Paying Dues | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Paying Dues 

Local rappers make names for themselves while living in a city that doesn't always get it

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For the most part, Tavie Mason lives a normal, down-to-earth life. He’s a father of two and works the night shift at a pharmaceutical distribution company in Salt Lake City. But on occasion, the 35-year-old packs his bags, tours Europe and makes albums with some of the biggest names in rap music.

Outside of Utah, Mason is known as the rapid-fire, smooth-voiced emcee Concise Kilgore. For seasoned hip-hop fans, he’s a familiar name, but his place of residency is something that most wouldn’t know. Over the past 10 years, Mason and a handful of other Utah artists have quietly built momentum within the worldwide hip-hop industry while barely making a peep here in the Beehive State.

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Contrary to what outsiders might think, Salt Lake City is home to a decent hip-hop fanbase. Music venues like The Urban Lounge, The Depot and The Complex host national touring shows almost weekly. Hip-hop radio station U92 and KRCL’s rap-centric Friday Night Fallout prove that the state where the movie Footloose was filmed can support a genre not typically associated with middle America. Salt Lakers apparently love rappers—just not any from here.

“We don’t play any local music,” says Ron-T, music director at U92. “Our responsibility is to provide what people want in commercial radio—to play the mainstream hip-hop. Look, I’m a big fan of local talent, in good taste. But what it comes down to is, I’m not gonna play a local artist over a Lil Wayne record. The majority of our listeners don’t want to hear local hip-hop.”

The lack of a following for local rappers is at odds with Utah’s history of accepting counterculture music scenes. The massive punk scene in the ’80s paved the way for the explosion of Utah County ska music in the ’90s. Over the past decade, indie bands from Utah—The Used, Fictionist and the Neon Trees—have been embraced both locally and nationally.

Utah overtly embraces good, independent music but refuses to tend its own rap garden.

Historically, rap has its roots in the inner city, reflecting the hard times you’d expect to find there. Since Utah has almost zero street cred, some local rappers practically apologize for being from Utah and keep their hometown under wraps for fear they won’t be taken seriously.

Many would argue that, over the years, the local hip-hop scene has died and all but disappeared. But they’d be wrong.

Rappers like Concise Kilgore, Burnell Washburn and Dope Thought are among many artists who are resurrecting the genre locally, making new connections and cross-pollinating with national hip-hop stars. These three are better known outside of Salt Lake City rather than in the local scene. As Burnell Washburn says in his song “Under the Radar”: “Respect shown for those who paved step stones, this is the place in my state they say heck no.”

How to Be a Rapper
Mason, who grew up in San Diego and moved to Utah in 1996, will be the first to tell you he never planned on being an emcee. Like most high school kids obsessed with ’90s hip-hop, Mason would freestyle with his friends on the bus or in between classes, but he never took it seriously—not until a chance trip to Cincinnati in August 1998 to visit the annual hip-hop festival Scribble Jam.

Scribble Jam no longer exists, but at the time, it was the nation’s biggest hip-hop gathering, comparable to huge modern-day festivals like Rock the Bells or Paid Dues. It focused on various competitions that highlighted the important aspects of rap music like DJing, graffiti, break-dancing and, the most popular event, the emcee battle.

Mason had never rapped professionally, let alone on a stage. But he decided to enter the emcee competition anyway, squaring up against 50 of the nation’s best freestyle rappers. To the surprise of many, he made it to the final round. But when he had to draw his next competitor from a hat, he drew Slug, a young, cocky and heavily favored emcee from Minneapolis.

“I pulled Slug, and I was like, ‘Really?’ ” Mason says. “They announced him and everybody goes nuts—everybody knew who he was. Then they announced me and everyone was like, ‘Booooo!’ It was just bad from the jump.”

The battle was over practically before it even started. “[Slug] wasn’t even really saying anything that good and he was still killing me. He was like ‘Yo, Concise, I’ll cook you like rice,’ and the crowd was just goin’ nuts for it.”

