M.E.P and `Paint Factory': a perfect match

May 13, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

About 10 years ago, the desire to craft beats and rhymes brought together high school friends Derrick "Panama" Beasley, James "Japiro" Nealy and Ezekiel "Prophet" Givens. Since then, the three, collectively known today as M.E.P (Making Everything Possible), have worked tirelessly to establish themselves as a musically daring hip-hop unit in Baltimore and beyond.

Now, after nearly a decade of making independent singles and regularly performing in talent showcases and small clubs around the city and in Philadelphia, M.E.P has received a major jolt in its fledgling career. The unassuming trio will appear in Paint Factory, an ambitious hip-hop symphony by acclaimed Washington composer Darin Atwater, making its premiere Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda with a repeat performance on Saturday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"This is what we usually do, but on a bigger scale," says Beasley, 26. "We usually have background singers with a band. We've sampled classical music and rapped over that. This is like our style, magnified by 20."

The production of Paint Factory is much more epic in scope than your average hip-hop show. In addition to M.E.P, it features the 75-member Soulful Symphony and the dance company Soul Movement. Atwater's purpose for Paint Factory - to explore through 14 metaphorical movements the redeeming and uplifting aesthetics of hip-hop - matches M.E.P's artistic mission.

"What Mr. Atwater is doing with the Soulful Symphony and Paint Factory is pretty much what we do already - blending all kinds of music with hip-hop, live music and putting out a positive message," says Givens, 25.

Atwater says the rappers' fluid, witty lyrical chemistry is perfect for the production.

"I was immediately impressed by how their lyrics have such a melodic contour," Atwater says. "They remind me a lot of jazz musicians, highly flexible and extremely sensitive to the nuances and changes in the music."

The guys of M.E.P have doggedly worked the limited club circuit in and around Baltimore, becoming regulars at the city's Eden's Lounge and Organic Soul Tuesdays at Saratoga Lounge. In between gigs and their day jobs, they squeeze in time to record music, posting songs on the group's MySpace page.

"Our music comes from the ground up," Nealy says. "We don't do what the mainstream does. We just don't want to."

Met in high school

On a recent, sun-bathed evening, the members of M.E.P sit in low, comfy chairs around a small table. They relax in an empty upstairs lounge at the Meyerhoff, where rehearsals for Paint Factory will convene in another day or two. There's an easy, brotherly vibe among the three as they complete each other's sentences and lightly chuckle at in-jokes.

Each hails from a different part of Baltimore: Beasley, the soft-spoken one with large, childlike eyes, grew up in Edgewood; Nealy, the serious, clean-cut member dressed in dark slacks and a crisp white dress shirt, is from Cedonia; and Givens, the gregarious cat with shoulder-dusting dreadlocks and a penchant for stylish hats, comes from Irvington. They met as Baltimore City College students, where, between classes, they developed their skills in various rap ciphers - competitive, impromptu performance circles. Initially, Nealy and Beasley formed a duo called The Regime. Soon afterward, Givens was included and M.E.P was born. The threesome's dedication to making it as a rap group was fierce. "Our plan was to graduate high school on June 5 and have a record deal by June 7," Nealy says.

"Uh, yeah, and that didn't happen," Givens adds, and the three crack up.

In lieu of chasing fame, the friends went to college. Nealy and Givens attended Morgan State University; Beasley went to Coppin State. Around this time, their passion for hip-hop and making a name for themselves deepened. Sometimes cutting classes, the guys would travel to Philadelphia to perform at the Five Spot, the club where Philly natives and platinum-selling neo-soul artists Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild cut their teeth. In Baltimore, M.E.P became a staple at the 5 Seasons and Organic Soul Tuesdays at Saratoga Lounge. Meanwhile, the group independently produced and recorded music, selling copies at shows.

Paying the price

But not all of the members were able to balance school with performing. Beasley and Givens dropped out and found "real jobs" as a medical records clerk and a longshoreman, respectively. Nealy earned a degree in public relations and works in human resources. All three still hold down their 9-to-5s by day and perform and record by night. The trio has maintained this routine since 1999 - and still no big break.

"It's hard to make it," Nealy says with a sigh, leaning back in his chair. "For the last 10 years, we went from making tapes to CDs to demos that [we] shop around. As far as having a manager stick with you, it's hard. You just got to be persistent and stay grounded. But it hasn't been easy."

Givens speaks up. "We've lost relationships, lost jobs, all for this drive for music."

So when the guys were presented with the opportunity to work with Atwater in Paint Factory, they jumped at it. About two months ago, Jarrett Miles, who oversees the open mike program at Eden's Lounge, told the composer about the group. Atwater asked the guys to contribute lyrics to the "Orange" movement, the part of Paint Factory that addresses passion in hip-hop culture - something Beasley, Nealy and Givens know all too well.

"There's a deeper purpose here to what we do," Givens says. "What has driven us is that this music, this culture for us is a movement. We still have hope. Our time will come soon."

As if on cue, all three nod their heads in agreement.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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