Team-ups aren't exactly rare in hip-hop, especially at a time when guest artists seem to be featured on every single that climbs the charts.
What's considerably less common are successful collaborations among already-established performers. Apart from Gravediggaz — the horrorcore supergroup that got along well enough to put out four albums — most hip-hop summits are, at best, fly-by-night operations. For that, you can blame any number of factors: artistic differences, raging egos, or maybe just a reluctance to split profits, assuming there are any.
All of which brings us to A Black Day, the Colorado Springs project that features Jayoin from Mad Trees, Kevin Mitchell from Fidel RedStar and Accumen, Hott from Audible, and Milogic from the Sound Powered Engine crew. While the four emcees are still largely unknown outside this area, their collective résumés cover most segments of the Colorado Springs hip-hop community.
Now the group is ready to establish its own identity with Undercast, a 16-track debut that can arguably stand up to any other album, hip-hop or otherwise, that's come out of southern Colorado.
It also feels like an album. Boonie Mayfield, who worked with Kevin at Independent Records and went on to rack up some 5 million YouTube views, provides stunningly inventive beats and backing tracks, while Natasha Spence, aka Itsrealight, contributes a guest vocal that's equal parts Missy Elliott and Big Mama Thornton.
Through it all, socially conscious themes and razor-sharp rhyme schemes flow together without the emcees losing their individuality. Kevin Mitchell, who started out in Accumen with future ReMINDers co-founder Samir Zamundu, offers up some provocative verses, including this one:
"Look in the mirror like nigga please / Let it go you're in misery / Dreams are dreams, but use that degree / See money don't grow on trees / But it falls like leaves."
In terms of longevity, the odds have always been stacked against groups like A Black Day. But they've clearly got talent and enthusiasm in their favor, as well as a welcome tendency to boast more about each other than themselves.
A Black Day will be playing a CD release show Saturday at the Triple Nickel, after which they'll head to Denver's Summit Music Hall on March 22 to do the same. The Indy recently caught up with the four emcees to talk about battle rap, patrolling Baghdad, and bringing local hip-hop's undercurrents to the surface.
Indy: A Black Day came together at a time when you were all involved in other hip-hop projects and scenes. How would you say this group differs from your previous work?
Kevin: Well, when it comes to Fidel RedStar, we didn't have as much organization. With A Black Day, we communicate a lot better and we plan things out. I'm not knocking my former bandmates, but we were kind of all over the place, which drives me nuts.
Indy: All over the place musically?
Kevin: Not really musically, but just like, "OK, let's get rehearsals together, let's plan for the future," and then it was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, tomorrow." You're doing it for the love of it, but at that point it becomes a hobby. And there's nothing wrong with that, but if you're trying to do it full-time and trying to feed your family, you have to be real smart about your business.
Milogic: We've seen the failures of a lot of groups: what doesn't work, the falling-outs and things like that. And we're just like, we're not gonna have that, you know? We're like-minded individuals who are gonna come together and make something happen.
Indy: One of the first things you notice about the Undercast album is that it all sounds really integrated, instead of a series of different raps strung together. Were there groups you listened to growing up who influenced that approach?
Milogic: If I had to make a comparison, it'd be Tribe Called Quest and Def Squad, you know what I'm saying? I'd also put Poor Righteous Teachers up there.
Jayoin: On a lot of the album, I'd come into the studio with lyrics already written, and then I'd listen to whoever went before me. And it'd be like, OK, I have to start over. It didn't matter what I wrote at home. I'd hear what he wrote and I'd have to keep up with that.
Kevin: It all comes down to the chemistry. You know, you're trying to be better. But it's not about being better than each other, it's being better for each other.
Indy: I want to ask about the group's name. Our language tends to associate the word black with negativity: You can practice black magic, blacken someone's reputation, be the black sheep of the family. Angel food cake is white, while devil's food cake is black. How would you say the name A Black Day fit into all that?
Hott: Well, I'd like for our audience to separate us from those traditional connotations. At this point, hip-hop is actually embracing darkness for some reason, and they're trying to promote that image. So as soon as you think of a black day, you start to form one image, but when you hear A Black Day, it has nothing to do with that. And that begins a conversation.
Jayoin: For me, I think of "black" as going beyond skin color and race and all that. I think of black as being serious.
Milogic: Drama sells, but we're not presenting drama. People will come up to you and be like, "Oh, you're having a bad day," and everybody wants to hear all about it. But when you're having a good day, people are like, "Whatever." So the name might give a certain impression, but then when they hear it, they might get something out of it.
Indy: So when one of you brings an idea to the table and it doesn't fly with everyone else, what happens then?
Jayoin: Usually, we'll have a good silence. [Laughter.] You'll send something to everyone else on Facebook and it's like, "Check this out!" And then it'll say, "seen by everyone."
Hott: And no one says anything.
