The absurdity of the rap game in Detroit has reached a fever pitch. Fans and struggling artists will search for any reason to knock a rising star from his or her pedestal. And where an MC resides is one of the most ludicrous causes of shit-talk. If you’re going to be representing or rhyming about the D, you sure as hell better live within city limits; if you don’t, woe be you. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.
Thirty miles north, in “Little Detroit,” the Subterraneous Records crew is hard at work. They are busy planning their attempt to overstep the boundaries of hip-hop music and culture. They, of course, don’t want to be just any group in the genre, they want to be the genre.
While some artists claim living-in-313 cred (and fail miserably), the Subterraneous boys refuse to hide their roots — they’re from Pontiac and proud of it. Like or not, some of the best hip hop coming from these parts doesn’t flow from inside Eight Mile.
Subterraneous is the brain trust of two producers/MCs, led by OneManArmy (Lo to close friends) and his first lieutenant Decompoze. They are the Subterraneous yin and yang, vital to each other’s success and growth as artists.
On paper, Subterraneous is a record label, but it’s really a movement, realized through live shows. From elementary schools to prisons, from seminars to clubs, from conventions to the hood, the elite crew (with affiliated members Illite, Magestik Legend, Kodak, and DJ’s Phrikshun and Virus) preaches the Subterraneous gospel to anyone who’ll take them. MCs will battle among themselves or against those in the audience, DJs will go head-to-head, and b-boys dance on the floor poppin’ and lockin’. The interactive shows are meant to convey the positive impact hip hop can have on the global community rather than its MTV interpretation.
Some say it takes good chemistry, but it was physics that brought OneManArmy, and Decompoze together in 1993. Their story is what hip-hop dreams — and nightmares — are made of.
As an 11th grader at Pontiac Northern High School, Decompoze kept to himself, sometimes wearing headphones into the cafeteria so as not to converse with anyone. Hip hop’s influence on youth culture had yet to infiltrate the school. In dreadlocks and Timberland boots, Decompoze was an outsider to most of the student body. He had dabbled in writing rhymes, but gave it up for football. It was in the classroom that everything changed.
“I was sitting in physics class and this dude walks up to me and picks up a tape I had on my desk,” Decompoze recalls. “He asked me, ‘You like hip hop?’ and I said to myself, ‘What does this cat know about hip hop?’ So he says, ‘Well, you ain’t never heard of me.’ So he sat down next to me and kicked a rhyme, and basically changed my life.”
The lyricist was OneManArmy. “After that point, I started writing again. In some ways the first Subterraneous crew was formed that day.”
OneManArmy had already been involved with hip hop for more than five years. He began writing rhymes in middle school and by the 10th grade he truly fell in love with the form after winning over a crowd at an open-mic night. Two years later, the budding MC met Decompoze, and the two formed their first group, the Odd Couple.
“Hip hop was so creative back then, and that creativity didn’t exist in Pontiac,” recalls OneManArmy. “Only a handful of guys was into it. Basically, if you wanted hip hop, you had to go and find it. It didn’t hit you in the face.”
The pair worked long and hard, forcing each other to raise the levels of consciousness in their writing and production. From the start, they respected hip hop as a culture, not just as a format on the radio.
A studio recording of one track left high school classmates in awe. “Back then, from a talent perspective, cats was feeling us even though we wasn’t shoot ’em up bang bang,” OneManArmy says. “It was out of reach for most of the people that was our age back then,”
It was how they got to the studio that left other classmates cringing.
It cost the pair $50 an hour to record at Logic Sound in Pontiac. They took more than six hours to lay down a track, naively thinking they could do all the beat and lyric writing in the studio. To raise the necessary funds, Decompoze worked as a janitor during the week and washed dishes on weekends. OneManArmy involved himself with “quick jobs,” such as stealing underwear from a department store and selling the goods to students and faculty from his high school locker.
