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Nashville Scene Rhyme and Reason

The South rises with hip-hop

By Ron Wynn

JULY 6, 1998:  From its emergence in the late '70s until its widespread breakout in the late '80s, hip-hop was viewed as either an East or a West Coast phenomenon. But in the years since, the music has seeped into urban communities across the country. And in recent years, there's been a concentration of hip-hop coming out of the South; plenty of such acts are on the rise, from Atlanta's Goodie Mob to New Orleans impresario Master P. to Houston's master of inner-city tales, Scarface.

Thanks to an increasingly thriving urban-music scene, Nashville is home to some noteworthy MCs and deejays. That said, it would be a mistake to lump local hip-hop quintet Utopia State into a regional rap nexus; indeed, the music, rhymes, and sentiments on the group's current release, Where Yall From? (Shika-Down Sounds), are markedly different from the majority of hip-hop produced and released anywhere in America. The result is a record brimming with new and fresh sounds.

For example, there are absolutely NO references anywhere on the disc to African American (or other) women as "bitches" or "hoes." The language, while vivid and often incendiary, is relatively free of profanity by hip-hop standards. Samples, meanwhile, are melodic refrains played on live instruments, rather than endlessly looped snatches reproduced via digital synthesizer.

In short, Utopia State is a genuine band whose work incorporates elements from various African American musical forms. Their lyrics are alternately poignant, militant, and assertive. The songs are spiced with musical quotes and influences that range all over the map: Parliament/Funkadelic, John Coltrane, The Police, Bob Marley, Stargaard, and Fela Kuti.

Utopia State's five members--Juan "Shape Shifta" Garrett, Reavis "Rev" Mitchell, Mike "Black Shaggie" Dement, Corey "CEE" McKissack, and Sean "E.D." Myers--are articulate and demonstrative about many subjects, including the state of late-'90s hip-hop, urban radio policies and politics, and the conditions they see in African American communities.

The bandmates have been performing together in various incarnations since 1991, and their music reflects an instinctive awareness of each other's instrumental and verbal skills. The members of Utopia State all view their art and music as a vehicle for positive social change--a notion that many cynical '90s types consider outdated or misguided. They don't shy away from commenting on controversial topics, such as class conflict among blacks or the lack of originality in contemporary rap. During a recent interview with the group, they proved just as provocative in person as on record.

"We're not interested in just copying current trends to get our music on the radio," Mitchell says. Dement adds, "When you listen to much of what passes as hip-hop, you don't hear anything that speaks directly to the condition of our people, except in the most superficial and negative fashion."

The group members are less critical of the local hip-hop scene; as McKissack points out, "it's still very much in its infancy." He and his bandmates are more frustrated with club owners--who have the ability to help give the music more of a presence in town. "The clubs and club owners aren't really aware of what's happening in the music," McKissack says, "and they don't seem interested in trying to present anything that might help inform the community or make people more conscious of what's going on in the city or the country."

"We've had a few gigs around town," Mitchell adds, "and I think that there's a good cross-section of people who are becoming more aware of our music. But we're not going to do anything that's not true to what we believe just to play in someone's club."

Still, word is finally getting out about Utopia State. The single "Which Way Is Up," which smartly blends melodic snippets from Stargaard's hit song (featured in the classic Richard Pryor film of the same name), was a winner for weeks on WQQK-92FM's Friday-night "Battle of the Beats" competition. The band has been featured the past three years at the Nashville Entertainment Association's Extravaganza, and it has appeared both at Summer Lights and at BMI's Urban Music Showcase.

Utopia State has also played some high-profile out-of-town gigs, including a Priority Records showcase in Atlanta, and Mitchell says the group soon hopes to play some road dates in New Orleans and Miami. In the meantime, local audiences can pick up Where Y'all From at area record stores, or by writing to Shika-Down Sounds at P.O. Box 11207, Nashville, TN 37222. At present, the group is currently negotiating a regional distribution deal for the disc.

Hip-hop's detractors and defenders don't agree on many things, but there's a general consensus that African American music always needs distinctive new artists. Utopia State's work is sometimes stark and always honest, combining bold commentary with eclectic musical production. Nashvillians interesting in promoting a diverse and energetic local music scene would do well to lend them an ear.

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