|More from Jonathan Cunningham|
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Pop quiz: Which Detroit neighborhood spawned more lyrically gifted hip-hop talent, Conant Gardens or P-Rock (Plymouth Road)?
Well, Conant nurtured the original Slum Village (T3, J-Dilla, Baatin, Que D and Waajeed), Amp Fiddler and Frank N’ Dank, but P-Rock has its own roster of heavyweights. Freestyle gorillas like Elzhi, Fuzz Scoota, B-Flatt, Lo Louis, F.O.D., 31 Flavors and Wasted Youth still call it home. They might not all be international celebs like the Conant crew, but the guys of Wasted Youth talk up their hood at every opportunity.
And from Wasted Youth’s upward trajectory — which sees a new record deal, three forthcoming albums, and a blossoming Midwestern (and international) fan base — P-Rock artists might soon see some shine.
And so it is that we’re on Plymouth Road with Anthony “Big Tone” Jackson and Nicholaus “87” Alexander from Wasted Youth (third member, Marlow “Loose Cannon” Green, is otherwise engaged), boozing it up at Starters Lounge. And it’s easy to see which neighborhood these emcees think has a leg up for the future.
“Dog, you got so much talent over here in this neighborhood, it’s ridiculous,” Big Tone says between sips of Hennessey and shit-talk. Tone’s features do his moniker justice; he’s tall, light-skinned and hilarious. “Older cats you might never hear of, like Swing Lo and B-Flatt, were just so inspiring to me back in the day. This neighborhood was my introduction to hip-hop unity.”
Busy flirting with waitresses and charming his way into sparking a cigarette in the “No Smoking” section, 87 occasionally weighs in with a comment. The emcee, who’s charismatic like Dwayne Wayne from A Different World but has the flirtation skills of The Cosby Show’s Cockroach, finally, once the waitresses steps away, fires up his Djarum.
The Wasted Youth story begins at childhood bus stops and basketball courts in the early ’90s. They didn’t hook up through a love of hip hop or drug deals, as most crews claim; they were pals first. Then, in high school, the three emcees would hit Maurice Malone’s fabled Hip-Hop Shop on Saturday afternoons for battles. Their rhyming styles intrigued one another and a musical camaraderie developed. The trio’s path since has been fraught with enough hardship, rewards, and hood sagas to fill a new Donald Goines novel.
Those familiar with Wasted Youth’s sound might not know that they first gained local notoriety as solo artists and producers.
While rhyming under the name Hodge Podge, Tone released a six-song EP (Ear Candy) in 1997, which caught the attention of local star producers (including Jay Dee and Carl Craig) and became a Detroit underground classic.
“Hearing that album in its raw form for the first time, it was like the second coming of the true producer/lyricist from Detroit,” says Lacks, aka Ta’raach, who helped mix Ear Candy with Tone. “He [Tone] was so authentic you just knew he was the truth.”
Lacks and Tone collaborated numerous times over ensuing years, most notably with the underpublicized Breakfast Club, which also included Elzhi, 87 and soul crooner Dwele. Despite the group’s underground rep, Breakfast Club released one collection (Really) in 1998 in a limited run of 60 cassettes (try finding that one on eBay) and soon split up. Its members have since moved on to bigger projects.
“Those Breakfast Club years were the best hip-hop years of my life,” Tone says with an old-man’s sigh.
“Those shows we rocked, up at the Blind Pig and at St. Andrew’s, were crazy,” 87 says in agreement, “They taught us a lot about rockin’ in front of a crowd.”
As for Loose, rapping wasn’t nearly as promising as the idea of playing college ball.
He relocated to Tallahassee in 1997 and tried out for the Florida State University football squad but tore up his knee. Everyone who knew the emcee then (including Waajeed, Lacks and Nick Speed) says his production and lyrical skills were remarkable.
“Towards the end of high school I started getting more interested in football than rhyming, but my heart was still in music,” Loose says in a separate interview. “I tried to keep it balanced, but when I was down in Florida I ended up working on beats when I was supposed to be training.”
Loose returned home slightly disheartened in late 2001. While in Florida, Loose had missed Tone’s minor run with Carl Craig’s Anecdote Records, and the majority of Wasted Youth’s first EP, 2 Minds 1 Block, which was basically recorded in one 10-hour session. (Tone and 87 stalled an extra day to involve Loose on the project — he appears on one song.)
The record went bananas. During the 2002 Detroit Electronic Music Festival, the weekend 2 Minds 1 Block was released, the EP got steady play by DJ House Shoes, DJ Tony Tone and others in local clubs, bars, and cabarets. The original pressing of 300 sold out quickly.
The EP spread Wasted Youth love here and abroad with the help of Waajeed’s Bling 47 Web site, which made the album accessible. They started getting e-mails from touched listeners in Croatia, Japan and parts of Africa.
Living back on P-Rock for the first time since 1997, Wasted Youth’s career was looking good. But money soon became scarce and so did the group’s focus on music and, uh, life’s more positive side. Tone worked menial temp jobs and became riddled with self-doubt while Loose and 87 hit the streets and “hustled.”
Then, in a timely Behind the Music moment, came the life-changing car crash.
In fall 2002, while Wasted Youth was house-squatting near P-Rock, they went from selling “product” to doing it. They don’t mention their drugs of choice, but Tone and 87 say they went beyond reasonable limits.
One night, while the three were driving to the liquor store, a speeding car ran a stop sign and plowed directly into the group’s ride. Tone suffered fractured facial bones, 87 went unconscious and Loose had severe whiplash. The injuries weren’t life threatening, but sans health insurance, they skipped the emergency room. Tone let his fractured face heal slowly and painfully without a doctor’s eye.
During recovery, the trio dove into the writing and beat-making process. The accumulated lifestyle stresses of street hustling and the lingering physical and emotional pain from the accident informs much of the forthcoming album Teen Spirit. The record is dark, bitter, and reflective of a “fuck the world” attitude — a mind-set that they say was unavoidable.
Loose likens the tone of Spirit to a pack of hungry pit-bulls scavenging for their next meal. “I don’t want to call it bitterness, but you can tell we weren’t enjoying life back then. And somehow, the music came out dope.”
“I was in so much pain back then — I think my diet consisted of ramen noodles and alcohol,” Tone says. “My face was all swollen, and then I had to get on the microphone and rap. Dog, everything I spit for this album sounds pissed off.”
Wasted Youth is excited about Teen Spirit, and they’re still taking label offers for its release. In the meantime, Tone has been finishing The Drought — his debut solo album since inking with the Seattle-based ABB records. And 87’s debut album View From T.O.D. (Top of Detroit) is nearing completion and should be out midsummer. Loose, on the other hand, says he’s contemplating selling his gear and quitting hip hop, at least for a while. But 87, who has known Loose for more than a decade, thinks he’s just talking shit.
“Well considering the fact that I’m the one who would probably buy the equipment off of him, it’s probably a good thing,” 87 says, laughing. “This is family right here. Through it all, we gon’ keep looking out for each other no matter what.”
Saturday, March 5, at Shenanigan’s (3216 Carpenter, Hamtramck; 313-892-6018).
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Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to email@example.com.