Though Mason lost horribly, that experience gave him a leg up in the rap industry. A few months later, Mason’s good friend, local DJ and producer Gabe Martinez, more commonly known as DJ Briskoner or Brisk, was in San Diego for a taping of Mos Def’s television spot, The Lyricist’s Lounge Show. While Brisk was there, he met female Philadelphia-based rapper Bahamadia.

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Back in the ’90s, long before social media, networking in the rap industry was all about meeting other emcees face to face. The better your reputation, the better your chances were for meeting and working with next-level artists. Local hip-hop shops and venues were more than just places to experience underground music—they were the only place to network.

“There used to be this spot back in the day called Playschool,” says Brisk, who got his start as a prominent Salt Lake City graffiti artist. “It was off the 6th South exit I think. It was where they had all the underground straight-edge shows and it was where all the graffiti artists would go and meet up. Cats from West Valley would meet the cats from the east side, because there was no other way for people to know each other. There was no MySpace. No Facebook. Cats would have to physically go to places to meet, like, ‘Let’s go meet up with the dudes from AOD at the Taco Bell on Highland Drive.’ ”

Because of Brisk’s smooth networking in San Diego, he was able convince Bahamadia to come out to Salt Lake City and work on a 12-inch single with the relatively unknown rapper Concise Kilgore.

Under the moniker Status Quo, the duo released the single “Plead the Fifth.” The track was a success in Europe and Japan, so Bahamadia invited Mason to Germany for a quick three-city tour.

From there, it was as if the rap industry chose Mason more than the other way around. Once he returned from touring with Bahamadia, he went to work at Brisk’s Salt Lake City hip-hop shop, Funksion. While working behind the counter, he got to know legendary San Francisco emcee and Cali Agents rapper Rasco.

At the time, Rasco was “a sales rep for a record distributor called TRC, and we would order records from him like every week,” Mason says. “So, one day, I just got up the nerve and asked if he wanted to do a 12-inch single with me.”

Rasco agreed, but the label that was putting out the single folded before it was even released. However, a couple of months later, Rasco called Mason and asked if he would be interested in being his hype man on a 40-city tour alongside The Masterminds, EdoG and Aceyalone.

A hype man is what Flava Flav was to Public Enemy. Your job is to jump around and essentially “hype up” the crowd before and in between songs. More importantly, a good hype man fills in when the rapper messes up or runs out of breath.

“You gotta remember the dude’s words and where you’re supposed to come in,” Mason says. “It’s a tough job. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, like how to keep the crowd into it and everything. I thought you just went up there and rapped. But being on that tour I learned a lot.”

Hip-Hop Is Dead
During the early- to mid-2000s, Mason became a regular fixture with Rasco’s crew, joining him on national and international tours alongside rap headliners like The Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief, KutMasta Kurt and Motion Man. But in between it all, Mason was working on his first solo album, Digitalis. On Feb. 6, 2006, the album finally dropped in stores. “I felt really good about that,” Mason says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening.’ ”

Digitalis did moderately well in the United States, but exceeded expectations in Europe.

After heavy touring overseas, and a few spot dates locally, things began to slow down for Mason—and for the music industry as a whole. Record shops were dying a slow death because of the rise in Internet album and single sales.

Everyone in the music industry suffered, but especially rap music, where DJs, typically dependent on record shops for vinyl, were switching over to MP3-based DJing.

“Once DJs stopped buying records, that was a big blow for rap music and the entire record industry,” says Chase Loter (aka Chaseone2, winner of the 2010 City Weekly Music Awards for Best DJ). “When the music industry died, the rap scene sort of died here, too.” At the peak of rap’s popularity, Salt Lake City hosted multiple record stores and hip-hop merch shops. Loter used to co-own Fourth Street Records until it merged in 2012 with Salt Lake’s last remaining hip-hop shop, Uprok, located at 342 S. State.

“There’s been a hip-hop shop in SLC for 20-plus years,” says Chase Jensen, owner of Uprok, “There used to be Brisk’s store, Funksion. Before that it was Blastin—where the Heavy Metal Shop is now. There used to be a shop over on 39th and State, one on 33rd and 13th East in some house, and there was one in Sugar House. All that shit is gone now.”

Rap From the Ashes
Not wanting to fade away, Mason teamed back up with Brisk and returned to the studio for a new album—an effort that would showcase an arsenal of big-name guest features.

