New hip-hop alliance aspires to crack air waves

by Jordan Green

The track reverberates with a gliding, pop feel, and then the voice comes in, slightly nasally but with no small amount of insistence: ‘“Nowadays power plays a bigger part than ever/ People trying to make it through, even if it means getting locked up, shot up, or whatever.’”

The DJ named DVS, AKA Daryl Monroe, wearing dreads piled under a large cap and a heavy black leather jacket, broods over an idled keyboard with hooded eyes, as if contemplating some deep internal math. Basil Agapion, the MC who goes by the rap name El Greco, paces the room, fidgeting slightly and bouncing on his toes. His wavy brown hair is tied back and his muscled biceps emerge from under a green T-shirt.

Thomas Rowan, co-owner of Sound Lab Recording Studio, sits in front of them at the soundboard twisting the knobs so they can listen to the playback. He smiles like a proud uncle.

Then El Greco’s voice comes in on the third verse, driving home the point: ‘“And what of those who’ve been fed all the hatred/ And always been told they’d never make it or really amount to much/ When the talent was always there/ and the only thing they ever needed was somebody to reach out and touch?’”

A chorus of children’s voices charge over the track, squeaky and insolent and beautiful. ‘“We’re changing the world,’” they cry. ‘“Are you ready for the revolution?’”

‘“Was that the first beat you wrote, DVS?’” Rowan asks.

El Greco answers for him: ‘“This is the first collabo between me and DVS.’”

‘“How many tracks have we put down?’” Rowan asks.

‘“Seventy-two,’” Greco says. ‘“More than seventy.’”

DVS just shakes his head.

They’re a bit of an odd couple, this DJ-MC partnership convened by Rowan, a veteran recording engineer better known for documenting mature folk-soul artists like Sam Frazier than recording hip hop. DVS, whose initials stand for ‘Death vs. Survival’ or ‘devious,’ is a 31-year-old African-American dude from Hoke County who hit his first lick playing drums in the church. El Greco, a 24-year-old native Greensboroan, grew up listening to his older sisters’ Billy Idol and LL Cool J records. He took his name from the 15th century Greek-Spanish painter whose name was so hard for the Spaniards to pronounce he just let them call him ‘the Greek.’

After recording some tracks in his home studio El Greco paid a visit to Sound Lab in the late spring of 2003. A couple months later DVS passed through.

‘“I called Basil and said, ‘Man, you’ve got to come in and hear these beats,”” Rowan says. ‘“He’s a beat factory. He’s got beats like Dunkin’ Donuts.’”

From then on a steady stream of MCs came through Rowan’s door to rhyme over DVS’ beats. Rowan brought in traditional rock and blues guitarists like Frazier and Tim Betts to add live instrumentation to some of the tracks.

‘“What is it: street, crunk?’” Rowan remembers asking. ‘“The variety just took off. It got me exposed to a variety of hip hop and rap styles, which helped me produce and engineer the songs.’”

A couple stumbling blocks ‘— personal and personnel-related ‘— which Rowan declines to discuss in detail have been thrown in the path of the studio’s hip hop project, but the three recommitted their efforts after El Greco graduated from Greensboro College in December. Currently there are two albums in the planning stages on the Level 3 Production label. The first will be a compilation featuring DVS’ tracks and vocals by an as-yet undetermined parade of MCs and singers. Following that, the three plan to release an El Greco solo album, The Alpha Is the Omega.

First will come a series of singles, about seven of which are in the can, strategically dropped to build interest in the compilation, Rowan says. The first will probably be released this month. The compilation might be released in April or May. The release of the El Greco solo album is too far in the future to speculate on a date.

The untitled compilation album was originally conceived as a group effort, but now looks more like a ‘Greco, DVS and friends’ concept, Rowan says. There have been some politics involved here.

‘“It’s like you’ve got the team and you’re on your way to the championship and the team’… there were personnel changes for a variety of reasons,’” Rowan says, and leaves it there. He and El Greco grimace. DVS shrugs.

To reverse the old Rolling Stones aphorism: it’s the song, not the singer.

‘“We do the song, and we say, ‘This is who would sound good,’” Rowan says. ‘“It would be like hiring a guitar player. If he was a real good country player, you don’t get him to do a blues track.’”

Judging from the half dozen tracks playing in the studio on this Wednesday afternoon, DVS himself appears to be the dominant voice. Like El Greco, his lyrics meditate on the theme of overcoming adversity, but with a grittier, harsher tone.

He penned ‘“Sorrow,’” a song relentless in its bleak exploration of generational dysfunction.

‘“She come up wrong cos Mama hardly home, and Daddy nowhere to be found,’” he raps. ‘“Lights rarely stayed on/ Taking care of biz when Mama got stoned/ Growing up fast, the same sad song.’”

In another song, ‘“I Don’t Want to Be No Thug,’” DVS aspires to escape the mercenary streets, but sneers at propriety.

‘“Police don’t harass me,’” he promises. ‘“I’m brand new, changed my style/ No more stretched-out days. No more dope fiends/ No swat teams, livin’ America’s dream/ Chillin’ with porn queens.’”

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