After high school, life changed drastically for OneManArmy. Until then he had two distinct personalities, one defined by his music and the other by his social life. The latter proved stronger. He turned to drugs. In late 1994 — a week after his 18th birthday — he got popped. He did two-and-a-half years on a felony rap at Hiawatha Correctional Facility in Kinchloe in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
It’s a cliché when a person says prison changed their life, but in OneManArmy’s case, it was a relatively fortunate situation. He did time with a guy named Senim Silla, and the two formed a group called Binary Star. He also studied music-business books. He learned about publishing, copyrights, and how to start a record label.
“In prison, I decided that I really wanted to learn the music business because, basically, I made up my mind that I didn’t want to have any crutches,” says OneManArmy. “I learned how to hustle, legally.”
Meanwhile, back in Pontiac, Decompoze went on with life as usual.
“When OneManArmy left, we had been going our separate ways anyway,” Decompoze says. “I didn’t have the two different lifestyles like Lo. Basically, anybody I associated with was into hip hop, and if you wasn’t into it, I got nothing to say to you.”
Even with OneManArmy gone, Decompoze didn’t have to look far for work. But finishing the work was no cakewalk. At one point he got ripped off in a partnership deal by another producer/MC who happened to be his sister’s boyfriend. This guy disappeared with money Decompoze gave him for a 12-inch single they were working on. The theft left Decompoze bitter enough that he considered bailing on music altogether. He gave college a shot, but that didn’t last long.
When OneManArmy returned from prison, numerous area rap crews courted him, none of which impressed the newly educated impresario. While the other crews thought about doing demos, OneManArmy was thinking ahead to recording albums.
“I wasn’t trying to be the Berry Gordy or nothing like that,” recalls OneManArmy. “I just wasn’t going to waste my time.”
So Binary Star went to work. In 1999 they released the well-received Waterworld (retitled Masters of the Universe) album, and did an extensive tour of Michigan (both OneManArmy and Silla were on parole and not permitted to leave the state). An underground international following blossomed, but the two were squabbling constantly. At the height of their momentum — during the re-pressing of their debut — Binary split up.
Undeterred, OneManArmy decided to rekindle the partnership with Decompoze, who had been perfecting his beat-making and production skills in the interim.
“I sat down with Decompoze and told him, ‘No more games,’” explains OneManArmy. “‘Let’s get serious, let’s get involved. We’re gonna be the core, and anybody who ain’t down with our plan, they ain’t with us.’”
They decided on starting an underground “movement,” one they hoped would revitalize what they considered a disintegrating hip-hop culture. The duo wanted to start where it mattered most, locally. Subterraneous was officially born at the turn of the new millennium.
“The Subterraneous movement is really all about a hip-hop environment,” says OneManArmy. “That’s why we host MC battles and do as many shows as we can, because we want people to know that when you hear that name Subterraneous, that’s hip hop.”
A principle Subterraneous manifests is perseverance through struggle.
“We write about our experiences because we want to prove to people that you can hit rock bottom and bounce right back up,” continues OneManArmy. “We want to make a positive impact, and we want to get paid, but from the jump it’s always been about making quality music. Hopefully, we can inspire other artists to do the same thing.”
In the meantime, OneManArmy has his own movement to deal with. His wife just gave birth to a third child, and he is putting the finishing touches on his second solo record, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M., which he hopes to release in early 2004. He is happy and content, but it hasn’t been an easy road. Decompoze’s debut, Decompozition, is tentatively set for a spring release. Other future projects include releases from Magestik Legend, Illite, Kodak, and 925 Colony.
OneManArmy expects big things from his crew, and hopes his label will lead a new revolution in hip hop. “Through all of the obstacles and trials, I just got a lot of respect for us because after getting fucked, and after getting laughed at, and after getting rejected … we still here, we still doing it, and we still got our motivation.”
OneManArmy and Decompoze will perform Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Shelter (431 E. Congress, Detroit; call 313-961-MELT) with Soul Position and Illogik; and on Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Neutral Zone (637 S. Main, Ann Arbor; Call 734-214-9995). Visit www.subterraneousrecords.com for more info.David Valk writes about hip hop for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]