by Alex Shtaerman
As an MC, beatboxer, DJ and visual artist, Hyphen-One is a throwback to a time when Hip-Hop wasn’t just a CD you bought at Best Buy, but rather, a way of life. “If I didn’t break my thumb the first time that I rocked a six-step at a high school dance in ’98, I would probably be breakdancing right now too”, reveals the multi-talented Hip-Hop sage. Growing up as an adopted foster child in Denville, New Jersey, Hyphen’s love for basketball would quickly take him outside the confines of suburbia. Playing for AAU teams in Newark and around the tri-state area, the now burgeoning artist would gain exposure to urban culture at a young age. After acquiring his first set of turntables in the 8th grade, Hyphen-One was on his way to a soon-to-be bright future.
In 2006, after roughly three years of recording, Hyphen dropped his self titled debut LP, Hyphen-One. A sophomore effort, The First Letter, would follow in 2007. Also the lead singer and keyboard player for the funk-fusion band Hyphen-One & Daylow, Hyphen along with his bandmates received substantial critical acclaim following the release of the group’s June 2008 album, Ill Regular. Outside of music Hyphen-One is a gifted visual artist traversing a multitude of genres ranging from graffiti and street art to surrealism and classical styles. And what does he do in his spare time, you ask? Raise money for charities and talk to kids about growing up as a foster child. With a schedule like that it’s no wonder it took us some time to catch up with him. Check out the RiotSound.com interview with Hyphen-One. Straigh outta Denville, New Jersey!
experience as an adopted foster child growing up in
Denville, New Jersey has been key to your evolution as an artist. Have you spent time wondering about what your life perhaps could or would or should have been like?
HYPHEN-ONE:Wondering “what would my life have been like?” is a question that has popped through my mind throughout the years. A slight underlying feeling of rejection, loneliness and wondering what was wrong with my biological parents that made them unfit, or not want me is something that will always be with me. These thoughts contribute to how I see the world. They are part of the basis of the content of my artistic and lyrical expression. The fact that I have no idea what race I am allows me to enjoy documenting life in a way that represents all races. I find out who I am through my music and art.
RIOTSOUND.COM: You recently filmed a video for your new track “Denville”, which is a tribute to your home town and also showcases many aspects of Hip-Hop culture in suburbia. Very few MC’s have tried to big up the suburbs in the way you do on “Denville” – were you trying to flip the scrip a little bit as far as what most people, at least traditionally speaking, consider to be “Hip-Hop”?
HYPHEN-ONE: I knew that I was doing something unique when I wrote “Denville”. I got the beat from [producer] Volitale and I was thinking, this is probably the hottest beat on this album, what can I do to make it stand out even more? I was thinking of all the New York anthems, all the songs that make references to things that are only known by people from a relatively small neighborhood, and I said to myself, why can’t there be a theme song for my home?
Suburban Hip-Hop heads that are serious have been going all over cities for years to connect with the best cats from area to area. When we say where we are from, some city people act like there is some sort of credibility missing. That seems to be the nature of life and Hip-Hop – who is strong, who is hood, etc… I know kids that act embarrassed of where they are from because of this phenomenon. I find that genuinely offensive. If you think where you are from is wack, you are saying that you think YOU are wack. “Denville” is about the suburbs. It is about me. I bomb graffiti here. I live Hip-Hop here.
“The fact that I have no idea what race I am allows me
to enjoy documenting life in a way that represents all
races. I find out who I am through my music and art”
RIOTSOUND.COM: Besides being an MC as well as a visual artist, you are also a member of Beatboxer Entertainment. How did you initially become interested in beatboxing?
HYPHEN-ONE: For me, beatboxing is just an extension of various noises that I began making as a little kid. Two years ago, if you had asked me if I was a beatboxer, I would have said “no.” I always beatbox during my mic check because it sounds annoying and unprofessional when people say “mic check one, two” and stuff like that. I didn’t realize that my beatboxing had the potential to be something special until Kid Lucky approached me after one of my shows at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC. When he mentioned that he was interested in having me be a part of BBE, I was shocked.
Two months later I rocked at Madison Square Garden and then in front of 16,000 plus at Randall’s Island. It is amazing standing next to cats like Kid Lucky, Baba Israel, Yako, Kenny Muhhumed, Michael Winslow, D Cross, Seme Rock and Krussia. My life as a confident and practicing beatboxer started in 2006 when Kid Lucky acknowledged that I had potential.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Going back to the years before Hip-Hop was such a large part of your life; how did you initially become exposed to the culture?
