At first glance, Adam Levin, Andrew Thomas and Tobi Adeoye appear to be average UW-Madison undergrads. Laughing about dorm life, undecided about their majors, they're notably humble and self-effacing. But unlike many of they're peers, they're not viewing graduation as a gateway to the day-to-day grind of the real world.
"My first year out of college, I want to do a year of shows," says Adeoye, known on stage as Kid Quo. "I want to stretch the music thing, and work with kids and teach them how to express themselves through music."
Adeoye, who began writing rhymes three years ago in his hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, is a budding hip-hop emcee, just like Levin and Thomas. They're all part of UW-Madison's First Wave Spoken Word and Urban Arts Learning Community, a prestigious program that sought each of them out upon acceptance to the university.
"The program is the best thing that's happened to me," Levin, also known as Defcee, says. "We [First Wave] embrace hip-hop culture as a whole."
With its roots firmly planted in the urban experience, First Wave is a group of talented students recruited to tell their stories in unique ways, be it through poetry, song, dance or graphic art.
"We're talking about diverse," says First Wave Artistic Director Chris Walker, describing the makeup of First Wave in an Isthmus interview in January. "White, Black, Hispanic, Asian... Jewish on one side and Catholic on the other."
Adeoye, Thomas and Levin view First Wave as not only an opportunity to take part in that unique learning experience, but to help power their music careers. It's a support network, of sorts, made up of other students who encourage their peers to take artistic risks. Aware of the challenges to hip-hop's growth in Madison, they are intent on helping to cultivate the scene.
"It's important to take this seriously," Adeoye says. "I know hip-hop is frowned upon here, and we need to get those people to book us."
Promoting their events and albums with fliers and social networking are just some of the ways in which they get the word out, and the return on this investment has been gratifying.
"People you don't know approach you and say 'good job,'" Levin says. "When people like your shit, they really like it."
In January, Defcee, Phonetic ONE and Kid Quo performed as part The Leak, a hip-hop show in the Memorial Union's Rathskeller. With only a few days to promote the event, it was clear by the crowd that they have developed a loyal following. As the performers warmed up on stage, groups of students gathered, greeting friends and sharing new dance moves. As soon as the show began, the audience pushed the chairs aside, and rushed the stage screaming "Defcee!"
While they are quick to cite the "shady" business side of the music industry, all three plan to extend their hip-hop involvement beyond their college years.
"I want to be a teacher, and if music happens, great," Levin says. "But whenever I've been forced to choose between art and something else, art ends up being my main focus."
Phonetic ONE released his new five-track EP on January 22, while Kid Quo released a free six-track preview of his full album, due this fall. Collaborating with Baltimore producer Black Sunn, Milwaukee producer Klassik and CeeSik, Defcee will release a solo album this summer.
Despite the challenges, these artists are confident that First Wave, The Leak nor their first albums will be the last we hear of Phonetic ONE, Defcee and Kid Quo.
Preview Phonetic ONE's album, Phonetic Phenom EP, at www.myspace.com/phoneticonemusic
Preview Kid Quo's album, eQUOnomy EP, at www.myspace.com/kidquo
Listen to Defcee's rhymes at www.myspace.com/defcee