It was sometime back in 1996 when Vinnie Paz, then already a hugely celebrated South Philly emcee, discovered there were others out there like him. Today, he enjoys an immensely passionate worldwide following as the leader of a controversial and underground rap outfit known as Jedi Mind Tricks. But back then, Paz and JMT had only recently dropped their very first record, a modest six-tracker known as The Amber Probe EP. And quite unlike the vast majority of mainstream rap music being consumed at the time (2Pac, The Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest all released major albums that year), the contents of Amber Probe were beyond esoteric, almost to a fault. With song titles like “Communion: The Crop Circle Thesis” and “Books of Blood: The Coming of the Tan,” the abstract and conspiracy theory-obsessed Jedi Mind Tricks seemed almost certain to be relegated to the dollar bins of hip-hop history, even before their career had officially started.
It was also in 1996, however, that another budding young rapper—he called himself Apathy and lived in New England—happened to be creating music of a very similar sort. Still a teenager at the time, Apathy, whose real name is Chad Bromley, was hosting his own hip-hop show at the University of Connecticut in the mid-90s. “I was down with a lot of [rappers] from New York,” he tells PW, “and the shit we were rapping about was so foreign. Nobody in the world was rapping about the type of knowledge and the type of esoteric, metaphysical subject matter that we rapped about.” So when The Amber Probe EP unexpectedly arrived at the UConn radio station one day, and Apathy gave it a cursory spin, “I was like, ‘What the fuck? Who the fuck are these guys?’ My mind was blown.”
He eventually contacted Paz via email, he says, and the two started having regular phone conversations about the rap game. Soon, Apathy was invited to appear as a guest artist on JMT’s first full-length album, “and Vin and I have been family ever since,” he says. Paz has a slightly different recollection of the meeting. In his version, he was the one who called the phone number listed on the back of Apathy’s 12-inch and suggested a collaboration.
Regardless of how that seemingly predestined encounter actually did come about, the fact remains that very big things have happened in Paz’s career during the following 18 years and in those of the many intellectual and off-the-beaten-path rappers who’ve been lucky enough to play a role in the Jedi Mind Tricks story, Apathy included. JMT, for instance, has since gone on to release seven full-length albums; at least three of them are arguably among the most intensely phenomenal indie hip-hop records of the past 15 years—on par with the classic releases spawned from the Definitive Jux roster in the early 2000s and, in some cases, even better. Paz himself has released two solo LPs and two EPs; he claims to have toured the world so many times that he’s lost count. And in the grand tradition of artistic collaboration, Paz is also the mastermind behind a constantly rotating and ever-evolving hip-hop supergroup known as Army of the Pharaohs—a crew that had its genesis way back in 1998, just two years after those earliest telephone conversations between Paz and Apathy.
If there’s an underground hip-hop rapper or collective of any serious significance operating today, the chance that they’ve been affiliated with Army of the Pharaohs at some point over the past 15 years is probably somewhere around 50-50.
That’s just a guess, of course, and perhaps a poor one. But to date, nearly 25 different MCs—including Chief Kamachi, Celph Titled and 7L—not to mention the members of 10 different cliques (including the JuJu Mob, the Demigodz and La Coka Nostra) have at one point been an official part of the Pharaoh fold. And while various AOTP factions have gone on brief tours at various times in the past—Apathy and his most frequent collaborator, the Florida-based Celph Titled, are often listed as Pharaohs when they appear live—not once in the previous 16 years has the entire crew performed together. Until now.
On Fri., Jan. 31, hip-hop history will literally be made at Union Transfer, when upwards of 15 Pharaohs will crowd the stage and spend a good 90 minutes spitting the hits from a catalog that has been variously described as ultra-violent, über-personal and, at times, even terroristic. As one current Pharaoh, Reef the Lost Cauze, puts it, “This show is going to be a very unique opportunity for anyone who’s a fan of AOTP—or even if you’re a fan of any of the individuals—to see us all come together as one. It’s going to be one for the books.”
Indeed, aside from the fact that “getting 15 people [who live in four different states] into the same room is kind of hard,” as Reef puts it, the upcoming UT show was initially intended to be a solo gig featuring only Vinnie Paz (who’s currently promoting a new EP). But because fans have been clamoring for an AOTP tour for years, the decision was made to bring all the out-of-town Pharaohs to Philly and to treat the show as something of a litmus test “to see if we can actually do this for real,” says Reef. If the show goes well—if it sells out, in other words, and assuming all the Pharaohs play nicely together—there’s a slight possibility that a brief U.S. or European tour might be in the offing.
And yet, as Paz explains, “On paper, going on tour as Army of the Pharaohs sounds like the best idea ever. But as you get older, and [if] this is your livelihood, shit changes, you know what I mean? You’re not 22 anymore, where you’re happy with a couple hundred dollars and [the promoters] giving you free alcohol.” Many of the Pharaohs still hold down day jobs (Blacastan, one of the group’s newer members, sells cars in Connecticut) and have children (Planetary has four kids and works at the Pepsi plant in Northeast Philly), all of which might make an extended leave of absence less than realistic. There’s also the consideration that veteran Pharoah member Crypt the Warchild, one-half of the local hip-hop outfit Outerspace, was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of Hodgkin’s lymphoma—although he’s currently in remission and plans to perform at UT.
To put it in the words of Reef, who says that tickets for the performance are being snapped up quickly, “If you’re a fan of our group and a fan of our movement, this is the show you really want to be at. You don’t want to sleep.”
Fri., Jan. 31, 8pm. $15. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. 215.232.2100. utphilly.com
It’s easy being the Pretty Greens