Spinning Strawze into Gold

A year ago, at a concert thrown by and for Miami's hip-hop habitues, a Bronx rapper by the name of Fat Joe clambered his way to the microphone and, drum tracks rattling in the background, hollered something to the effect of, "Y'all ready to party? Give it up!"

This was all Fat Joe said, and all he needed to say.
The moment spoke volumes about Miami's struggling hip-hop scene, and the preconceptions that have dogged that scene for years.

"When people like Fat Joe come down here, all they know about Miami is bass music, just boom! boom! boom! and girls shaking their titties and their asses," says Damon Roberts, or D Rhythm, one third of the Miami-based trio Lastrawze. "People in New York and Los Angeles don't realize that brothers are struggling to make it here, too."

"What we're about is keeping it real, writing about what we see and hear every day," adds bandmate Damien "Phunk" Silva. "Hip-hop is our poetry, our way of speaking about our world."

Few albums are likely to speak with as much blunt force about Miami's urban underside as Instrawmental, the soon-to-be commercially released debut from Lastrawze. The record's thirteen tracks are eloquent, jazz-spiked portraits of life at the "rock bottom of the map," the South Dade avenues where the Strawze spent their teenage years.

At the core of the album is "Where I'm At (Ghostland)," a chilling travelogue delivered over a mournful squall of horns, a laconic backbeat, and the distant wail of sirens. "I know a lotta nigs who run around and crack jokes/And now some nigs is in the cemetery doing backstrokes," raps the third Straw, Simeon Hinds, a.k.a. Mr. Vibe. "So checks me/For facts you best respects me/'Cause niggas round the way/Shot more shots than Wayne Gretzky."

To which Phunk rejoins, "Some foes know how it goes down in the 9-0s/ Ghostland's the borough/the mic check is thorough/The land where there ain't no such thing as tomorrow/Carry the clip for ammo/Pack skills like cargo/'Cuz parting is such sweet sorrow/For those who wanna test me/Bitches, see, they stress me/The beast wanna arrest me/My crew stalks deep/Creepin' fake niggas who sleep/And then we bag them and then we brag and we boast and/At night we light and we toast here in Ghostland."

Even within the lyrically exuberant arena of hip-hop, the Strawz' interwoven narratives are striking for their poetic sensibility and insight. "Late at night I write recitals to lessen the stress/My brain maintains, to put the world off my chest," Phunk declares. "My mind forfeits/life cycles like an orbit/the rich get more rich/the more poor the poor gets."

Even when indulging in B-boy braggadocio -- as on the radio-ready single "Big Respect" -- the Strawze manage to wax witty. His baritone thrown atop a delicious snippet of organ lifted from an album by blues great Joe Williams, Vibe recites, "They thought I wouldn't make it cause them foes didn't know me/Now they owe me one/'Cuz I got the force like Obewon."

The band has earned big respect and a cult following in their hometown. But making the leap to national stature is another matter and will depend largely on the push that accompanies the formal release of the Instrawmental CD, which is slated for late August. (Thus far the album has been available only on cassette.)

"They've got a good shot at breaking out nationally, because they've got a sound with mass appeal," says Darnella Dunham, program director of WVUM-FM (90.5). "Kids and older listeners can groove to the record, because the lyrics are contemporary, but the background music is full of great jazz and blues samples."

Arturo "Rhythm Rocker" Gomez, host of the popular Saturday Night Funk Box on WDNA-FM (91.3), is more guarded. "There's so much hip-hop product available that a regional band, even a talented one, has to get the right kind of push," he points out. "That's especially true of the Strawze, because they are going to be battling against the perception that everything coming out of Miami is shake yo' booty music."

Still, Gomez admits, the buzz about the album has been encouraging: "I work part- time at a record store and I can't tell you how many calls I get every week asking when the disc is going to be out. What you've got right now is a lot of people running around with tapes of dubs and tapes of tapes of dubs. It's crazy."

Detre Val, musical director of Black Jacobins, the Strawz' local record label, says the company is aiming to sell anywhere from 200,000 to 250,000 units of Instrawmental. "We've put a lot behind the band," Val notes, "for obvious reasons."

Chief among those reasons is the musical genius of Mr. Vibe, the man responsible for the sonic backdrops to the rhymes. An accomplished jazz musician while at Killian Senior High School, the twenty-year-old is an aficionado whose musical tastes run wild. "His pops has a whole collection of records and Vibe will stay up all night listening to tunes," Phunk notes. "He'll pull a trumpet riff from Dizzy, a vocal track from Joe Williams, maybe a little Kool and the Gang or Ohio Players, and some Grover Washington. Then he'll bring us this beautiful mix over the phone. He'll play the sample and we'll be like, 'Oh, that's beautiful.' We just loop the sample in our heads -- yes, yes, lovely -- and he'll tell us, 'I'm gonna use this break beat,' and so we play that in our head and just start writing."

Mr. Vibe himself is modest about -- even reluctant to discuss -- his precocious skills as a sampler. "Everybody's got input on the music," he stresses. "It's all about finding the melody and the rhythm that will help us put across the message."

Vibe originally met D Rhythm at Arvida Junior High. "I'd come up in Brooklyn, in the middle of the hip-hop explosion, so as a little kid I'd be lyrically battling older kids," recalls D Rhythm, also twenty years old. "When I came down to Miami, I got into a band, but Vibe was on his own. For a while we were like big-time rivals."

The two joined forces at Killian, thanks to a mutual friend, and eventually the three formed School Daze. "When I came down to Miami from North Carolina, School Daze were already ranked, they had status," recalls the eighteen-year-old Phunk, the youngest Straw. "It was obvious these were the guys I was going to have to get with, or compete against. I ended up opening this warehouse show for them in Kendall. I had to rap over this CD, but the CD kept skipping, so I had to keep it going. When that worked out, I started MCing. I said, 'Are you all ready to hear School Daze?' and the place went wild."

Phunk's verbal facility and stage presence did not go unnoticed. "We were like, 'Who is that kid?'" D Rhythm notes. "We spent a couple of months just trying to find him. All we knew was that he went to Southridge High and that he was Puerto Rican."

Phunk was shocked when he finally got a call, two months later. "You got a lot of guys who talk about being in a band or whatnot, but it don't mean shit. When D and Vibe came by, they had all their music on tape, ready to go."

Originally a quartet, the band dropped the fourth member and changed names in 1992. "One day we were talking about all the negativity going around the hip-hop world," Phunk says, "all the commercialism and selling out and such, and Vibe said, 'This shit is like the last straw.'" The name stuck.

Most of Instrawmental was written in 1993 and recorded last year. The band has opened local shows for visiting underground hip-hoppers such as Black Moon and Old Dirty Bastard. But because of the dearth of commercial stations playing hip-hop music in Dade, the Strawze have had to make do with limited radio support, from WDNA, WVUM, and a host of pirate stations.

They also have had to deal with frequent separations. Vibe graduated from Killian in 1993 and spent two years at the University of Florida before dropping out. Both D Rhythm and Phunk are high school dropouts who hang in Miami. Indeed, the long wait for the release of Instrawmental also has proved a perilous time. All three Strawze are surviving more or less hand to mouth. There have been brushes with the law, and family tensions.

"I ain't gonna front," D Rhythm says. "Things are rough for us, and we're doing what we have to until we see what the record does. We're hopeful good things will happen. But in the end, we're making music to express ourselves, not to make a hit.

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