James Rockwell has spent years preparing for law school, but law school doesn't get first dibs on his heart and soul. The talented young rhymer came to the University of Akron for his undergraduate studies, but it wasn't education that brought him to town. Hip-hop has been Rockwell's passion since fifth grade, and when the time came to pick a school, Rockwell knew Akron had a good college -- and a better hip-hop scene.
Hailing from Lorain, Rockwell is half of Phonologic, a fast-rising hip-hop duo whose latest disc, Dead Precedence, dropped last month. The group gigs regularly at Akron spots like the Lime Spider and Voodoo, but the CD release party for Precedence required a bigger venue. Dubbed Stack of Tracks, the blowout show at the Highland Theater also saw the unveiling of new releases from Akron MC Gator and hip-hop-based groups Poets of Another Breed and Honeypot.
"I wanted to throw a show where everybody could feel like a pro, from the time they got there to the time they left," says Pat McNulty, who coordinated the show. "Everybody had a good set, everything ran pretty smoothly. I think everybody went home feeling like it was one of the better accomplishments in their life."
The common thread between the four releases that debuted at Stack of Tracks is Beatmakers Local 913, an Akron-based production crew that aims to make the Rubber City famous for wax.
And it's starting to work.
As Stack of Tracks attested, hip-hop's four elements -- DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti art -- are alive and well in Akron, thanks in large part to groups like Phonologic, who have turned the town into a hotbed of underground hip-hop. Indeed, Phonologic's latest disc arrives at a time when hip-hop's future seems to rest in the hands of nontraditional crews like the Anticon family, Minneapolis's Atmosphere, and New York's Def Jux affiliates. More inclined to work with computers than turntables, these alternative hip-hoppers deeply feel Wu-Tang, though their hardcore efforts are more akin to De La Soul. In this style of rap, Sesame Street is a more likely reference point than firearms, and groups emphasize cooperation over competition.
"We pooled our resources so we could move a little faster collectively than any one of the bands could move individually," says Joe Minadeo, the Beatmakers' principal producer, who worked on all four Stack of Tracks releases. "If one band had a flier and another band had a flier for a separate show, we could give both fliers to both bands, and they could take both around to their record stores. I would love to have a record label, something like Def Jux, where everything is coming from the same artistic space."
He's well on his way. After gaining engineering experience in Kent State's indie-rock scene, Minadeo gravitated to Akron, making a name for himself in the '90s with the trip-hop group Full Blown Kirk. Eventually, he hooked up with McNulty and partner Krista Tortora, both of whom now contribute beats, production work, and music to Beatmaker ventures. The group has lived and worked together in a series of houses that serve as living quarters, performance spaces, and production facilities.
McNulty wears many hats as a Beatmaker, producing, booking shows, and playing drums with one of the Akron scene's pivotal acts, Poets of Another Breed. The Poets began as a two-MC, one-DJ combo in 1995, but the group soon evolved into a full band. They've survived where many of their contemporaries have tanked, thanks largely to their continuous addition of elements to the mix. "One of the best things about hip-hop is the fact that you can collaborate on it," McNulty explains. "It just calls for it -- different MCs, DJs, producers on each album. It's more creative, I think, to be able to work with different people all of the time."
And McNulty does just that. The burly jack-of-all-trades graces both the Poets' new "The Akronite" EP and Honeypot's latest, Homebody. Conceived as a one-man act, Honeypot turned into a nine-piece group by its first show, and continues as an experimental outlet for a rotating lineup of Beatmaker affiliates, including MCs Chaka, Infinity, and Gator.
With so much talent in one town, Akron has steadily developed into a burgeoning force for hip-hop, and the Midwest in general continues to gain momentum in the genre. Indeed, McNulty sees the region as the last great untapped resource for original hip-hop. So what if there's no signature sound? That void could very well be the future of the art.
"Every other area of the country has a sound and a couple solid acts that represent the areas," McNulty says. "I don't think there's anything that defines a sound for the Midwest. Musically, as far as Beatmakers go, it's always been based on a creative process, trying to always expand, experiment -- never trying to re-create anything that's already been done."
Upcoming Beatmakers projects include the Akron electronica group Racermason, as well as hip-hop from Lorain's Play Havoc and Cleveland's Edotkom and Iyan Anomolie. Within a year, all Illhio hip-hop may be inextricably linked.
"This whole area is just covered with groups that are not only good MCs, but are determined, and they definitely work hard -- which is hard to find," says Rockwell, who now splits his time between Phonologic, school, and a job at Best Buy, though the band has nearly become self-sufficient.
"The plan was to go to law school, and I'm putting that on the back burner," he says. "This has become the number-one priority in my life. We're definitely shooting for the top."
With rhymes, not revolvers, of course.