HYPHEN-ONE: I got my first taste of Hip-Hop from my brother James and cousin Dewain, who are both 8 years older than me. I was like 5 years old when De La Soul was coming up. They loved De La and the Beastie Boys, it was all I heard for years. Even today I feel like the Beastie Boys and the whole Native Tounges click epitomize Hip-Hop to me. My introduction to Hip-Hop culture continued as I grew up playing basketball. I played all over New Jersey and NYC. AAU Teams I played with include the Newark Rams, Roadrunners, PPY and St. Anthony summer runs in Jersey City. Basketball was my life and the places it brought me allowed me to see many different aspects of urban culture.
In 8th grade I got my first set of turntables. This was around the same time that the suburban Hip-Hop culture began to rise around me. Groups like Company Flow, Non Phixion, Def Jux – I refer to it as the “Fat Beats Scene” because a lot of people from my area, including myself, were taking the Path to 9th Street to [Fat Beats] to cop these artists’ records and then make stops to bomb graffiti on the train ride home. I continued DJing all through high school, taking trips to Fat Beats and Rock & Soul consistently. I still DJ today, most recently at Z100 Zootopia.
I got introduced to graff by the graffiti spot in Denville, New Jersey. I used to sneak back there to look at pieces by AREZ, SHONE, THEMO and OMEN back in the day. I was a freshman the first time I bombed the sound barrier, there is nothing like it. As far as rapping, the first time I ever wrote a sixteen-bar verse was in 1996. I started recording songs in 2003, mainly because I wanted to dis people from my neighborhood that I didn’t like. I eventually realized that I could use the songs as my main form of socialization, and I liked it. When several other people told me it was hot, I figured I would continue recording. If I didn’t break my thumb the first time that I rocked a six-step at a high school dance in ’98, I would probably be breakdancing right now too. I wouldn’t say that participating in Hip-Hop was a conscious decision; it is just something that feels right and is a huge part of my life. I don’t love it or hate it, Hip-Hop is something that is just a part of me, always.
RIOTSOUND: As a visual artist you have a very diverse style. You have the urban influence and you also have a lot of surrealistic elements in some of your work, while, on the other hand, you also have a lot of classic and traditional influences in some of your other pieces. How would you describe your overall style? With a lot of your works it’s sometimes hard to tell that all these different things were done by the same person.
HYPHEN-ONE: I am influenced by artists like Salvador Dali, all the impressionists, EWOK and THEMO. That is correct, on canvas I have two styles, one is impressionistic with pastel color and textured canvas, the other is surreal with vibrant primary colors, fine lines, floating and transparent subjects. My impressionistic style is very much textbook in technique. On the other hand, when I paint my surreal pieces, I purposely try to go against everything I was taught in art school. Most art professors look down upon floating objects and such complex works that do not have a cause or meaning. I just embraced the fact that my art is meant to piss them off.
Many people have said that various pieces of mine look like they were not done by the same person. My only answer to that is that I feel very different physically, emotionally and psychologically at different times. The outcome of my work varies with these feelings. My graff pieces are more about smooth objects that look like they are floating on the surface of the wall, legibility is secondary. I stopped doing outlines and double outlines in 2004. I argue that if an object is cubed, and you are looking at it from a 3D standpoint, you will not ever see the opposite side. Outlines and double outlines are for signs and cartoons. I prefer the third dimension.
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as being a practicing professional fine artist, what do you hope to accomplish in the near future and the years to come?
HYPHEN-ONE: My ultimate goal as a visual artist is to have fun. The art directs itself. I have always said that half of my craft is showing up. I believe that this is true for just about anything. As long as I wake up and stand in front of my easel, something is going to happen. And the more time I spend at the easel, the more frequently magic is going to happen. Currently I enjoy painting scenes of the beach. I go to the Jersey shore and set up my easel on the beach where the water meets the sand. Thousands of people see my work and I enjoy myself all day. Every once in a while my paintings get knocked over by a football, frisbee or just some kid not paying attention. The beach really becomes a part of the art.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Getting back to music, you are also the lead singer for the band Hyphen-One & Daylow. What kind of music do you record when you work with the band?
