Ant Farm Affiliates Family Reunion
Featuring: Sketch tha Cataclysm; d_Cyphernauts; Workforce (Hawl Digg & Dirt E. Dutch); Cee Reed; the Protege, and more; BYOB, $7, June 4, 8 p.m., Freight Street Gallery, 170 Freight St., Waterbury, (203) 993-2685, freightstreetgallery.com
If you've seen Fight Club, you'll remember its final scene: skyscrapers exploding and tumbling, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, new love blossoming, and our protagonist announcing, in a masterpiece of understatement, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” Right now is one of those moments for the Ant Farm Affiliates. The hip-hop crew, which was born in Waterbury but culls from all over the state, is in the midst of a major shift. For five and a half years, they've hosted Enter the Cypher, the state's longest-consecutively-running hip-hop showcase. But just last week, Cousin Larry's, their Danbury venue, closed its doors.
“We've been doing it for so long, it's become part of our identity as a crew,” says rapper Dave Wooley, aka Othello. Othello is a member of d_Cyphernauts, a rap duo that not only helped found the AFA, but also created and hosted Enter the Cypher. “We're not sure what we're doing [with EtC]. As of right now it's in limbo.” As if the situation needed compounding, Othello notes that the AFA also recently suffered the loss of another recurring event. “We've done a hip-hop Summit at a high school in Stamford for the past four years, and our funding got cut this year. So I think that's why Sketch tha Cataclysm put this show together — lack of an event that brought us all together.”
The other half of the 'Nauts, Joe Celcis aka Nemesis Alpha, sums it up thusly: “It's gonna be a phenomenal show, and a little more poignant since things are changing so quickly for the crew.”
For those unfamiliar, the idea of a hip-hop crew is “similar to an artists' collective,” according to Nem. Othello elaborates: “We all have our individual identities, but we all try to work on projects that will be mutually beneficial. And we have our different resources in the group, like DJs, MCs, guys who are good at publicity. Everyone works toward the common goal of elevating the Ant Farm.”
June 4's event will be the first time since the last Hip-hop Summit that the entire Ant Farm family performs under one roof. What's more, several old faces will be appearing, including Snare, an old member of d_Cyphernauts, and JK1 the Supernova, a member of the Phenetiks, who since moved to Florida. He's returning to Connecticut just for this show.
So what sets the AFA apart? “We're kinda left of center as far as what mainstream hip-hop sounds like,” says Othello. “There's an element of responsibility to the art that I think all of us would say is lacking in mainstream hip-hop.” The 'Nauts in particular are proud of their political content. “We were very active in working with Iraqi veterans against the war, when the war was at its height. We talk about how Katrina has been overlooked. We have songs that deal with the legacy of slavery, and the ripple effect of our choices in history.”
“What we're bringing is an underground CT sound, one that is kind of counter-industry — which has helped us and hurt us in a lot of ways,” says Nem. “Some of the edgier, political stuff that probably wouldn't attract the mainstream guys, we're able to do. The raw kind of hip-hop, the intelligence of the music, the spitting, the sheer lyrical prowess — we kind of created this lyrical dojo. We're all trying to push each other, trying to one-up each other and have the other members of the crew go ‘Oh, that's dope!'”
And as for the downsides? Nem calls the Ant Farm's music “connoisseur music — cottage hip-hop.” He compares their output to a fine wine, saying “if you give that wine to a person who's been drinking booze, the subtleties of the wine are gonna be lost, and he's gonna go, ‘Wow, this tastes funny.'”
The wine metaphor is a dangerous one, because it's easy to make the assumption that anyone who mints a rare vintage must be a snob. The 'Nauts are far from it. They value hip-hop's aesthetic of realness — literary types call it “writing what you know” — so they're pretty open about the fact that their lives bear little relation to those of mainstream rappers.
“I can't talk about hoes,” explains Nemesis Alpha, “because I've got two daughters. My mom and my wife are strong assertive women. My sister is in college. I can't rap about hoes because I don't surround myself with hoes! I myself have never, ever smoked a blunt. So I can't talk about being high. Don't have a gun, never have had a gun. So I can't talk about that. I don't sell drugs, so I can't talk about that. If I'm gonna talk about something in a rhyme, it has to be true.”
And with that, the mainstream music industry's favorite rap topics go right out the window. Nem postulates that the industry hedges its bets by bringing on a small handful of musicians who can bridge the gap between mainstream and underground. “They'll go as far as Immortal Technique. … They have their Jurassic 5 and their Gorillaz, but they only want so many of those.”
Rather than hungering for mainstream acceptance, the AFA have focused (quite successfully) on community building. During its tenure, Enter the Cypher sought to remedy one of the biggest challenges Connecticut musicians face. “Because everything is so spread out, it's really difficult to have a unified movement,” says Othello. “It's tough if you wanna do three shows in a week, and you're talking Hartford, Bridgeport, Danbury. That's a ways to go. And we're not even talking about northern CT — and there's a lot going on up there as well. It's hard to gain traction when you're representative of one little town or city, and then you move three towns over and you have to start all over again.”