Fear, Loathing and Underground Hip-hop

An inside look into underground hip-hop. (Click to view)

An inside look into the world of underground hip-hop. (Click to view)

THE APARTMENT WAS CRAMPED. When I opened the fridge for a glass of water, I found a half a can of Beck’s beer and some indistinguishable lunchmeats. The kitchen table, which also happened to be the work desk, was covered in ashes. Rolling papers flew around the confines of the room as wind blew through the open window. A modest dwelling, endearingly artistic and unassuming. The floor though was spotless. Maybe he eats off that floor, I thought to myself. The place was boring. Save for the Dali paintings that hung on every wall, you could call it hopelessly banal. This is the environment in which Lupo Tha Butcha – furtive underground rapper – pens disjointed thoughts onto dirty pages, which are then recorded in dark booths around the city. This is the life of an underground rap star.

“There’s really no money in it,“ says Lupo, through a mouth full of Portuguese chicken and rice. “I do it now for peace of mind. To put out a body of work.”

When Lupo raps, it’s as if a demon has come unbidden from his larynx. Rhymes escape his mouth in baritone roars. The intonation peaks and ebbs, going through stages of spastic neurosis to almost meditative ease. You could speculate he’s hit some rough patches over the last 26 years.

He’s a paradox. His subject matter can be brilliantly mindless. Lyrically, there’s no pegging his style. He’s too varied. But one thing remains uniform in all of his verses: to him, God, religion and convention are absurd. For example: “I must be going deaf, got nothing left in my breath begging for an answer but you don’t reply/I don’t believe in God, Jesus or his f****n mom and I’m definitely ready to die.” Forget Chicken Soup for the Soul, this is a rapper’s guide for the existential spirit.

This is telling of the paradigm of the underground circuit. Every artist is fighting for a tentative iota of acclaim. Often, to do so, the sensationalism of the lyrics has to surpass those of the guy sitting next to you on the record shelf. (And it’s not as if these albums are displayed front and centre in HMV.) There lack of acceptable major label decorum often lands them in those dusty indie record stores that smell of aged incense. Underground hip-hop in this city is a medium for the listless. Transgressions rule this liquor-dampened realm.

It’s been over a decade of commiseration I’ve shared with Lupo. There was a time when we occupied stages together, passed bottles and lamented vexations as a group. Since then, I’ve deserted the lightless spectrum of plastic beer cups, drink-ticket payouts and drifting groupies. I miss the last two realities of the trade, but I’ve learned to embrace the sunlight. Vestiges remind me of the time I spent pinning away in bar booths. There’s the old, under-developed Kodak pictures, random tagging in Facebook albums and aging fans asking me when I’m putting out new beats. Times alter steadily. Conversely, my comrade, Lupo isn’t entirely dissociated from the scene. He’s no longer in the scathing “public” eye, but he still finds the act of writing and recording as cathartic as Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I’ll never do another show. Unless they pay me upfront and well,” he says contemptibly, exhaling smoke from his nostrils. The drags are heavy and constant. He’s hair is going grey now. Streaks of silver spot the sides of his Jim Dean haircut like blade marks on a skating rink. This isn’t the reproachable, brash drunkard I remember from our younger days. There’s pragmatism about his words. And even worse, I can relate.

In retrospect, our toiling in the underground culture was fruitless. The experiences are of value, but at a spiritual, mental and physical cost. The industry has been shorn of opportunity. In a city replete with overeducated hipsters, hip-hop falls to the gutter more often than not.

LUPO DECIDES HE like to record now. Our conversation stifled by musings, I oblige to join him in a studio ran by an old friend. We get up from his sofa, he slips on a pair of weather-beaten construction boots, I lace up my salt-stained Nikes, and we leave. Walking down the streets of Little Portugal in Toronto, we talk from time to time about days past. It’s all commonplace now. We once thought it to be exclusive. We rapped, got drunk, rapped, got drunk some more, and were occasionally thrown a handful of counterfeit bills for the sacrifice. This is the beauty of perseverance. What could be more admirable than a man who produces art for the purpose of absolution? This will never finance his rent, put his unborn kids through school or buy him that Jaguar he’s lusted over for years. And Lupo knows it. 

“As I said, it’s just about the release now. It’s stress management.” His succinctness condenses the sentiments of innumerable writers, painters, musicians and welfare recipients.

We get to the studio and stop to call the producer, who operates under the pseudonym “Business.” Business works the equipment with composure. His beats are ranging – always professionally adequate – and hypnotic. The studio houses equipment valued at more than $20,000. Equipment beleaguered by fast food burger wrappers, pieces of paper full of fragmented musings and bottles. It encompasses all the trappings of any top-grade recording establishment. For security reasons, I’ll omit its exact location.

Like the rest of the indie studios, it’s in an apartment, which triples as living quarters and a hub of promotional activity. The irony of men who pump thousands into producing music, which, in turn, tenders almost zip in return is disheartening. The love of the art supersedes finances. Lupo records a track after countless indulgences into a deep bottle of rye and questionable smoke. We leave. Nothing has changed. The process remains immutable. The product on the other hand – the music – improves gradually. We leave, Lupo imbued with a sense of purpose; me drained of vitality and hungry. The air is cold and I have trouble articulating anything to my friend. He doesn’t care. He has work at 7 a.m. tomorrow and has to go home and write. Apparently, the task can’t wait. Napkins are needed to scribble rhymes on before they are forgotten. Time to stop at the local McDonald’s.

THIS ARTICLE WAS PRODUCED through experience. And from what I know, and from what a dozen other disenfranchised MC’s will substantiate, is that no one from the “screwface capital” gets major label recognition. Think, long, hard and fastidiously of the Canadian rappers that have “made it.” (Made it is a euphemism for “was signed after decades of depreciating labour and embittered dealings with promoters.) Three come to mind. This is why Torontonian rappers have such rancor in their words. Few are more jaded. If one wishes to get a thorough, plangent encapsulation of this story, I goad him or her to visit hiphopcanada.com and listen to Adam Bombs, “Canada Sucks.”

Lupo’s indifference has hit a crescendo these days. His first solo album, Blood on the Alter has hit an impasse. This doesn’t seem to bother him though.

“I always have pens, always have a way to record. When I get the money I’ll put out the album. Make a few thousand bucks and retire.”

He says he wants to go to Pamplona and write a book. Not original, but respectable. If we were to reverse the preceding statement, the quagmire of the underground scene is revealed. This is the apparent axiom: “Original, but ostensibly unrespectable.”

text by nilsblondon

    • david gilmour
    • April 21st, 2009

    A lovely piece of writing. This is just the best kind of journalism: experience-based and elegantly re-written so it reads as if it were effortlessly written the first time.
    Good work.

    • Business
    • May 19th, 2009

    Well put old friend, well put.

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