South-side hip-hop trio Stony Island helped shape Chicago’s rap scene in the early 90s: they became go-to openers for touring heavies such as Run-DMC and the Ultramagnetic MCs, and between 1991 and ’96 they dropped two cassettes and a 12-inch EP. But the group slowed down in the late 90s, barely playing shows and getting together only every few years to write and record. The music they’d released became hard to find: More than a decade ago, when Numero Group cofounder Rob Sevier asked Stony Island rapper LaVie “Super LP” Raven about getting a copy of the 1996 EP Supertransfer Good All Day Today, Raven had trouble scrounging one up. “I tried to find one for him, but just the way that life was, I lost my 100 count of my records,” he says.
The label never lost interest in Stony Island, though, and Raven says that a few years back Sevier approached him about reissuing the group’s material. Twenty-five years after Stony Island recorded their first demo, Numero has compiled the group’s catalog in cassette form. The label made 250 tapes, and they’ll be for sale only at Numero’s Record Store Day pop-up shop at Comfort Station on Saturday. The surviving members of Stony Island will perform together for the first time in nearly a decade at 2 PM. For Raven, a show is the obvious way to celebrate the new tape: “Why would an MC go anywhere without deciding to just get on the mike?”
Stony Island grew out of a late-80s rap group called Ice Incorporated, which Raven formed as a student at Kenwood Academy in the mid-80s with Alex “Lunchbox” Law. “We probably had, like, 12 different members over the years—people come in and out,” Raven says. The impetus to form a new group arrived in the form of Wyatt “Attica” Mitchell, a younger graffiti artist, and Julio Davis, a friend of Law’s since childhood. Davis remembers spending evenings in Raven’s basement, trading raps and forming partnerships—he briefly had a duo with Mitchell called the Illuminati. “We continued to get together and trade raps,” Davis says. “One day Raven’s girlfriend at the time was like, ‘Why don’t you guys form one group?'”
Stony Island became official in 1989, and two years later they went into the studio with Jim Colao, who’d played drums in Naked Raygun from 1980 to ’84. “Jim did something that was miraculous—he pulled us in when we were basically 19, 20 years old, and he charged us two or three dollars an hour to help us record our music,” Raven says. Colao had built a digital studio on Belmont and Ashland, starting with a computer he’d bought in 1988, and was eager to work with musicians outside his wheelhouse. “I would play some hard rock and hard funk with some other people,” Colao says, “and make techno and house in my spare time. So what Stony Island was doing was different—they were real fun to work with.” He remembers that the group asked him to help shape the instrumentals to fit their rhymes. “I didn’t get it at first, the way they were structuring songs,” Colao says. “But it all makes sense the way they put it together.”
Davis was already feeling out of sync with the group, though. “We went into the studio to make demo tracks, and somewhere along the way the band and I wanted to go in different directions,” he says. “At the time I didn’t have a lot of confidence in what I was doing,” he says. “When they kicked me out, I had to make the decision, whether or not I wanted to be serious about [music] or not. And I decided I did, so I threw myself into it.” He went on to form the J. Davis Trio, fusing jazz and hip-hop; he also became a producer, and serves as an auxiliary member of Poi Dog Pondering.
With Davis’s departure, Stony Island cemented its classic lineup of Raven, Law, and Mitchell, who in 1991 released their debut demo cassette, Creatures From the Urinal. They scribbled “Stony Island” on each tape, and assembled the artwork using photocopies from Kinko’s and vellum paper—the idea came from Raven’s friend Joe Durica, who’d studied graphic design at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and took the band’s first promotional photos. “It was always just fun—it was a lot of work, ’cause we made it ourselves,” Raven says. “I remember we’d run out of paper, or vellum, and having to go find it. I’m like, ‘Damn, I don’t even know what vellum is, really, where do I get this?'” The members of Stony Island would pass out the tapes for free. “There was no money behind it, and that’s why we made all those things ourselves,” Raven says. “That’s why we didn’t really ask for much in return, financially, either.”
