November 18, 2004

Breaking the Mold

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In its brief, 25-year lifespan, Hip-Hop’s public perception has managed to become pigeonholed into simplistic preconceptions. Rappers are bred in impoverished, inner city neighborhoods. Before they break into the industry, they sell drugs, get shot in gang warfare and serve stints in the pen. Their lyrics celebrate with the utmost redundancy and zeal blunts, bitches, Benzes hoes, malt liquor and 9 mm’s.

So, to all those who would casually cast a mold for what Hip-Hop should be, what do you do with two emcees and beat makers rhyming on the ivy-draped campus of an Ivy League school?

“We’re all about breaking the mold,” says Kevin Edwards ’05 (aka K.Words), who, along with friend Keenan Goggins ’05 (aka Concise), formed the Hip-Hop collective that is 211 Entertainment.

Four years in the making, 211 has produced numerous solo albums for local emcees and put out two of its own. Currently operating out of Edwards’ room in apartment A5 at Ravenwood, 211 began Goggins and Edwards first met the summer before their freshman year in Cornell’s COSEP program. A chance encounter at a bus stop and a discussion of their shared musical interests led to a creative partnership that has grown till today. Having made beats and dabbled in computer-based production since he was in 8th grade, Goggins taught Edwards how to digitally produce beats in Edwards’s room — 211, Risley Hall.

“That name kind of stuck with us,” says Edwards. “You hear 211 now and people think of the music, but before it was kind of how people described us. There was a bunch of us, girls and guys, who used to frequently hang out in my room.”

But 211 Entertainment is much more than just Edwards and Goggins. As Edwards explains, it’s more of a Hip-Hop collective, “a label … without the money.” Aside from Edwards and Goggins, the group is comprised of emcees Izzo (Arthur Izzo), Slangston Hughes (Chukuma Ogude ’05). Cheeks (Gregory Mars). BR (Rich Jones) and Insyte (Jason Smith grad), most of whom were discovered in a freestyle competition organized by Edwards. After the competition, 211 pooled the efforts of it’s performers to put out compilation Chapter 2, Verse 11, recording its first track December 1, 2002.

“We went back and listened to the original album, we were like, oh, it’s not that bad,” laughs Goggins. “Because we always hated on it, cause we were just so amateur and so scrappy and we were getting used to it and we were young, but we were having fun. Basically, it was songs that weren’t written to the actual music. We had these beats, and people had these lyrics and we put them together. It’s such a big difference between the new album and the first one.”

Even if you’re having fun, people want and need to be critics. Both Goggins and Edwards admit that Verse 11 didn’t have the warmest reception on campus.

“People judged it like they would judge something on the racks at Sam Goody,” explains Edwards. “And I guess that was good for us cause we were just like dudes who was making music. The reactions we got were both positive and negative. But there were some negative ones … ooh. We took those and felt like we had to prove ourselves.”

Two albums later, the group has matured immensely. It’s incredible that 211 has even been able to put out one album, let alone three. Goggins is a member of the track team and part of a 4 x 400 unit that received All Ivy honors, all while doing problem sets for his ORE classes. Edwards is deeply involved in numerous student organizations and serves as the president of ALANA. The simple answer to finding time, they admit, is to do production over the summer. But a great deal of production is done during the academic year as well, not to mention promoting their shows and albums. The group plans to use proceeds from the sale of its albums ($5) and t-shirts to support hurricane victims in Florida.

The summer after freshman year Edwards and Goggins went home and refined their skills. When they arrived at campus they came back determined. Holding a meeting at the beginning of the year, they resolved to put out Izzo’s solo album and work on the second 211 compilation, The Renaissance. The first album after Verse 11, The Renaissance is a collection of efforts from K.Words, Concise, Insyte, Future and Slangston Hughes set to the professional production of the Knockout Kings. It’s a rich sampling of bouncing afro beats and fierce individual performances.

As far as their own production and rhyming, Goggins and Edwards take a more soulful approach, venturing into jazz fusion and drawing on such lofty influences as DJ Premier, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Nas and Freeway.

The production process is a combination of original music and sampling old tracks. Goggins and Edwards use programs like Cool Edit Pro (wave form editing), Frootiloops (sequencing) and Reason to create beats. Sampling everyone from The Temptations to Stevie Wonder to Beethoven, the group draws on a diverse range of sounds to create a sound all their own. Predominantly, the group sticks to more traditional Hip-Hop song structures, with 16 bar verses, a hook and sometimes a bridge. The group also does a fair amount of chopping, a process that strings two to five second samples together, producing a beat while making the sample less recognizable. Common’s “Sixth Sense,” produced by DJ Premier, is chopping at its finest.

“My older brother introduced me to the Roots,” Edwards reflects. “That’s when I first could say this is something I want to do. I played drums and I wanted to be like ?uestlove with a big afro and play drums for a jazz / Hip-Hop group.”

Immediately, Keenan interrupts, “Wasn’t you in a rock band?”

“Yeah,” Kevin mumbles. “I don’t remember the name. The album was going to be called Wicked Ball of Tape.”

“Wow,” Keenan withdraws, the sarcasm palpable. “Did you ever record it?”

“I think there was one song recorded, just the guitar part.”

Their most recent release, True 2 Life Music is entirely produced and performed by Goggins and Edwards. A surprisingly strong and cohesive album, the album oscillates between boastful party hooks and slower, instrospective mediations. Tracks like “Ornithology” ride a fluid jazz rhythm, while “Running in the Night,” perhaps the album’s best song, uses simple piano rhythms and perfect accompanying vocals to explore 211’s current situation as neophytes in the Hip-Hop jungle.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle the group has had to overcome outside of balancing Cornell’s workload is fighting off the predetermined judgments of others. Most emcees in Hip-Hop are not college educated, let alone working towards an Ivy League degree. Stars like Kanye West and Talib Kweli dropped out of college to pursue their careers. The rhetoric of Hip-Hop’s wordsmiths is usually thought to be learned between the shouts of broken families and ghetto violence instead of in 400-level seminars and ORE problem sets. In a world defined by its brio and street-corner posturing, 211 Entertainment certainly stands as an anomaly.

“We hear that all the time,” explains Goggins. “People come up here and they’re like, who do you guys think you are? What are you rapping about? You’re in college, you’re like us. And I’m like, I’m rapping about my life. People feel like you have to uphold a certain image to be an emcee. Hip-Hop should be about what you bring to the culture, and it basically boils down to what you put between the pen and the paper, what you bring to the mic.”

“We don’t talk about bustin’ out guns and selling rocks on the corner,” says Edwards. “I’m rapping about what I see. Yes, there’ll be exaggerations, understand that, that is Hip-Hop. It’s bragadoccio.”

Both Edwards and Goggins are looking to eventually land a record deal. But ideally, they hope to someday start their own label and help other artists get their start and make Hip-Hop on their own terms.

“We’re at Cornell and people expect us to do certain things, like go to law school and work Goldman Sachs,” Edwards smirks. “You know, I’m in that process right now of doing resume drops.
I don’t want to do that. When people say hand me your resume I feel like handing them my CD.”

“People always ask us, what’s going to happen to 211 after college?” Keenan reports. As Edwards says, “This is for life, this isn’t something that we’re just trying to do in college. I don’t really see it as something that’s going to stop.”

Archived article by Zach Jones
Sun Arts & Entertainment Editor