Lifesavas: schoolin’ fans in hip-hop
December 6, 2007
ASPEN ” Calling back to the early days of Arrested Development and Digable Planets, a Portland hip-hop trio is making waves with self-deprecating lyrics, an aversion to gangsta rap, dope beats and a sense of history. It’s a combination that earned Lifesavas more than a little critical acclaim this year.
The April release of “Gutterfly,” a powerful album loosely themed around ’70s blacksploitation films garnered Lifesavas nods as one of this year’s Rolling Stone 10 Artists to Watch (described as (De La Soul ” P.M. Dawn) X Dolomite = Lifesavas) and a listing as one of Paste’s top 50 albums of the year.
“The ball really got rolling once the album hit,” said Lifesavas emcee Vursatyl. “Now we’re going to be on the road forever it seems. What can you say when you get Rolling Stone and periodicals like that coming in and calling the record one of the best of the year, it’s just, wow, it’s something you can’t plan for. You make music for yourself and you hope people can dig it.”
Even with the success, Vursatyl doesn’t forget his roots and teaches a class on hip-hop at the Portland high school he attended.
“We’re really trying to teach the kids to talk about how hip-hop evolved into a culture,” Vursatyl said. “I like to talk to them about the forefathers of hip-hop ” Who started hip-hop? Who are the first emcees? ” So they can get a basis of who started the culture. Hopefully that will help them if they’re trying to be a part of the culture.”
Vursatyl has brought in early fillmmakers, emcees and DJs who talk to the class about the roots of hip-hop.
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“Last year we brought in the inventor of scratching and let him give his take,” said Vursatyl. “We try to bring in guest speakers to show and talk to the kids about their experiences.”
In some ways, the historical slant of “Gutterfly” parallels Vursatyl’s passion for teaching hip-hop at the high school. Though administrators first envisioned the class as a class teaching the actual skills of hip-hop, Vursatyl was more focused on the history.
As Vursatyl put it, the idea behind the album was to approach a more modern-day blacksploitation through the lens of the ’70s vibe. They were asking: Is hip-hop good or bad for the inner-city community?
The blacksploitation genre is often thought to have begun with “Shaft” in 1971. They were the first movies to feature soul and funk. But the characters ” pimps, coke dealers ” and rocking afros and pimp-mobiles were thought by many to stereotype black people.
“Were those images exploiting the plight of black people?” Asked Vursatyl. “Most of those movies, the basic premise was the main character going up against the man … the guy from the inner city and his struggle to obtain the American dream. Now hip-hop is sort of dubbed the new blacksploitation era. We loved those movies. To be fair, there were images portrayed in those movies that were not positive. But overall, they’re fun to watch. It’s cool to see that era encapsulated in film.”
In many ways, it’s the same as hip-hop in the current day, with many similar images being used. And in some ways, hip-hop still hasn’t escaped the connection to violence. Vursatyl said Lifesavas tried to bring up some of those issues while focusing on the music at the same time.
“The cool thing about those movies, too, a lot of those movies have incredible soundtracks, dope soundtracks,” he said. “There’s one called ‘Black Caeser,’ James Brown did the whole soundtrack. You would go watch those movies and there would be a lot of cool music along with it as well.”