Music » Interview

Mix and Match

Assorted artists turn hip-hop production into a spectator sport.

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"I want to see hip-hop on Austin City Limits," declares Tommylift, the organizer behind a series of producer-based jam sessions. "I want people to respect it and listen to the beats." Within moments, he proves his reference to the rootsy PBS showcase isn't arbitrary. He unpacks one of the rhythm beds on his computer to reveal a Johnny Cash arpeggio and six varieties of train sounds, no doubt recorded just outside his West Bottoms studio. Dusty Springfield peeks across the room from a worn album cover. "I love Americana," he says, and narrow definitions of that concept simply melt away.

Tommylift comes by his eclectic perspective naturally. "I grew up in Independence, in a real different zone," he explains. "We had the pit bulls and the Camaros." Already a fan of the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, he embraced hip-hop completely after seeing the b-boy East doing windmills on the floor of the short-lived downtown club Rumba Box.

Tommylift quickly became acquainted with hip-hop's other three elements: rapping, DJing and graffiti art. A high school saxophonist and bassoonist as well as a member of Drum Corps International, he makes beats with the enthusiasm of a musician freed from past limits. An eloquent rapper, he used to front a group called Meat and Potatoes, which featured a stand-up bass and harmonica. But many people know him by his trail of spray paint. Along with Gear, Scribe and Inc., Tommylift (then Mick) cofounded Flavorpak, one of Kansas City's most ambitious and successful hip-hop collectives. Tommylift sees that tradition as the foundation for his current effort, the Chop Shop.

"The idea of the Chop Shop is to bring the different camps together and bring live musicians together with hip-hop producers," he explains. "Rather than having DJs spin hits -- and I'm never knocking DJs; they're just amazing -- the music is all made by people from the area. It's nothing you've ever heard before. Four producers play off one another. One guy plays some of his material; then, after five minutes or so, another guy fades in his stuff. Live instrumentalists -- DJs and at least one other -- scratch responses and play along with the tracks. It's like a jam session with the producers. This would have been impossible a few years ago because of all the massive equipment that was necessary. But now the PC has made it simple enough to shine a light on this area of hip-hop that hasn't gotten the recognition in the past."

At past Chop Shops (there have been four), members of groups such as Sky Burial and TJ Dovebelly added everything from theremin to scratched 8-tracks. This time, St. Louis' Art Thugs bring the live instrumentation, with Mr. Ish on keyboards, Midwest DMC champ DJ K-Nine on the turntables and producer Grilla supplying the beats. All of the attending Art Thugs played together in the band Jive Turkey, and they're looking forward to recapturing the spontaneity of their previous funk-based incarnation.

Grilla got a taste of the Chop Shop the opening night of the Next Space's current hip-hop-flavored art show, Breaking It Down. With the Art Thugs in attendance that night, Tommylift and Grilla took part in a little live rehearsal. "I've never done anything like this before," he says. "I've been to producers' forums before, but those are more like listening parties. This will be more of an event with the DJ and keyboards going the whole time. It gives producers who might not be releasing CDs right away a chance to let others know what they are doing."

One of the most exciting qualities of Chop Shop No. 5 will be the participation of one of Kansas City's premier producers, Icy Roc. Once signed to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' Perspective Records along with Tech N9ne and Lo Key, Icy Roc scratched along with Big Daddy Kane on 1992's Mo' Money. The story of how Jam and Lewis mishandled this venture is more or less legendary on the Kansas City scene, but ultimately both Tech and Icy Roc only became more determined and professional in their work as a result.

Roc is fed up with the lack of mainstream support for the local scene. "You drive just down the road to St. Louis, and the radio stations actually play the local artists, and I don't mean just Nelly." It's that lack of support that makes loyalty within the local hip-hop community so vital. Though he wasn't sure what to make of the Chop Shop idea, his longstanding friendship with Tommylift was reason enough for him to do it. "I'm just doing it to get it out there and see what people think of it."

And that desire to bring friends together simply to share what they're doing is as central to Tommylift's design as any other individual element. "So many of us know each other around here but we never really hang out," he says. "I want to change that with the Chop Shop." Boston-bred Mike Boogie, who is the fourth producer in this lineup, has already offered to host the next Chop Shop outdoors at his home in Lee's Summit. "We'll have a live drummer," Tommylift says. "We'll have a barbecue ... it'll be perfect!" Now that's Americana.

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