Do you have what it takes to be in the L? Are you athletic like Isiah Thomas? Effective like Gary Payton? Legendary like Larry Bird? Even more importantly, can you flow? The members of Ann Arbor’s Athletic Mic League – a seven member hip-hop collective – fit all these criteria, and contrary to what the WNBA would have you believe, AML’s got next.
Friends who met playing basketball in high school, DJ Haircut, Buff(1), Texture, Vital, 14KT, Sonny Star and Grand Cee have been rapping since 1995, and through their own label, AML recently dropped their first official album, Sweats and Kicks. With tight lyrics on top of beats (courtesy of their own production company, Lab Technicians), AML released a record worthy of high praise and reminiscent of the distinct sounds of the Native Tongue Family or MCA’s OkayPlayer stable.
The title Sweats and Kicks is about more than clothes and sneakers, though; it is a soundtrack to their lives and the lives of all hip-hop heads who have long been immersed in a culture of hip-hop and athletic synergy. AML has been a fixture in the Ann Arbor and Detroit music scenes and has also spent time out in New Jersey navigating the elite hip-hop environment of New York. Now back in Michigan and seeking wider distribution, Athletic Mic League recently took some time to speak with the Daily.
The Michigan Daily: How did you guys come up with the name Athletic Mic League?
Vital: Athletic Mic League – roots in actual athletics, cats playing basketball and stuff. Before we even started rhyming, that’s how we knew each other, as athletes. That wasn’t even our original name; our original name was the Anonymous Clique. We pretty much exceeded that name and couldn’t go on with it, so we just needed another name, and I figured Athletic Mic League. We just changed that into mic athletics.
Texture: Basically, you start with that and can then look at it as an athlete: all the training, all the rules and guidelines – the work ethic – all that it takes, as an athlete, to be on top. That’s what we try to apply in the music industry and with the mic. So you know, we’re mic athletes.
Vital: There are many parts. You’re about to get another side of it. I came up with the name in (1995). I was Wu-Tang influenced; cats got behind Wu-Tang and had something to rhyme about. Doing their thing, it wasn’t a gimmick, but it was something to rhyme about, and it provided a base to then expand on. So Athletic Mic League – that’s where it comes from, things like that, having something to rhyme about.
TMD: You all knew each other from playing ball?
DJ Haircut: Before there was any hip-hop, there was basketball.
TMD: So, who’s the best?
Buff(1): Everybody will tell you that they are. I think that I am.
Sonny Star: I’m an all-around athlete.
Buff(1): Texture is the most dedicated.
TMD: Well, if you guys played the Detroit Shock, who would win?
Texture: I’d put up some big numbers.
Buff(1): We’d definitely win. I think we could beat Michigan.
TMD: I don’t know if you guys have the size …
Buff(1): The only reason that I say that is because I know a couple (of the players).
Vital: On the low? A couple of Michigan basketball players were aspiring Athletic Mic League Members.
Buff(1): But we’ll keep that on the low.
TMD: Since all of you are ballers and claim that you could beat the Detroit Shock and U of M, can each of you pick out a player from the NBA whose playing style is analogous to your rhyming style?
Texture: I’ll say Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Isiah was mad athletic, and he could do anything. Joe Dumars played smart and just knew how to operate and control even though he wasn’t a real star; he looked like a star and everyone knew and respected him for his game.
Buff(1): I hate to say it, because I really don’t look up to him even though he’s a great player. I think I’m simple but effective, so I have to say someone like Gary Payton. He don’t got no crossover, his j is ok, but he’s still one of the best guards
Texture: He ain’t got no ring, though. Joe D and Isiah got the ring!
DJ Haircut: Say what you want, but I’m gonna have to go with Larry Bird. Larry Bird came from a little town – French Lick, Indiana – and he came in the game and shocked a lot of people. He became a true leader and will be respected for all time because he was a true leader and a hall-of-famer. Coming from Ann Arbor and not having very many people to latch on to or to learn from around here, that makes it a close relationship.
TMD: The album, Sweats and Kicks, came out July 25. What is something that you’d want everyone to know about it?
Sonny Star: Sweats and Kicks is very multi-dimensional; it’s not just the clothes and shoes. It’s a lifestyle, a mentality – a way that we choose to categorize our music; it’s our uniform when we go to work. It comes from our athletic background, and it transcended that and moved over to our whole lives.
14KT: Sweats and Kicks is all that, and if you listen to the songs, you can pick out our influences and you can hear that lifestyle in the music.
Vital: Our lives titled this album.
TMD: Sweats and Kicks doesn’t sound like any one particular artist or group, but instead like a lot of different types of hip-hop music. Collectively and individually, who would you say has influenced your music the most, in terms of beats, type of sound and flow?
Sonny Star: The Hieroglyphics.
Vital: If you want to go with something like a framework, then you could go Hiero/Wu for framework in terms of what we trying to do …
Buff(1): Nas, Common, Outkast. Outkast is definitely one of my personal influences.
DJ Haircut: Obviously, the Native Tongue Family, like (A Tribe Called Quest).
