Friday, February 12, 2010

Armstead Brown Interview

Stilltown recently had the time to catch up with hip-hop activist, and one of Pittsburgh's most gifted musicians, Armstead Brown. Whether it be as part of the band at the weekly Release Open Mic, or as a music producer who supplies the heat, Brown has been an integral player in the progression of Pittsburgh hip-hop. His most notable contribution has been to Rhyme Calisthenics, the Official MC Competition. The various categories of the competition demands an MC to add new elements to their artillery. After what many considered to be a disappointing final battle in Rhyme Cal 8, the team has decided make some crucial changes to the competition.

Rory Webb: First and foremost, what is your opinion of the end result, a tie between MC’s Real Deal and Mista Scrap, in Rhyme Cal 8?

Armstead Brown: I realize from an audience’s perspective you always want there to be a winner and a loser so I realize it may not be the freshest end result for some. But I have to commend Real Deal and Mista Scrap for agreeing to split the grand prize and demonstrate that kind sportsmanship, especially for 2 MC’s who, as far as I know, have never worked together or even met. I don’t mind there being an asterisk next to Rhyme Cal 8 when that asterisk is a reminder that there’s room for more than one winner in this city. Having said that let me put this out there, THERE WILL BE NO MORE TIES IN RHYME CALISTHENICS.

RW: What’s your opinion on subject matter and/or sensitivity in regards to an MC battle?

AB: My opinion is that battling comes from a long tradition of signifying, jazz cutting contests, snaps, momma jokes and so on – so it’s the continuation of a part of our culture. Battles are also a celebration of free speech and a fat middle finger to the notion of censorship. So I don’t have any problems with battles being no holds barred and anything goes just as long as the primary intent is to destroy your opponent verbally. Battling, at its best, is a skillful art form that has a number of components to it – punchlines, metaphors, wordplay, comedic timing, hyperbole. But there is another component to battling – the creative and clever use of stereotypes. Racial and gender stereotypes have always been among the tools used to emasculate and humiliate your opponent. Having said that I also believe that battling still must be about originality, wit and cleverness. And in Rhyme Calisthenics we hold our battle round to the same standards as all the rounds that precede it. You can’t get to the battle round by calling someone a faggot, a bitch or an Ethiopian. So I don’t think anyone who’s relies on these phrases in a battle should expect to win Rhyme Cal or even a regular battle for that matter. I do think that you can be creative with stereotypes, and I think the more creative you are with stereotypes the more accepting people are when you go below the belt – because they understand that the stereotype is just a vehicle for demonstrating one’s mastery of the craft. So to relate this to what happened at Rhyme Cal 8, I think some folks including the judges felt that Deal and Scrap’s battle verses weren’t fresh enough, weren’t original enough to justify all the racial lines and gay references. And I tend to agree. But in Deal and Scrap’s defense I think they were both just kinda burned out by the end of the night, both of them are way better than that last round – their reputations will tell you so. I found the final battle disappointing but not offensive.

RW: How do you plan to prevent a similar situation from recurring?

AB: The simple answer is to say that we’ll have an alternate judge on hand in the event that one of our judges walks out at any time during the competition. We have also developed some contingency plans in the event of a tie. For instance, if somehow there is a tie in overtime of the final round then the winner will be the MC with the most cumulative points from all 4 rounds.

RW: Will there be any other changes made to the Rhyme Cal schematics?

AB: YES! Stretch and I didn’t create this competition to find out who the best battlers are in Pittsburgh. We created this competition to bring the fun back into hip-hop, to bring back the improvisation, the experimentation and originality. We created this competition to encourage MC’s to think and flow outside the box and then use that experience in everything else that they create. So with that said I’m about to shock everyone and say that we’ve decided to replace the battle with a different kind of final round. That’s right you heard correct – no more battle round. Now, we do realize that battling is a part of hip-hop so we have incorporated battle into the game in other ways that I think will really satisfy the crowd’s need to see MC’s get at each other from time to time. And “Comp Killer” will still be on the wheel – and that’s always fun to watch. I’m not gonna say what the new final round will be – y’all will just have to come to Rhyme Cal 9 to find out. And there’ll be a few new challenges on the wheel as well.

RW: When the idea for an MC competition came about, what were your initial short-term and long-term goals?

AB: When we first created Rhyme Cal all we had were short term goals. We wanted to create an event that allowed MC’s to work on their craft, not just a showcase or an open mic, but an event that had various exercises for MC’s to work on their stage presence, their freestyles, their vocabulary, etc. That was the goal – to bring MC’s together and have them feed off each other’s creativity and improvisation – something that cats just did naturally in the golden days of hip-hop. Looking back I’m surprised we stuck with it because the first 2 events were not successful at all. With Rhyme Cal 3 I think people started to understand what we were trying to do, we were finally able to recruit enough MC’s and attract an audience. That’s when we started thinking long-term about how to make this a staple within the scene. So far we’ve done 8 competitions, 1 All-Star Competition and 1 College Team Competition. We’ve had over 55 MC’s from the region compete and most recently we created a monthly open mic, The Boom Bap Effect, for MC’s and producers. And then we’ve got Rhyme Cal 9 coming in April and then the release of the Rhyme Cal mixtape shortly after that.

