a tattooed waitress chucks beer and shots to patrons like a sling shot from an additional bar in the corner. Simon's has all the characteristics of a hip-hop spot: a stage the size of a one-car garage, above-average sound system, colored lights, and a cash register that looks like a relic from the Purple Gang era. Fans and fellow emcees are here to support Parrish's album release.
"I'd say over the years [Simon's] has become the spot for local hip-hop shows," says Barrz. "Especially ever since they remodeled and got better sounds and a sound guy." "They've been doing hip-hop shows for many years, and it's not always easy to find a venue," Parrish says.
The stage's lineup was full with spins and rhymes from Almighty Dreadnaughtz, A.R.E.S., Alius Pnukkl, DJ Los, Aaron Taylor, Barrz, DJ Pigpen, and Parrish. "It was great to see everyone come out," says Valid, an emcee who came over from Dearborn Heights. "It was also awesome to see the vets like Los and Pnukkl in the building."
The crowd grew to standing room only as each emcee took turns attacking the stage. It became a hip-hop relay race, each emcee passing the lyrical baton to whoever took the mic next. The show was a win for Parrish and another celebration for the hip-hop community here.
"The show was live as fuck, even though it was 10-below outside," Barrz says. "Once you opened the door, it was like walking into a furnace from the fire onstage."