Sonny Star: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that dropped in the era when we got started. That was like the golden era of hip-hop.
TMD: So, like the early ’90s, mid-’90s?
Sonny Star: Yeah, like ’91-’94.
TMD: Right, so starting around the time when Tribe came out with The Low End Theory.
Vital: Sound-wise, we have definitely, at a lot of points in time, tried to emulate a Tribe type of sound.
DJ Haircut: And you know, for me, it even goes beyond hip-hop to soul or jazz. I probably listen to soul music more than I listen to hip-hop.
Vital: Goodie Mob.
Sonny Star: Early rock music.
Vital: The Roots. Those are all people that – as we were starting out and developing as people and M.C.s – those are the types of people that we were listening to. But we didn’t start out and say that we wanted to sound one particular way.
Buff(1): And, people don’t like to admit this, but when you’re starting out, you don’t have anything to go off of aside from what you hear, so regardless of whether you are trying to or not, (influences) are going to be in your music.
Vital: And individually, we all have our own things – people that we are listening to.
TMD: So then, what is a CD in your player right now?
Sonny Star: I just picked up that new Nas Lost Tapes album. I like that a lot.
Buff(1): I was telling them, if it had come out in like ’95 or ’96, it would be a classic, because it is just beats and rhymes.
TMD: Thank god it’s not like Nastradamus.
Vital: Yeah, that’s funny, I haven’t heard any of the middle Nas albums.
TMD: You’re not missing anything.
Vital: I haven’t heard more than two songs. Those are like a dark era to me.
DJ Haircut: It’s like the Middle Ages, like the dark ages. It just gets lost in the abyss of crappy shit.
TMD: Well, then what do you think of Nas’ new collaboration with fucking Ja Rule?
Sonny Star: That hurt my feelings.
Buff(1): He’s become a walking contradiction.
DJ Haircut: He’s a walking contradiction.
Buff(1): He’s the greatest and the worst at the same time.
Sonny Star: I don’t know how he manages that; it must be a lot of stress.
Texture: I don’t want to pre-judge him, but I was upset when I heard that.
TMD: I was upset too. It killed me, because Ja Rule might my least favorite person in hip-hop music.
DJ Haircut: In history, maybe.
TMD: Do you guys feel like hip-hop is struggling? A lot of guys who are held up by the labels as the paradigm, like “this is hip-hop,” really aren’t making the kind of music that real hip-hop fans want to listen to. What do you think people can do to get it back to a better place?
Sonny Star: Actual hip-hop has been dying for the last few years. Everybody can always say “it used to be this, it used to be that,” but you kind of have to say that since hip-hop used to be used for a different thing than what its being used for now.
And if it is still being used correctly, it’s only being done by a few select artists, and even those artists that I still respect veer off sometimes and do what they need to do to keep their jobs. So, the people that I hold up as the best right now, I can respect certain things that they do, but not everything that they say or are about.
TMD: So is Nas an example of that?
Sonny Star: Nas is an example, Jay-Z is an example. Whoever people are listening to the most right now commercially, there are certain things I like them for and other things which I don’t look to get from them.
Vital: See, and this is another thing about hip-hop. People like to stratify the whole thing, separating the commercial and underground, trying to make them different when, in fact, they’re really not. You get a lot of bull from Nas and Jay-Z, but at the same time, when they do hip-hop, they do it the best. I’m not going to go out and get every new Roc-A-Fella album, but at the same time, when you hear them do a track or a collabo(ration) track and it’s on some hip-hop stuff, they do it better than some of the underground cats in the first place.
Sonny Star: There’s the same bullshit in the commercial stuff as there is in the underground stuff. The underground ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. People shouldn’t be categorizing either one.
Buff(1): A lot of times when we get interviewed or when we just talk to people, they automatically assume that – since we would fall into the underground category – we’re anti-industry, hate everything on TV and don’t listen to the radio, but the fact is that there’s a lot of stuff on TV that I love. All of us like to party and have fun, but when you see people repeating the same things over and over again, it kind of gets tiring.
Sonny Star: Doing stuff, like singing, that maybe (people like Ja Rule) shouldn’t be into or do more than once.
DJ Haircut: I also just wanted to bring up something which I’ve said in other interviews, and that is the trend that in the last five years, rap music has more or less become pop music. That is something that has not happened to hip-hop before, and I feel like that changes a lot of things in the way that the public looks at hip-hop – the way that records are sold.
Never has there been a time when hip-hop records have sold more copies. It went from NWA, where society was threatened by listening to hip-hop …
Sonny Star: Now, if you’re a part of society, how can you not listen to hip-hop?
DJ Haircut: … to now, when hip-hop is standard on the radio and MTV.
Texture: I won’t be surprised if in the next presidential campaign, there are rappers rapping campaign slogans
Vital: Even with all that, I love hip-hop right now, only because I love what we do and I believe in what we do, and that’s hip-hop. So I love it for what it is because I am able to do it, and there are a lot of people out there still that I respect that are doing it. I don’t like to compare the state of hip-hop, you know, what it is and what it’s gonna be, because it is always a jaded view however you look at it.