RW: What are your expectations for a Rhyme Cal competitor? Are they different for a first-time competitor, as opposed to an experienced Rhyme Cal vet?

AB: One of the things we expect competitors to do is come prepared. There’s a saying that goes “Opportunity favors the prepared mind.” If you’re going to play a football game you stretch your muscles before you play. The same goes for our competition – those who work on their punchlines and topics beforehand tend to perform better. That’s why we called it Rhyme Calisthenics – because it’s all about the exercises you do to make yourself a better MC. We do have different expectations for veterans and first-time competitors. It’s the job of the veterans to set the bar and show the first-time competitors what a well-rounded MC looks like. We also want the veterans to really showcase their skills and make the competition fun for the audience. And for the first-time competitors – we expect them to show up with an open mind. We expect them to watch the veterans and really listen to the judges’ feedback. We expect these things of them because we want them to come back and do better the next time.

RW: Can you talk about a particular MC or two that has emerged and developed in the competition?

AB: Well, Zone was an interesting competitor, he definitely came out of nowhere and surprised all of us. And then there’s Mac Miller who played in 4 competitions and has really been able to use Rhyme Cal as a platform for demonstrating his skills and widening his fan base. These 2 cats already had a strong skill-set so Rhyme Cal was really just an opportunity to develop their audience and show people they could rock the stage. Then there are cats like Jonny Quest. Jonny has competed three times and has certainly improved as a competitor but more important than that he has really taken the experience and infused it into his lyrics and his studio work. In other words, his Rhyme Cal experience has helped him develop as an MC and for me that’s the most important outcome. And that’s part of the reason why you see Jonny developing a good buzz right now, he’s got a good promotional game and has the lyrics to back it up.

RW: You mentioned that you’ve been working on a Rhyme Cal mixtape. How will the music reflect the competition?

AB: Well, the mixtape is connected to the competition in a few ways. First, most of the MC’s on the mixtape are cats who have played in the competition; there are a few exceptions however. Second, the production team for the mixtape is Shade Cobain, DJ Huggy, DJ Vex and myself – the same team that holds down the events. Third, and most importantly, the mixtape is going to reflect the same topics and challenges that exist on our wheel. We want people to understand that the topics on the wheel aren’t just a bunch or random challenges we came up with – they are real hip-hop based challenges – they are skills that actually apply to real rap music. Being able to tell a story (Storytelling), being able to spit a message (The Message), being able to spit 16 bars on someone else’s song (Cameo), being able to freestyle (Crowd Topics, Grab Bag) – these are real rap skills that are worth developing. What better way to work on these skills than to create a mixtape? And it’s exciting to see cats step up to the plate and really grind at coming up with some fresh verses. It’s also exciting to see work on something that involves a lot of MC’s throughout the scene. I think this mixtape is gonna be an important moment in Pittsburgh hip-hop. No matter what it’s gonna be a fresh project.

RW: Aside from Rhyme Cal, you are an active musician in the city of Pittsburgh. To the producers of the world, can you explain the importance of being able to read and understand music?

AB: Well first let me say that there’s something to be said about hip-hop – it’s one of the genres of music that has created a community of producers who don’t know how to read music but who are extremely talented, and in every sense of the word they are musicians. I think that’s where a lot of the soul of hip-hop comes from – it comes from cats who cop a beat machine or a sampler and just start banging away until they have something fresh. In hip-hop it’s more important to have a good ear and a good set of smacking drum samples than it is to be able to read music. But in the last decade hip-hop has become much more keyboard based. There’s a lot more synthesized sounds in hip-hop. And a lot of producers, even those who still use samples, also use keyboards to add synths, basslines and piano parts to their tracks. So for that reason it becomes a real asset to be able to understand some basic music theory. It expands your vocabulary of musical ideas. It also allows you to collaborate with instrumentalists like violinists, horn players, and bass players. If you understand music you can speak their language and be able to explain to them the type of melody or chord progression you’re looking for. If you look at some of the real successful producers who have emerged in the last decade – Kanye West, Illmind, Black Milk, they all have a real strong understanding of the basics even though none of them actually play an instrument or read music. And then there’s a cat like Scott Storch who’s a beast on the piano – one of the reasons why he dominated the game for a few years. In fact if you look at Dr. Dre’s entire production team, it’s a whole gang of dope hip-hop bassists, keyboardists, and guitar players. Being able to make beats and understand music allows you to cross-over into R&B production – and being able to do both really well puts you in a position to make a lot of money.

RW: In December of 2007, you released the album Fieldwork, which was locally acclaimed. Do you have any current or future marketing plans to help expand your listening audience?

AB: A lot folks may not realize but I’ve sold over 500 Fieldwork albums and that’s not including digital downloads. That’s no record or anything, but I’m just saying it’s out there – and it’s still available at 720 Records and on itunes if I can give a quick plug. I also have some things in the works for re-marketing Fieldwork with some new twists. And in addition to the Rhyme Cal mixtape I’m also working on a new project – no release date yet but I’ll keep all y’all posted.

Armstead Brown - "Fire," from the album Fieldwork

Armstead Brown featuring Subconscious aka Subcon - "Fieldwork," from the album Fieldwork

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