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What’s the 518?
While commercial hiphop rules the airwaves and the charts, area collective Pitch Control works to serve the live rhyme

By Bill Ketzer
Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen

On Oct. 4, 2003, the Top 10 singles on the Billboard chart were, for the first time in history, completely secured by black artists. The Grammy nominees announced later that year were overwhelmingly hiphop-dominated. More and more rap artists are finding their way into high-priced endorsements with ads in every media outlet, and much of our American teenage fashion is informed by the superstar styles of the genre.

Locally, youths pile into venues like Troy’s Hudson Duster on Third Street to hear the latest beats, as they did this past Saturday to witness an MC one-on-one freestyle elimination series with a $500 purse for the winner. The event was sponsored in part by Albany’s Pitch Control Music (PCM), a hiphop cooperative which, in its short life span, has breathed life into what once was a very disorganized and ineffective rap scene. Yet, across the river, their labors remain largely ignored by local media and venues. The planets seem aligned for these ambitious young turks—so why is PCM fighting an uphill battle for recognition in its own city?

“Some will answer with very frank claims of racism,” says Pitch Control cofounder Dan “Dezin8ed” Hulbert, who handles a good chunk of the outfit’s public-relations duties. “The other all-too-familiar response is that hiphop shows are too violent, but we’ve been doing hiphop shows on a regular basis for two years straight without one fight. We’ve played straight rat holes that are usually attended by chain-smoking, three-toothed, four-time bowling champs and packed them with first-time customers who pay a cover [and] drink like wife beaters. . . . They spend money and they don’t fight. You tell us what we’re doing wrong.”

“Hiphop has many faces to these club owners and they focus on the ugly ones too much, but maybe rightfully so,” says Arbor Hill native Sev Statik, Dez’s longtime partner who got his start in hiphop with local trailblazers Master Plan in 1994. “All we wanna do is change that image and move forward. We want live hiphop in these venues, which means live professional performers. We don’t wanna do a DJ party, [and] if you look at the record, that’s always the scene with the violence. With live hiphop there’s a different environment than a DJ party and two totally different types of crowds. You can’t compare the two. One is focused on the performers—the other is focused on themselves.”

Pitch Control webmaster Atypical goes one up on that sentiment, adding that real-life gangsters don’t patronize either outlet. “Real thugs don’t go to shows. They don’t have time, but college kids have time,” he says. “They are looking for stuff to do, and right now underground hiphop is as popular as acid rock on campuses nationwide. That is the majority of who we get at our shows. Clubs don’t want to take the time to see that though.”

To counter that unspoken but fairly obvious stance taken by of many of the Capital Region’s live music venues, this core group, joined also by rambunctious New Jersey transplant Sween McCann, devised Pitch Control in 2000 as a resources clearinghouse for rappers, MCs and DJs to get their music heard. Their mission statement warns that PCM is neither a record label nor a management company (although they will take a cut from shows sometimes to cover expenses), but rather just an idea. And its uncomplicated message, coupled with the unassuming nature of its leaders, is beginning to be heard.

‘We’re moving in a new direction for a new way of thinking . . . building a whole scene,” explains Statik. “We inspire our 518 artists to become more involved with each other and nurture that idea to the fullest, and we use old-school tactics to get the word out, like flyering, telling friends, pressing newsletters and just doing gigs anywhere we can get ’em. We’re fighting an uphill battle, and most of our enemies are our own ideas and ways of thinking and we’re changing that.”

“The strategy is kind of simple: You come to my show, I’ll come to your show. You promote me, I promote you, and pass the word on,” says Sween, also Dez’s partner in the local hiphop crew Fund the Mentals. “Not every artist in this area adheres to that policy, and that drives me fuckin’ bonkers . . . but we are slowly filtering out the dead weight. And that is making Pitch Control way stronger.”

“When Dez and I talked about pushing this PCM idea to our people, we had a lot of heads wanting to get down with it,” Statik explains. “A lot of [them] didn’t have the discipline to get behind something that required listening to leadership with vision and drive to see this thing through. We have an inner core that holds PCM down, booking shows, designing the site, doing artwork and just networking. We’ve put out over a dozen releases through PCM and traveled all across the U.S. talking to new people about what we’re doing here in the 518. When it comes down to it, we started as an orgy and we slowly began to build relationships. All of us have different characters and different goals, but our common ground is our art. That’s just a testament to the culture. . . . It really does bring people to the same page.”

