Tucson hip-hop artists pioneer their own sound

Innovation not imitation solidifying rap reputation
2013-05-16T00:00:00Z Tucson hip-hop artists pioneer their own soundGerald M. Gay Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Local hip-hop artist Marcus Meridox wasn't on stage for more than five minutes Friday night before moving down the stairs and into the audience at Plush on North Fourth Avenue.

Without missing a beat, the emcee made his way into the crowd, his right hand clutched around the microphone pressed close to his lips and the rim of his blue Milwaukee Brewers cap casting a shadow over his eyes and forehead.

Words flowed freely as the eclectic crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, standing in a semi-circle around Meridox, bounced and swayed to the music, absorbing every inflection with fevered enthusiasm.

"Make some noise, Plush," Meridox shouted amid an onslaught of his own sharply-written lyrics, eliciting screams and cheers from across the venue.

Meridox, who goes by Big Meridox and Big Ox among other stage names, is part of a much larger hip-hop movement that has developed in Tucson over the last decade.

Artists such as Meridox, the Jivin Scientists, Isaiah Toothtaker and Cash Lansky have raised the profile of the city's scene to new levels.

Toothtaker, owner of the Staring Without Caring tattoo parlor and co-founder of the hip-hop collective Machina Muerte, has received national attention for his collaborations and lyrical abilities.

Other local artists, including Meridox, have toured regionally and are recognizable names in major hip-hop hubs like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.

"We work harder than any other city to be known, as far as hip-hop," Meridox said. "We make a lot of noise out here."

Tucson's reputation has been further solidified with an increase in national acts coming to town.

In the next few months, the Old Pueblo will see an influx of shows featuring a who's who of artists from different rap backgrounds, including Big Boi from Outkast, Krizz Kaliko and the Kings of The Mic Tour next Thursday, that will showcase performances from Public Enemy, De La Soul, Ice Cube and LL Cool J.

Meridox, a Philadelphia native and Tucson High Magnet School teacher, has been performing in town since the late 1990s.

His dad was born and raised here, while Meridox bounced between Tucson and Philadelphia in his youth. Meridox remembers creating lyrics with his cousin when visiting town in the mid-1980s, using beats from Run DMC and Public Enemy tapes.

"I was always good at writing and expressing myself," he said.

Meridox didn't get serious about his music until he moved to Tucson permanently, performing with the Red Dirt Specimens before setting out on his own.

Today, you can find him at regular hip-hop-friendly venues around downtown such as Plush and Mr. Head's on North Fourth Avenue and opening for high-profile artists playing local spots, including Lauryn Hill and the Wu-Tang Clan.

He is slated to appear when Big Boi performs at the Rialto Theatre on Monday.

Meridox said the city has come a long way since his arrival, and he has been happy to be a part of that.

"It has its own identity, whereas it didn't have that before," he said. "In the past, it had to cling to East Coast and West Coast hip-hop. We are now developing our own sounds."

Those sounds vary, incorporating elements from several different hip-hop subgenres, Meridox said, a blend that he and his friends have dubbed "swap meet hip-hop."

James Owens, the emcee for another longtime local group, the Jivin Scientists, said the fact that the Tucson sound is so different from artist to artist is a strength.

"Across the board, if you were to put all the people who make music here in Tucson down on a piece of paper, the palette is so diversified," said Owens, who goes by the stage name Runt. "Because it is so open, we can book a tour, take five acts on the road, and each act will sound completely different."

Owens followed his brother - Jason Owens, aka DJ Deeko - to Tucson from Gallup, N.M., in 2002 where he and Ryan Troncoso, another member of the Jivin Scientists who goes by the name "Phen," went to high school together.

"We were small-town kids trying to do music in a real small town where nobody cared about it," said Owens, 29. "My brother would tell us about the scene going on down here in Tucson. About people rapping and the shows being held."

The group has released seven albums since forming, with additional member, Nate Nelson, joining in 2008.

For the last six months, the Scientists have been working out of their brand new studio on the second floor of The Underestimated City clothing shop downtown.

They spend their days creating and helping other artists hone their styles.

Owens said having the studio has reinforced his belief that Tucson's hip-hop scene is both viable and diverse.

"There are a lot of people coming and going from here, doing completely different things, that I didn't know existed until they came in," he said.

Owens said the group has thought about leaving town for larger markets in the past, but they have no regrets about staying.

"It was the smartest thing we could have done," Owens said. "It gave us our sound. If we had moved to Los Angeles or New York, we would have sounded like rappers from those areas. Because we were here in Tucson, we were able to develop our own thing."

Nelson, whose stage name is Soundsmith The Programmer, said he moved from Minneapolis, Minn., to Tucson because of that freedom.

"Minneapolis is considered a hip-hop mecca, but there is a lot of imitation and not a lot of innovation there," he said. "Here, it is completely different."

Owens said while Tucson continues to build a reputation as a hip-hop stronghold, it isn't there yet.

Tucson doesn't have the same clout as cities such as New York, Los Angeles or Houston.

"Because we are not from a bigger city, we are not able to yell that we are from Tucson," he said. "People don't hear that right away. They have to dig a little deeper."

Owens said that while the Jivin Scientists have developed a strong network of friends and associates across the Southwest, locally the bonds could be better.

It is a common sentiment shared among local hip hop artists.

Aaron Yepiz, a DJ at KXCI (91.3-FM) has gone as far as organizing hip-hop-based events in an effort to bring local performers together.

In April, Yepiz, helped put together the Second annual Hip-Hop Unity Barbeque at Kennedy Park.

The event brought in more than 100 emcees and DJs from across Southern Arizona for an afternoon of food, music and networking.

"It was a good event," said Yepiz, who hosts "Blazin' @ 3 in the AZ" Tuesday mornings on KXCI. "We were able to show artists in other cities that a town like ours can unite as far as the hip-hop community goes.

"It can be hard. It seems like there is always an obstacle. There is a lot of competition and a lot of infighting and politics."

As far as the Jivin Scientists are concerned, they hope their studio will help continue to bridge the gaps locally.

The plan is to keep working with artists who come in for production support, but to also hold workshops that will help up-and-coming acts learn the ropes.

"We feel an obligation to mentor and provide what was provided to us," Owens said.

Meridox believes that the changes needed to bring hip-hop to the next level in Tucson will come.

"I think it will reach a positive level," Meridox said. "We'll eventually start seeing that in order to make this scene move forward, we need to help each other out."

Hip Hop CALENDAR

• Friday - Cash Lansky's Birthday Dance Party at Club Congress.

• Monday - Big Boi at the Rialto.

• Next Thursday - Kings of the Mic Tour with LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul at Casino del Sol's AVA.

• May 24 - Flobots at Club Congress.

• May 26 - Cryptic Wisdom Civil Tour at Club Congress.

• June 1 - Insane Clown Posse at the Rialto.

• June 11 - Geto Boys at the Rialto.

• June 12 - Summer of Strange Tour with Krizz Kaliko at the Rialto.

Big Meridox

facebook.com/pages/ BIG-MERIDOX/113846683369

The Jivin Scientists

jivinscientists.com

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@azstarnet.com or 807-8430.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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