Jayoin: So usually after that cricket moment, you move on to the next beat.
Indy: In terms of your backgrounds, are there commonalities that you all have?
Jayoin: I think we've all got a dash of military.
Milogic: Yeah, I was in the Air Force for six years. I'm from South Carolina, so I was a Southern boy ...
Kevin: That means the military.
Milogic: And my dad actually played heavy metal down there for a long time, back before I started doing music.
Indy: Would I know his band's name?
Milogic: It was the Brown Ash Group, that's what they called themselves. They just made one record. But yeah, I can still hear them, I still see the lights, and the way people would react. My dad had freaking leather pants and his hair slicked back, you know what I'm saying? And then he just put me on to a whole lot of music. Gospel, blues, I got a pretty big musical background.
Indy: Jayoin, didn't you spend time in Iraq?
Jayoin: Yeah, yeah, I enlisted in 2006 and I deployed to Iraq in 2007. I was there for 15 months, patrolling Baghdad every day, looking for stashed weapons. You know, pretty much walking around the streets trying to stir things up. So we'd walk out there and wait for somebody to either try to blow us up or shoot at us.
Indy: So you were basically like targets?
Jayoin: Yeah, pretty much. We tried to help the people while we were doing it, but you're pretty much just stirring the community up, walking through these big crowds and trying to find the bad seeds.
I was a forward observer, which means I called for artillery, I called for mortars. I called for a lot of illumination rounds so we could move more effectively at night. You see them sometimes down by Fort Carson, and people like to think that they're seeing UFOs when they see those lights just kind of floating around up there.
Indy: How did all of that affect your writing?
Jayoin: I think that it added a little bit of anger, a sense that I'd made a decision in my past that's gonna affect me for the rest of my life. So whenever I write, I always try to keep that in there, that sense of not going back to where I was. Because after going through what I went through, I feel that we shouldn't have been over there, but I got myself into a situation of needing to provide for my family.
And at the end of the day, I kind of feel that I survived. Because I got a lot of friends that didn't want to be there either, and they're no longer with us. So it's like a badge I carry with me when I do music. I just try to keep it together, because I know it's something that I have to deal with by myself every day, and music helps. When I get up, and I'm able to write some lyrics and then scream them live, that makes me feel better.
Indy: Undercast has a much more overtly political undercurrent than other local hip-hop albums. Do you all see eye-to-eye on most social issues?
Jayoin: I think our group kind of transcends politics. Because no matter who's in office, we're pretty much gonna stay on the path of that struggle, and we're not expecting anybody to save us. We're just gonna talk about what we can do to change our community and have a better life.
Indy: So what can you do?
Kevin: Well, my biggest thing is to always be the example. It goes back to what Jayoin was saying. We're not waiting for anybody with a red cape to come down and save us.
Indy: Of course, naming a band Fidel RedStar does suggest some political connotations.
Kevin: Well, I was raised in Texas and my dad was a Vietnam vet. He didn't get paid that much, but he wanted us to live in a good neighborhood, which was a predominantly white neighborhood where I was one of probably three black kids there. So being in those surroundings, you were having to defend yourself always, maybe not physically, but mentally.
So my parents would make me read and study my people and gain pride so I could walk into that school and not be, like, in this shell. Because whatever happened, Kevin was gonna keep his head up. So you know, you study Malcolm, Martin and Huey as a little kid, and that gets into your bloodstream.
Indy [to Hott]: When you were growing up in Syracuse [New York], was there a local hip-hop scene there?
Hott: Yeah, but it was actually polluted with gang violence, and a lack of camaraderie and community. There was no sense of the whole squad effect that we have — where we come together and we collaborate — because you had so many cliques and gangs and bunches of people who hung out and said they were artists, but they really just sat around stagnating and basically clogging up the air with nothing. I feel like coming out to Colorado offered me a bigger sky, if you will, to expand and spread my wings.
Indy: In terms of the local scene, there's not much in the way of gangsta rap here. Instead, we've got the Sound Powered Engine emcees, there's Black P's Brass Knuckles gang, and the ReMINDers, who are pretty much self-contained. How do you see all these scenes fitting together?
Jayoin: I think we've got an underground scene that's trying to get its voice out. In Colorado, you can't be gangsta, because people would laugh at you. I mean, there are gangstas here, don't get me wrong, but for the most part, if you were trying to be Mr. Gangsta Gangsta, it would really turn people off.
So what you end up with is people who want to be musical, but they also have this angst and they want to be heard. And then on the Black P side, it's more commercial, and it's OK to play your whole CD behind you onstage. In some circles that's accepted, and in other circles it's not.
Milogic: So there's entertainment, and then there's actual performance.
Jayoin: And I appreciate the entertainment value of it. And maybe it's a little bit out of jealousy, but when you're playing a vocal track behind you, it doesn't matter if you're singing another song, it doesn't matter if you're saying the alphabet.
