Being besieged with free promotional CDs would seem like an enviable problem. But in all honestly, it's oftentimes more of a burden than a benefit. Everything from rain forest music to that Crazy Frog ringtone CD crosses my desk, and while Apollo Kid tries to give everything a shot, most CDs end up getting thrown by the ever-growing wayside. There are, however, a few sleepers in the bunch, and it's always great when a new group snaps me out of my listening doldrums. One such CD was Things Change from The Square Egg.
With lush live instrumentation that oscillates between neo-soul, hip-hop, and jazz, Things Change uses the same cross-genre pollination and fetishistic nostalgia that has come to characterize postmillennium boho hip-hop. And though lead singer Lee Williams's lyrics do convey a passionate (if at times misguided) cynicism of the current state of modern music, his critiques are cut with a healthy dose of optimism, both for his personal trials and larger social struggles. Songs such as "Feels Like Summer" and the tender "I Serenade You" are sweetly romantic, serving as an antithesis to both the didactic fury of underground hip-hop and the hypermasculine braggadocio of mainstream rap.
But the most surprising thing about The Square Egg isn't that it is a good indie hip-hop band -- there are many wonderful groups currently flying under the mainstream radar -- it's that it was a good indie hip-hop band from Miami, or at least that's what I was led to believe.
So it came as a big disappointment when I sat down recently with Williams and the rest of The Square Egg at a South Beach diner and the guys informed me they are no longer Miami's most progressive hip-hop act. They have in fact moved to New York.
"Miami does not have much of a live music scene," Williams explains. "This is a Latin music town and a dance town -- and when I say dance I also mean mainstream hip-hop. It's not a place for us to sustain what we do."
This may be a bit of an overstatement, but there's some validity to it. After all, if a group like The Square Egg can't make it here, then it's hard to imagine that younger, less-developed talent would have an opportunity to flourish. The Square Egg has long been considered the cream of the crop of local indie hip-hop. The group formed in 1999, taking its name from British artist Ronald Searle's famous illustrated book, and shortly thereafter self-released an EP, The Art of Living. That CD would be followed up by Songs to Live By and last year's experimental LP, The Wooden Tongue. Throughout its lifespan, the band has continued to grow -- and not only creatively and commercially but also literally. After forming as a trio, with Williams and local guitarist/producer Aaron Fishbein sharing the main songwriting duties, The Square Egg quickly ballooned from three to six members before finally settling at the current number, ten.
And while they weren't in any danger of hitting platinum status, they were able to gig out semiregularly and even won a Readers' Choice award in New Times' 2003 "Best of Miami" issue for Best Local Rap Group. But the members feel like they hit Miami's glass ceiling.
"There's a reality to what Miami is," Williams says. "For the past ten years people have been very geared toward the Estefan view of Miami being the mecca of Latin music. And it's a party town with a transient culture ... you don't have a core audience to really dig in and support a music scene."
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Williams is far from alone in feeling that Miami's celebrity culture is detracting from the city's local music scene. Apollo Kid recently caught up with indie music promoter and spoken-word artist Chris Imperial. Imperial is heartened by the indie hip-hop and neo-soul bands coming out of the scene, but he is similarly dismayed by the lack of venues.
"There's a lot of indie artists in the South Florida area that have lost hope," Imperial says. "Every time there's a big event like the VMAs, they focus on Def Jam.... The celebrity rules the day, and they don't focus as much on local indie labels. These artists can't get played on the radio. And when they do get shows at local venues, the artists aren't treated the way they should. It is getting better in the sense that the indie artists are organizing and rallying around one another. But there's still not enough support."
And the worst thing about this dynamic is that it's a self-perpetuating cycle. If there isn't a large enough support system for up-and-coming talent, then the talent will leave. And if the artists leave, there will never be a sustainable scene. I confronted Williams with this paradox, and he responded with little more than a shrug and an assertion (or perhaps accusation) that perhaps things would change if the local press were more supportive. I'm not so arrogant to think we wield that much power, but Apollo Kid pledges to do his part. If you're in a local indie hip-hop group, hit me up. If nothing else, I promise your promos will get more play than the Crazy Frog ringtones.