On a Saturday afternoon, 19-year-old rapper Eliza Versa strolls into Universal Studios in Arlington, ready for her audition for the Konscious Konnect Sypher. Producer M. Slaego puts on a five-minute mix of beats, ranging from twinkling keys to belching boom bap, all while Versa doles out life lessons peppered with battle raps. As the sounds die down, Versa turns to her audience.
“A lot of people say that they want to cypher,” Versa says. “But when it comes time, they can’t deliver.”
That sober, disciplined attitude is the driving force behind Konscious Konnect, the sometimes-record label, sometimes-management firm intent on cementing itself as a networking hub for conscious hip-hop in Dallas, akin to Odd Future in L.A. or 808 Mafia in Atlanta. Come the end of July, they'll be hosting the Sypher that Versa auditioned for.
“I see it as a brand that links up artists,” P.S. the Rebels’ SamuILL says. “You’ll have other groups, and they’ll have this, this and that togetherness to make something work. [Konscious Konnect] does that for artists with a conscience, that speak about certain things we need to talk about.”
The brainchild of Joseph Nelson, founder of youth outreach program Free the Streets, Konscious Konnect first saw life as a nameless mixtape marketed towards convicts. Plans for the mixtape died down when Nelson’s wife and business partner Ki helped repurpose the idea as a record label, crediting the name to a dream. Joseph and Ki seek to create a haven for socially responsible hip-hop in Dallas and beyond.
“A lot of the mainstream music is not positive music, or doesn’t have content or substance, so that’s what I was looking for and couldn’t find it,” Joseph says. “I could go out to different showcases and pick and choose different artists out of those showcases, but there was no showcase that I knew where I could see an all-conscious [lineup].”
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Nelson and Walk immediately set out recruiting a diverse group of talents across North Texas, including Kilo Art-of-Fact, Mecca and Tony Staxx. Artists chosen for the label are put through a rigorous screening process that never ends, from performance critiques to enforcing “no smoke breaks” during rehearsals. The label’s first two shows at RBC and Thrive in 2015 helped establish their reputation, leading Walk to cross paths with Fort Worth rapper Madame Mims and plan the release party for her album Parasomnias. In turn, Mims performed at the Fabrication Yard for Konscious Konnect’s third cypher, a tribute to Dallas treasure, DJ EZ Eddie D.
The Nelsons attribute their diverse roster and cypher locales – the first two were held at the African-American Museum at Fair Park and Josey Records, respectively – to their message of “innertainment,” or educating through the arts. Eddie D perceives the label as the next step toward creating a sturdy infrastructure for hip-hop in a city where the genre can’t even claim its own venue. The label’s promotion of building communities and association with Free the Streets doesn’t hurt, either.
“Hip-hop has this culture that people don’t get to see a lot,” Eddie says. “The community part, where hip-hop is a part of your life, where if the world needs help, you help the world.”
The debate over whether rap music has evolved for the better isn’t as important to the Konscious Konnect mission statement as creating a dialogue between different demographics. Fort Worth native Tony Staxx, 28, stands out in the group for his no-nonsense lyrics, more akin to Boosie than Blackalicious; Staxx insists this is by design.
“When I get on tracks [I] gravitate toward people who aren’t conscious, or don’t know that they’re conscious, and drop the seeds of knowledge,” Staxx said. “[I] let it grow over time so that they’re actually getting fed something with substance.”
For rapper Indigo the Kid, banding together is a relief from the clique-ishness prevalent in the Dallas music scene, he says.
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“It’s other people doing the same thing [as you],” he says. “It’s a similar movement from different people each doing their own thing yet working together as a whole about community, unity, building together. A lot of times it’s a popularity contest, whereas here it’s cool building with the next person.”
Back at the audition, Versa's freestyle has the audience captivated well after its end. It's unanimous - she's passed the audition. The rapper vigorously dovetails into a prior conversation about her favorite deep cuts on Nicki Minaj's "The Pinkprint," before anticipating her next cypher.
"I love the vibe," Versa says of the Konscious Konnect crew. "I'm excited to take [this] step in my musical journey."
KONSCIOUS KONNECT will host a cypher on Saturday, July 30, 2016, with plans for a statewide tour later this year.