It seems that backpack rap - slang for hip-hop artists who eschew the drugs, guns and bling that dominate much commercial rap, scribbling down lyrics as they lug oodles of CDs around town in backpacks - is alive and well in Madison. That's thanks in part to dumate, the five-person hip-hop collective that performs with sharp rhymes, sizzling samples and progressive themes.
In 2005 dumate released a debut CD, dumate rite (the known knowns), and the group has spent 2009 working on a second album, expected later this year. Meanwhile, dumate has filled much of its schedule with gigs opening for big hip-hop names that come through town. Those include like-minded underground favorites like Lyrics Born, K'Naan and the Mighty Underdogs.
But last month dumate also opened for the Game, when the mainstream rapper performed at the Majestic. The pairing of a Midwestern backpack group with a Compton, Calif.-bred gangsta rapper known for his feuds with the thuggity East Coast group G-Unit might seem a mismatch, both musically and ideologically.
However, the members of dumate see the combination as a fruitful one. While the troupe often broadcasts its distaste for a shoot-'em-up, pimp-and-deal sort of mentality, it's aware that this type of rap speaks about struggle and injustice, too, just in different terms.
"I really can't judge another man's perspective about how he's made sense of the world," says dumate emcee D.L.O. "Yeah, some of the Game's lyrics I dig and some I don't, but all in all, if you love hip-hop you can gain something from any type of it."
Founding dumate emcee Laduma Nguyuza has known the persuasive power of hip-hop almost as long as he's known how to read and write. The same promise that draws some to a career in politics led him to rapping at the tender age of 8.
"It all started in the third grade: My pops was smoking cigarettes and my sister was asthmatic, so I decided to write a rhyme about it," says Nguyuza, 30. "We put it up in school, outside my class, and Pops quit smoking for good."
Perhaps superstitious about his rhyme's impact, it wasn't until 10 years later that he dared attempt rapping again. This time, instead of trying to change someone else's mind, he did it to steer his own away from a destructive path. "I was feeling wacky in the head, struggling with depression, and didn't have any way to get it out," he recalls.
It took a college party, some alcohol and a bit of peer pressure to get him to spill his guts into a microphone. "People were grabbing the mike and rhyming, so I grabbed it like everyone else," he says. They all started making noise, and I was like, 'Oh snap, what's this?' It was infectious: After that, I started to write and perform and have been ever since."
This all took place in Maryland, which Nguyuza called home before he arrived in Wisconsin. Halfway across the country, here in Madison, Bradley Thomas - known to local concertgoers as D.L.O. - got bitten by the emcee bug while watching his dad spin records.
"When my dad moved up here from Chicago, he'd deejay parties, so I'd hear a lot of old soul and Stevie Wonder, plus newer stuff like Too $hort and "The Message" [by Grandmaster Flash]," says D.L.O., 31. "I really liked the stuff I wasn't supposed to be listening to - like Too $hort before he got his teeth fixed - and it stuck with me when I started making rhymes in '94."
D.L.O. began rapping as a high school project with a couple of friends. By 1996, they were opening for Twista, Do Or Die and other vintage street rappers. It was hardly the kind of rap D.L.O. and the rest of dumate are known for today: a homegrown variety of socially conscious emceeing that draws fans of funky jam bands, spoken word and old-school Run-DMC-style jams, plus folks who've just discovered J-5 and turntablism.
Meanwhile, Nguyuza found himself a Madison resident after a visit to his sister turned into a permanent living situation. His path crossed D.L.O.'s at Madison Area Technical College. "I gave him one of my CDs of solo stuff, and he told me it was wack," D.L.O. recalls.
"It was wack," Nguyuza retorts. "Have you heard it?"
D.L.O. returned to the drawing board, then ran into Nguyuza again in 2002. This time, the effort met Nguyuza's high standards, but D.L.O. left for California, so the two didn't collaborate. The partnership began to take shape only after the move went sour and D.L.O. found himself regrouping at a performance by Smokin' With Superman, the Madison funk group that featured Nguyuza.
