The intellectual confines of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., may not seem like fertile ground for hip-hop music. To the average urban American, the Arkansas Delta would not come to mind in connection with rap.
But Californian Brian Rikuda and his Stanford pal Chane Morrow, originally from Pine Bluff, are into hip-hop - Rikuda as a businessman and Chane as a singer - and see Arkansas as an uptapped resource for the art.
It's ironic that Morrow's stage name is "Epiphany," since he had to struggle in the New York rap business before seeing the light and returning to his roots. Several local hip-hop fans in the area fervently tout his intellectual stylings.
Rikuda uses his business acumen behind the scenes of their fledgling enterprise, Conduit Entertainment in Little Rock. Rikuda still calls Palo Alto home, but has spent most of the past four months here preparing Conduit's biggest record release so far, "Big Bizness Vol. 1," which became available July 21 in retail outlets (including selected FYE stores and on the Internet).
Before "Big Bizness," Conduit's limited wares of solo and mix tapes were being sold out of car trunks and featured the company's stable of local hip-hop artists: Epiphany, Arkansas Bo (Marlon Jennings of Stuttgart) and Goines (Andrew Goines of Pine Bluff) as the duo Suga City, and solo artist DK (Derrek Killion of Stuttgart).
For "Big Bizness," however, Conduit was able to land the talents of such nationally recognizable names as Juvenile, David Banner, Bun B (a member of the popular underground group UGK), Devin the Dude, Bonecrusher and Bay area artist JT the Bigga Figga along with its local stars.
"We actually recorded the album all over, but probably 90 percent was done here and in California," Rikuda said. "In Little Rock we worked with Big Keys. As far as hip-hop goes, he's probably the biggest name out here."
Juvenile's track was recorded in New Orleans before he signed with his latest label, Rikuda said, and was a favor from his producer for previous work Morrow and Rikuda had done.
Within a month, when the company's website overhaul is completed (www.conduitentertainment.com), hip-hop fans will be able to download for free a 15-track zip file of the group's artists.
Rikuda and Morrow say their goal is to expose the country to a hidden gem: Arkansas hip-hop. Already, the Bay Area has heard of Epiphany, buying up to 2,000 CDs, Rikuda said. The conditions that gave rise to urban hip-hop artists - poverty, crime and other real-life struggles - aren't exclusive. Arkansans are experiencing them, too.
"There has been no rapper arise from here like how Master P did for New Orleans or how Dr. Dre and NWA did for Los Angeles," Rikuda said. "Those last two define a Los Angeles sound. Every area has a different sound. You have a St. Louis sound that is very unique, an Atlanta sound. Though we went to Stanford and could have moved to a big city, we looked at Arkansas and thought we could be the first ones to define the Arkansas sound."
Rikuda, who grew up in San Diego and was a year ahead of Morrow at Stanford, got an economics degree and worked for an Internet startup company in the Silicon Valley before the cyber bubble burst. That coincided with a call from Morrow, who was trying with no luck to get a record deal in New York City. That led them to consider a different home base: Morrow's native state. The chosen moniker Conduit means "delivering the music." Their artists perform at such clubs as Vino's Brewpub and Nitelife Rocks and at colleges and high schools.
"The intention wasn't just to make money or start a great company, but we all have a genuine love and passion for hip-hop," Rikuda said. "We felt like we could offer some quality music that people could relate to and people could embrace on an independent label. There is something that is being lost with the corporation ownership of labels, similar to what happened with rock."
But hip-hop's image of violence, drugs, promiscuity and misogyny has kept it from developing fully in the mainstream.
"We've gotten a lot of those questions, coming from a school like Stanford," Rikuda said. "A lot of our peers were going to law school, med school. … It does have a negative element, we can deny it and it wouldn't be true to say otherwise. But hip-hop is the voice of a disenfranchised generation. It's one of the very few vehicles of people in my age group and younger [Rikuda is 25] self-expressing the pain, the struggle, the happiness and successes we've experienced."
That includes Stanford students or kids who grew up in the L.A. hood, he said.
"It's a new voice, not for rebelling, but for offering alternative perspectives from the dominant culture right now. I liken it to our parents' generation listening to rock. When they had problems with Vietnam war, segregation, things they saw as unjust, the rock music form was the social expression for that time period. To me, hip-hop does that now."
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