I was outside my comfort zone - a white guy asking four men of color if they ever thought twice about saturating their raps with the word "nigger."
Michael Berndsen, 24, a.k.a. "Mic Virus" of the Madison rap crew Lucha Libre, was the first to respond.
"Where I'm from, it's just common," said Berndsen, who grew up in Milwaukee. "It's a way of saying, you're in this struggle with me."
"Anyone really involved in the culture of hip-hop knows that there are codes in our language," added Arthur Richardson. "The word 'nigger' means ignorant, and when we use it on the CD, we obviously don't mean it that way."
The N word isn't the only lyrical flashpoint in Lucha Libre's new album, The Takeover. The title track wanders into the aggressive side of male sexual bravado ("penetrate your ass until you hyperventilate"), arguably in a satirical context intended to be ridiculous and funny.
By the sixth track, the group confronts racism head-on in the verses of "AmeriKKKa."
When your face is black it's hard to escape the rap
When all you teach me is lies and basic math
Now I can only hit a jumper or make a sack
And Julio and Jose can swing a baseball bat
What's the chance of making any cake off that?
The Takeover is a stark departure from the "conscious rap" that's largely defined Madison hip-hop for the past several years. The tracks are more edgy and less feel-good than high-profile local rap releases by artists like Rob Dz, dumate, El Guante and the Crest.
And that's just the way Lucha Libre would have it. The crew take their name from a freestyle form of Mexican wrestling.
"None of us are conscious rappers," says Berndsen. "Hip-hop is supposed to be blunt. It's about being yourself, and not pretending to be something you're not. People get nervous about that."
"These beats are hard," says Richardson. "The lyrics reflect that."
The Takeover is the second release by Lucha Libre. It follows their 2006 debut, Plantando Bandera.
Their music is built on the sophisticated production work of Josue Guadalupe, a.k.a. "Da Ricanstruckta." Guadalupe's hip-hop name is a take on his Puerto Rican ethnic roots and his prodigious talent for reconstructing recorded music into original beats and samples.
I once had the privilege of watching Guadalupe make music in the back room of his south-side apartment. Sitting in front of a sequencer, he took choral passages from a Christian album he found at a local Goodwill store. He looped and filtered them through his sequencer, adding layers of synth and beats.
The result was a sonic transformation, fueled by Guadalupe's intensity and attention to detail. So when I started spinning The Takeover a few weeks ago, it came as no surprise that the CD features some of the best production work I've ever heard on a local hip-hop album.
The forceful raps of Mic Virus and NV1 are delivered in a mix of Spanish and English. The album's anxious and impatient lyrics feel authentic.
"Fuck being hungry," they rant on "So Long." "I need a wad of hundred dollar bills hanging out my ass, money."
The Takeover is also the first CD released on I Need a Raise records. The Madison label is a collective effort led by Arthur Richardson, a local hip-hop promoter who's been one of the most influential figures in local music this decade. His projects have included Streets of Gold Production, Good Life and the annual Feel the Beat conference.
"Everyone can relate to the idea of needing a raise," says Juan Cortes, a.k.a. NV1, who works as a painter and a roofer when he's not rapping.
The logo for I Need a Raise records depicts the barrel of a gun pointing forward and taking aim.
"That logo means we're ready to take over by any means necessary," says Berndsen. "Will we point a gun in your face? No, but we're going to find a way to make it."