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Back For The First Time

A decade after the Annexx Click's underground classics, K-Mack is still rhyming in the basement

Sam Holden
K-Mack is a literal legend in his own time.

By Al Shipley | Posted 7/22/2009

"I got people online from Germany," says Kevin Mack, the veteran Baltimore rapper better known as K-Mack. "In Switzerland, I got some friends. I chat with 'em all the time."

These online friends are interested in an old Mack project. In the mid-1990s, Mack signed a label deal with DJ Concrete and was paired up with MC Silouette as a group called the Annexx Click, and Silouette's smooth, jazzy delivery contrasted against his raspy bark to establish an immediate musical chemistry. The result, a 1995 album titled The Concrete Foundation Presents the Annexx Click and known colloquially around the city as "The Blue Tape," was a local underground sensation, selling thousands out of mom and pop stores. A decade later, its legacy is online and abroad, where blogs and message boards dedicated to unearthing regional obscurities from hip-hop's golden era have deemed Annexx Click's album and various 12-inch singles lost classics.

"I done came out with eight CDs since then, and people still talk about that one," says Mack, now 35. But there's no bitterness or regret in his voice, as he recounts his career from across a restaurant booth, talking between bites. Coming from his day job at another eatery, he laments the paltry Sunday afternoon tips, joking, "I'm sorry, the church crowd is just the worst crowd."

Although Concrete Foundation folded in 1998, in 2006 Mack reunited with Silouette, who has since relocated to North Carolina, for a new Annexx Click release, Tha Return of Da Blue. For the most part, he has been dropping solo albums, and still gets residual love from the group's old fans throughout Baltimore. "I think we get the respect more because people remember from back then," Mack says. "And they hear the new stuff now, and they say, 'Whoa, you got better.'"

Producer Banga Bill recalls those early days. "I remember back in '91 or '92, we grew up in the same neighborhood, so everybody 'round the neighborhood was like, 'Mack can rap!'" says William "Banga Bill" Merritte, a longtime friend. "And, see, back then, it was so unusual for you to hear that somebody took rap seriously."

After early stints in groups like F.O.T. (Force of Terror) and the Dome Swellaz, K-Mack's career took off with Concrete Foundation's first singles featuring the Annexx Click. Cuts such as his "Do or Die" and Silouette's "Can U Feel It" grabbed the attention of local hip-hop heads, and the 1995 full-length solidified their rep. "The 'Blue Tape' sold five thousand copies," Merritte says. "That was unheard of, even now, in Baltimore."

Mack says he and Silouette were hesitant to release what became their greatest success. "I tried to stop Concrete from putting it out," he laughs. "We were our own worst critics. So we was scared, we thought people were gonna say it was wack, because we had come up with better stuff."

At the time, rapping wasn't as well regarded as it is now. "People used to look at me like, 'How can you do that, you'd rather do that than this? You don't wanna hustle? You don't wanna sell drugs? You wanna rap?'" Mack says. "But now the same people that said that, they the ones that's into [rapping] now, because it's so easy now," he continues, shaking his head at the crowded field of younger MCs, many representing the "I'm not a rapper" school of unapologetically meager rhyming skills, that are now his peers and competition. "I live this," Mack says. "This is all I got."

A comparison that has come to trail K-Mack over the years has been that his gruff vocal tone is sometimes shockingly reminiscent of New York rapper Jadakiss. But then, given that Mack's recording career dates back to well before Jadakiss's ascent to fame, he can hardly be accused of biting, and is just happy to be mentioned in the same breath as such a respected lyricist. "I get it all the time," he says. "But it's a compliment. I know I'm doing me. They could compare me to Hurricane Chris or something."

After the Concrete Foundation years ran their course and Mack was a free agent, it was Merritte who pulled him back into music in 2001, a time when the MC was feeling lost and directionless. "I looked up at the sky and said, 'God, what is you doin'?'" Mack says. "And my hand to the man, three days later, [Merritte] came around the corner with some tracks that were fire. And ever since then, I ain't never met a producer like him that always wanna work."

The two had worked together on Merritte's early mixtapes in the '90s, when the producer was still primarily a DJ, but it wasn't until 2001 that they became long-term collaborators, beginning with Mack's second solo album, Street Chemistry. And after years of supplying beats for countless Baltimore rappers, including local radio hits for Mullyman and Barnes, without much compensation for his work, Merritte has begun to focus more of his energies on Mack's career and their label, Knokville Entertainment.

K-Mack's latest album, this year's Night Ryda, was recorded after a period of personal setbacks and musical inactivity for the pair. "'07 was a rough time for both of us, on my end and his," Mack says. "All the stuff that we were ignoring while we were chasing music so hard just came and got us, sat us down for a good year."

Much of Ryda is musically and lyrically dark and gritty, characterized by the moody orchestration of "Big Dawg" or the hammering drums of "What They Hate." Mack also finds a lighter side on "I Got Her," one of the first radio-friendly, female-oriented songs of his long career.

"The dark side of the album is 'night,' and the 'ryda' just explains that through all the pain of the album, we still pushin,'" Mack says. "And I just wanna clear that up because I don't want people to think it's on some '80s Knight Rider thing," he adds, laughing about the campy David Hasselhoff series.

Even though Mack's flow has evolved over the years, and Merritte's production is thoroughly modern and in keeping with the Southern direction of current mainstream rap, both are essentially purists at heart, yearning for the Illmatic era during which they came up. But perhaps the reason their new music is just so perfectly consistent with Mack's back catalog is that it was recorded at the same home studio where he and Merritte had recorded tracks for mixtapes more than a decade ago. "We did Night Ryda back at my mother's house, no distractions, anything," Merritte says. "It was like startin' all over again, in a familiar place."

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