Listening to a track by the Strange Fruit Project does not immediately give away its place of birth. The group’s infectious and steadily melodic beats echo Dr. Dre’s West coast dynasty. But their candid vocals, combining singing and rhyming, invoke the tranquil storytelling of the East Coast’s CL Smooth or Black Thought. But what finally gives it away is the twang in their voices, and the detectable marriage of jazz and blues—soul.
“Everybody thinks the South is all about food, and all about grills, but the scene over there has a lot of variety and people don’t necessarily realize that,” asserts the baby of the group, Myone, over a crackling phone connection. Hailing from the small town of Waco, Texas, the group is not your typical southern hip-hop. The trio of Symbolyc 1 (S1 for short), Myth, and Myone (pronounced “my-own”), reach for inspiration from everywhere, blending such varied self-proclaimed influences as Ghostface Killa, Erykah Badu, Jay Dilla, and Grandmaster Flash
Their sound was born in the late 1990s, when S1 and Myth, cousins who have been flowing together for years, were in a group called Symbolyc Elementz. A few years later, then-high schooler Myone floated into their lives. “S1 and I worked together on our day job,” Myone recounts. “One day we had a break and me bein’ brave I went up to him ... and I was basically like, ‘Yo how can I be down?’ Long story short, we eventually started working on a project, and we were on the same vibe, and we just decided to go with that vibe.”
The “vibe” they got, says S1, can be called “hip-hop soul,” much softer than the rasping sound of some other southern rappers.
“As far as the scene in Texas goes,” S1, the group’s music director, explains, “there’s a lot of diversity to experience, but it’s overshadowed by the mainstream, like what you hear on the radio ... so there’s a lot of stuff going on, but not many know about it.” True, I don’t remember the last time I heard anything about the Northern Texas underground hip-hop scene. About to drop their third album, The Healing, in July, the SFP has stayed sufficiently under the radar since its inception—not necessarily because its sound is so esoteric, but because of the trio’s clear self-separation from the overly commodified hip-hop of 2006.
“In the end we just all want balance,” Myone says earnestly. “Right now the industry is overrun with ... you know, whatever you want to call it ... but we want to give people an option besides what’s on the radio.” Myth, the more “abstract” of the three, finally pipes up and says: “We definitely need balance. Back in the day we had Public Enemy, NWA, Geto Boys. When I was growing, up I heard all of that on the radio, right there ... now there’s not really a rotation, its become so it’s kinda—”
“Frustratin’,” Myone sighs.
“Yeah that’s the word,” Myth agrees, “Frustratin’.”
“DJs jam our stuff, they tell us they’re feelin’ us, but they ain’t gon’ put us on the radio ... that’s just how it goes,” Myone says wearily. S1 calls the upsurge of MySpace music “a plus”, telling me, “Most of the music I get is stuff that that I normally wouldn’t hear on the radio, and if I didn’t have the Internet I wouldn’t know about them.”
But despite their home in the underground, Strange Fruit Project’s music has something deeply accessible. When I ask who is usually there when they look out at an audience during a show, the group uniformly gives a hearty laugh.
“Oh man, everyone!” they all tell me, each of their voices running into the others. “On the West coast, it’s predominantly white and Asian, but I mean you see people with pacifiers in their mouth ... You got people in boots, just like every type of person.”
When I ask who they expect to see when they perform at the second annual Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival on June 24th, the group admits that they have no idea. “This is actually gonna be our first time performing in New York,” S1 confesses. “We’re out on the west coast a lot, but we’re waiting to see what the east coast has to offer.”
Headlined by Big Daddy Kane and featuring such artists as Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest, Sleepy Brown, and the Procussions, the free Williamsburg event will bring together sounds and artists anywhere from Chicago to L.A. The SFP senses a connection already with the coast they’ve never ventured to, acknowledging the significance of Brooklyn in hip-hop’s history. S1 says of the event’s organizers that “they’re feelin what we’re feelin’,” and tells me he is anxious to meet Big Daddy Kane and perform on the stage out there “with a legend”. The same refreshing modesty of Strange Fruit Project infiltrates their every sentence. When I mention that people often compare them to groups like Jurassic Five, Common, Brand Nubian, and the Roots, Myone tells me, “That’s an honor, you know, to get grouped with all those names.”
The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival coincides nicely with the release of the Strange Fruit Project’s third disc. The tracks on The Healing are polished, pleasant on the ear, and mostly ebullient, whether they be the Strange Fruit Project’s characteristic chilled-out sound or more energized beats.
“It’s a really a big jump from the second album,” S1 assures me of The Healing. “More commercial, but not in the sense that it’s too pop ... it has the soul, so it’s like a perfect blend, a perfect mix of the two.” He pauses. “It’s listener friendly, put it like that.”
The word is “positive”, oddly the message that seems to be keeping the Strange Fruit Project’s brand of hip-hop away from the radio waves. Myone says that, overall, “People need something to smile about.” At this point in the game, peace and positivity is essentially political activism. Backpack rappers like Common and Talib Kweli are often associated with all-encompassing grassroots movements, from anti-war to AIDS activism. When I ask the group if they identify with this sentiment, Myth muses, “I think we all have a little political activist in us. We do things within our own—you know, try to help and reach our community.” The group’s name itself, named after the 1939 Billie Holiday song, excites a strong political statement, referencing Waco’s early 1900s lynching history.
S1 embraces the activist association, explaining, “It’s a pretty strong name. We represent the struggle and every average human being that’s going through the struggle. We try to speak on things that people are going through, whether it be the economy or family.”
“We try to keep everything on a positive note,” he stresses. “There’s a lot of negativity around us ... we go through the same things that other people go through. We want to tell [listeners] that we the average individuals, we goin’ through the same thing, so let’s inspire each other, motivative each other.”
Absent from the Strange Fruit Project’s lyrics are references to bitches and ho’s, ice and bling, getting crunk in the club. There isn’t so much as a cuss word throughout their albums—and some critics have attributed this fact to the group’s references to their faith. A review on Urbansmarts.com even classifies the SFP as “religious rap”.
“Yeah, some think that because ... there’s a lot of references to God, ‘cause we know who our source is,” S1 says of the distinctly Christian hue of the group’s rhymes. “But overall its just dealing with issues of life in general, I think people just look at the references ... and they take that to mean only one thing.” S1’s music backbone was nurtured by the instruments he played in church—since back in the day, he played the piano, keyboards, and drums.
Myone doesn’t deny the group’s religious influence. “But don’t get it twisted,” he tells me gently. “Our music is more about everyday life than anything else.”