HYPHEN-ONE: Hyphen-One & Daylow is currently an eight piece band: Drums, bass, guitar, percussion, sax, trombone, female vocals and I play keys. We started out in 2003 making live Hip-Hop. Over the past five years I have realized that crossing into different genres allows the band to shine and be utilized more. We now get into Hip-Hop, Funk, Reggae, Jazz, R&B and straight up jamming. My lyrical content is much more abstract with the band than on my solo CDs. It is all about flow, rhythm, melody and taking you to a place that implies places and things without describing them directly. The band’s music corresponds well with my impressionistic and surreal artworks. Our new album, Ill Regular is now available on Itunes. Download it!
RIOTSOUND.COM: How would you characterize the reaction to Ill Regular thus far?
HYPHEN-ONE: The reaction has been great! Okayplayer gave it an 8 out of 10. Many people consider Ill Regular to be my greatest musical accomplishment thus far. The biggest thing that I can say about it is that it is appealing to multiple generations. Young kids dig the lyricism and their parents are into the band compositions and instrumental solos. The typical bar or partygoer gets into the hooks and deep bass. There is something for everyone.
“One line from ‘Be Real’ off my first album crosses my
mind at least once a day, ‘I feel so alone that I feel insane
too / I never met a person that I could relate to’. I think
that sums it up. Some kid that feels the same way
right now will be able to feel what I am saying”
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as new projects, what are you presently working on?
HYPHEN-ONE: Currently my main focus is the release of my new single, “Jersey Girl”, it is a fast-paced, dance club anthem. I’m pressing it up on wax as well as CD’s with the music video included on the disc. There will be a Jersey Girl tour, several contests with cash prizes, airplane ads flying at the jersey shore, radio promos, shirts, videos, etc… For example, I am planning a graffiti contest. There will be a battle where writers will be asked to write [the words] “Jersey Girl” with a big cash prize for the best piece. There will also be a sketch contest where you can submit your sketch online. I believe that this is the single that is going to take Hyphen-One to the next level. I am looking for sponsorship, help with distributing promo flyers as well as girls from Jersey to be in the video. Anyone interested in any of that email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My band is also working on a new project; we have about six songs locked down for our next album – no release date yet – so look out for that in the future. From the fine art end, I’m working on a series of portraits of all the presidents of the United States. I am hoping that the series will be finished by 2010.
RIOTSOUND.COM: If someone were to pick up a Hyphen-One CD and pop it into their CD player, what could they expect to hear?
HYPHEN-ONE: A Hyphen-One solo CD consists of story telling, punch lines, collaborations, catchy hooks and fresh production. EZ Elpee produced half of my last solo album, The First Letter. If you don’t know who he is, just look him up. I also have guest appearances by King Django, Pacewon of the Outsidaz and DMC finalist DJ Watts, as well as some of my local colleagues reppin’ the 973. Hyphen-One CDs are authentic Hip-Hop to the fullest, structured from an old-school format – not as innovative as a Daylow CD, but strong from start to finish. The album covers are photos of my surreal style paintings.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Another thing you do is work with various charity programs where you work with kids as well as raise money for a variety of causes, can you talk about that?
HYPHEN-ONE: I have been awarded Volunteer of the Year by the MS Foundation, but talking to the kids is most important to me. I have been going to schools doing one hour assemblies about my life as a foster child and adoptee. I talk about the various emotions that I got from the events of my life and how I use art and music to express those emotions. It is important because some people, including myself, do not like to talk or express their emotions verbally. I don’t think that anyone should be forced to talk. In fact, I would say that I socialize with the world through my creative expressions. Most of the time I prefer not to talk. I just know that other people feel the way I do about these subjects; maybe I will connect with someone. One line from “Be Real” off my first album crosses my mind at least once a day, “I feel so alone that I feel insane too / I never met a person that I could relate to”. I think that sums it up. Some kid that feels the same way right now will be able to feel what I am saying.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Since you are engaged in so many different things, is that a lot of pressure on one person, or is it all in a day’s work for Hyphen-One?
HYPHEN-ONE: That is a great question. In all honesty, I think about giving up something just about every day of my life. Doing all these things is exciting, beautiful, draining and depressing. I think that each element helps the other grow. Sometimes I go months where I just paint and do not write music and vice versa. Some days I am totally sick of my band. Some days I ask myself, why am I wasting time doing all these things? I am an adult now, these are immature things to do, I will probably never be as dope as Kenny Muhhumed, DJ Q.Bert, CES, Dali or Baba Israel. But it all just keeps bringing itself back to me. I can’t stop. I believe this is why I am on this earth. And I believe that in the worst case scenario, when no one is feeling what I am doing, no one is listening, no one is looking, I am still affecting one person, ME!