"We feel we're the most slept-on group in Michigan," says MC Illtone of the Lyricists. Slept-on? Indeed. And part of the reason, hell, most of the reason is location, location, location. Illtone (Robert Johnson), his partner-in-rhyme Rym-B (Jewan Reed) and DJ Haus Diesel (Craig Herbert) hail from Port Huron, as in the thumb. It's an area better known for the Blue Water Bridge. It's a summer sailboat race destination. It's anything but a hotbed of hip hop.
"It's pretty much a retirement community," B says. "We're pretty much top dog here ... but that isn't sayin' much."
"People here put together groups and do a demo or something, but that's about it," Illtone adds. "Everyone wants to catch the quick money by doing something like they hear on the radio or in a Top 40 club. We're doing the opposite. The radio's glitz and glam; we're family guys trying to do something original."
And that they do. The Lyricists came together in the mid-'90s. The group was inspired as much of their Detroit indie-rap brethren were by the jazzy, positive hip hop rising from New York, such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
For middle-class kids like the Lyricists coming up aware of gangster rap's urban exaggeration, with its violence and bravado, but put off by its crassness and commercialization the East Coast sound meant a lot. The sound was to hip hop what Nirvana was amid early '90s hair metal: an oasis of expression and inspiration that wasn't specific to a geographic location. De La's "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" acronym said it all: "Da Inner Sound, Y'all."
Suddenly, hip hop wasn't about the boast and the toast. It was more about having fun making music; rhymes could be more clever than hard they needn't be all about the mean streets. All that was required to create was an inspired mind.
Illtone and B, who are now just into their 30s, both left Detroit for Port Huron a decade ago to, as Johnson puts it, "get away to get my head on straight."
Lineups would then gel and fall apart, largely because anybody seriously pondering a hip-hop career would get the hell out of Port Huron, as their last DJ did.
But for the Lyricists, Port Huron is home. They're family men with mortgages to pay, running their own businesses or working for the Big Three. DJ Diesel drives to Warren Assembly each day to punch in at GM. ("It takes an hour to get there, and, if I'm lucky, an hour and a half to get back," he sighs.)
Rakim once said that "it's not where you're from, it's where you're at." The Lyricists are proving that maxim to be true in this MySpace, indie-rap era yeah, Port Huron is in the middle of nowhere, but the Lyricists are squarely in the middle of it.
The first thing they do right is release music. Most local hip hop flounders at the production phase. The Lyricist drop a new CD, as Pontiac emcee One Be Lo jokes, "Like every six months." (Lo, you'll note, is arguably Detroit's best emcee and certainly one of the biggest underground ones in the country now. He did a stint on last year's Warped Tour and a record on Fat Beats, the prestigious L.A. hip-hop label.)
"The first time I did a show in Port Huron, I went there with no expectations," Lo says. "But when they came onstage, I was blown away. One, because they were tight. But two," he laughs, "because they're from Port Huron!
"I felt a connection with them, being from Pontiac. It's like if you're not from Detroit or Chicago or L.A. or New York then you're not even on the hip-hop map. But Illtone's voice is ridiculous. He's one of the 10 best underground emcees in the country right now."
And that fact is slowly getting recognized, at least by emcees and producers from other less-likely hotbeds of underground hip-hop activity (North Carolina, Baltimore) who mostly discovered Port Huron's finest on MySpace.
The Lyricists' most recent effort is the Get Heard or Die Tryin' mix CD, which compiles their tracks and emcees rapping over songs created by like-minded talent from around the world, most of whom met online, never in person. DJ Excel from Baltimore, Prov-P from Sweden, RMS TRIZM out of France and Sun 7 of North Carolina, contributed tracks, which DJ Diesel blends, cuts and scratches.
As a mix, it's laudable; that Get Heard is all tracks by one group is incredible. And for all the emphasis the Lyricists put on their lyrics, the disc's much more fun than, say, the more experimental production of L.A.'s Madlib or even the spare, soul genius of the late, great J Dilla. From its tight production to its empathetic rhymes, you can actually hear that the Lyricists are grateful to have an audience. Where some underground hip-hop producers go into a self-imposed anti-commercial exile fearing any sort of hit-making would constitute a "sell-out," the Lyricists, as Port Huron's lone heirs to the "D.A.I.S.Y." chain, know how to please a crowd.
"We get a lot of people saying that we have this 'Midwestern sound,' or that we sound like other groups from Detroit. But our producers [Pro-Logic, etc.] are from Canada, so I guess you could say you can hear the Canadian influence," Illtone says.
The group just completed a six-date East Coast tour, performing, as Diesel puts it, "in front of crowds from 30 to a 130." The group gigged with the likes of Excel and Boston's Headturners, most of whom they'd never met before showing up in their town for the show.
"Hip hop is like our common knowledge," B explains. "We ain't no murderers, so we can meet these people and know we're gonna be cool with them and then we can talk about bringing them up to Port Huron." Or in the case of Excel, work with them. Excel's beats are all over the Lyricists' next EP.
Still, the band stresses that for all its networking and prolific output, it's the rhymed word that sets them apart. "We try to reflect what's going on in our lives without straying into the negative, but it's hard," Illtone says. He and B offer verses from "360 Degrees" as evidence.
B rhymes: We never spit the simplistic flow/Check the show/Long wind like Energizer GO/We're not no rookies but we're far from pros .... Intermingled in a world of snakes, test ya fate/Keep it movin' and help the globe rotate/Appreciate small blessin's, from life's lessons, answers to deep questions, power in true confessions.
Illtone jumps in: I tell my lil' girl, I've been around like the earth/so think about things before you do em' first ... Except freestylin', and be precise when you end your rhymin'/'Cause you don't want to mess up the next cat's timin' ...
One thing's certain, with nothing in Port Huron but Top 40 clubs and bad pop radio, the Lyricists have nothing to do but perfect their craft, and so far it's paid off, even if social outlets are limited. "If we wanna hear good music we gotta play it at our house and have people over," Illtone laughs.
Saturday, Oct. 13 at Shangra-La Gallery (1440 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 313-279-5679) Oct. 13. Go to thelyricists.net for details.
Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]