As a rapper with a conscience, S.U.N. — Scientific, Universal, Noncommercial — makes music at a time when MCs who seem to care about the world are easily typecast. Backpacker. Bohemian. Positive rapper. There is one title of which S.U.N. is particularly proud: Underground.
At a ripened 34 — an age when most rappers are starting to fade — S.U.N. is hitting his stride. Yet he does not have a deal with a national record company. His first two solo albums, Shining Underground and The Art of S.U.N., were distributed and promoted by Silent Records, a local distribution company run by Marc Kempf, one of the first men to work with the ever-controversial Eminem.
S.U.N. says he prefers to be an independent artist, free of the middleman and the weight of huge debt and artistic compromise associated with major-label deals.
“My thing is trying to do it from the underground,” S.U.N. explains. “Ten thousand CDs, it seems like a lot but it’s not. But it is. If you can accomplish that, that’s a hundred grand in your pocket, more or less. That’s my thing, just trying to keep it underground, man.”
S.U.N.’s messages, deeply philosophical and often cryptic, evolved from the years he spent struggling to hold onto personal aspirations, despite troubles at home.
The MC was a public housing kid in Ypsi, the youngest of three boys in a fatherless home with a mother who was always working. When drugs migrated from Detroit to the satellite townships, his older brothers became crack addicts. Theirs became career addictions. S.U.N. says one is still consumed by the drug. The other should be out of prison soon.
S.U.N. says the close proximity of destructive addiction — and the lifestyle that comes with it — showed him exactly what to avoid in life. So he began dabbling in hip hop, and in 1988 he joined the Army, serving four years in Washington, D.C.
Upon his return, he learned that some friends had started a crew called the Union of Brothers United. UBU was a promotions squad that mainly threw parties. The group evolved when S.U.N. and a partner, Brother Browne, decided to apply the name to their music. They released a cassette single, “Deep Space,” in 1993.
UBU’s first album, Radical Spiritual Aggression, dropped in 1995. “That was like real low-budget, like a four-track mission,” he says. “But you know, back then you strivin’ for anything.”
The album was lauded locally, but S.U.N. didn’t think Brother Browne’s work ethic was strong enough to carry them out of Ypsi, so he went out alone.
Explains S.U.N., “He was the beat provider, and his motivation wasn’t like my motivation. I’m like, ‘Man, why don’t you just do some beats, ’cause you ain’t on your writing like I am.’ He didn’t wanna do that. So I’m like, ‘Dog, I just ain’t feelin’ you, ’cause you ain’t puttin’ the time and effort into really tryin’ to do this.’”
A solo S.U.N. linked with up-and-coming producer Tink Thomas and recorded Shining Underground. He introduced another young MC on the album, a white female from Ann Arbor named Invincible, who eventually would gain underground acclaim in her own right. The couplings were bold moves at the time, the beginning of what would become a strong union between S.U.N. and Ann Arbor artists like Athletic Mic League and Funktelligence.
On the strength of Shining, S.U.N. built followings in Chicago, Cleveland and parts of Indiana. Airplay ensued, including college radio rotation on stations from Michigan to Minnesota to Walla Walla, Wash.
The following and the airplay gave S.U.N. more confidence to march to his own drumbeat. He certainly knows the downside of the independent route, but nothing can match the artistic liberation and freedom.
“How successful has it been for me? As far as monetary, not at all. But monetary don’t really mean nothin’. I’m blessed to sustain a nice comfortable lifestyle without that. But my whole thing is tryin’ to get that message out there.”
The Art of S.U.N. was released earlier this year. In our interview he revealed displeasure with the way the album was promoted. He didn’t like Kempf’s promotional strategy; Kempf said he was on some “big business shit,” which involved the rapper getting lumped in with artists he’s not so fond of.
“He was messin’ with too much garbage, as far as Uncle Ill’s garbage,” S.U.N. says, matter-of-factly. “And I told him a few times, ‘Man, you can’t wrap me up with this old Bizarre shit or all this other shit. You have to do my shit separate — because what I do is totally different from that.’ That led me definitely to the next project.”
Said project, titled Uni-Verses, is, according to S.U.N., “goin’ a whole different route.” The disc should drop sometime early next year.
I relayed the rapper’s sentiments to Kempf.
“Your questions prompted me to call S.U.N.,” Kempf says. “He and I had a heart-to-heart talk about areas of improvement and plans for his next CD. We will switch our business plan and it was agreed that Silent will distribute Uni-Verses along with his current albums.”
Uni-Verses promises to be S.U.N.’s most esoteric album to date. The Lab Technicians, the production team fueling Athletic Mic League, manned the boards for all but one song. AML’s DJ Haircut is excited about S.U.N.’s record. “Each song has one verse. It’s crazy,” he says.
S.U.N. says the messages in the songs won’t change in the sense that “God put his hands on me, as far as me recognizing that God is in me. We all have it. It’s just about you recognizing and extractin’, and it manifestin’. Not on no preacher or religious-type thing, but just recognizing that realness, that godliness within you.”
All things reflective, all things esoteric, all things S.U.N., will shine at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555) on Nov. 28. S.U.N. is known for his live performance, and consistently draws great crowds when performing at home. After the show, it’s back to the lab to finish putting the shine on Uni-Verses.
Barak builds a small army
Barak Records is quietly setting itself up to be the next breakout indie company. Already boasting the success of Slum Village and Dwele, the label headed by R.J. Rice is preparing to release Phat Kat’s solo debut, The Undeniable LP, overseas this month. A U.S. release is slated for January 2004. Meanwhile, all three artists are embarking on a 26-city tour. Ann Arbor’s Athletic Mic League has also signed a distribution deal with Barak for its Lab Technicians imprint.
Blackman makes history
Detroit world jazz duo Blackman/Arnold is on hiatus, but Sean Blackman is not. He is taking out the second of two mortgages to pay for a historic two-day recording session that took place two weeks ago at the White Room at Griswold and State. Blackman spent the last five months writing songs with local musicians Mady Kouyate and Pathe Jassi. He then flew in such greats as engineer Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club, R.E.M., U2), Assane Thaim (Yossou N’Dour, Peter Gabriel), Larry Fratangelo (Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aretha Franklin, George Clinton) and jazzman Wendell Harrison. In all, 12 musicians and a live studio audience spent two six-hour sessions recording songs for Blackman’s upcoming solo debut. It was a marriage of music from Cuba, Brazil, West Africa, Armenia and Detroit. Blackman has not announced a release date for the as-yet-untitled project. What he has to show at this point is an emptied bank account, a lifetime of memories and high hopes that you, dear buyer, will appreciate his work with your money. Look for the new album in 2004.Khary Kimani Turner covers the hip-hop beat for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]