So how did Solillaquists of Sound's DiViNCi feel when Spin called his group a "bizarro world Black Eyed Peas" last week?
"It's not the first time Black Eyed Peas has been mentioned," he says, "but yeah, I don't really see it."
The Solillaquists, for instance, do not sing about lovely lady lumps. And while they feature two female vocalists, there's no Fergie.
"No, not really," says DiViNCi with a laugh. "Thank God!"
What the Orlando, Fla., hip-hop group does have is a sophomore album on the Anti-/Epitaph label, No More Heroes, that combines sophisticated musicality with conscious lyrics. ("Harriet Tubman would be proud," they acidly observe, "to see the exploitation we've allowed.")
The group also breathes new life into hip-hop archetypes, beginning with the opening track's sonic shout-out to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It."
"That's so funny, no one has mentioned that," says DiViNCi of the song's variation on the female rap trio's signature riff. "Actually, even I forgot about that reference. But when we were making it, that was definitely a nod to them."
The Solillaquists get even more retro on "New Sheriff in Town." At a time when Auto-Tuned vocals dominate the pop landscape — so much so that Jay-Z all but pleaded for their demise in his recent "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" — the group has resurrected an all-but-forgotten device known as the talk box.
Initially popularized by Stevie Wonder, Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh, the notorious contraption reached its sonic apex when Roger Troutman explored its robotic capabilities on Zapp's mid-'80s hit, "Computer Love," and, a decade later, as guest vocalist on Tupac's "California Love." There's even something of a revival going on as artists build their own "ghetto talk boxes" out of everything from salvaged audio equipment to repurposed toilet plungers.
"Mine is literally just the horn of a PA speaker, and what I did was to shove some plumbing fixtures into the top of it," explains DiViNCi. "Then you put a tube into it, which goes in your mouth. You don't actually use your voice — you use your mouth to enunciate and shape the sounds, to sort of approximate words. And then there's that whole thing of holding the saliva back ..."
Out of the shadows
A consummate beatmaster who also serves as the group's producer, DiViNCI enjoys a friendship with his three cohorts — Swamburger, Alexandrah and Tonya Combs — that goes back the better part of a decade.
"Swam owns a local consignment and art shop downtown, and even before we started Solillaquists, we were having meetings there every Sunday to talk about ways that we could unify the culture of Orlando and get more things happening."
While Florida has a checkered hip-hop history — from the Miami Bass instincts of Luther Campbell to the rap feuds and rap sheet of former prison guard Rick Ross — it's not exactly known as a mecca for conscious rap. And when it comes to the hip-hop map, Orlando is pretty much missing in action.
"We've tried to devise ways that we could just show people coming through Orlando — as well as Orlando itself — that there's a lot more here than just a transient place for tourists," says DiViNCi, who's lived in the shadow of Disney World for more than 10 years without making the pilgrimage. "I don't have to travel anywhere outside of here to find the most amazing genius musicians that I would need to work with."
Actually, the title No More Heroes is something of a misnomer, since legacies can take on a life of their own. In "Death of the Muse," the group pays tribute to the late J Dilla, the Detroit artist and producer whose innovations have influenced a generation of hip-hop musicians. All proceeds from the single (available as a download for a donation of $2 or more) are going to Dilla's mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, whose voice appears in the song's intro.
"With the medical bills from the last years of his life in the hospital, she had a ridiculous amount of debt and still does," says DiViNCi, who describes Yancey's son as "a producer's producer who, at the same time, was an everyman's producer."
"It seems like he inspired more than half of what's out there now, especially early on with De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde stuff. He did some really complex things and made it sound simple. And that's really analogous to the way I view this second record. So throughout the album, there's a lot of nods to people that inspired us, that we looked up to, that paved the way for everybody."