The Rapidian

4/20 hiphop show: an interview with Suport

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To celebrate an annual event on April 20 at the Intersection, I had the opportunity to interview one of Grand Rapids' up-and-coming hiphop artists, Sean Powell, who goes by the stage-name of Suport.  Earlier in his career, he was LifeSkillz, but if you talk with any hiphop head around town and mention Suport, they automatically know you are referencing the long, lanky Eastown kid, who serves up hotdogs with style at Yesterdog to make ends meet.
The new project coming out this summer, "Rocket Science," with Curtis Manley, aka Manwolf, as producer, may prove Suport as a hip hop act to watch. His "Red Tape" project is a great representation of local hip hop. 
The 4/20 show was custom built last year to support the diverse amount of hip hop coming out of the city. The bill was full of local talent, with reggae from a dreaded DJ starting off.
Suport began his career like many MCs, performing at house parties rapping over selected beats, or freestyling in the absence of music. He went on to read poetry and play at open mic nights, too. Suport grew up on mid-'90s hiphop with A Tribe Called Quest, the Wu Tang Clan, Outkast, and Pharcyde when "mainstream was more quality then," he said. He feels that his style "wouldn't be accepted if certain positive hiphop did not break down barriers that preceded him."
The recent 4/20 show is the second annual event held at the Intersection, in the front room, with happy hour extended from 6 to 8 p.m.  Its a day "to give showcase to those artists that get bigger shows," but want to support the local vibe, as much as possible, Suport said. He said says it really forces the MCs involved to bring their "A Game," and serves as a representation of positive hiphop.
Suport knows all of the artists personally as well as professionally, which seems to be the way the business works, considering co-performer Manwolf and Suport's partnership. They say its tough attending so many local shows because there is such a diverse amount of talent. Yet they still get together like the 9 MC's (the Cypher) who went to Suport's place before the show to freestyle and get in the right frame of mind.
Suport said he believes that it's going to take venues taking the "gangsta" out of hiphop to bring more acceptance to the style. On those nights, there's a different type of energy, a more positive hip hop, he said.
To Suport, hip hop is all about "breaking down negative stigmas and barriers" to get to a more sustainable level. He likened it to "going to a ballgame and seeing a fistfight;" it can happen anywhere and its not happening because of the music.
Suport brings up a coming-of-age theme in many of his tracks. While not as trendy as more popular themes, he said, "longevity is when all the fads wear off." He writes about relationships from the "male perspective," and is always conscious in his style. "I try to keep an ear to the street, to know what is out there, and I rap about the entertainment business, and the struggles of being an artist without much backing, so far," he said. "I stay hip to what is going on, and stay relevant, by learning from other MCs and improving on what I have heard, and giving back something a little better, a little different." 
He works at Yesterdog to pay the bills and keeps an open mind on his chances of making money off his music. "I don't change my message based on the size of the audience, as there are an un-written set of laws that MCs follow, with certain things you say or don't say," he said. 
Suport said someone like Kanye West's message is "a bit skewed," but he respects what he has done for the genre. And, as always, Grand Rapids is home to him so he keeps aware of what it would mean to make this city better, not just on social issues, but in making it just a better place to live. 
Suport said he would like to "make a good record, something that I could be proud of, something I could listen to and say that is mine, and it helped move hiphop forward in this city. The music will speak for itself, if a larger audience respects it, it will be because it is simply a better product, not just a fad, or a one-off hit," he said.
For Suport, "selling out is not an option. People will pull your card if you are going too mainstream," he said. This is all while things like "the Cypher" take place to bring the best MCs together to rhyme, to share a drink or a smoke together, or to just talk about each other's plans for the medium-term. Suport said what is behind his music is "the drive to always become better than the last time."
His next release is "Rocket Science," which he said is "my first full length album with one producer," that being Manwolf.
Manwolf is a big Suport supporter and expectes the album to be released in August. "Rocket Science" is still in its draft stages and isn't going to be rushed, he said.
"It's built from scratch," Suport said. "We started off with 30 tracks, and mixed it down to 25 and are still working on it. Some of the tracks that we thought were good are not even going to make it to the final cut, as it becomes clearer where we are heading."
Suport said he might almost be done with the rhymes, and Manwolf is getting close on all the beats, they just need to work some more on the interludes and additional production. Though the "Red Tape" is something he is proud of, the "Rocket Science" project is "more fluid, with more special intention on detail, and allows Manwolf to show his talents on production," Suport said. "There is a certain amount of hurry, but we are not going to compromise quality for timing."
Suport follows the local scene regularly and is aware of what is going on in the hip hop industry around the country, and even internationally. He said that he found inspiration recently in Sleepy Brown's "Sleepy Theme," produced by Organized Noise, who has done work with Outkast. He said it was difficult to find and lets other MCs and friends hear it but does'nt lend it out.
To get bigger shows and bigger audiences, MCs need to continuously "show the hunger that got them there in the first place," Suport said. "More coordination is needed, even with all the talent, to get the bigger events, the dreams got to be bigger."
Suport said it's tough to get past the images of glorified street violece with venues worried that their place will be the setting for something tragic, but things are changing. Places like the Intersection and Billy's regularly give the wide swath of hiphop talent around the area a stage to prove them wrong, and its working.
I spoke with Suport the day after one of the hip hop pioneers in the industry lost a fight with cancer--Guru, of Gangstarr. For Suport, Gangstarr was a "difference maker between party rap and grown music," he said. "Even as a young guy, I thought that it was very mature to have that fresh sound with incomparable lyrics."
"The scene is headed in the right direction. Grand Rapids is coming of age, and as long as the artists keep the hunger, I think sooner or later we'll be able to establish ourselves as a place for good hiphop, a place that could be known for it," Suport said.
The 4/20 show is but one opportunity to find out about the local hip hop that is thriving. There are at least two shows per month somewhere in the city to listen to a local artist spitting rhymes over that distinct hip hop beat.

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Props to Sean. Keep it up!