Philly’s angriest underground hip-hop icon is finally freed from the confines of a less-than-ideal recording contract.
Though the “Murda Mondays” event at the inconspicuous 1601 Cafe in South Philly is scheduled to kick off at 10 p.m. sharp, it’s well past 11 when MC Vinnie Paz and his longtime business partner, Ryan “Yan” Donahue, finally arrive. Aside from his position as one of the most popular and controversial figures in today’s independent hip-hop scene, Paz is also something of a reborn entrepreneur, and as such, his tardy arrival tonight comes with a perfectly valid excuse: He’s spent a long and taxing day in the studio with the Brooklyn-based rapper Ill Bill, laying down tracks for an upcoming album that will be released soon on Enemy Soil, a new Philly-based record label and artist-management company that Paz and Donahue co-own.
Murda Mondays isn’t so much an actual event as it is a handy excuse for like-minded friends to get together over beers. In fact, the 1601 Cafe had long been the neighborhood drinking spot for Paz and his extended hip-hop family when the idea eventually surfaced to create a destination night there, and to give it a marketable name.
In a sense, that’s very much what Paz and Donahue are planning to accomplish with Enemy Soil, which will act as a cooperatively-minded indie hip-hop label in the same vein as, say, Rhymesayers or the now defunct Definitive Jux. But on top of simply signing new groups and releasing music, Paz and Donahue plan to help manage even the most intricate aspects of their artist’s careers. The idea is, after spending a veritable lifetime in the music-industry trenches with Jedi Mind Tricks, which put out its first release in 1996, they’ve learned exactly what not to do, and exactly how not to do it.
“We’re the type of dudes who could write a book about the industry, although we’ve never been on MTV, and we’ve never been on commercial radio,” says Paz, who’s holding court at a table in the back of the bar. “What we want to do with the artists who are around us,” he adds, “is to help them not make the same mistakes we did.”
Paz and Donahue first made each other’s acquaintance back in the early 1990s, when they were both students at Upper Darby High School in Drexel Hill. They initially bonded over a shared obsession with hip-hop culture, and it wasn’t long before they developed their own small business, Superegular Records, as a way to distribute the music that Paz had begun making with another high school friend, Kevin Baldwin, who went by a decidedly more aggressive stage name: Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind. At the time, Jedi Minds Tricks was nothing more than Vinnie on vocals and Stoupe on the beats, and in 1996 they released the group’s first EP, Amber Probe, on the homegrown Superegular label, which Paz likes to describe as a “soup to nuts” operation. “We did artwork, computer work, design work,” he says. “We recorded in our own studio. We did everything!”
Perhaps surprisingly for a group of kids who had just finished high school, they also sold a respectable number of records; the Amber Probe EP sold well beyond anyone’s expectations, and eventually Jedi Mind Tricks signed an exclusive deal with a small New York City-based label known as Babygrande Records. From there, it was a steady uphill climb. The group’s next few releases each went on to become independent hip-hop classics almost immediately, although with titles such as Violent by Design and Legacy of Blood—not to mention Paz’s pro-Islamist and occasionally homophobic lyrics—they were nearly guaranteed to remain relegated to the underground.
Still, the group managed to survive countless European and U.S. tours, as well as a handful of minor lineup changes. But when the professional relationship with Babygrande Records began to grow increasingly strained (Internet rumors hinted at ongoing financial disputes), both Paz and Donahue found themselves wondering if it wouldn’t make more sense to go back to the old ways of doing business. That is, by themselves.
And although that decision may sound like career suicide to someone not familiar with the machinations of the modern music business, the truth is that “the genesis of this whole thing has been in the works for years,” as Donahue explains it. “We started out on our own. And ironically, it’s kind of come full circle.”
The truth, of course, is that the circle isn’t quite complete just yet; Enemy Soil still has a long road to travel in terms of proving itself as a traditional record label, not to mention as a very nontraditional artist management group. And those are both tasks that will likely be made even more difficult in this era of imploding record companies and rampant online file sharing.
But as Donahue suggests, even in the music industry of the 21st century, there’s still no need to reinvent the wheel, which is essentially the crux of the entire Enemy Soil ethos. “That’s what we’re trying to bring to other artists,” he adds. “We’re trying to show them that the reason Jedi Mind Tricks was successful was because there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into it, from a lot of different people. It took us a long time to get here, and I feel like we can help shorten that path for others.”
Jedi Mind Tricks perform Sat., April 10, 8pm. $17. The Note, 142 E. Market St., West Chester. thenotewc.com
PW's Music Issue 2014