Can Rubberoom Bounce Back?
Though hip-hop has existed now for two decades, exerting greater and greater influence on popular music, Chicago has yet to produce a consistent hip-hop label–and as the trickle of local independent releases grows into a steady stream, this hole in the scene becomes all the more gaping. Earlier this decade Rubberoom–along with East of the Rock, Spalaney’s, and the Figure–was among the groups hoping for major-label A & R hawks to swoop down and carry them off to stardom, but even after the success of Common (who signed with Relativity in 1992), none did. Wisely, Rubberoom didn’t wait around, releasing its own first single, “Synapse Gap” b/w “Beneath the Surface,” in 1993.
Several more releases and five years later, it seemed like the hard work and determination had paid off. Rubberoom’s debut album, Architechnology, was released March 23 on the New York-based indie 3-2-1, a subsidiary of Zero Hour, and the group headed out to tour the east coast. Then the other shoe dropped: at three o’clock in the morning, after a show in Philadelphia, the group got a call saying that Zero Hour–and along with it 3-2-1–had folded.
“Things had almost seemed too good to be true, so it was definitely a blast of reality,” says Jon Bostic, better known as Lumba, one of the group’s two MCs. “After it happened it was, like, safe to breathe–you knew where you stood. It was like, we’re at it again, what’s the next move?” The group, which also includes MC Meta-Mo (Brian Hines) and producers Isle of Weight (Aaron Smith) and Fanum (Kevin Johnson), is currently in search of a label to reissue the album, which was officially on the market for all of three weeks. Though 15,000 copies of the album–on CD, LP, and cassette–were manufactured, the group has no access to them.
In the early days of Chicago’s hip-hop underground, young MCs developed their skills at freestyle parties like the legendary ones held weekly at Lower Links in the early 90s. The members of Rubberoom came together there and quickly became a scene fixture–not only at underground showcases but also as a popular opening act for touring artists like Jeru the Damaja, the Roots, and DJ Shadow. “Our goal was to get a local buzz before we worried about getting signed,” says Lumba. “People were booking us left and right,” adds Fanum. “We were averaging three or four shows a month a few years ago.”
The dark, manic presence of Lumba and Meta-Mo–who gesticulate furiously, prowling the stage like zoo-crazy cats and trading energy like relay racers passing the baton–made for a powerful live show. Unlike many hip-hop acts, the two take the performance aspect of their music seriously. “I see a lot of hip-hop acts performing shows where they don’t move,” says Meta-Mo. “They walk back and forth onstage, they grab their crotch, and half of them are drunk and high on weed. I used to come onstage like that, but not anymore. You can’t give the crowd what they want if you’re like that. If the needle skips you can’t react quickly enough.”
The group went on to release several more recordings, including 1994’s cassette-only EP Gothic Architecture and 1997’s fierce “Street Theme” b/w “White Hot Razors,” on which its sound began to crystallize: lean, relentless breakbeats, ominous atmospheric washes, and booming staccato off-the-beat rapping. While gangsta rappers bragged about (or invented) criminal exploits to sound threatening, Rubberoom developed a brutal sound that had nothing to do with misogyny, materialistic boasts, or wanton violence. Lumba and Meta-Mo unleashed lines crammed with tight internal rhymes about the most basic conflicts–heaven and hell, good and evil, all shaded with a millennial urgency.
These releases and the occasional out-of-town date started attracting attention, and when 3-2-1 was first looking for acts, Bigg Jus of New York’s Company Flow steered it toward Rubberoom. After cinching the deal in November, the group went into the studio and cut six new tracks to complement the dozen or so songs they’d accumulated over the previous two and a half years. They also brought in 13 local DJs, including Massacre and PNS of the Molemen and Jesse de la Peña, to scratch on cuts both old and new, and the end result is a vacuum-packed powerhouse: a huge, dense wallop of beats and rhymes that magnifies the power of the earlier singles. Recently the MCs have also started using two DJs, Stizo and Presyce, in their live shows, instead of relying solely on DAT accompaniment as in the past.
Initial response to the record was promising: it was praised in hip-hop magazines like XXL as well as more mainstream publications like Spin. Brian Keigher, a buyer at Tower Records on Clark Street, says the store sold 66 copies but returned the rest of its stock after Zero Hour folded.
With the exception of Isle of Weight, the members of Rubberoom had quit their jobs to concentrate on the group–and Isle of Weight, Lumba, and Fanum are all married with children. “I had to fly out to New York to get the album mastered and stuff, and I used up all my vacation time,” says Isle of Weight, who was planning to join the others in joyful unemployment when news of the label’s collapse came. “When things didn’t go as planned I was really pissed off. I’ve had to struggle all year.”
“I’ve been rapping since 1985 so I wasn’t going to let this discourage me,” says Lumba. “It just made me want to kick ass even more,” adds Meta-Mo. The group has continued to play out-of-town dates, including a big hip-hop showcase at the Digital Club Festival (formerly the Intel Music Festival) in New York in July. In fact, Rubberoom’s desire to stay national has put local gigs on the back burner–its Friday show at Metro with the Herbaliser (see Critic’s Choice) is the group’s first Chicago performance since October. The group is looking forward to it: “I want to see our old fans that have supported us since we started doing this and our new ones,” says Fanum. “I’m very excited about it.”
England’s acid-jazz scene has unearthed the careers of a number of popular musicians from the 60s and 70s, from local folk-jazz singer Terry Callier to freedom funksters the Pharaohs. On Sunday the Funky Buddha Lounge will present a live gig by another beneficiary of this groove archaeology: Henry “Pucho” Brown, a New York timbalero who was a prime mover in the late-60s Latin-boogaloo craze as leader of Pucho & the Latin Soul Brothers. The band’s new album, Caliente Con Soul! (made for CuBop, an imprint of the popular San Francisco acid-jazz label Ubiquity) is fiery Latin jazz with a few soul-stoked groovers thrown in for good measure–plus a completely unnecessary remake of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” Doors open at 9 PM and tickets are $15; call 773-645-1200 for more info.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.