So, I’m just gonna look at it right now. Will it go back to the days of old? No, it’s not gonna go back to the days of old; that’s impossible. I don’t even want to see it go back to the days of old. I want to see what the next step is.
DJ Haircut: I will say that I think that hip-hop is getting better right now. We’ve seen some dark days, but I am optimistic that the state of things is getting better now.
Buff(1): The way that I’m looking at it now, somebody out there is trying to blow up cats like Mos Def, Kweli, and Slum Village. These people are getting television and radio opportunities that they never got before, so I think it’s good right now.
Texture: To me, what’s important – and taking this back to our album – cats are always saying “We got to take it back, we need to take it back to the days of KRS-One,” but KRS-One, back then, wasn’t saying that we got to take it back. KRS-One was trying to move everything forward. So, what I think we try to do is respect the past, but you won’t hear us saying on the album “we got to take it back to this.” We are trying to move forward. We ignore (others) and try to transcend.
Vital: At the same time, that was a conscious effort to do that, because we spent years talking about hip-hop, so consciously, we said “let’s move away from talking about the state of hip-hop.”
DJ Haircut: Instead of talking about the state of hip-hop and complaining about it, we want to do what we can to change that and change the things what we don’t like about it.
TMD: What is your favorite track on your album? If you had to pick out one track from Sweats and Kicks to show to someone as the real AML, which would it be?
DJ Haircut: Now that’s two very different questions. My favorite track in the album is “Trust and Believe,” because I feel like, out of all the tracks on the album, five years from now, when you are coming back to this album and listening to it, I believe that is the track you will still like the most. For me, personally, that’s the track that I feel like consistently I can come back to. If I had to give somebody one track and say “this is the mic league” it might be “Living Life.”
Buff(1): I can’t really make a good distinction between the two, but I’d say the two I’d point to would be “The Declaration” and “Living Life.”
Vital: I really do love ’em all, so I can’t pick a favorite; at different times, it’s different songs, but the shocker one as far as AML that seems to do a lot is “Declaration.” I never thought “Declaration” was going to get the attention that it does.
DJ Haircut: Nobody expected that.
TMD: So how do you guys write your rhymes? Let me know the process.
Buff(1): A lot of these songs started (when we were living) in Jersey; just the concepts of the them, you know? In Jersey, when we were all living together, we would sometimes sit and write together. But back in Michigan, people just write. You come up with a hook, maybe, and call someone and say “I think this will be good. I got a hook, I like this beat” and see what you can come up with.
Sonny Star: Another part of the process is that we might sit down and come up with a chorus or a hook and try to structure it as far as what the song is about. Then, I might try and think about who in the group could hit this topic the best, or who do I hear actually (rapping over this beat) and then call them and be like, “I got his beat, now let it marinate and see what you can do with it.”
Texture: We rarely write together. It’s more like somebody comes with a verse – he presents the verse, this is the idea I’m working with, come holla at me, then we all go back and keep doing our little thing.
Vital: There’s no one way; we all change our writing processes as time goes on. Sometimes it’s a more cerebral thing, sometimes you gotta write a whole lot. But another thing is that some people will write and then give it to someone else to finish off the verse. On things like hooks, the “Vibin'” hook, for instance.
TMD: In terms of the beats – the Lab Technicians’ sounds – do you guys have musical backgrounds, or have you taught yourselves what it takes to make beats?
DJ Haircut: I have a pretty extensive musical background. I play multiple instruments: Bass guitar, drums. And, I’ve been in bands and groups where I’ve played instruments in bands. I have done that longer than I’ve been making hip-hop.
TMD: How do you know when you hear something that it would be great on a track. I assume it is an innate ability, but how do you sit down, hear an old record, and say “Oh, I want to take out this five-second clip and put it on a song?”
DJ Haircut: That’s a really good question, because I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently – thinking, introspectively, about what makes me hear something and want to use it for a track, and I think the answer is that it changes a lot. I remember listening to stuff back when we first started making music and the criteria for what you heard and wanted to use is just so different than what it is today.
Vital: Can I say something as a non-producer? You brought up the word “innate,” and yeah, I think that these cats are talented enough and have the innate sense. But at the same time, if you want to weigh something, I still see us as kind of young doing this.
You gotta weigh in time; there’s inexperience when picking things out. These cats have been producing since they were 14, 15, 16. They’ve been steadily doing it and it’s not like there have been droughts producing, and so you have to have the experience along with the talent.
TMD: You guys are playing at St. Andrew’s on Oct. 26, opening for Jurassic 5. Do you have anything special planned?
Sonny Star: We are planning that right now. It’s going to be something different, something special.
Vital: I think this is just another show. It’s hard to have consistently good shows, because you have different crowds and different venues, but we’ve had good responses from being live. This time, and this is no disrespect, but when we go up there with J5, we’re gonna try and blow out J5.
Sonny Star: Mentality-wise, you don’t care where you go in the line-up. You just want to have the best show out of everybody there.
AML will be appearing at The Blind Pig on Saturday, Oct. 19 with Funktelligence. To cop their album, go to www.athleticmicleague.com.