For The People provides unlikely link between hip-hop and holistic medicine
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In 2001, two Baltimore brothers, Ali and Atman Smith, and their friend Andres Gonzalez started the Holistic Life Foundation. "We're a nonprofit, and we do after-school programs and mentor programs," Ali, 31, says about the program, which they run out of the Druid Hill YMCA, and which birthed the local record label For the People Entertainment.
He's talking during a relaxed, private get-together for the label's many artists and producers in Suite, a lounge in the basement of the Belvedere, where the crew has previously held concerts. "The big thing is, like, holistic health," continues the large, soft-spoken man with a shaved head and bushy beard. "Like we do a lot of yoga programs, we do a lot of environmental advocacy. We do a lot of anti-gang stuff, a lot of community stuff, but [expose] people to the other side of it."
You might think any downtrodden Baltimore neighborhood would welcome such a noble endeavor with open arms, but it was difficult at first for three twentysomething men, two black and one Hispanic, to gain everyone's confidence or raise funds for the project. "People looked at us, and we were so young, you know what I mean, that they were like, 'We don't wanna give you a big chunk of money, because we think you're gonna run off to Jamaica or somethin' with it,'" says Gonzalez, 28. "They were so surprised that we were over here tryin' to help the community."
But soon Gonzalez, who raps under the name Cutthroat, realized that there were several members of Holistic Life with musical ambitions, including William "Billo" Lunsford, 25, and Cornelius "Bear" McMurray, 29, and hatched an idea. "We got talent, [the Smith brothers] had friends like Billo and Bear, and all the other artists and the producers. It's like, hey, we should start this entertainment thing, hopin' we can do shows and stuff like that that'll accumulate money, and so the business so that we can run our programs for the kids and we can get like a youth center and stuff like that," Gonzalez says.
In early 2004 the trio founded For the People Entertainment, a promising record label with a full roster of rappers including Billo, Cutthroat, Bear, Ace, Lil Shank, and the duo Yuk and Cut. Collectively, the artists on the label released nearly a dozen self-distributed albums and mixtapes over the next four years. The Smith brothers, while still active with the Holistic Life Foundation, became integral to the operation of the label.
"Everybody's really talented, so they make my job real easy," Ali says. "So I just, I can book shows, stuff like that."
It's a diverse group of guys, ranging in age from 16 to 31, all representing different neighborhoods. "We from all over the city," Ali says. "A few people from East Baltimore, me and my brother from West Baltimore, like, north of Smallwood."
The youngest member of the crew, teenage rapper/producer Lil Shank, initially came into the fold as one of the students they'd mentored. "He actually still comes back to our after-school program and mentors the younger kids that we work with, so it's kinda like he's giving back," Ali says.
"I remember when he would come [to] our program, he would show me books," Gonzalez says, laughing as he recalls that Shank would fill up his notebooks with song titles before he was even writing any lyrics. "He'd, like, have 18 sheets of white notebook paper stapled together, and it'd be a picture-he'd be drawin' himself in a hoodie or whatever."
Eventually, though, Shank did start writing. "And it was the coolest thing," Gonzalez says. "And I knew, out of all the kids in our programs, everyone wanted to rap, everyone wants to be a rapper, but you knew he was the one that was real serious with it."
Lil Shank is also part of the label's four-man production team-alongside Nacktronics, Auz, and Sketch-that provides For the People with its distinctively warm, organic sound. While most independent hip-hop artists fill mixtapes with "freestyles" over beats from mainstream hits, For the People releases feature almost exclusively original productions. "We don't do no instrumentals," Billo boasts. "Make a note of that, we don't do no rappin' over other industry tracks."
Shank, hunched over a laptop full of music files in Suite, is asked how many beats he has on the computer, and he estimates roughly 200, while others figure that the entire production team has nearly a thousand tracks at the ready for the label's artists to work with.
Billo, perhaps For the People's best-known artist, went by the nickname the Hood Rockstar for years before hits like "Party Like a Rock Star" made the phrase an inescapable cliché. And he plans on burying that alias with the February release of his third album, Death of a Rockstar: Kurt Cobain Edition. "The 'rock star' thing is dead, believe that," he says. "People are never gonna hear me say that ever again."
The new year is quickly shaping up to be a busy one for the label, with both Yuk and Lil Shank working on solo debuts and several other artists releasing their second or third albums. And although both Cutthroat and Bear have solo releases set to drop early in 2008, the project they speak about with the most excitement is Silent Flutes, an upcoming collaboration between both rappers. Not unlike the Wu-Tang Clan's many homages to kung fu movies, Bear took the inspiration and title for the album from the unproduced Bruce Lee screenplay The Silent Flute, and he and Cutthroat quickly found that they worked together well as a duo. "Our styles are so different, I think that's why we make it so much better," Gonzalez says, contrasting his politically conscious lyrics with the street perspective of Bear, a former ABA basketball star who flashes a gold tooth when he grins. "It's gonna be amazing, man," Gonzalez promises.
In addition to the solo artists and duo formations on For the People's roster, all the MCs on the label work under the name Squadre Committee for live performances and posse cuts. And though one of the label's first releases was a sampler of all its artists, credited to the group's name, there hasn't yet been an official Squadre Committee album, and it appears that the thought had never occurred to the crew. When that question comes up, everyone's eyes light up, responding immediately, "That's a fantastic idea," and, "That would be the greatest album ever." By the end of the night, the Squadre album is being mentioned in the same breath as other finished projects, despite the fact that it hadn't even existed in theory an hour earlier. And quickly it becomes apparent that that's how this group of friends has always operated, enthusiastically discussing pipe dreams until they become a reality. ★