Hands Down became recognized nationally in hip-hop circles with their 2007 release Art of Life. But for a decade prior to its release, the duo of ChaRon Don and DJ Huggy were active participants in the Pittsburgh hip-hop scene. Both members graduated from Schenley High School and have continued to build and develop as music artists since.
First of all, the album title, Mental Combustion. Who came up with it and why did you believe that it was fitting for the sound that you were creating at the time?
ChaRon Don: Mental Combustion was a title that I had chosen mainly for its sounding and visual association. The album was created while Huggy and I were both in high school, in an era where lyricism was at its height. Being fans of artists like Big L, Big Pun, Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, Canibus, etc., bigger and more complex words and ideas were being used and therefore helped with the creation of the album title. Back in those days I was working at Carnegie Library in Oakland and I can remember coming across a book from a horror film, which was produced out of Carnegie Mellon University, and in one of the pages sat the visual of the backdrop to the album. What could grab your attention more than a picture of someone’s whole head and face exploding? … We had to use it!
DJ Huggy: During the album making process, I usually let Charon take care of all the little things like naming songs, picking the album art work, and ultimately choosing the album title. Of course I give my input, but I tend to let him work those things out. Even though I am a part of the group, I still prefer to approach the process as a producer, whose job is to create, shape, and mold any vision an artist has into music.
How did your decision to form a group with just the two of you allow for the freedom to experiment with different concepts and ideas?
DJ Huggy: Well, naturally the less heads you have at the table, the easier decision making should be. We all know and have heard of different groups in the hip-hop world who broke up due to “creative differences,” which really means they couldn’t agree on something, usually money! (Laughs…) However, the earlier and longer you begin to work with some one, a natural rhythm, if you will, begins to develop. You learn his strengths and weaknesses, he learns yours. You feed off of his energy and he feeds off of yours. And if your lucky, that magic that everyone is trying to create will be there!
Charon Don: Huggy and I have always enjoyed one another’s opinions and talents, even before we were a group, so it really didn’t change once we started to build on our group works and efforts. We have always represented, solo and together, so once two people know how one another gets down it becomes natural, easy, and fun to add on… I’ll pick up where he left off, just in a lyrical way, and he does the same in a productive, producing way. (Laughs…) We’ve been in two to three other groups, both before and after Hands Down, so our history and experience made things very comfortable.
Can you explain the challenges and rewards that came with releasing the album independently in 2001?
Charon Don: To be honest, there were more rewards than challenges with the release. Because we were gaining more and more notoriety, mainly within the city, the love was the fuel that kept us doing more shows and recordings. Back then the hip-hop scene was a lot more close and active with more breakers, deejays, emcees, and writers. The culture was in full effect and everyone was supporting each other in some way. The love was sincere, and inspiring, and literally bred a sense of worth to what we represented musically. Through hard work and dedication to the music we created, many people would give their ear, constructive criticisms, and motivational words to us. People like Strict Flow, DJ Rampage, Lone Catalysts, Dashon, RXC, Adam Smith from Underground HipHop Magazine, etc. put us under their wings and watched us learn how to take the winds on our own.
DJ Huggy: This was our first project in which we had some experience, some resources, and representation. This was our true introduction into the world of hip-hop, for better or for worse. Releasing this album independently was a blessing. It gave us creative control and it provided us with some insight into what it would take to self release a project. Just like with anything in life, if you have someone do something for you all of the time, you’ll never learn how to do it yourself. You’ll never learn what’s involved in the whole process, and honestly you probably won’t appreciate the journey as well. In 2001, major labels played a bigger role in the music industry than they do now. To release an album independently, you were competing against an opponent who had unlimited resources. We had a $1,000 promotional budget. They had a $1,000,000 promotional budget. Do the math! Who do you think was gonna get more exposure? Which project do you think would be pushed more in the stores? As an independent artist, your best and sometimes only weapon was to have better music. And I think that’s what we tried to do!
Charon Don: Moe, who was and remains one of the most influential promoters Pittsburgh has seen, financially fronted us the money and helped us get more shows in and outside the state. Others expressed their love through deed and action, like B-Bonics from Kiss FM. B-Bonics(now known as Bonics), while spinning a house party, put me down with a friend of his who was running an independent label in Philly, and from there I knew how much some people were looking out for us in and outside of the city. On a tour alongside two other national Pittsburgh acts, Strict Flow and Deadly Scribes, we met up with GoodHands Records and would soon ink a deal with them for the follow up album, Art of Life. Still, while the misconceptions of what we represented and stood for were present, it was miniscule to the rewards. Because I was battling and had that type of style, many emcees, younger and older, of the Pittsburgh scene adopted hateful opinions about me and the music. Although I heard much of who and what was being said, I truly was too focused and aware of what was more important to our goal to be discouraged and/or intimidated. Plus, I was ready to take peoples heads off lyrically, so I felt if it’s a test of talents I could stand my own! I give thanks to the creator for the haters and lovers, they both have the exact same purpose, both are motivations.
When the album was released, what was your marketing plan and distribution strategy?
Charon Don: To perform and record more than we had been. Push harder, run faster. Observe change.
DJ Huggy: Stealing a little from my previous answer, our strategy was to work hard, spread the word, be everywhere all of the time, and hope that because we had the better music, we would shine through. I won’t go into all the specifics but there are basic promotional guidelines that you should do when releasing any project. Interviews, radio, tours, in-stores, etc. Yeah, we did all of them and then some! For example, I remember getting up with Charon and like five other people around 3 a.m. the day of the release. We had about 1,000 posters and we planned on tagging up the whole city. We split into groups and we hit every neighborhood. We put them on store fronts, cars, telephone poles, buses, bus stations, houses, apartment buildings, restaurants, etc. Anywhere we could stick them, they were there!
How do you believe an artist can use their past work for progression in the present and future?
Charon Don: As a means of encouragement and point of reference. If you have examples of the past you can always know where not to go back, not that anything of the past is negative, but one must always mature into the next cycle. The act of reflection is powerful and that album is an expression of a lot of what I knew and didn’t know, therefore its purpose is and always will be very much needed.
DJ Huggy: It gives you a foundation. It gives you a resume. It’s something that you can use and say look at what I’ve already done. Look at my history. I didn’t just jump off the porch, I’m rooted in this shit! I got experience, I got knowledge, I got respect! I live this! “Now please buy my new shit, it’s only $6.99!” (Laughs…)
The next evolution of Hands Down will be heard on the upcoming album, Thee Official. Check for the release on Good Hands Records, due out within the next couple months.
01. The Church Sermon (feat. Soul Dean)
02. Raw Passion
03. Streets is Watchin
04. Penny Candy
05. Brotha's & Sista's
06. Hype to Def (feat. Dashon)
07. Infinite Measures
08. Linguistic Terrorism (feat. Ron Noodles)
09. I Love You (feat. Renassaince)
10. Say Grace (feat. Rashad)
11. The Young & The Wreckless (feat. Nabri Savior & Sha-King)
12. U Count (feat. Don Juan & Ill Gill)
13. When Cries Lose Tears (feat. Zay-Zay)
14. Ms. Barbie (feat. Justuce & Soul Dean)
15. Street Journal (feat. Mr. Story)
16. Enough is Enough (feat. Caleesh & Will)
17. I Grabbed the Mic [And Asked the Crowd]
18. Mental Combustion (feat. T-Diddy)
For more information on the Pittsburgh hip-hop scene of the past, present, and future, visit the Stilltown blog. Stay tuned to Philaflava for more classics coming soon.
-Stilltown * tHe WebdsLinGah