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Kat Daddy Slim, one-third of the East Village Radio show Baller's Eve, takes a shot at summing up Huntsville, Alabama's finest hip-hop duo, G-Side: "Outkast on steroids." His co-hosts, DJ Dirrty and Minski Walker, just nod their heads: "Yep."
G-Side themselves—rappers Clova and ST 2 Lettaz, alongside Codie G, manager of their label, Slow Motion Soundz—are taken aback. There is a moment of modest silence.
We're gathered in the EVR office after a mid-November Baller's Eve episode (there's another one every Wednesday, from 10 p.m. to midnight) heavily devoted to tracks from G-Side's Huntsville International mixtape, released for free online earlier that day. Clova's eyes grow big, taking in that profoundly flattering comparison. ST drawls out an appreciative "Shit . . ." Codie G, for once, has no words.
"I hope that's—hope that's OK with y'all to say," Kat Daddy adds politely. Like anybody's going to quarrel with being called "Outkast on steroids."
The comparison's more than apt, though: Clova and ST drop humanist, down-to-earth rhymes over top-shelf spaced-out production primarily from their hometown producers, the Block Beattaz. They've worked together since 2007's Sumthin 2 Hate, but it was their second album, 2008's Starshipz & Rocketz, coupled with a tiny explosion of interest in the area as a whole—even leading to a Diplo-helmed mixtape called Fear & Loathing in Hunts Vegas—that pushed the Huntsville sound both across state lines and online.
And that sound? Equal parts throwback and next-level. Their beats are sample-based, but the sample sources are out-there, unpredictable: Nas's "The World Is Yours" on "Who's Hood," obscure J-Pop filtered through Auto-Tune for "Rising Sun." Then, the beats are overloaded with live instrumentation, druggy effects grabbed from trance and rave, and goofball transcendent production tweaks more common on, say, an Eno/U2 collaboration than a Southern hip-hop release. The result is some of the most cohesive and expansive hip-hop in a long, long time, not to mention the sort of "grimy" and "timeless" (to quote Kat Daddy once more) Southern rap that Baller's Eve embraces.
"We grew up in an era when there was still decent radio," DJ Dirrty explains. "It wasn't all manufactured. We just translated what classic urban radio was to us and flipped it." In other words, they retrofitted the mix-show format to showcase the ever-expanding Southern rap scene. "It started before we had the show," Walker adds. "Like, living in Atlanta and listening to music with Dirrty, and when we moved up [to New York], we just kind of missed that."
So in 2003, when Frank Prisinzano, in a prescient act of cultural philanthropy, launched East Village Radio online and let Dirrty and Walker play whatever the hell they wanted, Baller's Eve was formed—Kat Daddy Slim joined two years later. And though the show has become a rarefied respite for many Southern rappers visiting New York, a special relationship developed between this team of Atlanta transplants and G-Side. Early in 2008, the duo Googled their then-single, the whirling mission statement and Starshipz centerpiece "Strictly Buzinezz," and found it on a Baller's Eve playlist. They reached out to Dirrty, made the trip north to visit the show soon thereafter (the first of several visits), and now consider the show a key component of their online support group.
Huntsville International spends a lot of time directly addressing that group. Peppered with somehow tasteful references to blogs and Twitter—and punctuated by interludes from Dirrty, alongside drops from other DJs in England, Norway, and Sweden—it captures the rap-world paradox of the past few years: namely, the merging of localized street cred and online buzz. Major labels and the conventional music business be damned, G-Side are perfectly comfortable on Slow Motion Soundz and are working with an ever-growing web of friends and acquaintances. Dirrty even shot a recent video for the group, which, appropriately, came about after a trip to L.A. to shoot a typical "industry"-style video didn't pan out. "This Is Life" was shot on DV in the Village "in less than 24 hours," as Codie recalls, both proud and humble: "We did a video, with a guy that's from the South on East Village Radio, in the Village. All this happened in the Village. All people all over the globe, different people, different cultures. . . ." He trails off and grins.
This approach, hard-headedly homegrown but worldly-wise, is what makes G-Side so fascinating. It's street-level Southern rap atop genuinely tripped-out production and entirely devoid of hustling platitudes—quite a feat. The downside of hustling and the heavy effect of hood life are hardly under-discussed in hip-hop, but they're usually one-track grace notes, not the entire album. Every act of violence and sordid tale of drug-dealing on Huntsville International is steeped in reflection and consequence, a sprawling narrative hailing the minor victories of right-now and the horrifying details of the past. ST kicks off "What It's All About" with a depressive couplet in his wounded, wizened bray: "Momma's youngest son, really I was the middle/Little brother up for adoption straight out the hospital." Clova, all quiet, seething confidence, follows: "I never ate from a silver spoon/Nor a silver platter/Momma tried so that's all that matter." When the "bricks" show up, regret and disgust does, too.
"Rising Sun" features a deceptive Slim Thug sample ("This is for the Gs and this is for the hustlers"), and indeed, that's the intended audience for the song, but it isn't just trying to throw out some more self-justifying trap-rap. "You should go to work!" ST declares at one point; "Why the fuck I want to be a D-boy?" squawks fellow Huntsville rapper Kristmas. As the track fades out, light piano leads to Huntsville International's final track, "So Wonderful." ST soberly begins with "My president is black/But we still in Iraq/And we still in the hood and pills are the new crack," and from that stems, of all things, some "Man in the Mirror"–style hope, Clova celebrating the idea of investing and getting not only one's money, but one's taxes right, too. And the tape's over.
G-Side derive their swagger from hope, and the simple fact that they're rapping, that people are listening, that they don't sell drugs anymore, and that they've been able to see the world, or at least more of it. "I'd never been out of fuckin' Alabama, man," remembers ST with a laugh, until they "dropped Starshipz, and three times, I been up to New York."
Clova expands on their goals: Huntsville International "is a project. It just ain't us. It's everybody. We're hoping it puts us into a position to feed our kids and grandkids. You just can't call it a mixtape."
"That's why it's a project—it's for all y'all as well," Codie adds, pointing at the Baller's Eve crew and rattling off a list of blogs and dot-coms that support the group. "And it's for all of them." He looks me in the eyes. "This article's part of the project, too."