A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.
Early in “Theme Muzik,” the excellent new compilation CD from Conduit Entertainment, Arkansas Bo introduces his song “Arkansas Sound” with a diatribe that’s familiar to anyone interested in Arkansas rap. Here’s an edited version: “People be looking us over. They hit all the surrounding states, but never mess with anyone from Arkansas. You tell a person you’re from Arkansas, the first thing they mention is ‘Bangin’ in the Rock.’ Ain’t no Arkansas rappers out there [nationally]. So I took it on myself to let y’all know what we sound like down here.”
That’s a bit of a feint. The song opens with a lyrical hook, which starts out, “They want to know what the Arkansas sound is, I tell them, shit, I don’t know, but it sounds like this…” The rest is unprintable herein, so I’ll just say that it’s the sound of Bo raising his middle finger in defiance of anyone ready to dismiss Arkansas as a backwater or lump its talent into one catch-all category.
Of course, there’s a widely held notion that a place needs an identifiable “sound” to make it in the rap game. In the South alone, you can pin the slowed-down, chopped and screwed sound on Houston, bounce on New Orleans and crunk and snap music on Atlanta. Those “sounds,” of course, don’t even begin to encompass the fullness of their city’s talents; they simply reflect production that’s caught on beyond the local market and, more often than not, been mimicked and marketed to death.
But even while Bo dismisses the idea of an Arkansas “sound” in his song, he’s offering up one that I’m ready for our state to mine deep and ride to national success. Ultra-minimal and built on spare beats and samples of real instruments like guitars, organs and pianos, it’s laid-back music at its finest. Like the best of UGK, it sounds like the natural progression of Deep South blues and Southern soul.
In addition to Bo, who raps with Pine Bluff-native Goines in the duo Suga City, the Conduit family includes the label’s president Epiphany and Stuttgart rapper DK. Epiphany, whose real name is Chane Morrow, and Brian Rikuda, who won BET’s “Ultimate Hustler” reality show, founded the label several years back and have since released nearly dozens of mixtapes and one prior compilation album, which featured big name talent like Juvenile and David Banner, so, Epiphany has said, Conduit could demonstrate how favorably their talents compared to national stars. It worked.
“Theme Muzik,” however, is far and away the group’s most fully realized effort. It features 10 different producers and includes just about every type of rap imaginable. Less like the mainstream’s increasingly transparent attempts to cater to every urban demographic, the album’s mixture seems more like a reflection of the diversity of Conduit itself.
Epiphany, the collective’s ringleader, writes material that’s geared towards existential concerns just as often as it is to the ladies. At one point he’s “got money on his mind” and “money in the bank,” but a few songs later, his worries over funds lead to an imagined conversation with his scolding wallet. It’s refreshing to see a rapper conflicted, willing to mix self-deprecation in with the bombast. But Epiphany has never been better than in the piano-driven duet “5 Dollas,” which features local singer Gina Gee, who needs to hurry up and release an album. The hook, “I got five dollas in my pocket, but I ain’t trippin’” is as catchy as anything on the radio.
DK, who is featured on six tracks, keeps his material street, mainly plying blustery talk about how hard he is. He’s got a compelling delivery, but often, with lyrics like “…still stack chips like Frito-Lay/and the change shine like the month of May,” his songs pale in comparison to his Conduit brethren. Even more perplexing, the MC works mostly in the sort of rap-typical cliches about “24s” and “candy-paint” that seem at direct odds with what his label mates are pushing.
A few tracks earlier, on “Villain,” Goines rails against those same sorts of cliches. I could swear, early on, he raps, “I’m sick of following/86ing the pabulum.” Regardless, he’s definitely anti-insipidity, out to battle the “tippin’-sittin’ sideways” status quo. In a deep, molasses-thick Southern accent, he’s clear-eyed but seething, ready to right the wrongs of rap and take it to everyone who’s ever doubted him.
For anyone who’s followed Conduit, “Theme Muzik” offers almost all of the full songs the crew has been performing and teasing snippets from on mixtapes for the last several years. Suga City’s minor radio hit “BIGGIE,” Epiphany’s R&B burner “Can’t Tell,” DK’s “Thug Thang” — they’re all here. It’s essential listening for any rap fan.