According to Dez, PCM applies an open-minded strategy that is all-inclusive and able to see the value of such coalition building, which ultimately benefits both artists and the viability of the local scene. “It’s up to the individual to take care of themselves, but when they need help, they ask, and watch us all come out of the woodwork,” he says. “Whether it’s Sev’s Web site with all his listeners or me and Sween playing a show with the George Muscatello Trio or Ill Type’s W. Steele every Sunday at the Lark Tavern or our man jB on the road doing a show at Rutgers College or wherever it is, as long as you hear Pitch Control you know that we’re all there. And even just shouting that out funnels all possible listeners back to the group.”

“We still learn every day,” explains Atypical, who originally hails from the Finger Lakes Region. “We remain humble, which allows us to try new things. And since jazz has been a strong influence of hiphop, it only made sense to join forces with local jazz talent we enjoyed watching. Adrian Cohen, Brian Patenaude, George Muscatello and Danny Whelchel all have been very supportive of our efforts and have even allowed us the pleasure of performing with them on occasion. The hardcore scene here has also been receptive to working with us. Cross-marketing is a great avenue to take in the ever-important battle of get-the-word-out.”

That willingness to cross-pollinate has also paid off by enhancing the musicians’ ability to expand their scope beyond local borders into New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and other urban centers. As is the case with many artists working on limited budgets, they rely on reciprocal agreements with out-of-state performers for food, lodging and gigs. Statik feels that this time-tested mechanism is necessary and helps the movement in the long run.

“We have to be on point with all of our shows and our hospitality when they come here,” he says, “so they can spread the word about our movement and hopefully get some more networking going on with other artists.”

Dez agrees, but like Sween he is frustrated when one hand doesn’t always wash the other. “We’ve brought acts here that [did] a show, got paid, and never came back,” he says. “On the other hand, we’ve brought acts that have given us a room to rock, toll and gas money, a place to crash. . . . And we’ve kept in touch and have even become good friends with them, which is a rare thing in hiphop. Everyone’s got an ego, an opinion and a press packet.”

“The process, both locally and out of town, has a way of filtering the real from the fake, so I don’t really sweat it when someone can’t return a call or doesn’t offer us a show in return,” adds Atypical. “Karma takes care of all that eventually. We just brush it off, learn, grow and march back into the grind.”

In the Capital Region, part of the grind is finding lesser-known places to showcase the artists’ talent, and in actively using those venues to scout for new MCs who have something to bring to the table. In turn, these venues began to realize the benefits of being amenable to a hiphop crowd.

“I haven’t seen anyone around here turn out a hiphop night as successful as we have,” Dez says. “Just stating fact. On the nights when these spots have matched our promotion, or in some cases outpromoted us, is when they’ve been the most packed.”

“First and foremost, we run Troy,” Sween quips. “But the Hudson Duster is the shit. B.R. Finley’s, El Dorado—we run all these bars!”

“Sween’s got rappers drowning in humility, I love it,” Dez retorts. “Troy has definitely shown PCM more love than Albany, but we’re working hard. Owners like Mike Valenti, Judy Hotaling, Laura Paigo and [booking person] Dan Goodspeed have been nothing but professional and gracious hosts. But the main thing is that they do more than give us a shot. They don’t see one bad turnout and assume we can’t draw, which has happened to us in the past. That happens to everyone on occasion. So, big ups to those who stuck by us, especially [Husdon Duster owner] Mike Valenti. He’s got the best spot around here, hands down.”

“I never have a problem having these guys here,” says Valenti, who bought the former Rolls Touring Company last year. The venue hosts a wide variety of acts, including hiphop and rock bands, comedians and just about anyone else willing to have a go at it. “They make it work, and they’re good guys. You know, the music isn’t exactly my thing, but whatever. That’s not what it’s about for me.”

