By Kat Bein
By Laurie Charles
By Shea Serrano
By Jeff Weinberger
By Kat Bein
By Shea Serrano
By S. Pajot
By Terrence McCoy
In 1993, John Joseph Cullen, the local MC known as Butta Verses, left the grimy streets of his native Bronx to surf and attend classes in sunny South Florida. But instead of catching that perfect wave, the now-33-year-old b-boy ended up frequenting spots such as the Sugar Shack and Club Boca and meeting local MCs, DJs, and producers. Soon he discovered his true calling — rhyming — and picked up his nom de guerre thanks to his smooth flow.
Settling in Coral Springs, Butta came up battling at a time when the local scene was in its infancy. "Back then it was just hip-hop, not I'm the realest dude in the street," he says.
Butta Verses: Thursday, September 11. Money $hot at The Vagabond, 30 NE 14th St., Miami. Doors open at 11 p.m. Admission is free 10 p.m. to midnight, $10 after. 305-379-0508, www.thevagabondmiami.com
Click play to listen to Butta Verses' "If I Die."
Then one day, randomly, Maseo of De La Soul got a copy of one of Butta's CDs. Impressed, he signed the MC to his fledgling imprint Bear Mountain Recordings. In the end, Butta would record only one track with De La, the bouncy "No" off the group's Grind Date LP. But the experience of accompanying the crew on shows around the globe was priceless.
"I would open up, then come out and do 'No' with them, and then do Common's spot on 'The Bizness,'" Butta recalls. "The dopest thing was there were dates where Common was on the bill, and I would do my part and he came out and did his. Then another time in New York, I did my part and [Talib] Kweli came out and did his thing. It was like a dream come true."
While touring, he was also working on his own music, culminating in his slept-on first album, Brand Spankin', in 2004. Featuring bangers such as "Round and Round" and "Grow Up," the release, Butta thought, didn't get the right push from his label, prompting him to step out of the situation with Maseo. But he insists there are no hard feelings."We're still fam.... On my side it's still straight love, nothing but good memories."
Still, around 2005, there wasn't one local show for which Butta's name wouldn't pop onto a flyer. He opened for KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan, and other artists, either solo or as part of his group with MC Filth, The Fresh Air Fund. He also dropped his first mixtape, The Fixtape. It showcased a unique, versatile flow that recalled A Tribe Called Quest and OutKast, with comedic interludes and fresh beats from his Glee Club Detention crew. Around the same time came another track with De La: the Bobby Byrd-sampling "You Got It," off that group's Impossible Mission mixtape.
Today he continues the grind, with a to-do list heavier than most. Besides trying to make a living off music, Butta also does freelance work as an artist and barber while helping take care of his seven-year-old daughter. But he refuses to compromise. "I've been told by labels: 'You need more of a street image; you need to talk about this or that,'" he says. "But I'm like, There is another side of life out there; that's not all that goes on. There are people that will buy what you push to them. It's really about taking a risk. I never thought anybody would really be afraid of taking a risk."
Enter Reality BV, Butta's second full-length, dropping September 30, as the first release on local sneaker boutique Culture Kings' music label, Culture Kings Music. It features 16 solid tracks from Broward County's finest, with appearances by indie hip-hop champs such as Joell Ortiz, C.L. Smooth, and A-Butta, with beats from Marco Polo, Doc Sus, and Shorte, among others. "It's dealing with me at this particular point over the past two years of my life, towards music, females, my situation monetarily," Butta says. "It's definitely something that I could sit and ride with. There aren't too many albums that only cater to the real hip-hop heads, and this one absolutely does."
A standout is one of the first tracks on the album, "If I Die," featuring Lucian on vocals. In it, Butta hypothetically considers what would happen if he left this mortal coil today, weighing the relationships he would leave behind, and his good and bad deeds. A slow head-nodder, it's been steadily making the rounds on the Internet.
What's clear is Butta's dedication to hip-hop as a craft rather than an image, and the influence of old-school hip-hop greats who provided the soundtrack to his early days as a b-boy. "I was breakdancing to The Sugar Hill Gang, taking linoleum from my bathroom and bringing it outside to break," Butta says. "I knew I was a part of rap. Whether I wanted to be or not, I just was." With that, below, Butta V. reminisces on three albums that shaped him as an MC.
De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead: "This was the joint that really made me want to rap. I played this record out that whole summer . Everything they would talk about I would actually understand; it wasn't something I had to look into. Very relevant, social commentary-type stuff, and the beats were fire. This joint definitely pushed me in the direction like, I could do this; this is what I want to do."