Eventually, something’s going to change. Eventually, one of Salt Lake’s local hip-hop labels will put out a big-name record. Eventually. But for right now, the Salt Lake hip-hop scene just seems amorphous, in the process of doing something, but without any real direction or shape. At the center of it all are the local labels, those that produce and promote hip-hop across the city.
Weldon Angelos’ story sounds like rags to riches with an urban twist. Growing up poor in Salt Lake, Angelos began rapping when he was 16. When he began looking to record, he discovered local hip-hop recording studios just didn’t have the quality he wanted. He relocated to L.A. where he made connections with hip-hop names like rapper Daz Dillinger and began producing. But when he started his own label, Extravagant Records, he decided to do it from home—out of his house, literally, in Midvale. Today, Angelos has written and produced songs for Snoop Dogg and his label has signed Bad Azz, an artist formerly on the Death Row Records roster.
Angelos doesn’t mince words when talking about Salt Lake hip-hop. “It’s kind of dead,” he said. “It has its high times, concerts and after parties … but most of the stuff coming out locally is garbage. No one has professional quality.”
This town desperately needs something big to come out of it, and with the upcoming 2003 release of the documentary film We—and accompanying soundtrack—he worked on with Snoop Dogg, plus his signing Bad Azz, Angelos thinks his label just may be it.
Gabe Escobar’s story has a slightly different ring—he began as a graffiti artist in the eighth grade and soon became immersed in the hip-hop culture. He now DJs at clubs, hosts a hip-hop radio show on KRCL and produces for Netweight Records, a record label begun in Salt Lake but now run out of New Hampshire. Escobar has a bit of a different take on the local music. “[Salt Lake hip-hop] … has a lot of potential for growth if we can get out of the stereotypes.”
Right now, hip-hop artists in Salt Lake are all about jealousy, said local rap artist Hogg Boss. Rather than working together, local rappers and labels simply get competitive. “Even my own people are lovin’ or hatin’ … [they should] be more supportive,” he said.
Escobar agreed that a unified front would help the labels advance their collective cause. Unfortunately, hip-hop is by nature cliquish, segregating itself along lines of age and style.
Hip-hop split in the early ’90s, when West Coast gangsta rap emerged and distinguished itself from the more organic, East Coast sample-oriented hip-hop. Today, the two forms have become very separate entities.
Escobar’s music falls into the second category. Netweight caters to the underground hip-hop scene, producing nothing but vinyl records for DJs to use in mixing.
Angelos’ work with Snoop Dogg and Bad Azz can be categorized as the first, à la the mainstream rap which receives radio play.
But now, mainstream rappers are going back to their roots, once again using sampling in their music. “It’s coming full circle. … Things are starting to be like they were in ’88,” Escobar said. But this does not mean local hip-hop has gotten any friendlier. Each artist and label continues to work very independently of each other, he said.
Angelos has been sampling older artists in his recent work. “I’ve been sampling old beats, trying to turn them into new hits,” he said. Beats from rappers like Kool & the Gang and Tupac Shakur. He even sampled P. Diddy’s “I Need a Girl Part Two” in one of his songs, a move he hopes will stir up some East Coast/West Coast controversy and make his name even more recognizable.
Success in hip-hop is all about getting your name out there. Name recognition leads to being featured on albums by bigger rappers, which leads to releasing your own big-selling album, with other big-name rappers featured on it. The ultimate goal? Music that sells and sells a lot. “Without the money, you can’t make the record. It’s more about the money. I don’t like it, but if you don’t have the money, you can’t put out the album,” Angelos said.
Hogg Boss also believes in the power of name recognition. “The hardest thing in the game is earning a name for yourself. If you ain’t got a name, you might as well give up.”
He credits himself as the first Salt Lake rapper to release a worldwide CD, the first to have featured artists on his albums. He recently switched labels—actually creating his own, called Big Face—and just released a new album that he has been promoting heavily. He is about to go on tour. “I know I’m going to be the one. They’re going to talk about Hogg Boss,” he said.
Escobar’s label takes a subtler, more “grassroots” approach in its quest for fame, creating what he calls “good-sounding … hip-hop and hoping people grasp it.” Using cameos by well-known artists gives the album an unearned credibility—people buy the CD not for the artist but for the features, he said.
All three strategies seem to be working fairly well. There’s Angelos’ work with Snoop Dogg, and his label recently signing R&B artist Benjilino. Bigg Face recently signed artist Saigonpenn and Hogg Boss works with producers from San Diego, Los Angeles and Texas. Netweight’s work with artists like Concise Kilgore has large sales overseas in countries like Germany, Sweden and Austria. In all cases, artists and producers seem to meet through other artists and producers, through networking and travel. “I travel almost every weekend … I’m trying to get the doors open,” Angelos said.
But what does all this mean for local rappers right now? Not much. Although each label expressed a desire to produce Salt Lake’s own, none have actually signed any new artists. In fact, right now, hip-hop in Salt Lake is confined to a few specialized nights here and there—Tuesday nights at the Zephyr, Fridays at the Manhattan. There’s Escobar’s radio show and U92, a mainstream hip-hop and R&B station which plays almost exclusively big-name acts. Clubs are supportive, Hogg Boss said, but crowd size varies.
Local hip-hop hasn’t developed much of a distinctive sound. Instead, most local rappers just mirror national acts. “Most people are trying to sound the same,” Hogg Boss said. “Be original. You don’t have to be like Jay-Z.”
According to Angelos, Salt Lake hip-hop looks too much to the ’80s and ’90s for its inspiration. It needs to look at what is cutting-edge, what artists are selling, instead of continuing to imitate the gangsta sound. Rap is moving away from obscenity-filled lyrics, he said. “People just don’t know what to rap about,” he said. “Rap about life experiences … Tupac rapped about everything. A lot of people don’t do that kind of stuff. Be intelligent in the rap.”
What will really happen has yet to be seen. Any glance at the lineups in local clubs makes it obvious that hip-hop here remains very much in the underground, taking a backseat to almost all other types of music. But things are changing. National rap artists seem to like it out here. “It’s not jaded by outside influences,” Escobar said. “It’ll progress to a point where there will be a strong local label.”