Geography. It’s a lesson that comes up more in hip hop music than any other popular genre in America, and there may not even be a close second sound in that regard. Think of Jay-Z’s “Where I’m From” in 1997. Think of Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d City” in 2012. Think of the endless stacks of rap songs written from and about where the recording artist calls home. Today, it’s hard to not slice hip hop music by geography and region accordingly to get a sense of what we should expect before pressing play. It’s the course that most obsessively classifies the intimidating waters of rap music. Whether UK Grime music requires British MCs with British accents is completely off-topic, but it may be a story for another day.
In bigger cities with more bustle and with more social velocity, there’s less time to sit back and observe. I once thought that the autobiography of someone living in a large metropolis would be much thicker than that of someone living off the grid in a rural countryside. SugaKane and Pistola of the Topeka-rooted label, Underworld Music Group, have embarked on writing their own history, but not without an uphill climb.
“People say there’s a black cloud over our city,” rap artist, SugaKane dished one night from inside an apartment in Topeka, KS. “That’s what the out-of-towners say, or people who aren’t from here. I don’t know what it is. There’s positive people here, too.”
Topeka, also known as “The Top” or “Top City,” is the Kansas state capitol and lies 65 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri. From the outside looking in, Topeka does not seem to have much in the way of a tourism industry. Then again, until recently, Kansas City wasn’t attracting a ton of tourists either. Several years ago, after my curiosity was sparked toward Topeka’s underground rap scene, someone once told me that “they will watch you” in Topeka. Topeka natives can probably smell an out-of-towner by the time their vehicle exits I-70.
SugaKane and his partner with Underworld Music Group, Pistola, are both Topeka natives and have known each other for 15-plus years. Today, they have their sights set high with their Underworld Music Group label and SugaKane already has song placements on ESPN, ShowTime, and other networks with the help of a company in California.
The ferocious hip hop funk that erupts from SugaKane’s should-be hit “My Smoke” alongside rapper First from the duo 1020, evokes imagery of smog, sticky green, and palm trees more so than it does the overlooked plains of Kansas. It’s dripping with a Cali-obsessed, G-funk aesthetic. SugaKane lived in Pomona, CA for several years before relocating back home to Topeka, while Pistola admitted that he has never been outside of Topeka except for getting out of town for days at a time.
Pistola’s “Dirt Broke Filthy Rich” mixtape from 2014 turned heads and perked ears to his Top-City-raised gritter music and included one track, “My Plug,” flipping Aaliyah’s ‘90s R&B hit “One In A Million” into a bold-faced trap anthem. “I ain’t trying to be on TV or none of that, I’m cool with all of that industry shit. If I can move 20,000 units guaranteed, I’m cool,” he dreamt aloud. Making a living, breathing business out of Underworld Music Group is his goal right now and a distribution deal for Underworld is a high priority. Pistola’s “I Am The Game” album should be on its way soon, and SugaKane’s “Small City, Big Dreams” LP is set for release in early 2016.
Can these two Top-City guys get air under the wings of Underworld Music Group while staying home? “I love Topeka, don’t get me wrong,” SugaKane started. “But I can’t lie. I want to go back to California. For us to move our whole team there would be a hassle. I just know that if we were on the West Coast for at least a year, [the label] would take off. But I’m all for building a house where you’re at, because Topeka doesn’t have anything, and it deserves to have something. I’m with Topeka and LA, either or, but I feel like we should branch. I know our music is bigger than where it’s from.”
In recent years, hip hop culture has proven that New York is not the toughest place to make it in. Truth be told, a lot of music industry dreamers merely move to New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles because of the opportunities that are already in place. In those cities, it’s probably easier to give your hard copy CD to someone with a more fleshed-out dream and a sharper vision than your own, although that can create its own set of problems.
Time will tell what unfolds for SugaKane and Pistola’s Underworld Music Group label, but those ever-observant Midwestern eyes of Topeka and Kansas City will be peeled back, watching SugaKane and Pistola the whole time. Healing smaller urban cores of “second-city syndrome” is not an overnight job, but there’s a long, storied line of Midwest-born musicians who’ve relocated to jump-start their mission. SugaKane and Pistola might just become a part of that history soon enough.