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Hip hop today is all about scads of cash, gleaming cars and glittery jewelry — you know, the “bling-bling” of shiny diamond necklaces rappers like Fat Joe wears that are worth more than most people’s houses. Even a street-bred New Jack like 50 Cent calls his record Get Rich or Die Trying. Clearly, for rappers, success has never been so important — or so one-dimensional. Which is why Ann Arbor’s DJ Graffiti (aka Martin Smith) has set about the ambitious task of playing, producing and recording hip hop that isn’t just about sippin’ bub in the club. His own label is called Bling Free, he says, “because we shine on our own.”
The U-M business school grad and law student stresses that bling-free doesn’t mean vowing a life of poverty, only one of responsibility. “It means we take care of our priorities — that we shine as people before and after we have money.”
Through Bling Free, Graffiti releases mix tapes of underground hip hop from Detroit and around the country — the same kind of street-savvy tapes that launched the career of 50 Cent and are such an essential part of the hip-hop tradition. His latest, Bling Free, Volume 2, features tracks by such underground luminaries as Jurassic 5, J Live, Athletic Mic League, People Under the Stairs and Mr. Lif bumping beats with a range of Detroit artists, including Slum Village, Dabrye, One Man Army, S.U.N. and Royce da 5’ 9”. Amid the disc’s solidly mixed and scratched-together songs are four Graffiti originals, including “Underground Raw,” featuring Eminem protégé Obie Trice.
Graffiti admits Detroit’s mix-tape scene still lags behind more established hip-hop cities like New York. “But Detroit does have a mix-tape scene,” he insists, citing DJ Butter, King Dave, Drunken Master, DJ Physics and other longtime champions of new artists and underground tracks. “It’s just not as developed as other places. It’s like if you don’t know a DJ or see one at a show with a backpack full of his CDs, or selling them out of the back of his car, you may not know they’re out there.”
To that end, Graffiti brings his business and legal shrewdness to the game. “Mix tapes aren’t like bootlegs where you’re including the whole song; it’s just like a 2-minute snippet of a track,” he explains. “But unless you have the right legal background, it’s hard to put one out legally. And where some DJs are really good at putting out an image, they don’t have a marketing force behind them.”
To this latter end, Graffiti founded his own company, Rapture Enterprises, LLC. He won’t give specifics on what his plans after graduation are, but he will say he has struck a deal with a major music marketing company to work with him, one that has the promotional and financial muscle to put Detroit mix tapes on the map. In the meantime, Graffiti’s intelligent-but-not-too-smart-for-his-own-good take on hip hop and the music biz has been making waves beyond Detroit. Los Angeles’ Urb magazine, the musical bible of all things young and baggy, gives props to Graf and his bling-free credo in its March issue.
But beyond his business savvy, Graffiti has the musical chops to strike a balance between the DJ as educator and jukebox. A jazz percussionist in high school, Graffiti performed at the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival. But growing up in Oakland County, Graffiti was drawn toward being an underground “backpacker” hip-hop fan for his more indie-minded spirit. When Graffiti started to DJ in Ann Arbor as an undergrad, he learned how to rock a party as much as teach about lesser-known artists. But as Bling Free, Volume 2 shows, Graf can move between a bulbous DJ Jazzy Jeff track extolling the love of rap, right into an MC Lyte a cappella over a Truth Hurts heat to show just how fun the game can be. And in a city as ripe for its own mix tape heroes as Detroit, Graffiti is showing he’s got skills on all fronts — legal, business and musical.
Hobey Echlin scratches and mixes words for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.