The two rappers who took the floor at the Peanut one Sunday night in early January sure as hell weren't uneasy with themselves, despite the fact that everyone in the 21-and-up bar was several years their senior.
Both clean-cut and almost well, OK, totally nerdy-looking, the two members of Anti-Crew, 19-year-old Jeffrey Shafer and 18-year-old Matt Peters, are arguably the most successful, most talented and most hardworking teenagers on the Kansas City rap scene. They've not only released a professional-quality self-produced album but also been selected recently by an East Coast promotions company to open for some of the biggest names in rap. They'll perform five shows this year, supporting the likes of Fat Joe, Ludacris and Redman.
Jeffrey, who MCs as FlareThaRebel, is the younger brother of Phil "Sike Style" Shafer, the DJ, artist and promoter whose Style Network Cru helps keep this faction of local hip-hop alive and bumpin'. In 1989, Shafer's family moved to Kansas City from Brooklyn, where his father, Douglas Shafer, was a real-estate broker and head of an organization that promoted racial equality in the housing market.
Peters goes by the moniker DJ Eternal and wears an omnipresent baseball cap and glasses plus a wispy, Errol Flynn-like mustache and chin fuzz. Born and raised in Kansas City, he is the son of Steven Peters, who played bass with the Kansas City Symphony. Peters makes the beats, and Shafer comes up with the lion's share of the lyrics. The Crew works mostly spitback or tag-team style, trading verses and frequently rapping in unison, a dual assault of moralistic, hyperenergetic hip-hop.
Live, Shafer and Peters are like advanced math students run amok. With Sike mixing the beats, Anti-Crew took the floor at the Peanut confidently, getting the crowd to make noise without even asking them to. The level of energy that Anti-Crew injects into the room is surprising to anyone who's heard their album but not seen them live. It's not that the CD is boring, but its title, The Progressive Movement: A Step Forward, sounds like a Bill Moyers book. And songs that eloquently bash gun violence, Republicans and mainstream culture don't seem like choice party material.
The audience that night would disagree with that notion. And those in the crowd who knew about the group's recent history were even more fired up by the duo's slamming performance. Because on the night of September 6, burglars shot and killed Matt Peters' father in his Independence home.
It was the fifth time in six months that burglars had tried to break into the house. Cops figure the thieves were after Steven Peters' gun collection. Differing accounts from the perpetrators have left the night's events unclear, but Steven Peters apparently shot one of the burglars in the right arm before (or possibly after) getting shot himself.
Steven Peters' death shook the symphony, which performed at his funeral. Understandably, his death also hit Anti-Crew hard. Steven Peters was a strong supporter of his son's musical endeavors who not only taught his son music theory but also tapped into his scant funds to provide him with instruments, including a $2,000 sequencing keyboard. He opened his home after his divorce to the rap group Disciples of Hip-Hop, in which his son and Shafer were members.
"He would let all six of the Disciples come over at any time and record songs and work on music. He'd tell us to be quiet sometimes," Matt Peters says, laughing. "But anytime we were trying to do something, he was willing to help out."
Steven Peters lent his bass skills to the eighth track on Progressive Movement, "Dial Tone," a lighthearted groove about failed teenage romance. Now the song stands as a poignant final collaboration between father and son.
Peters learned of his father's death on the first day of classes at Columbia College in Chicago, where Shafer also is a student. As a result, he missed the first semester. But now he's back in school and performing in Kansas City on breaks. News of Anti-Crew's selection as part of the big tour helped restore momentum during a dark period. "This tour was a huge blessing for us," Shafer says. "Steve Peters' passing was hard for all of us. The tour symbolized that we still had a lot going for us."
The dates Anti-Crew was supposed to play in January were canceled, but the Crew is still scheduled to open for Fat Joe on May 12 at Norfolk State University in Virginia. After that, Peters and Shafer will open for Ludacris at Texas Southern University in Houston on September 8 and then warm up the stage for Redman at a club in New York City on October 6. As of press time, the January dates have not yet been rescheduled, so the Crew is guaranteed two more shows. The schedule leaves a lot of time between tour dates, but in the meantime, the Crew will definitely have its hands full with school.
The duo started gaining admirers in high school when the Disciples broke up and Peters and Shafer formed Anti-Crew. In their senior year, they dropped all extracurricular activities and vowed to release their album before graduation.
"In our high school, people had seen us doing this music for so long, and we just wanted to be able to reach everybody," Peters says. "High schools are really big social groups, they're close-knit, so having it released in high school [was important] because everybody would know about it everybody we'd known for the past half of our lives."
"That was a big part of our target audience," Shafer, ever the marketer, adds.
Finished just before graduation, Progressive Movement contains a number of collaborations with local rappers who have been mentors to Anti-Crew. In addition to fellow former Disciple Qan, scene luminaries Approach, Joe Good, CES Cru, Vertigone of the Guild, and Lucid of Human Cropcircles all make appearances. Trystyl of Archaic Academy produced two of the songs, and JKR70 helped out on another. But most of the record is filled with the Crew's own aggressive rhyming and Peters' simple, heavy beats.
Anti-Crew's work ethic has awed the scene. Even among the ranks of professionals twice their age, it would be hard to find anyone as determined or sure of themselves. Mike Viglione, the 26-year-old who raps as Ubiquitous in CES Cru, is quick to sing Anti-Crew's praises. "I can't tell you how impressed I am, mostly because they've accomplished so much in so little time," he says. "They're so young. They're doing the same sort of thing I'm doing, but they've gotten so far so quickly out the gate. I try and take notes from them, honestly."
When asked if they ever experience self-doubt, the two respond humbly but surely. "If I get thoughts like that, it's maybe me trying to be more realistic, trying to keep myself grounded," Shafer says. "I really think I was meant to be doing this. I don't know how far it's going to take me, but I'm certainly going to enjoy it while it lasts."
"So many things have happened and just fallen into place," Peters adds. "I'm not a big believer in, like, destiny and things like that, but it certainly feels like this is what I'm supposed to be doing right now."
Because Anti-Crew is allowed to bring four members on tour, the two have chosen to repay the scene that brought them up by inviting different KC rappers to perform with them at different shows on the big tour. Joe Good will kick it with them at the Luda concert, Qan and Talysman of the Disciples will join them to open for Fat Joe, and CES Cru will have the honor of throwing down before Redman.
But for all of their willpower and success, Peters and Shafer still aren't too far from the spunky sixth-graders they were when they met in math class. They crack up recounting the story of how the teacher made Shafer move to the seat behind Peters, then a stranger to him, because Shafer had been talking during class. Still feeling mischievous, Shafer took his pencil and poked a mole on the back of Peters' neck. When Peters whirled around angrily, Shafer struck an Arthur Fonzarelli pose, pointing his fingers and saying "heyyyyy."
"I thought Matt was a dork," Shafer says with a laugh. "In middle school, I had no idea he'd be living in my house."
"We didn't know each other, and we were in the same class," Peters says, "but if someone were to have pointed across the class and said, 'See that guy over there? You're going to open for Ludacris with him,' I'd have been like, what?"