My Dinner With the Starvin' Art Clique
More info on
For artists working in a town that is notorious for its indifference and even outright hostility toward homegrown hip-hop, the three members of the Starvin' Art Clique have accomplished a great deal in relatively little time. Since 1995 the group, which consists of 20-year-old MCs Christopher "30 Fingaz" Gittens and Robert "Hawaii" Russell, and 27-year-old DJ/producer Joe "Guess Who?" Davidge, has appeared on local radio, been featured in The Sun and City Paper, and released its first album, Starving Art, on Davidge's own Overkast Records.
On the self-produced album, both 30 Fingaz and Hawaii exhibit a lyrical density and maturity that belie their age. They engage true life with wordplay and metaphor for a result that works on several levels, and Guess Who? complements the duo's lyrics with beats and sounds. Instead of the typical stripped-down bass and drums that producers usually place beneath "reality" lyrics, Guess Who? swirls horn lines and piano around the griminess of the rhymes in way that is jolting but effective. Think Mobb Deep meets Pete Rock.
The Starvin' Art-ists recently sat down for an interview . . . over dinner.
City Paper: How did you all meet?
Hawaii: Well me and [30 Fingaz] have known each other since high school, so I guess about '92. We used to go back and forth in school rapping, just playing around. And we met Guess Who? in 1995.
Guess Who?: Yeah, the guy who was my partner told me about 30 Fingaz when I was trying to put something else together and [30 Fingaz] introduced me to Hawaii.
30 Fingaz: It started as a compilation with a lot of different rappers and ended up with just us.
CP: And what about the name?
30 Fingaz: Well, it's like, every MC that's not heard, every artist that's not represented, that's us. It's just the truth. We're starving, we're working trying to do this thing.
30 Fingaz: Old school. Back then, you could sample a beat and just kick a rhyme. Wu-Tang, RZA, Das Efx, Gang Starr--I felt that. When I heard them, I was, like, I need to rap for real.
Hawaii: Slick Rick, AZ, Nas, Kurtis Blow--all of them because they were where we're at.
Guess Who?: Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Primo.
CP: [To Guess Who?] You grunted when 30 said, "RZA." Why?
Guess Who?: The RZA is good at what he does. . . . I don't knock the next man, but, you know, I don't feel everything he does. He opened a lot of doors for real production, but I look at it differently.
Me and Hawaii were just talking about this. A lot of people can't appreciate how you have to craft a beat. Sometimes, I think RZA's stuff is choppy. I just think you have to pay homage to your art and study it.
CP: Listening to your album and considering the type of artists you all cite as influences, you can guess Guess Who? approaches hip-hop from a different angle than you guys. Does that cause tension?
Guess Who?: [Laughs] Yeah. . . . Hawaii and 30 Fingaz, these new-school artists . . . you know how Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever mainly because he studied the game from beginning to end? That's how I try to be. I study hip-hop from Cold Krush all to way to the current guys, trying to be the best I can be.
These new guys see people on TV and want to be a star. That's not hip-hop.
30 Fingaz: He's got a real one-track mind and so do I and we bump heads, but I think it works out. And when we beef, Hawaii always breaks it up with a joke or something.
CP: What are you listening to now?
Hawaii: I listen to the radio. Everything I would buy anyway is on the radio, so what's the point of buying something? I made myself a promise I wasn't going to buy anything until I could buy my [own] joint.
30 Fingaz: Wu and Canibus mostly.
Guess Who?: Illadelp Halflife by the Roots, the new Common, the Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, and Gangstarr's Moment of Truth.
CP: So what do you think about the Baltimore hip-hop scene?
Guess Who?: That's a long one. First of all, there's a lot of jealousy.
Hawaii: Yeah, people just pull each other down here instead of trying to build.
30 Fingaz: It's like no one understands that if one group gets on, the rest of us can build off of that.
Guess Who?: If you're not on the radio, you don't get no love. And it's impossible to get on the radio. If it wasn't for Morgan [State University] and [radio station] 88.9's Strictly Hip-Hop, we'd be in a coma.
And--this is my peeve--you got dudes who listen to hip-hop but then get to the club and want to hear club music just to see girls shake their asses. If you're listening to hip-hop on the way to and from the club but boo when they play it at the club, you're a hypocrite. But you know, we're just trying to maintain.
CP: How do you feel about the state of hip-hop in general?
30 Fingaz: I've lost a lot of respect. It seems like everything is sex or violence. Conceptually, if it's not about that stuff, the song gets no play. I mean, I'm not trying to be a role model or anything, but "Money, power, and respect is all you need in life"? What kind of message is that?
Guess Who?: Everybody is trying to live out this fantasy and I know they're not living like that because I know a lot of these people. It's like the first song on our album ["Rogue and Vagabond"]--my father-in-law thought that was thuggish, but that was really how I was living at that moment. It wasn't made up, and the end of the song shows how that lifestyle really ends up.