Ultra Mega KS
In many ways, Approach‘s abode — which the MC shares with Archetype’s Jeremy “Nezbeat” Nesbitt and Datura Records owner Brent Lippincott — resembles all the other student-ghetto crash pads in Lawrence. Oversized posters (Rage Against the Machine, Erykah Badu, Miles Davis, Blackalicious, Radiohead, OutKast) cover all available wall space; rows of records are piled near a turntable station in the corner; Frosted Flakes and fast-food burritos are the cuisine du jour, and a static-filled TV plays silently in the background.
But the nondescript dwelling belies its residents’ stature as lords of the local hip-hop underground. Approach’s already-high profile should get a lift from the long-awaited release of his sophomore disc Ultraproteus, an eight-song EP that packs an album’s worth of wallop into 23 minutes. The standout track “Hey Ya’ll” juxtaposes a foundation of burping bass and skating-rink organ grinding with stuttering horns from Miles Bonny of Sounds Good and Dino Jack Crispy fame. Bonny is just one of the numerous local all-stars appearing on the effort, which features deft turns from Gadjits keyboardist Ehren Starks and Roots Crew guitarist Eric Johnson, as well as additional “seasoning” from onetime Panel Donor Ben Tuttle. Though Ultraproteus is marinated in ’70s soul juice (just listen to Starks’ sure-handed Bob James tribute on “Various Blends”), the result is far jazzier than expected — not big pimpin’ like Shaft but funky like Booker T.
“I wanted it to sound like an old 45, like that rare gem,” Approach explains. “Bringing in these musicians and letting them knock it out live — the pure feeling of it, not just the pure musicianship of it — gave it the element I wanted. Between the musicians and [producer Johnny] Quest, they made it happen for me. And Ben the Scratch Rat gave me some wonderful tracks. They just brought it alive.”
Approach is often labeled a “conscious” MC, not only because he refuses to pepper his verbal barrages with misogyny, but also because he’s made a name for himself as Mac Lethal’s cool-breeze counterpart. Mac’s face-smacking lyrics and deadpan flow completely contrast his partner’s nimble, down-to-earth poetics, making them the area’s most attractive opposites. Mac makes a brief appearance, but it’s Approach’s easygoing disposition that permeates Ultraproteus, creating a warm-and-fuzzy vibe that manages to be inclusive and positive without sacrificing an ounce of rump-shaking bounce.
“It’s a summertime record, but hopefully it’ll break some frost off of the winter,” Approach says with a smile. “The biggest thing for me would be to walk into somebody’s house party and hear them playing my record. All the kids that sit on their Internet sites going, ‘These rhymes are wack,’ I haven’t made their record yet, nor do I know if I will. It’s something that I’m serious about and passionate about, yet the underlying theme is fun. I’ll get serious for everybody again, because that seriousness is what I do best. But if you got a nice, smooth groove goin’, you can’t be sitting in there: My super scientifical lyrical miracles.”
Approach’s awe-inspiring way with words has made him one of the area’s hip-hop alpha males —an MC to whom others look for inspiration and direction. On Ultraproteus, Approach looks backward. Tongue-twisted references to the have-a-nice-day decade abound, with the MC recalling everything from the joys of eight-track tapes to bell-bottom soul purveyors such as Shalamar and Rose Royce. Though his verses were committed to memory eons ago, they retain the off-the-cuff aura generally associated with freestyling.
“My first tape was recorded on a four-track, where you have to do it all the way through,” Approach recalls. “And that mentality stuck with me — putting it all on the line right there. [Early collaborator Ras] Rebel showed me that if you’re confident about it and know what you’re doing before you go in the booth, it doesn’t sound like you’re reading it off paper. The best songs on the album were done in ten minutes.”
Local hip-hop heads have been waiting for Ultraproteus a lot longer. Rumors about its release have been circulating for more than a year, and early tapes made it into the hands of ambitious fans months ago. Originally slated for release on We Sell Soul Records, the disc was delayed, then put on hold indefinitely. Instead of taking Ultraproteus to another label, Approach started from scratch and re-recorded the entire album.
“There were some things I wanted to change,” he admits. “I wanted to add a little more musicianship to it. It was supposed to take a couple of months to get it done, and that stretched out over seven or eight months. I can’t say my record’s a masterpiece, but it’s the way I wanted it to be.”
Brent Lippincott agreed. He liked the revamped disc enough to make it the first release of his fledgling label, Datura Records. Before proceeding, Lippincott and Approach relocated to Lawrence, where Approach was already a household name in hip-hop circles.
“This is where the music scene is for what I’m doing,” he says. “Kansas City’s a work town; everybody’s kind of into their own cliques. There’s good product there, but it’s not really the town for a bunch of eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old people. This is where people want to hear what I got goin’ on. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a Kansas Citian to the heart. I love my town, and the city gives me a great amount of respect, but this is more of an opportunity. It’s getting really interesting right now.”
Ultraproteus marks another notch in the belt of Lawrence hip-hop, which is undergoing an artistic renaissance. In the past several months, a flurry of top-notch recordings have surfaced, including landmark releases from Sounds Good and Archetype. Add to the mix seminal efforts from KC artists Mac Lethal, Negro Sco and Brother of Moses, and you have a full-blown minirevolution. Though the recent closing of Tremors nightclub dimmed the spotlight on several harder-edged acts, well-attended hip-hop nights at the Bottleneck and the Pool Room have allowed the enlightened school to move to the front of the class.
Like any music scene in a state of flux, the transition hasn’t been entirely problem-free. A recent DJ battle at Liberty Hall turned sour when egos clashed onstage, a reminder of Lawrence’s beef-laden hip-hop history.
“As anything starts to grow and develop and people start to separate themselves from the pack, people’s true colors start to come through, people get a little more envious,” Approach says. “We try to counteract that. We try to bring more women to the shows to balance out the testosterone level. One thing that’s good about the music that we’re making is it’s not aggressive; it’s groove-focused. It’s not about being dominant or being better than anyone. I’m not saying my idea’s better than yours, take it or leave it.”
Approach is hoping to make touring a regular part of his routine in the coming months. He’s already performed at a number of out-of-town gigs, including a brief tour on which he and Mac Lethal opened for Minnesota rap denizens Atmosphere. But rather than latching onto one of the many hip-hop tours that traverse the country, Approach hopes to play festivals and other off-the-rap-radar events.
“I’d rather tour with Ben Harper or somebody like that,” he says. “I love the hip-hop scene, but I don’t know if I’m trying to [do] rap stuff like that. I’d much rather go with a festival or a multicultural type of bill. One guy on the bill will be doing rock and roll, another guy on the bill is doing folk. It’s inspiring. It makes me more creative. Hip-hop’s what I love, what I do, what I’m gonna rep for life, but I want to take my hip-hop to other genres.”