Antonio “PAZ1” Appling, left, and Nate “KnewBalance” Whitsell, right. Courtesy of Soul Anchor Collective.
For years, lyricist and emcee Nate “KnewBalance” Whitsell attended live hip hop shows in San Diego, picking up demos from local artists and connecting with other conscious music heads along the way.
An English teacher by trade, Whitsell was always compelled to write about the mainstream-forgotten genre in which he was so entrenched, but it wasn’t until a local performance of acclaimed rapper AHMAD that Whitsell knew he had to share what he was listening to with the world.
Soon, the blog Soul Anchor Collective was born and since Whitsell moved to Long Beach two years ago, the website has outgrown its original cathartic intentions to become both a record label and crucial vessel for connecting and exposing those working in the outer fringes of the local underground hip hop scene.
“As the site’s logo says, we try to provide ‘a critical look at hip-hop,’” says Whitsell, who also performs with his brother-in-law under the name The Piecemakers. “So we cater to the conscious stuff and cover things that are like-minded.”
Socially conscious, or political hip hop, is a segment of the culture that exists in juxtaposition to mainstream hip hop and gangster rap. So instead of baller talk about money and women like most hip hop that hits the radio, artists like Sage Francis, Atmosphere and Mos Def bust rhymes about everything from corporate greed to political activism and every emotional escapade in between.
For Whitsell, fully supporting up-and-coming conscious rappers meant combining efforts with his brother-in-law and bandmate, Antonio “PAZ1” Appling, another Long Beach lyricist who founded the monthly open mic, The Definitive Soapbox, five years ago.
Through Appling’s spoken word events, which are hosted at the Mirage Café in Bixby Knolls, the two discovered a small-but-disconnected group of underground hip hop emcees. Couple that with the 200-plus submissions the site receives every week from around the world and Soul Anchor Collective’s cadre of writers keeps busy reviewing albums, promoting tracks and, for those that the pair truly believe in, releasing digital EPs under the blog’s new label.
“People are exposed to so much mainstream hip hop, but there’s way more underground stuff that no one gets to hear about,” says Whitsell. “So when we find someone we like, we want to give them a full run and treat them like they’re Talib Kwelli or Atmosphere because no one else is going to.”
Though they are currently using the web as a tool for community creation, crucial for Whitsell and Appling is bringing music offline and into live shows. They see how the internet has fragmented hip hop by removing it from its rich history as a street culture and social tool, and placing it into the consumer-driven realm of pop music.
No longer do hopeful rappers have to be well-versed in the roots of the genre or work their way through rap battles to command the main stage because anyone with Garage Band and a Youtube account can release cookie-cutter mainstream tunes and get instant followers.
“There’s no real connection to hip hop’s foundation anymore and that’s what we’re fighting against,” says Appling. “It’s not that a lot of new hip hop kids just don’t know about the history of the music, they don’t care either. That’s what scares us and worries us a bit.”
“People think, ‘I can make money through this.’ We want people to think, ‘I can tell my story through this.’” adds Whitsell
To combat the growing disconnect between mainstream and underground hip hop, Soul Anchor Collective finds artists that are relevant while still resonating with the origins of the craft, like Long Beach’s Shining Sons, a Filipino activist rapping duo whose songs and lyrics often pay homage to the sounds of the G-funk era.
In their endless quest to increase visibility for worthy local acts, the next step for Soul Anchor Collective is to create a live music space where socially conscious emceess can build up their skills by performing for a crowd. The hope is to find live bands to back the rappers, providing even more raw energy for the performances.
“There isn’t a huge community here yet, but we’re trying to build one now,” said Whitsell. “We want to start trying to do live shows like what Urban Underground does at The Airliner in L.A. It’s just a showcase of artistry that Long Beach needs.”
Above left: Shining Sons