Detroit rappers aim to cast a new vision of the Motor City

CorrespondentJune 21, 2012 

Passalacqua

COURTESY OF TONY KATAI

  • More information Who: Passalacqua When: 9 p.m. Monday Where: The Pour House Music Hall, 224 S. Blount St., Raleigh Cost: $5 Details: 919-821-1120; www.the-pour-house.com

For all those youngsters out there who go to school and feel they are outsiders, drifting from class to class and not making an impact on anyone’s life: You can inspire people.

Heck, you may even inspire a rap group.

That’s the story behind Passalacqua, the Detroit hip-hop duo consisting of Rochester, Mich.-born partners Bryan Lackner (“Mister”) and Brent Smith (“Blaksmith”).

They’ve known each other since they were in middle school.

“When we had one class together, when we were kids, it was a biology class – a sixth-grade science class,” says Lackner, on the phone from his place in Royal Oak.

“And one of the kids in the classroom, his name was Don Passalacqua – kind of like an outcast kid, weird-looking, not a lot of people talked to him.

“And so we knew how memorable his name was, just based on, you know, being in class with this guy. So, we just liked the name and it kind of stuck.”

Technically, Passalacqua formed a year and a half ago, with Lackner, 26, asking his old classmate Smith, 25, if he wanted to join forces, since they were both struggling MCs in the Detroit hip-hop scene.

In the brief time they’ve been together, they’ve become known for spitting droll, dizzying rhymes over the funkiest of beats.

Evidence can be found in their self-titled EP and their full-length debut, titled “Zebehazy Summer.” (They snagged “Zebehazy” from another former classmate.)

They’ve also been performing not just in “the D,” but anyplace that’ll have them. This isn’t their first appearance in the Tar Heel state; on Labor Day Weekend, they played the Getdown Music Festival in Mebane.

As with any up-and-coming musical outfit, the boys have found they’ve had to soothe some fickle audience members’ minds whenever they show up in another town to perform.

“We get to the point where people say, ‘Well, what do you do?’ or ‘What kind of music do you make?’ ” says Smith.

“Hip-hop and rap has such a bad association by name, we have to kind of reinvent what we do.”

One way Passalacqua is setting itself apart is by incorporating props into performances.

“We call it prop-hop,” says Smith, “because in our set, we incorporate a lot of masks and confetti. So, when you kind of tell people, ‘Oh, we call it prop-hop’ – or you can even throw, like, ‘eclectic’ in front of ‘hip-hop’ – people tend to prefer that over rap.”

With their flair for the theatrical, would it be safe to call Passalacqua the Flaming Lips of hip-hop?

“One of these days, it would be nice to reach that level,” says Lackner.

“We have limited funds, but we try to do as much as we can just with what we have, you know.”

While Passalacqua’s style of hip-hop may be perceived by purists as gimmickry, Lackner insists he and Smith are simply putting on an attention-grabbing, certain-to-entertain hip-hop show.

“A lot of – at least with those around here – rap shows, they don’t put too much effort into the performance,” says Lackner.

“And for me, that’s a big thing. I mean, you’re performing for people – whether they paid or not, you should really give them as entertaining, as live of a show, as you possibly can.

“Just more and more, you’ll go to shows and you’ll see just people on their phone or just not even paying attention. We want to redeem that attention, so we try to make it entertaining from beginning to end.”

Not only do these guys have a strong desire to be entertaining, they also want to show their beleaguered home territory in an upbeat light.

Sure, Detroit has problems. But it is also the town that gave us Motown, MC5, the White Stripes, Detroit techno music and, in the case of hip-hop, the ever-influential Eminem and the late J Dilla.

Much like that weird-looking kid who made an impression on them years ago, Passalacqua wants to make an impression on audiences and give them another view of where they came from.

“There’s so much going on in this metropolis Detroit area, that I think Bryan and I kind of want to shed light on that,” says Smith.

“So we tend to really try to find the gems in the city or in the area that people just aren’t really accustomed to. Now, whether that’s collaborating with different artists or performing at different venues, we’re all like [to audiences], re-imagining this culture that Detroit kind of has gotten labeled for.”

“We want to just be a different representation of Detroit hip-hop,” says Lackner.

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