This story is the seventh part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
In a dingy East Lansing diner, a sign reads, “Directions to Ann Arbor: East until you smell it, south until you step in it.” While the compass from Detroit points a slightly opposite route, the result is the same: a whole shit load of worthy hip hop, spearheaded by the best outfit to come out of the town painted maize and blue since the Fab Five. But no matter where you lay your tilted New Era cap, all signs point to the Athletic Mic League.
AML is yet another in a long list of skilled artists inside the Great Lakes State to have gone unnoticed beyond the borders. Their latest, the sparkling Jungle Gym Jungle is, of course, the end result of unbounded struggles, sacrifices, setbacks and a near-fatal stabbing.
Witty, smart, skilled and ready: Think of AML as a little left of Wu Tang Clan, a collective prepared for lucrative American suburbia.
The starting lineup
It was the blacktop and grass field of Ann Arbor’s Huron High School that brought this seven-man crew together, through the bonds formed as early as grade school. Raised on hip hop’s golden age, brothers Wesley “Vital” and Vaughn “Texture” Taylor began huddling in the basement at Tres “Sonny Star” Allen’s home on Nixon Road, scribbling rhymes and making beats. Vaughn’s basketball teammates Jamall “Buff1” Bufford and Kendall “14KT” Tucker soon followed, along with Michael “Grand Cee” Fletcher. With so many aspiring emcees floating in and out of Star’s basement, the earliest incarnation was known as the Anonymous Click.
“We were friends long before the music,” Buff1 says.
Vital’s lacrosse teammate Andrew Cohen — an Astro Pimps bassist — invited Star and Buff1 to perform with his group at the school talent show. Cohen soon began bringing beats over to Star’s basement. In return, the crew taught him to rap. Having heard the group needed a DJ, Cohen won the spot and was christened “DJ Haircut.”
With a firm backbone in place, Vital suggested Athletic Mic League as the group moniker because it incorporated a shared love of sport and hip hop, which captured the raw essence of the crew. This was 1997.
It would be hard to underestimate AML’s impact on Ann Arbor in terms of hip hop; here was a group that single-handedly dropped the genre like a bomb on that sleepy town, a town that was still adjusting to the aftermath of grunge.
The first half
“Ann Arbor was not a hip-hop city back then,” says Vital, in what could be the musical understatement of the year. “We pretty much kept it a secret.”
What started as an after-school activity became serious when AML took their hobby into the studio. After flipping through every studio entry in the yellow pages, they settled on the studio that had the cheapest rates, 40oz. Sound Studio, run by rock outfit Getaway Cruiser.
AML cut The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat and burned copies on Haircut’s computer. Thanks to just-introduced Napster, the group didn’t have the opportunity to commercially release the album.
“It was out of our hands before we could even press ’em up,” says Vital.
“Basically, we weren’t thinking we need to press up 5,000 copies and do promotion,” adds Star. “We knew nothing about that. We just wanted to make a project and let everybody in [Ann Arbor] hear it.”
The group began sneaking into local venues and performing alongside newcomers Invincible and S.U.N. But school came first for AML (there was a two-year age difference between members), and the group splintered while 14KT and Star headed south to Florida A&M and the University of Alabama, respectively. The remaining crew: Haircut, Texture, Buff1 and Vital attended U-M, but Grand Cee drifted, dropping out of Huron High short of graduation, and having the first of his three kids.
“AML wasn’t my first priority,” Cee reflects. “I didn’t think it was going to progress.”
14KT and Star kept in touch from down South. The geographic problem notwithstanding, the group carried on, gigging locally as a trimmed-down unit.
“I think because they were at Michigan and kept the actual AML core together … it allowed me and KT to always have something to come back and be a part of,” says Star.
AML developed a strong local following.
As the myth goes, a copy of The Thrill of Victory landed in the hands of New York’s DJ Bobbito (realistically, AML assumes it was more likely a radio show at New York University), and the group was reportedly winning a daily battle of beats radio contest. They started receiving calls from New York, including one from high-profile biz attorney Charles Austin. People were showing genuine interest in a young Ann Arbor group that made fewer than 100 copies of their album, yet were receiving spins on New York radio.
The group was motivated. School took a backseat.
“We had to make a crucial decision, they [Star and 14KT] could go back to school or [AML] was over,” says Vital.
“Or we got to go all-out,” adds Star.
They did. Vital, the idea-generator of the crew, suggested a Big Apple move. In July 1999, all seven members headed East.
The second half
Yeah, New York City; the lessons came fast and hard.
“We went out there assuming this was our big break,” Texture reflects. “But what it really was, what it really signified was the balance of power from school and uncertainty to music and 100 percent dedication.”
AML couldn’t afford a place in the city, so they settled on scenic Jersey City, N.J. They shared rat-infested bedrooms and took various crap jobs.
“Jersey life was hard,” 14KT recalls. “We lived in the ghetto. We commuted to open mics in New York. The competition wasn’t really in talent, but in the numbers.”
“We realized that the type of music they made [in New York/New Jersey] we didn’t want to make,” says Buff1. “It wasn’t us, so we created our own sound.”
Nothing came of the New York hustle. With dwindling prospects, AML returned to Ann Arbor and rented a place where they could resume work on their next project, Sweats & Kicks. To raise the recording budget, the group went to rerelease The Thrill of Victory, but the master tapes had “mysteriously vanished.” So they hatched The Thrill is Gone, an on-the-cheap mix-tape. The 1,000 copies quickly sold out and the album is now considered an AML cult classic.