While the group members see Albany’s role as the ungracious host as slowly changing (they have made inroads at the Lark Tavern, which is under new ownership), they remain perplexed at how little airplay they’ve received from local radio stations, especially those with hiphoppers as a target audience. “We always used to be up at WCDB [90.9 SUNY Albany], WRPI [91.5 RPI Troy] and even WVCR [88.3 Siena College]—we knew heads at all these stations,” Statik claims. “Now, it’s boiled down to DJ Toast on WRPI, Friday nights at 10 PM. Toast and C-Nyce show a lot of support for our local MCs on the airwaves.”

“There have been some cool folks we’ve met from Jamz 96.3 [the Pamal Broadcasting station, which also owns WFLY] but [they are] not the ones who can make things happen,” Dez says. “Let me say this, though. We respect Jamz, but it won’t go any further until they match the work we’ve put in. They’ve made it clear that they don’t need 518 hiphop. Fine. But 518 hiphop doesn’t need them either. We’d love to build, but that just doesn’t seem to be the type of people they are. The invitation is open. If they wanna make this scene better, they need to get off their goddamn diamonds and do something.”

Statik points out that Jamz sometimes secures local artists to open for national acts like Mr. Cheeks, Onyx and others, but admits that getting prime-time airplay on commercial stations is another ballgame. “We want prime-time play because we’re legit and we have publishing,” he explains. “If it takes a distribution from a major label, we got that from Uprock/EMI. If it’s quality, we got that too. We have videos and songs that air on MTV2, ESPN and in movies. We’re on releases with Mack 10, Ice Cube, Dilated Peoples and Kirk Franklin for cryin’ out loud. What else do we need?”

Atypical says that to make matters worse, Jamz learned of PCM’s “518” tagline to describe the local scene and overtly pilfered it for use in their own promotional material. “They thought it would be profitable to use it in their adverts to show how ‘down’ they really are,” he says. “They even go a step further and say how they are the ‘only station down with the 518.’ Whatever. I let the rappers rap and the fakers fake.”

Another weapon in the Pitch Control arsenal has been the art of collaboration. Despite very marked differences in styles, ethics and even personal beliefs (for example, Statik is devoutly spiritual, while Dez appears obsessed with porn), there remains very tight community here that not only supports each other, but contributes to one another’s product.

“We all know one thing about music in general: It’s fun,” remarks Atypical. “So when someone you respect says, ‘Wanna get down on my album?,’ of course you do. Free recording and a new song to promote. Another track to put on your resume. And that artist is doing all the work pushing it, [so] there you are. After one recording session, being promoted indirectly by someone else for free. Management fees need not apply. There have also been a lot of friendships made in the last few years here. On top of all that selfish crap I just mentioned, there is that bond as well. That bond is what keeps us challenging each other. “

We have a slew of beatmakers and song producers down for the cause. Finer Arts, Origin Ill and Noize Mob are all conglomerates of PCM that are ill producers in their own rights,” Sween says. “We just take one baby step at a time.”

If the growing fan base is any indication, there seems to be plenty of time. And while Dez understands that success is a relative term, and that some opinions and preconceptions are as inflexible as a sprained ankle, he says that for PCM the bottom line will always be work ethic, combined with a love for making music. “None of us are making any money right now,” he says. “Not really. So you have to love what you do, and it’s in your best personal interest to do it well.

“I’m not trying to prove myself to anyone,” he continues. “Not my homeys, not my enemies, not myself. Not no girls . . . well, maybe girls, but that’s it, I swear. It’s about enjoying what you do. Once you get caught up in other people’s expectations and getting signed and sales and all that—that’s when you play yourself. I mean, honestly, the really good music isn’t on the radio or the TV. That shit is for slaves, but there’s this really steamy ball of filth covered in band-aids and pubic hair that has elements of jazz and punk rock at its core and wears one of James Brown’s old capes and a pair of shitty shell-toes and after it fell out of Kool Herc’s asshole 30 years ago it’s been rolling from ghetto to galaxy ever since, [and that is] real hiphop. If you wanna know more about it you have to do more than watch cable and read the Source.”

For more information, contact PCM directly via e-mail at pcm518@hotmail.com or by phone at 542-9422, or visit the group’s Web site at www.pitchcontrolmusic.net.


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