A feature is when an emcee does a verse for another rapper. Depending on the how big the emcee is, or how much he respects you, getting a feature on your track can cost a lot of money. With Mason’s connections, he was able to land big names for what he calls “homie prices.”

“So Rasco calls again and is like, ‘Dude, I’m doing this mini-run out in Switzerland with Dilated Peoples, you down?’ ” Mason says. “We’re staying at this baller-ass hotel on Lake Geneva right across from France. One morning, I go down to breakfast and I see Evidence (of ’90s group Dilated Peoples, later a producer for the Beastie Boys and Kanye West) by himself, drinking coffee, eating cheese bread, you know, little European stuff.

“So me and him are talking, and finally I was like, ‘Yo, I’m doing this album, I would love for you to drop a verse,’ and he was like ‘Cool.’ I was feeling good about that, and I was about to go back to my room and he says to me, ‘Dude, you want to smoke?’ So ... we’re smoking on his balcony in his room, overlooking Lake Geneva and he goes, ‘Dude, right over there, where those mountains are … that’s France.’ I was like, ‘Daaaamn.’ We’ve been tight ever since.”

Mason, Rasco and Dilated Peoples knocked out the tour, and, five months later, in 2010, Evidence had a show in Salt Lake City with the world-famous DJ Revolution. The day of the show, Mason got the duo to join him for a recording session at Brisk’s studio, where they laid down the track “Tech Noir.”

“When a good rapper comes through [Salt Lake City] that I like and appreciate, I get verses from ’em,” Mason says.

Through this method, Mason was able to land impressive names like Action Bronson, Fashawn, Brand Nubian, Guilty Simpson and Statik Selectah. “It was pretty fun hanging out with some of these guys when they were in town because you’re like ... doing stuff no one else is doing right now,” Mason says.

After enough legendary rappers and producers had passed through Brisk’s basement, the album was ready, but it hadn’t yet been signed to a major distribution company. So, in 2011, while on a trip to New York City, Mason’s friend DJ Juggy dropped off snippets of the album with his industry friends at Duckdown Records, Hot97 and Soulspazm. On Valentine’s Day 2012, Mason signed a digital distribution deal with Soulspazm. The following November, his second full-length album, Kobain, was released. The debut single, “Octopussy Tentacles,” featuring Action Bronson, reached No. 1 on the College Radio charts.

“I have people come up to me here and say, ‘Dude, that’s probably the best hip-hop album that ever came out of Salt Lake City,’ ” Mason says. “And I’ve also heard people tell me it doesn’t sound like something that should come out of here.”

It’s Not Easy to Rep SLC
Rap music has always been prideful about representing a local scene. But because of Mason’s good fortune, he’s never had to tell anyone he lives in Salt Lake City. He almost never drops a Utah reference in any of his songs, and his beat production, mostly by Brisk, feels more at home with ’90s East Coast hip-hop.

His popularity grew from the outside of Utah’s borders rather than from within, so Mason has never had to keep a presence here, or even throw shows on a consistent basis. This anonymity allows Mason to exist in rap music on a popular level and not actually have a city to rep.

It’s hard to blame Mason for this disconnect. In Utah, there’s no cultural cachet when it comes to rap music. There’s no history. When a rapper says he’s from the Bay Area, it conjures up thoughts of 808 drums and hyphy music. When a rapper says he’s from Utah, you can probably guess what the next question is.

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“I did some gigs not too long ago at a club in Vegas,” Brisk says, “and the manager asked me ‘Where you from?’ I was like, ‘I’m from Utah,’ He was like, ‘Oh, you Mormon?’ I mean, every time you go out of state and you say you’re from Utah, that’s more than likely the next question you’re going to get.”

“The problem is they think Utah is this insanely repressed place,” says Stu Sheffield, aka rapper Burnell Washburn. “They don’t understand that we have a counterculture here and an artistic scene or anything like that.”