With material flowing, but not enough coin to record it, the group released a cost-effective mini-project in 2002, the Feel Good EP. The record showed AML’s sound evolving from a dark, aggressive tone to a more soulful, lighthearted pitch — the work of a group comfortable in its own skin. Binary Star assisted in production duties.
With enough material, underground cred and funding from menial day jobs, the group finally did Sweats & Kicks (a metaphorical title that describes AML’s identity; music as comfortable clothing). Full of big-eyed promise, the group planned the album to be the career-launching calling card to the outside world. Instead, it barely trickled beyond state lines.
With no guidance, managerial or otherwise, the album revealed a side of the band’s naïveté: They assumed every business role themselves. They released a promo 12-inch too long after the full-length, they misallocated what little advertising money they had.
“Basically, we didn’t have anybody to look to in our area that was making successful independent music,” says Haircut. “So, we put our head down and went with our gut on what we felt was the right way of doing things.”
In this life, guts only take you so far.
“It didn’t do the success we banked on,” Star says. “But it did end up being the album that broke us out to a lot of people.”
Though the album was innovative in terms of Ann Arbor hip hop, the sales didn’t make AML a viable indie act. They learned about record distribution the hard way.
“Sweats & Kicks was sold virtually hand-to-hand,” says Vital. “Every sale was almost from our own hands, or put into a store on consignment.”
“We had a whole campaign brewing, but by the end, it was subpar numbers that made us rethink the game plan for the next album,” concedes Star.
The group went to work on The Isolation Project, an attempt to create an album of nothing but AML solo tracks, Isolation is still on the back burner.
In the midst of recording (still subsidized through day jobs), Haircut, Star, 14KT and Texture were perfecting their beat-making skills. Dubbed the Lab Technicians, the foursome got into production and worked with S.U.N. and Now On.
In the interim, AML’s fan base flowered. They performed locally, filling venues, selling out bars, solidifying their reputation as the hardest-working hip-hop outfit in Ann Arbor, maybe Michigan.
Sudden death overtime
2003 took a demoralizing turn for AML.
Record distribution snafus and quarrels with various Ann Arbor bars couldn’t come close to preparing AML for what came next — the possibility of seeing a group member murdered.
One spring night in Yspilanti, Cee was stabbed nearly to death in a random act of aggression, and left to die. He took several stickings and lay on the street until somebody found him. He was unconscious by the time he reached the hospital. Those close to the man thought he was a goner.
“I was partyin’ and bullshit, doing what I thought was livin’ life,” Cee recalls.
With no traditional education (and a family man with three children in tow), Cee was the AML’s black sheep, or, as 14KT says, “the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the group.”
Cee says, “The whole experience was extremely humbling. When I was layin’ there, I kind of got to a point where I made peace with myself. Then I started thinking about my kids: my son’s christening, my daughter’s birthday. I just felt like there was a purpose.”
Cee recuperated and emerged from the near-death experience a new man. His reinvigorated spirit spread like a fire through an abandoned building in the AML camp. Newly revitalized, the group outlined their next album, a no-holds-barred affair. And no decision, business or creative, was made without forward-thinking consideration. AML suddenly had the confidence to lay everything out.
“In order to make this album the way we want to make it, we weren’t gonna cut no corners,” says Vital. “Nothing was going to get sacrificed.”
The title Jungle Gym Jungle came from an album track, one that Vital suggests is a larger theme, one that encapsulates their experiences.
“Everything relates to a circle,” says Buff1. “A jungle gym has all kinds of obstacles, ups and downs, peaks and valleys, that embodies the struggle.”
Star: “That name not only brought focus, but then the focus brought the elevation of the sounds we were getting into, and when we hit that niche, it just was natural. Making songs was not a problem. Everything started to flow.”
And flow it did.
Enter RJ Rice, head of Barak Records — the emergent Southfield-based hip-hop label, home to Slum Village, Phat Kat and BR Gunna. Rice signed AML to a deal that offered upward trajectory; distribution, finance and hope. Rice, who’s been around Detroit hip-hop circles for years, saw crossover potential in AML, and expects big things from the group, as do area fans.
Between October and January, the group recorded 40 tracks for Jungle (which hit the streets last month) and chose 18 for the final cut, splicing together the best of AML’s developmental stages. The results find — all review clichés aside — AML at their most authentic; it’s not a sell-out made for heavy radio play.
Where Sweats encouraged the listener to get comfortable, the attitude on Jungle is all about movement. It’s an aggressive, narrative-driven, day-in-the-life diary that shows a developing base of writing and emceeing. The beats are polished. Jungle is one of the strongest hip-hop releases out of the state thus far. Will it launch AML to a level of superstardom? Who knows?
The cadre remains cautiously optimistic that Jungle isn’t another in a series of AML test albums that tanks.
“The thing that has been running overwhelmingly through my mind has been that I really hope that people see this album as something different, something that they haven’t dealt with before,” says Haircut.
“I think collectively, this might be one of the top three hardest-worked-on albums ever in the history of hip hop,” adds Vital, with nary a trace of irony.
The young crew has a naïveté and cockiness that on one hand makes their music great (and “street”) but on the other could very well see them flounder. There have been myriad instances where they were unwilling to bend to the rules of the industry, and kudos to them. Achilles had his heel. Athletic Mic League has its pride. Too much of anything is always a bad thing.
But for all the unnecessary, preventable mistakes, AML stands expectant, heads held high. They look at their past with a fondness best told in joke form. They are self-deprecating ball-busters aware of their flaws and with the wisdom to do what it takes to fix them. Maybe their faults are working to their advantage. Maybe they’ve figured it all out. Maybe they will see success.
Maybe Athletic Mic League has finally reached the top of the jungle gym.David Valk is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]