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Kinda Like Something Big

Under Sound Music keeps it tight and thinks big


Michael Northrup
Under Sound Music denizens (from left) Zen, Zu, and E Major keep their cool.

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Under Sound Music

E Major performs at Red Maple Feb. 9. For more information visit undersoundmusic.net.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 2/3/2010

"Independent rap" is a fraught term in Baltimore. Besides the glaring fact that almost all rap is independent here, there are a great many so-called "independent rappers" in the city, playing to frequently different crowds in different parts of the landscape--and rapping based on wildly different experiences. The shared root is simple and--from MC Height to Wordsmith to Labtekwon--oppositional: Indie rap isn't violent or thuggish or meant to harm. Swagger, sure; girls, can't get away from 'em; whack MC take-downs, someone has to do it.

But that doesn't mean local independent rap, by and large, has much to do with other independent rap, off paper anyhow. So, one gets caught up looking for a happy medium--sharp, intelligent rap that appeals across the city's many virtual boundaries. Look at the Get 'Em Mamis, for example, taking both Station North and West Baltimore by storm. And look at Under Sound Music, one of the vanguards of a particular middle ground of waiting-to-burst Baltimore hip-hop. In other words, post-The Wire hip-hop.

At the core is an affable MC who goes by E Major--Ian Mattingly to the government--the foundation of the tightly curated and focused label Under Sound. The label's first release in 2005, Breaking Ground Vol. 1, wasn't about E Major at all, though. It was, rather, a compilation of powerful local independent rappers and producers: Wordsmith, Parts Unknown, Ab Rock, Bigg Patch, Cappadonna, and many more. "A lot of the point of it was to shed light on amazing artists in the area," Mattingly says on a recent chilly evening in a Mount Vernon pub. "Give them a little bit of a spotlight. You know, Baltimore is putting out great hip-hop, and here it is."

And the record proved to be a powerful boost to Under Sound's name, owing in large part to the presence of Cappadonna, a sometimes part of the Wu-Tang Clan who briefly called Baltimore home. "We had some pretty crazy [press] features on Breaking Ground," says Ashante "Zen" Saunders, one of the three Under Sound partners. "We had Cappadonna. We had Odyssey. They were hot at the time. We just work with a varied group of people."

After Breaking Ground did just that, Under Sound contracted rather than expanded. "We want to work with people we know or like," Mattingly adds. "We definitely don't want to get into anything where we're [doing] contracts with artists or anything."

The trio call Under Sound a "boutique label," which is another way of saying a very small one. Right now, besides, E Major himself, the primary players on Under Sound are DJ Impulse and Eddie, an exceptionally wide-eared producer whose heart would seem to belong to J Dilla. Aaron "Zu" Keeny, the third member of the Under Sound trifecta--which met while attending Carver Center for Arts and Technology--has an instrumental hip-hop record due sometime this year.

"People can't believe that half the stuff we do is done by just three people," Mattingly says. "And that's always been really important to us. Our mindset from the very beginning has always been that we're not going to just be a Baltimore label. We're going to be national, international. It was never, 'Oh, we'll just sell a couple thousand slim-case mix CDs at Five Seasons and we'll be happy.'"

By the time of 2008's landmark release from E Major, Majority Rules, Mattingly and the label had turned from another Baltimore rap label/act to a Baltimore export. Importantly, it flew in the face of the accepted wisdom in these parts that a rapper has to get signed to a major label or is otherwise condemned to a life taking turns at the mic at Club Reality.

"It's weird," Mattingly says. "I think our idea of how to get known was so simplistic. It was go to the shows, just be there. Let everyone see you. It was just like open-mics and chatting up promoters until they listened to my music and put me on [a bill]."

This week, E Major's Major Major record drops. And like most of what he's released, it's a mixtape, combining a small number of Impulse-produced original beats with a whole lot of freestyles over classics and--hey, why not?--Lady Gaga's "Pokerface." "Kinda Like Something Big," built from a Clipse track, dominates with only Mattingly on the mic, but in the Under Sound spirit, the mixtape's rife with guests: Cynthia Hawkes, Madaz Godfree, Dre Beloved, and other rappers and vocalists from Baltimore's formidable hip-hop middle.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the hip-hop MC Wordsmith was misidentified as Wordsworth in the original version of this story. City Paper regrets the error.

E-mail Michael Byrne

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