Rob Dz, who appears Tuesday night at the King Club as part of the Madison Music Project Charter Club Tour, has always received a strong reception in Madison. That's likely due to his charismatic stage presence as well as the positive message heard in his rhymes. The following is a profile of Dz from April, 2005, by Isthmus staff writer Tom Laskin.
It's a freakish 80 degrees outside and even hotter inside Madison Sound Studios, a small recording and practice facility on the south side. But the seven-member Rob Dz Experience don't show any sign of wilting in the early spring heat. A week after opening for Talib Kweli at the sold-out Orpheum Theatre, rapper Dz and company are getting ready for another prime support date with Afroman at Luther's Blues on Saturday, April 30, and everyone is intent on bringing together a seamless opening set.
Judging from the enthusiasm of friends and area kids who drop in at the studio, nod their heads to the live funky beats and filter back out into the hot night, they're already hitting it pretty hard. As the evening wears on, drummer Joey B. Banks adjusts a segue from a Roots-inspired intro, and honey-voiced background singers Marcus Fleming and Toya Robinson polish up the vocal arrangement of "Keep It Goin'," but the band rarely lose the groove as they roll through songs that touch on the work of Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire and a half-dozen other giants of jazz, funk and soul.
Dz (a.k.a. Rob Franklin) and his raspy rhymes have been known quantities in the small world of Madison hip-hop since the late '90s. He's worked with the local Regime label, releasing music on its compilation CD Land in Between Vol. 2, and he's appeared in area clubs, rapping over recorded tracks. But he thinks the Experience's upbeat, Christian-friendly vibe could be a ticket to something bigger. Already in hip-hop-starved Madison, the response has been very strong, and Dz counts that as a good sign.
"With the black eye that hip-hop's been given in Madison, people who have been coming to our shows just seem to appreciate it more," he says, stroking the short, V-shaped beard that frames his face. "And they're having a good time. Hopefully this goes as far as God leads us. I'm not trying to go platinum; I'm just trying to get it to go as far as God intends it to go."
With the exception of recent addition Robinson, the live version of the Experience has been together about six months. But that timeline's a little deceiving, since Dz has spent the better part of three years recording an album with local producer and jazz drummer about town Rick Flowers, who plays keyboards with the band and serves as its music director. Those sessions have included everyone from Joy Dragland to Clyde Stubblefield and will form the basis of an album Dz plans to release in the near future.
They also convinced both Dz and Flowers that they should load up the live band they were forming with longtime pros. As a result, much of the Experience's membership reads like a who's who of Madison music. For example, Banks (who's also promoting the Afroman show), bassist Bruce Alford and guitarist Robert Bryan form the core of the popular blues band Black N' Blues.
It's no secret that established music-industry wisdom says young faces and taut, barely post-adolescent bodies are what sell hip-hop hits, but Flowers doesn't believe it. As far as he's concerned, it's important that music do the talking first -- especially for a hip-hop act that prides itself on playing everything live.
"We've got these older, seasoned musicians adding to the music," he says, explaining the band's jazzy, soul-brushed approach. "We have very good players doing music in the hip-hop category but using jazz and soul -- their influences. They're simplified, of course, but they're done with precision. And we can do that with these players."
Not that professionalism guarantees success. As Banks soberly puts it during a break, "We want to be looked at as more of a regional and national act. You have to have a product, and the music has to be good, but it's something you have to sell. That's the hardest part: getting the music in front of the right people."
Ultimately, whether the right people in the business hear the Rob Dz Experience will be left up to God and luck. Right now they're gelling, and their strong grooves are adding to the small, active scene of local live hip-hop populated by groups like Dumate, Know Boundaries and Adem Tesfaye and the Soul Rap Movement. Dz doesn't know if the band's part of any specific movement, but he's hoping they can turn even more heads with rhymes, beats and music that adds something to the community.
"I think we're all out here for the future," he says slowly, measuring each word. "You want everyone to dance, but you want to say the right things. We don't want to be calling everyone bitches and hos."