By Jim Schutze
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It's a Tuesday night at the Mix Studio in Grand Prairie, and the eight people in attendance aren't saying a word. Everyone's just nodding in unison to another hypnotic beat hooked up by S1, the producer for The Strange Fruit Project. No need for idle chatter when you're vibing to something so nice.
On this particular evening, S1 is blessing West Coast native Proh Mic with one of his sonic masterpieces. Mic is getting in on the action early, and it's a good thing for him. Before long, he probably won't be able to afford S1. Not unless he's backed by baller money.
For the past four years, S1's beats have provided the backbone to one of Texas' most promising rap groups, The Strange Fruit Project, which also includes MCs MyOne and Myth. They have forged an identity in the independent rap game by creating a spiritual hip-hop vibe laced with a universal production sound that transcends regional categorization. And even though their financial backing is limited, business savvy and the Internet have allowed them to operate on a much grander scale.
Their current CD, Soul Travelin', is the hustle du jour. It's a soulful mixture of personal, from-the-heart lyrics, sweet harmonies and thumpin' drums, the type of hip-hop you couldn't get enough of when the new school first embraced jazz. It's simultaneously warm and chill; there's not a single cut on the CD that makes you want to skip to the next joint.
Strange Fruit's music emanates an overwhelming sense of positivity. S1, Myth and MyOne are perfectly at ease rhyming over grooves that touch the soul like the best stuff from Curtis Mayfield or Donny Hathaway. S1's nonchalant drum programming, low-filtered bass and warm, vibrating keys blend into a potent sound that places him in the realm of Pete Rock or JayDee (producers he'll no doubt be compared to).
"I feel like we're cheating," MyOne says. "We have a platinum producer that doesn't cost us anything."
Until the ink on the contract is dry, S1 won't let on to what's on tap for him. Let's just say he's in discussions to work with one of Philly's most prominent female MCs, as well as the protégé of a certain NY rapper who was everywherelast year.
But S1 isn't the only one shining. The Strange Fruit Project's rep is blossoming despite the fact that the group goes virtually unnoticed in its home base of Dallas. They've built a stronger following in outlets like Los Angeles and Philly, where their more organic hip-hop has a better chance of succeeding, as opposed to the electrified, clubby krunk sound dominating Southern radio. Dallas stations rarely have supported locals working outside the Southern urban radio norm, unless the money behind it is too massive to ignore. Even Erykah Badu had regular rotation in Atlanta before her hometown embraced her.
For Strange Fruit, the journey from obscurity to the verge of getting it on started in Waco, when S1 invited MyOne to come hang at the studio where he and his cousin Myth were working on their own stuff. S1 and Myth had gained momentum after being written up in The Source magazine's Unsigned Hype section under the moniker Symbolyc Elementz. At the time, they were working with a female R&B singer named Lysoul. As the four continued to collaborate, it became clear this combination was worth exploration. Taking their name from the song Billie Holiday made famous, The Strange Fruit Project was born.
In the midst of recording Strange Fruit's first CD, From Divine, Lysoul let her stepbrother Vincent Brandon (the L.A.-based half of B Wells Management) hear what the band was working on. He was impressed. After his Dallas-based partner Branden Wells agreed, the group made Dallas its home, and B Wells Management started gaining the group wider exposure.
In 2003, URB magazine recognized the band in its annual Next 100 as one of the high-risers on the indie electronic music scene--a wide array including hip-hop, downtempo, drum 'n' bass and myriad subgenres in the dance music world. Tracks landed on several compilations, including Om's Deep Concentration series, and by the end of 2003, the group's vinyl single for "All the Way" (released jointly through Kajmere in Los Angeles) had appeared on the CMJ hip-hop charts and the playlists of tastemakers like J. Boogie and L.A.'s Rootdown crew.
They also made a Winterfresh gum commercial with a local filmmaker and musician named Tahiti. After making its debut on BET's broadcast of the Soul Train Awards, the commercial fell into regular cable rotation.
Every move has been a step in the right direction. They've pushed their vinyl releases through independent distributors and maximized every ounce of publicity into bigger and better things, using the unlimited potential of the Internet. Their Web site, www.strangefruitproject.com, beautifully designed by Myth, provides a visual counterpart to their music while extending their sound into a global marketplace. The most recent coup is a deal with the label Ultravybe, which will distribute and promote Soul Travelin' in Japan, where the group plans to tour in August.
Up next is a vinyl release for "Remember My Face" (with a guest appearance from the wildly talented Bavu Blakes) and "Eternally Yours"--two cuts from Soul Travelin'. They'll follow that with a remastered version of From Divine complete with five bonus cuts.
Musically, they're on the right track. As Strange Fruit gains exposure, the band will be associated with acts like the Roots, Jill Scott and Common--groups trying to put the soul back into modern hip-hop and R&B.
"A lot of people are saying hip-hop is dead," Myth says. "Hopefully we can bring that spark back. "