Stony Island, L to R: LaVie “Super LP” Raven, Wyatt “Attica” Mitchell (RIP), and Alex “Lunchbox” Law
A photo posted by Numero Group (@thenumerogroup) on
For Raven, getting their music in peoples’ ears was the main objective—he wasn’t concerned with landing a record deal. “That was a time before anyone was signed in Chicago,” he says. “It didn’t even seem like a possibility.” The city’s hip-hop scene was still small at the beginning of the 90s. “It was very young and also very well connected,” says John Schauer, who helped transform the University of Chicago’s radio station, WHPK, into a bastion of hometown hip-hop as on-air personality J.P. Chill. “It was the kind of thing where if you were walking down the street and you heard hip-hop coming out of someone’s car, it was like, ‘Ah, that’s a long-lost friend.'” And Stony Island were distinct within that close-knit community. “They had a wider worldview and a more progressive outlook compared to other people,” Schauer says. “I think they were always outsiders to some degree, but they weren’t separate.”
Stony Island made a point of involving as many parts of the scene as they could—not just rappers but also breakdancers and graffiti artists. “What we did was we put all the crews together,” Raven says. “So the Spray Brigade—the graffiti-writing crew—Stony Island, and the Brickheadz were the three best crews of their type in the city. And we just created a huge performance mammoth. We would roll deep, like, pre-Wu-Tang, rolling like 21 people to performances.” This tactic sometimes made a big impression. “We made Rev Run jump back about ten feet when he saw these costumed Stony Island people in front of him.”
In the early 90s, Stony Island traveled to New York for the annual New Music Seminar—Raven says Law left before the others, hopping a freight train with writer William Upski Wimsatt to save money. “We posted up outside of New Music Seminar with our tapes in hand—and our boombox—giving them away, and that’s how we met the Beastie Boys,” Raven remembers. “The Beastie Boys were the ones that probably came the closest to signing us.”
Stony Island never did sign to a label, instead continuing to self-release their music—a self-titled cassette in 1993 and their lone vinyl record in 1996. “Wyatt always said that our voice really unfolded with the second release—then we were testing the borders and the boundaries, and playing around more,” Raven says. “The first release you could almost say was kind of a reflective diary of energy, and also, like, that teenage joy,” he continues. “I think there was a lot of happiness and playfulness on that first one. The second one was, like, really quite serious. And the third was a mix.”
The group’s third release, Supertransfer, contains their best-remembered song, “Slowly on the South Side,” which exemplifies their potent mix of working-class political rage and irresistible playfulness. “It was about the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the black communities,” Raven says. The track was inspired by the terrible state of the CTA’s Green Line in the early 90s; the city began renovating it in 1994. A track about breaking is named after the Brickheadz, and the record’s name is a shout-out to the local hip-hop community. “Back then Sunday was the hip-hop day, because people on the south side would get their supertransfer, which meant you could ride the CTA all day,” Schauer says. The inexpensive daylong pass was only available that one day, and it made it easier for the city’s small but geographically diffuse scene to gather.
Stony Island began to slow down around the time Supertransfer came out. Raven diverted his energy into teaching, and helped establish a hip-hop activist organization called the University of Hip-Hop, now in its 20th year; he says the organization got its first year’s funding from the Beastie Boys. Stony Island never really broke up, but went nearly silent after Mitchell died of an accidental overdose in 2004. As Zach Goldhammer wrote in a fantastic South Side Weekly article in 2014, a legion of locals continue to celebrate Mitchell’s memory. “We do dedication work to Wyatt every year—I probably paint about 12 Wyatt murals a year,” Raven says.
In a way, the surviving Stony Island members continue to honor Mitchell by working together. They’ve involved new collaborators and continued writing—though their most recent performance was seven years ago. A few years before that, the J. Davis Trio had featured Stony Island on 2007’s These Things Happen, on the track “The Stony Island Union.” Raven hopes the reissue of the group’s back catalog will turn out to be more than a celebration of the past. “I feel that this is a spark—maybe for someone to be, like, ‘Dude, I’ve got some hard-core beats, come over to my crib and let’s jam,'” he says. “It’s gonna be a happy memory, and a catapult to new friendships and new creations, I think.”