The Sandy-based Sheffield, 22, has cultivated a sound that could be described as jazz-influenced conscious hip-hop—politically charged rap with a message, like his 2012 track “Occupy Salt Lake.” It’s a stark contrast to the gangster-rap sounds of the Salt Lake Valley’s west-side neighborhoods. This variation in styles has caused the Salt Lake’s scene to suffer from an almost comical identity crisis.

Up-and-coming 21-year-old Rose Park emcee Deyshawn Thomas Chapman, aka local emcee Dope Thought, grew up breakdancing and started freestyling at 17. “I never really was into rap music because of the gangster-rap stuff that I grew up around in Rose Park,” he says. “I basically realized I could do this stuff in a positive, uplifting way, rather than in a negative, degrading way.”

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He started his own music collective called MakeMind, which brings together underground artists from around the country. He released his first industry-level album, We Are Environment, alongside local producer Worth, and is currently working on a single with rap royalty Talib Kweli.

Despite those successes and air time on local independent radio station KRCL, Chapman is yet to see radio play on a bigger level because his progressive rap isn’t what Salt Lake City rap fans expect to hear on a station like U92.

“The problem is a lot of the kids who are rhyming about gangster rap are mostly white kids, and that’s fine,” Chapman says. “But Salt Lake isn’t a gangster scene. When you try to rap like a gangster and you live in a city that isn’t, that’s where it’s hard for you to go outside the borders and be taken seriously.”

This has been Concise Kilgore’s issue all along. Arguably Salt Lake City’s most successful rapper, Mason has refused to work with the majority of rappers from Utah.

“If you’re just doing the same old thing and you’re copying who is hot on the radio or TV, you’re not gonna make it,” Mason says. “It’s just not gonna work. ... Being a rapper in Salt Lake, you gotta think bigger. You can’t pigeonhole yourself into a scene that isn’t quite there.”

Professor John Costa, who teaches a course on rock & roll history at the University of Utah, says the reason Utah artists have trouble winning over fans might be that they just don’t know how.

“Salt Lake musicians lack access to great management,” Costa says. “That’s what all great artists have in common. Russell Simmons was the guy behind the Beastie Boys and Run DMC; he had a wealth of connections to people before he even started Def Jam. People like him open doors for their artists. The Beatles would have never been anything without Brian Epstein. You know, these background people can be more important than you think.”

A Whole New Rap Game
Most Utah rappers don’t even bother with management. Sheffield’s been doing it on his own from the beginning.

He’s had some success. Over the past year, Sheffield has been traveling nonstop, touring the United States and Canada with legendary Rhymesayers Entertainment emcee Abstract Rude. “I’ve played some pretty cool festivals, and I’ve been working on new music. I released an EP back in April 2012 called An Apple a Day that was received pretty well, so I am touring in support of that for the next six months.”

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Unlike Concise Kilgore, Sheffield never had a big-name rapper like Rasco to help him out. The 22-year-old Utah native built his fanbase the old-fashioned way—winning over your home turf and building a scene from scratch—with a 21st-century twist, thanks to Facebook and social media.

“Online is huge,” Sheffield says, “especially YouTube videos right now. That’s where the masses are. They aren’t watching TV or listening to the radio anymore. They’re going online and they’re watching YouTube. When a fan finds a new artist they like, they can get to know them and get to know their personality through their videos and their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts.”

If Sheffield’s not releasing new music, he’s leaking unfinished beats through Soundcloud or uploading videos of himself and his friends clowning around in the studio.

But it still takes more than just courting fans online.

“This kid used to come into my shop [Fourth Street Records] all the time and tell me about his friend Stu [Sheffield], who was making beats on Reason and rapping over them,” Chase Loter says. “Finally, he brought in a CD and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is really fucking good … this kid is gonna do good things.”’

Sheffield has also been quietly building up Salt Lake City’s rap scene through his promotional company, Wasatch Renaissance. Essentially, it’s a two-story office space complete with a music studio, art rooms, a screen-printing room and space for people to be creative.

“We do seminars and teach kids how to make music, record and do graphic design—anything that can help out the artistic scene, we’re trying to do it,” Sheffield says. “Basically, trying to fill that niche as best we can. We’re trying to bring this small community together and help connect the dots.”

One of the rappers who Sheffield has helped connect is Dope Thought.