"I had started making beats and would go to these shows where [Nguyuza] would be having a freestyle session and people could come up to the stage and try it. He liked my freestyle, and we realized the two of us were writing things that were very much alike, just in different places," D.L.O. says.
Smokin' With Superman was one of several groups keeping Nguyuza busy at the time, but once the band's lineup changed, he decided to move on to other projects. At the end of 2003, Nguyuza struck up another partnership, this time with drummer Jah Boogie (Demetrius Wainwright) of the local reggae group Natty Nation, after Nguyuza learned that Boogie also dabbles in hip-hop. Thus was born dumate.
After rehearsing as a combo with Boogie and Natty Nation keyboardist A.K. (Aaron Konkol), Nguyuza discovered future bassist Bobby Peru, otherwise known as Madison bassist Nick Moran. Nguyuza asked D.L.O. to contribute to a number of dumate tracks.
"We invited D.L.O. once, then again and then a few more times, so [in 2005] we finally just asked him to move on in," Nguyuza explains. "And when A.K. left, we lost the cool stuff he was doing with synthesizers but gained Man Mantis, who does incredible things with samples and makes our sound more epic and accessible."
Practically speaking, Madison may not have the transportation infrastructure to support a true backpack community. And at any rate, people can't quite agree on what the term even means.
The online Urban Dictionary describes a backpack rapper as a subway-riding, Walkman- or iPod-toting individual with a preference for lyrics over hooks and a certain sense of higher purpose. According to this definition, backpack rappers' mode of transit gives them time to think and write, since they "don't have the money to be rolling in luxury cars."
While the Madison bus system could support a few backpack rappers, Nguyuza and D.L.O. suspect that lyric-writing, CD-toting Madison hip-hoppers are more likely to be found kick-pushing a skateboard or tooling around on a BMX bike. And anyway, according to D.L.O., a backpack rapper is simply "that dude with a backpack full of merch he wants to sell when he gets onstage, no matter if it's cheap-ass or Louis Vuitton."
Nguyuza says a backpack rapper's someone who's prepared to pull a microphone out of his bag at any second and bust a rhyme on the spot. "I used to be one of those," he says. "These days, it's a little more planned out."
As for D.L.O., he's got to improve his skating technique before he adopts the label. "I busted my grill trying to kick push, so I wouldn't go calling me a backpack rapper just yet," he says.
Regardless, Nguyuza says that the distinction between underground hip-hop and commercial styles such as gangsta rap is artificial and, at times, divisive for the genre.
"When movie producers hang out, it's pretty much the same thing," he explains. "Tarantino and Spielberg make different types of movies but break bread together. I see it that way for hip-hop, too: It's not just about the message but a sense of struggling through similar things."
This perspective isn't terribly unusual. Compton native turned Madison rapper Kalo points out that when mainstream and progressive hip-hop acts collaborate on bills, as the Game and dumate did, both expand their audiences while demonstrating that the genre doesn't belong to one type of performer. Kalo, who has collaborated with D.L.O., adds that the trend toward all-backpack shows is actually a step away from the way rap shows have traditionally been organized, both here and on the West Coast.
"I remember going to see Kid 'N Play and N.W.A. at the same show, and Will Smith along with Ice Cube," says Kalo, 28, whose songs usually fall in the street/gangsta rap category. "Those shows were great because they drew different audiences, and you'd get to appreciate and enjoy the music of somebody you maybe never listened to before. This needs to happen more these days."
Plus, as Nguyuza and D.L.O. argue, a lot of underground hip-hop artists get labeled as backpack rappers even though they don't identify with the term.
"I feel like every rapper is a conscious rapper," says D.L.O. "It's conscious whether they're dropping the real shit or the fake shit, positive stuff or negative stuff. Labels - whether it's 'backpack,' 'gangsta' or something else - put you in this box when you need to be able to move in different directions."