Zoneil Maharaj

April 27, 2007

Kids look up to rappers. And since the most popular ones glamorize misogyny, materialism, violence, drug-dealing and any variation of hustlin’ on the block thereof, our future is looking pretty bleak. Thankfully, there are folks like the Lifesavas who strive to preserve the culture and keep hip-hop afloat.

Emcee Vursatyl and DJ Rev. Shines, two thirds of the trio, just wrapped up a nine-week after-school hip-hop history class in their hometown of Portland, Ore. Originally approached by Self-Enhancement Inc., a community center in Portland, to teach kids how to rap and DJ, Vursatyl thought it would be more valuable to teach them history instead.

“Most kids have the raw talent,” he says. “I just wanted to make them aware of where hip-hop came from, and that would help them keep the culture and integrity alive.”

Through the class, students were exposed to the music that influenced their favorite contemporary emcees and producers. The duo brought in special guests, such as hip-hop pioneers Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore. One of the students’ favorite activities was Beat Jeopardy. While DJ Rev. Shines played the original breaks from funk, jazz and soul artists, students guessed the correct rapper who sampled them.

“If you have an opportunity to help people beyond music, you should take it. It doesn’t hurt to step out the box and take action,” Vursatyl says. “For me, that’s what the class is and what we’re trying to do in our community.”

But it’s not just kids who can learn something from the Lifesavas. With the release of Gutterly on April 24, their followup to 2003’s Quannum Projects debut Spirit in Stone, Vursatyl, DJ Shines and emcee/producer Jumbo the Garbageman, continue their mission as humble, positive, socially conscious artists whose creativity stretches wider than the collective overgrown egos of today’s pop-rap stars. If you haven’t already, start taking notes.

Inspired by blaxploitation movies such as Coonskin, the Mack and Superfly, and named after the late Baraka Feldman’s unfinished blaxploitation film from the early ’80s, Gutterfly is similar to other cinematic albums such as Prince Paul’s Prince Among Thieves and Mr. Lif’s I-Phantom. But whereas the aforementioned albums rely on every song for the story’s progression, each song on Gutterfly can stand alone.

Alone, each song is an episode in a saga, packaged with solid production that’s reinforced with positive and witty lyricism. Together, the songs follow a heroic trio (Vursatyl as Bumpy Johnson, Jumbo as Sleepy Floyd and DJ Shines as Jimmy Slimwater) in the cutthroat Razorblade City as they try to reclaim it from the grips of a villain named Pharaoh.

“We used these characters as a way for us to explore a lot more on this record, which we thought would make the songs and concepts and ideas we had to express more palatable to our fanbase,” Vursatyl says. “The tough thing is, after making a record like Spirit in Stone, it has a tendency to put you in a box and inhibit you. We wanted to turn the page and show people other things that we enjoy and how we’ve evolved as artists. Gutterfly was the perfect backdrop for that. In a movie, nothing is out of bounds.”

Jumbo shapes much of the dynamic soundscape, handling a bulk of the funky and soulful production, with cameos by Oh No, Vitamin D and Jake One. Together, Jumbo and Vursatyl provide the vivid lyrical imagery, which brings Gutterfly into its cinematic being.

Those expecting to hear songs like Spirit in Stone hits “Hellohihey” and “Head Exercise” will be surprised by Gutterfly’s versatility, range and seriousness. Not only do they explore different topics this time around — including child molestation, murder, police brutality, racial profiling and betrayal — they also collaborate with a variety of diverse artists.

“We wanted to work with other great duos, other great pairs and teams; people that worked well together,” Vursatyl says. “We didn’t want the perception of Lifesavas to rob the fans or rob us of us trying to make great music with other great artists.”

The Portland fly guys styles are complimented by Camp Lo’s ’70s-inspired slick talk, their social awareness punctuated by dead prez’s revolutionary rhymes. And of course, you can’t have a blaxploitation flick without funk, and Fishbone and George Clinton bring more funk than a basketball team’s dirty laundry. Smif-N-Wessun, Vernon Reid of Living Colour and Ish a.k.a. Butterfly of Digable Planets also help the trio to victory.

In Gutterfly, Razorblade City’s desolation puts the fictional city in dire need of heroes, but what of hip-hop’s wasteland of gun-toting, womanizing, drug-dealing thugs?

“Hip-hop just needs passionate artists. In our minds, those people are heroes,” Vursatyl says. “We can never have too much of that: artists who keep the art form fresh and innovative and keep the legacy of good music alive.”

Zoneil Maharaj is the editor-in-chief of Oh Dang!. He is a high school writing coach through the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism’s Prime Movers program, as well as a regular contributor to Performer Magazine and Pop and Politics.