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It's a chilly Sunday afternoon in downtown Detroit. The members of Street Justice — Ketchphraze, Redd, DJ 4mulaOne and Jypsy Eye — are digging into McDonald's burgers and fries. Redd tears open a packet of ketchup and says, "Man, I ain't ate in 24 hours!" A loud affirmation rises from the other full mouths.
Although food's the focus at the moment, the group brims with positive energy and excitement. It performed a great show the night before in Ann Arbor with Phat Kat. Redd talks about the crowd: "They showed us a lot of love out there last night, y'all."
"They was feeling all of us," Ketchphraze speaks up between bites.
These are good times for Street Justice. The group's new recording project — This is not our album, thee album? — is nearly done. This year's Detroit Music Awards committee nominated the act for "Hip-hop group of the year," "Mixtape of the year," and "Hip-hop song of the year."
"All of this has been a long time coming," Ketchphraze says, "but there's a lot more to do."
Street Justice's latest underground hit, "What's Goin' On Motown is Back," is making rounds in local clubs and iPods. The Marvin Gaye-sampled tune is a dedication to Detroit's urban renewal, complete with shout-outs to fallen Detroiters Proof and J-Dilla.
In many ways, the group defines balance and chemistry: Ketchphraze is the heart and self-appointed punch line king; Redd is the brains and resident wordplay artist, Jypsy Eye the raw, skull-hatted and hoodie-wearing emcee. Add the calm personality of resident cutter and scratcher DJ 4mulaOne and you've a cross that falls somewhere between Jurassic 5 and Souls of Mischief.
What's strange is the group's sound works well for both the backpacker and thug. There are no gangsta tales, of course, but plenty of witty lyrics over hardcore beats.
Eye describes it. "It's like, 'I wanna love my mama but I also wanna smack this fool' kind of music," he says, laughing.
A quick backstory of Street Justice: Cousins Ketchphraze (Krishaun Stanton) and Jypsy Eye (Julian Hearn) first befriended Redd (Cliff Johnson) at Inkster's Wayne Memorial High School around 1997.
"I was a nerd in high school," Redd says, snickering. Then he boasts, "I graduated with honors — 4.0 grade point average and all that."
Eye wasn't so serious. "I was that brother that went to class every day but barely passed because I was always writing rhymes."
Ketchpraze finishes his last slurp of water, stands up, stretches, and talks of his football player days in high school before he decided to form a rap group in college.
"I was up at Saginaw Valley College, going to school," he says, "and I heard these dudes rapping. I thought they were all garbage, so I challenged them." He soon crushed all rivals and came back to Inkster, contacted Redd and Eye, and, by 2000, Street Justice was real.
"Its funny," Redd says, "but I didn't really start rapping until Ketch formed the group."
The group's lineup cemented when the guys met DJ 4mulaOne (Mike Rogers) at Alvin's in Detroit.
"They liked how I sounded and made me a part of the family," the DJ says.
Without glancing back, Street Justice went on to release three mixtapes in three years — 2003's Out for Justice; 2004's Soul Searching; and The Coffee House in 2006. You could find members of the group hawking CDs everywhere, from outside the city-county building to neighborhood Coney Islands. It became a livelihood.
"Me and Redd quit our jobs and lived off selling mix CDs for one year," Ketchphraze says. "It was tough but our rent always got paid — so, thank you, Detroit."
The three emcees and their DJ were then earning street cred at hip-hop open-mic nights at the Stardust Lounge, C-note and the Trolley Shop. They were sometimes hated on and ridiculed for having Inkster roots. And then that fake A&R dude tried to recruit the group.
Eye looks out the window and shakes his head. "Man, this cat named Ulysses used to throw these competitions to find the best performers at St. Andrew's Hall," he says. "He promised the winner money and a deal — but we won and we never got shit!"
A month after the contest, the band saw Ulysses on Fox News 2's "Hall of Shame" for pulling the same thing on others.
Welcome to the music biz, guys.
Eye's the most bemused over the ordeal, which might make sense as his is the group's hardest edge. He's a chain-smoker and the self-titled "Eddie Cain" (a reference to the fictitious David Ruffin-like character from Robert Townsend's thinly veiled Temptations movie, The Five Heartbeats) of the group. While he's never done jail time, he once lived as if jail or the cemetery were his only options.
"I went though a phase where the hip-hop thing wasn't paying off, so I had to do what I had to do," Eye says. "But people around me started to go down and I didn't want to go down with them."
Opportunities arose for Street Justice in 2007. In fact, the group supported Little Brother and performed its entire set with a live band.
"When you're local in Detroit, you gotta make people pay attention to you," Redd says.
Ketchphraze: "We opened for E-40 earlier this year and we hit the stage to Bell Biv Devoe's 'Poison.'" Using an early '90s hit as an entrance song got the audience chuckling but Ketchphraze says it was a perfect icebreaker for a crowd who normally would've ignored them.
The energy level has mellowed in McDonald's. Everybody has finished eating, drinking and belching. While the group is more than happy with what's going on; they see themselves becoming even more successful outside the Motor City.
"We wanna get to Europe," Ketchphraze says. "We've looked at the success Slum [Village] and others have had overseas, and we think that we have a sound they will really get into."
Redd's perspective is simple. "Everybody out there with a MySpace page and a mic thinks they're a rapper," he laughs, "but we want to be more than that."
Ketchphraze folds his arms and leans back in his chair. "We just wanna make a decent living doing music. That's the dream. That's the goal."
Street Justice plays Friday, Dec. 28, at St. Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress, Detroit. 313-961-8137.
Kahn Davison is a freelance writer living in Detroit. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.