Hott: Or if you're holding the mic away from your face.
Jayoin: Right, you can put the mic down and jump in the crowd and you're still rapping.
Indy: There are dance deejays who are also like that. You put your hands in the air like you just don't care, because you really don't care.
Jayoin: Personally, I always think it should be a tightwire act where, if I forget my lyrics, I'm falling and there's silence and the crowd's looking at me, and now there's this gap. Because error is a commodity, and that drives me to not mess up.
Indy [to Milogic]: As a primarily solo emcee, how much does freestyle improvisation play into what you do, versus rhymes that you've already planned out in advance?
Milogic: Well, I initially started as a battle emcee, so it was all about taking out your enemy and doing whatever you have to do to get to the end. And that's how I met Jayoin initially, at 32 Bleu, which is where the Thirsty Parrot is now.
Jayoin: Man, I unfortunately ran into that unmovable object back in 2004.
Milogic: Yeah, I ended up winning that battle. But I freestyle all the time, like literally, especially when I was back in the military. I lived on Peterson [Air Force Base] and would drive to Falcon, so I had four instrumental CDs in the car that I'd switch out and just come up with lyrics off the top of my head. Although there's times, you know, when I'm spittin' my written.
Indy [to Kevin]: I want to ask about Accumen, the group you and Samir had before he started the ReMINDers. I understand you two were brothers-in-law.
Kevin: I met their family when I was stationed in Belgium — they're Belgian-African — and I married his sister, who was my first wife. So I've known him since he was 10.
Indy: And you were how old then?
Kevin: I was 21, so I was kind of like a big brother to him. We started a group in Belgium, and when me and his sister moved back to the States, he came and lived with us in Texas. Then his mother married an Air Force gentleman, and we all ended up moving up to Colorado Springs.
We'd already started writing again, but it didn't really blossom until we moved here. So I'll always have that love for Colorado Springs, because it birthed me as a musician.
Indy: You two did some rapping in French back then, but I haven't heard much of that since. Have you intentionally cut back on that?
Kevin: Well, I mean, it is my second language. So I do French when I feel it goes, but I don't try to put it in. It's not like, "Let me kick this in French!" But if it fits, I'll go with it. I recorded a solo song recently where I was trying to be seductive, and to me French is one of the most seductive languages. Even though they're a really mean people. [Laughter.] I'm just joking.
Indy: In terms of the album's beats and production, are the keyboard parts by Boonie Mayfield as well?
Kevin: Yeah, he plays and composes.
Jayoin: There aren't a lot of samples. We don't want anybody coming up to us saying, "Hey, man, I wrote that back in '72." And Boonie Mayfield's always done a great job of making original music sound like it's sampled. He's the type of guy who, instead of using Ableton or something to make it sound like a Rhodes [keyboard], he's gonna use a Rhodes. Instead of using a sample that sounds like a '70s bass, he's just gonna get an old bass from the '70s and play it.
Kevin: But he didn't make the beats specifically for us.
Jayoin: No, we selected them out of his collections. But sometimes stuff just happens. And Boonie just had these different changes throughout the music where it actually fit our personal styles.
There'll be points where it's like double time, with a lot of dotted notes, and that's where we've got Hott coming in. We've got different strengths, so when the music changes, we're able to change with it.
Indy: During the year or so you've all been together, the group hasn't done all that many live performances. Will that be changing now?
Kevin: Yeah, we'll be playing out more now that we have product and we have merchandise. I don't think the anticipation would have been there if we had done too much. But we did have to find that balance, because we drifted for a little bit, and you don't want people to be going, "Oh, are they still doing something?"
Milogic: And we learned from the mistakes of other people. You know, they'll do five or six shows in one month, and people can go out and catch you anytime.
Kevin: So you're gonna hear a lot more — maybe not always in the Springs, because we have to branch out — but we're going to do a lot. You know, it's hard to do a show and people who dig you are like, "Hey, where can I buy a record?" And you're like, "Uh, next year, when it comes out."
Indy: "Just go to our bandcamp site."
Kevin: Yeah, exactly. Nobody's gonna remember that. You know, it's like meeting a businessman you want to work with and not having a business card. So we learned and are trying to be smart about it.
Jayoin: Yeah, these guys, Milogic and Kev, are big on the strategic side.
Hott: Me, I'm just hyperactive. But yeah, we're always trying to empower each other, you know what I mean? That's the commonality that everybody shares, is the love of hip-hop.
Jayoin: And that's just something that's so constant, and that we recognize in each other. From Accumen to Audible to Fidel RedStar ...
Hott: We could literally put together our own festival, just from the four people right here.
Jayoin: And that's where we're taking it to next. Our goal is to expand like the ReMINDers have done, but in our own way. We respect everything that they've done, but we're gonna take a different route. And then, you know, maybe we'll all get to high-five somewhere nice.)