Dec. 16, 2004
by BOB DORAN
THE CDS HAD BEEN SITTING ON MY DESK FOR AT LEAST A couple weeks. Franco Casasanta, a rapper from the Fortuna-based Dirty Rats crew had dropped them off, but they remained buried under piles of papers until last Tuesday when I noticed that the Rats crew had a gig in Arcata.
I pulled the wrapper off a disc titled The Plague and slipped it in my boom box. The opening rhyme, "Intro," begins with an over-the-top paean to cannabis and oral sex that finds the rappers ultimately swamped by a teeming swarm of rats.
Pressed for time I jumped to a couple of other tracks touching on similar topics and wrote a quick paragraph noting that the Rats rap about sex and drugs.
Callous, one of the large Dirty Rats crew, took offense and wrote me an e-mail saying as much, asking if I'd listened to the group's new disc, Caught Ya Sleepin' (I hadn't), and declaring, "It goes a lot deeper than drugs and sex. True, there are a few tracks that cover [those] topics quite well, and those are the tracks that teenagers seem to pay most attention to, much like you have done." In conclusion he let me know, "I really don't care what you think, but before you decide to publish your misconceptions for everyone else to read, maybe you should take the time to actually listen to the content of the lyrics (if they're not too complex for you to understand)."
Feeling slightly guilty about my flippant comment, I gave a deeper listen to the Rats' latest, the aforementioned collaboration between Callous, Franco and Kush and found that there were in fact other themes explored, and in a style fresh enough to keep my attention.
I was still digesting when I got a call from another Rat, one known as Mr. Ocean. Not knowing that the Rats were briefly discussed in last week's Hum, he wanted to be sure I knew about Thursday's show. When I mentioned the e-mail from Callous he laughed.
"Our opening statement was actually a joke, because every hip-hop artist in Humboldt County talks about pot. That's their main thing: `We're from Humboldt; we talk about pot.' In fact, we grew up here so we've been around it all our lives too, but we were trying to be sarcastic. I don't think there's many hip-hop CDs that don't include [sex and drugs]. But there's way more to us than that, I promise you," said Ocean.
Another member of the crew, Franco, concurred, saying, "We tend to go a little over the top on some songs, and it's done on purpose. If we really wanted to we could have that one monotone thing all the way through, but we don't. We're rhyming about other things too."
"We're really diverse," noted Ocean. "We literally have eight to 10 rappers in our group. Everyone has their own complete different style. We all have a different view of life which comes out as different views musically."
What else do they rap about? After a closer listen to the rhymes that were not too complex for me to understand, I'd say they include discussion of politics, economics, love, the nature of art -- and sex and drugs.
For his part Franco, known as the master battle rapper of the group, says he mainly wants to "kick dope rhymes" and get better at his craft. "It's about rhyming and about history," he says, slipping into verse mode. "There's a lot of old school artists I give respect ta; it's good to dig for records, that's how you get your diction betta. I'm the biggest prep in just a sweater; I could do this shit forever."
As part of his ongoing effort to improve his level of knowledge, Franco traveled to Cincinnati earlier this year for the major hip-hop confab, Scribble Jam, "a national hip hop event/competition that brings music, B-boying, DJing and the whole scene to the masses."
Franco went for the rap/rhyme contests known as battles. In a series of elimination rounds, he went up against 32 other rappers and took third place. "They basically put you head to head; put the clock on for 30 seconds; one guy goes, then the other guy goes. The thing about battling is, anyone can do it. You just need a little bit of wit and enough confidence to get up on stage and grab the mike. Anyone can crack a joke, and it's pretty much a joke telling contest [in rhyme]. I try to flip my style a lot and not just stick to the same cadence and pattern, you know, throw some different rhyme schemes other than just A-A, maybe an A-B, maybe some double-time stuff or I'll play with the beat. There's all kinds of ways to flow, but a lot of people get up these with nursery rhyme patterns. I try to stay away from that and take it somewhere else."
Why hip-hop? "It's about creating your own music," said Ocean. "Hip-hop is anything you want it to be. You grow up hearing this music from the city, but you can do it in your own style and talk about where you're from, just the way they talk about the city. There's a commonality. Just like any art form, as long as it's coming from your mind, with your thoughts, it's original."
Franco pointed out, "It's a lot more accessible and it's easier to set up shows. You don't have to bring all your equipment; you just get up there and get on the mike. You perform, have a good time. The people have a good time listening.
"Hip-hop is also a movement. I'm kind of detached from it since I'm not from an urban area, not from where it was born, but I still like to participate because I feel like I have a gift for it. You know, I have a college degree under my belt, and there's other stuff I could do, but I'm young right now so I'm going to take advantage of it. I want to keep doing it while I still can."
The Dirty Rats are at
Humboldt Brews Thursday, Dec. 16, showtime 10 p.m.
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