“He got me on a bill with Murs, which was my first show here locally,” Chapman, aka Dope Thought, says. “I only did maybe two songs, but Lance Saunders and Will Sartain (of S&S Presents) were like, ‘We see you can sell tickets, and we want to start putting you on more shows. They started giving me opportunities, and I kept capitalizing. For a while there, me and Burnell were the only two local rappers being put on bigger hip-hop shows.”

Over a span of just four years, Chapman has performed with the likes of Schoolboy Q, Brother Ali, Aesop Rock and The Sweatshop Union.

“A lot of artists that come from here don’t represent Salt Lake, but we’re trying to build pride and a scene here through our music,” Chapman says.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job
The efforts of Chapman and Sheffield seem to be paying off, as people are slowly starting to show interest in good local hip-hop shows again. Like the once-prominent Scribble Jam, Sheffield has managed to create his own rap gathering through the monthly Hip-Hop Roots showcase in rotating Salt Lake City locations. “We usually have one out-of-state headliner and then six or seven local openers,” Sheffield says. “It seems like we’ve been averaging about 300 people or so. It’s been cool, people come for the music, but we also have live graffiti and break-dancing. It’s a nice way to get the community together.”

The scene is still far from viable. There has yet to be a rapper from Utah who lives the stereotypical rap lifestyle, like those seen on MTV Cribs.

“Look, I work in pharmaceutical distribution at nights,” Mason says. “As long as I’m here in Utah, I’ll never not have a day job … gotta get those benefits with the $20 co-pay.”

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SLC Rap Connections
The industry’s biggest names & their ties to Utah’s talent

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Slug This Midwest rapper destroyed Tavie Mason, aka Concise Kilgore, in a freestyle battle at the 1998 Scribble Jam. He is one half of the group Atmosphere and CEO of the Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers Entertainment, which includes notable names such as Brother Ali, Freeway (of M.O.P.) and Aesop Rock.

Rasco Mason’s mentor, this Bay Area rapper kick-started Mason’s career by hiring him as a hype man for many of his national and European tours. Known for his work with Planet Asia under the group name Cali Agents, Rasco is considered to be one of the most respected names in underground West Coast hip-hop.

Evidence The Grammy-winning rapper was Mason’s first big feature on the album Kobain. The Los Angeles native is known for his work with DJ Babu and Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples. He’s done production work for groups like the Beastie Boys and Linkin Park and, in 2004, co-produced Kanye West’s album College Dropout.

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Bahamadia Arguably one of the greatest female emcees of all time, the Philadelphia-based rapper met Brisk at The Lyricist Lounge Show in San Diego and agreed to release a single with Concise Kilgore called “Plead The Fifth.” She is known for her guest appearances with artists like Talib Kweli and The Roots and is part of Guru and DJ Premier’s East Coast rap collective, The Gang Starr Foundation.

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Talib Kweli Local rapper Dope Thought says he’s working on a track with the Brooklyn-based conscious, afrocentric rapper. Kweli rose to prominence in the late ’90s for his work with Mos Def as the legendary rap duo Blackstar, and is the co-owner of the indie label Blacksmith.

DJ Revolution While in SLC for a show with Evidence, the SoCal producer and DJ agreed to scratch over Concise Kilgore’s track “Tech Noir” while hanging out in Brisk’s basement studio. DJ Revolution rose to prominence in the late ’90s as the resident DJ for Sway and King Tech’s national syndicated rap radio show The Wake Up Show.

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Abstract Rude: Part of celebrated groups like Haiku De Tat, The A-Team and Project Blowed, the Los Angeles-based rapper has been a friend and mentor to Burnell Washburn after Washburn opened for him at a show at Kilby Court. Abstract Rude was one of the original emcees to come from the Good Life Cafe open-mic sessions that would go on to produce Jurassic 5, Freestyle Fellowship and others.

Action Bronson The Queens, N.Y., emcee recently signed to Warner Bros and Vice Music alongside Snoop Dogg. After doing a show in Park City, he threw down a verse for Kilgore’s track “Octopussy Tentacles,” which would later hit No. 1 on College Radio.

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