The Producers

Hip-hop gets a lot of its personality–not to mention some of its endemic problems–from the swaggering confidence best expressed in that time-tested convention the battle rhyme. But though Ed Zamudio, aka Panik from the local collective the Molemen, is one of the hottest producers on the Chicago underground hip-hop scene, he describes his crew’s genesis with friendly humility. “We didn’t know anything,” he says. “I went in with a crate of records and I had to tell the engineer what to sample for me. I didn’t know how to work any of the machines. We took about 12 hours and wasted a lot of money just to come up with one song. We’d do what a lot of Chicago rappers have been doing for years: just listen to it at home, let our moms, brothers, and friends in high school hear it, but never put it out. But we were energized by the whole thing.”

That was in 1989, when Panik and his pals Mixx Massacre (aka Alberto Espinosa) and MC Vakill (aka Donald Mason) were calling themselves the Dead Poets Society. In 1991, Panik, then 19 and in his fifth year of high school, dropped out and retreated to the basement of his parents’ house in Logan Square to teach himself hip-hop skills. Around this time Vakill rechristened the group the Molemen, after a race of underground villains from Marvel’s Fantastic Four comics. “In my own mind it was an investment,” Panik says. “My whole life has been about instinct, and I felt something inside of me even though I didn’t know what it was. It was weird to my family and everyone around me: ‘This guy’s crazy, he’s in the basement all day, he has no job.’ They thought there was something wrong with me, and I can’t blame them. Eventually they started seeing things happening.”

Chicago’s once-maligned hip-hop scene is overflowing with talent these days, and while it took moving to New York for Common to blow up, the Molemen are poised to see things happen on a national scale right here. The group has since expanded to include four more members–turntablist Presyce, producers PNS and Memoriza, and MC Prime. Molemen production credits have also been turning up on records by MCs from around the country, and in April the New York vinyl-only label Fat Beats will release a Molemen album that’s packed with underground stars, including Rasco (who performs in a big LA underground hip-hop show at Metro next Friday, March 16), Slug from Minneapolis’s Atmosphere, and New Yorkers MF Doom and Aesop Rock.

The group started out making mix tapes, which they sold in area record shops that specialized in hip-hop. “We would sneak our own tracks onto the tapes,” says Mixx Massacre. In 1995, they invited a fellow local mix-tape maker into their ranks: PNS, aka Juvenal Robles, who’d been hearing from fans that his “blends sounded like the Molemen.” Panik credits PNS’s business acumen and networking skills with raising the Molemen’s visibility to its current level. By 1996 the Molemen had been enlisted to produce a 12-inch by local MC Rhymefest, and PNS managed to get some Molemen tracks into the hands of Rasco, who used some of Panik’s beats on his 1999 release, The Birth.

The Molemen produced and released three more 12-inches in the late 90s, collaborating with local MCs Juice and Mass Hysteria, current scene stars All Natural, and vets like Rubberoom, Percee P., and Grand Daddy I.U. Last year they compiled the tracks from two of these–Below the Ground and Buried Alive, both of which have sold more than 3,500 copies on vinyl–on a CD that Panik burns at home in batches of 30. So far it’s sold 1,500 copies. In ’99 they also released a vinyl-only instrumental album, Soundtrack to the Underground, and even though there’s no rapping it captures the Molemen’s sharp hard-core hip-hop appeal: tough beats, hypnotic loops, and grooves that’re a crate digger’s delight, drawing on everything from hip-hop classics to soul dusties, sci-fi cartoon dialogue to movie sound track strings.

When notoriety finally comes, hip-hoppers have historically been quick to leave their past in the dust. But the Molemen say they’re committed to their hometown. “It takes years to get things going, but we don’t want to move from here,” says Panik. “We’re kind of hardheaded, but we want to make something happen in Chicago.” They seem likely to succeed: hip-hop is full of “crews,” or loose networks of like-minded artists–from Native Tongues in New York to Hieroglyphics in the Bay Area to All Natural’s Family Tree here in town–but the Molemen take the concept to a level few others have. Like the Wu-Tang Clan, the undisputed masters of hip-hop brand exploitation, the Molemen emphasize the family name in everything their members work on, together or separately. And like their counterparts in the avant-jazz and -rock scenes, they’re game for unorthodox collaborations. “It doesn’t matter as long as it’s a good project,” Panik continues. “A lot of producers stick to one thing, but we like working with all kinds of styles, whether it’s a weird rap or just a battle rhyme.”

The best places to find Molemen mix tapes, CD-Rs, and instrumental collections are still local stores with a strong hip-hop clientele, like the Beat Parlor, Dusty Groove, Dr. Wax in Hyde Park, and Gramaphone–where Panik, PNS, and Presyce all work. Even the Fat Beats album will be tough to find outside of these outlets. But Vakill is currently at work on a debut album for Rasco’s nationally distributed Pockets Linted label, and the Molemen seem confident that they’ll all soon be reaching a bigger audience. “Making this album has made us realize that what we’ve been doing all along was right,” says PNS.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.