Fire Starters

For the Arsonists, there is no underground. It's all just hip-hop.

It's a little before 1 p.m. in Portland when Jise, one of the MCs in the Arsonists, answers the phone in his hotel room. There's a fog in his voice that betrays that he's probably closer to unconsciousness than consciousness.

"I'm just waking up, man," he cracks, his voice creaking like he's flirting with the living dead. "But it's cool. I've been out way too long as it is anyway. We got a lot of road ahead of us today."

The hip-hop underground is where the Arsonists, and the camera taking this picture, are located.
The hip-hop underground is where the Arsonists, and the camera taking this picture, are located.

Living large on the road is one of rock and roll's rumored perks. Hell, if it weren't for sordid tales and tour frenzy Spin wouldn't have anything to peddle on its covers this year. But smaller, indie-minded bands aren't always on the shake-and-bake while making the rounds around the country. It's a heap of work, living crammed in a van with the tools of your trade.

Touring hip-hop acts have it just as bad--if not worse. Large bills at hip-hop clubs often run well into the night, long past last call. Plus, there's the performance: Though all many rap outfits have to do is set up some decks and mikes, when it gets down to playing, you gots to be ready to bring it. All that voice work, all those words, all that energy night after night after night. These guys aren't laid out into the middle of the afternoon because they've been partying. They're simply exhausted.

Nevertheless, the Arsonists have been taking it in stride on this U.S. trek. Their debut album, 1999's As the World Burns, ignited a fire under many unsuspecting listeners not down with the sounds of this Brooklyn outfit--especially since it appeared on the historically slanted-and-enchanted indie rock and curiously Warp-obsessed Matador label. And with their sophomore release Date of Birth slated to hit stores in September, the Arsonists seem like they're just starting to heat up.

"It's been really good this time out," Jise says, the gruff in his voice now signifying that he's out of sleep's hold and into his own roll. "We're hitting it with the Beatnuts, and it's been tight. The first time we went out it was rough. Sometimes we weren't even booked in clubs that did live hip-hop. It'd be a rock club or something, which is fine, but you sort of have to approach it differently when you're playing at a place where you feel like you have to win people over before they get into the music. But it was a different situation back then."

That it was. The kindling that got the Arsonists started was a five-man crew known as the Bushwick Bomb Squad in 1993. "It was just a neighborhood thing back then," Jise recalls. "We were just a group of guys who wanted to make some music. And then we did a single and another single, and next thing we knew we were going to make a record, and soon there were eight people onstage."

Looking back, it certainly appears the Arsonists went from smoldering to blazing in a blink. The main players--beat master and Rock Steady Crew veteran Q-Unique, D-Story, Freestyle, Swel Boogie and Jise One--had burned a mad streak through underground rap and hip-hop with their first two fiery 12-inch singles. "The Session" struts along like a wicked cross between Quasimoto eccentricity riding a Rob Swift kick. And its follow-up, "Venom," couldn't have been more appropriately named: The song hisses with cobra-quick verbal strikes.

Of course, calling any hip-hop act "underground" implies that there's a mainstream somewhere over it, and that seems more like a media invention than how it is in the clubs where the music's being made and played. There was no underground when Grandmaster Flash was spinning, just as there was no rap rankings when Run-D.M.C. broke into the pop/rock charts. It was just hip-hop, though what hip-hop is has come under attack even within its own ranks.

"I think it's always a little confusing when any hip-hop group gets called underground," Jise says. "It's just hip-hop, that's all. MCs and DJs listen to a little bit of everything--I know we do. But when the first album came out, it was sort of a snapshot of where we came from, and so there was that talk about the 'purity' and the 'four elements' of hip-hop, and I think people really latched onto that aspect of it more than we did. Defining it and coming at it with a set of ideals was good for starting out, but it's not really where we are now. It's still just hip-hop."

Now, the Arsonists are a tight trio of Jise, Q-Unique and Swel 79, though other members leaving wasn't the result of bitter differences. "Things change, you know," Jise says. "It was a situation where we started thinking we want to do this [the band] professionally, not just because it was something to do. And when you start thinking about that you realize there are things you can't be doing if you want to have something left over to show for it. You can't just go throwing around money if you're trying to bring it home and put food on the table. So we had to reorganize and rethink things, and people had to ask themselves if this was really what they wanted to do with themselves. It was all cool. And I think we're feeling better about it these days."

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