Making a scene 

Jimi Nasset and Elliot Blair, aka Shovel, drop a debut

Local Jimi Nasset, aka MC James Two, had never seen The Other Side packed as early as it was March 24. The crowd was there for popular Quannum Projects rapper Lyrics Born, and Nasset was slated to do a set just before the main attraction. Missoula-bred hip-hop artists typically get, at best, modestly populated, mildly interested crowds for their opening sets and solo shows, but Nasset—who also does promotion through the increasingly successful six-year-old hip-hop company Hungis Productions—took the stage to not only a full house, but to the full, head-bobbing attention of the sold-out room.

“They were screaming like we were The Beatles coming to Japan for the first time,” says Nasset, who performed with Spokane-based MC Locke. “They were singing along to some of the songs, dancing, we got so much love. We even had some drunk girls come up to us afterward saying we were better than Lyrics Born. That’s crazy, and they’re full of shit, but that’s the nicest thing to hear. We had fans there, but I think we also surprised a lot of people.”

The Lyrics Born show is indicative of two parallel tracks in local hip-hop: the continued rise in popularity of the underground scene, which consistently attracts nationally touring acts and regularly sells out, in large part because of the work of Hungis; and Nasset’s personal trajectory as an MC, elevating from fledgling local punk with a mic to an emerging Northwest underground draw.

Nasset’s ascension continues Saturday, April 15, with a release party at The Other Side marking his debut CD, a collaboration with local producer Elliot Blair, aka Elliot B., under the joint handle Shovel.

“Everybody always says, ‘You’re a rapper? You’re from Montana?’ There’s a built-in stereotype that it doesn’t fit,” says Nasset. “But to get respect as a rapper is a different story. Once they see it, they get it. Talent speaks for itself. We’ll see what happens when things go to a more national level, which is what I think is about to happen with this CD release, the tour and recording with more respected, established hip-hop artists.”

Shovel’s 16-track eponymous release features Blair’s eclectic beats—populated with loops ranging from vintage funk-heavy bass riffs to new-agey ethereal ambiance—and Nasset’s flexible lyrical style, which encompasses everything from rapid double-timed verses to ’60s pop harmonies. The album also features established guest artists 2mex from Los Angeles-based collective Project Blowed, Sleep of Seattle’s Oldominion crew and Josh Martinez from The Chicharones, each of whom contributed after developing a relationship with Nasset through Hungis. But the bulk of the album rests on the shoulders of Nasset and Blair.

“It was easy to work together because I really respected the music he was into—we’re both drawn to the same styles,” says Blair, who moved from Eugene, Ore., two years ago and has previously recorded six CDs composed exclusively of his own beats. “A lot of MCs are mad picky assholes, just real assholes to work with. Jimi’s not that. He’s really into the funky, soulful stuff, and when he heard a few of my beats—some of the more melodic, old-time stuff—we clicked right away.”

Nasset was among the first people Blair met when he moved to Missoula and the two began collaborating immediately. To make the album, however, they had to split up. Whereas Blair was just starting to establish himself locally, Nasset was stretched thin across different local responsibilities and needed to escape to concentrate on finally recording his own material. Armed with Blair’s beats, Nasset took a leave from his job at Rockin Rudy’s, quit side jobs doing construction and working at the Staggering Ox, let other Hungis founders take over booking shows, passed his position as KBGA’s hip-hop director on to Blair, and moved to Spokane to write and record.

“I’ve been in Missoula for—well, forever,” says Nasset, born and raised here. “Even though it’s Spokane, I figured it was a good way to focus, really knock it out, or else I was never going to get it done. I went out there and didn’t work at all this summer—all I did was sit around the house, drink a whole lot of PBR, eat barbecue twice a day and write songs.”

The result of his sabbatical is a refined album that spans all of Nasset’s influences. The opening track, set to one of two beats by Blair that contain samples from Celtic mystic chick Loreena McKennitt (Blair pulled the cuts from his girlfriend’s CD), chronicles how Nasset and Blair met. “Point to Prove,” featuring 2mex and Sleep, sets up Nasset’s challenges as a Montana rapper trying to attain the same level of recognition as his guest artists, and “Hands Up” hints at Nasset’s experiences opening for national acts over the years. And then there’s “Elephant Graveyard,” wherein Nasset breaks from his usual lyrical style at the end of the track to offer Beach Boy-esque harmonies.

“That’s my dad’s influence on me, for sure, as far as using my voice to do more than just talk fast,” says Nasset, referring to father Russ, the local stalwart who regularly plays rockabilly with his band The Revelators, or solo folk shows around town. “A lot of my stuff is influenced by him and I talk a lot about the way we grew up—how much of an influence he was on me—because that’s who I am, and that’s going to come through in the music.”

Nasset, however, has created his own niche in the local music community over the last 10 years.

“I go back sometimes and listen to my old live shows and they’re just awful, but back then you could be awful and get away with it because no one else was really rapping in town,” says Nasset. “I still don’t think I’m that great. I listen to nothing but hip-hop so I’d like to think I have a pretty high standard of what’s good. With me, it’s a matter of practice, rehearsal and confidence. I have to keep working at it; I’m not where I could be eventually if I keep at it.”

His personal approach is the same he hopes to apply to the local hip-hop scene.

“Missoula doesn’t have to be a jam-band town or a bluegrass town,” Nasset says. “It can have a thriving underground hip-hop scene. And the more the kids go to shows and the more they practice and the more they play, Missoula will have plenty of good rappers as opposed to, like, three. If we keep working at it, it won’t be strange to talk about hip-hop in Montana.”

Shovel plays a CD release show Saturday, April 15, at The Other Side. Sentence, Locke, Input and Elephant Switchblade also perform. Doors open at 9, show at 10 PM. $5.

arts@missoulanews.com

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