Sapient and Ethic (Debaser)

Debaser: Touching Base with the Peerless Duo

Sapient — one of the most prolific MCs/producers in the game right now — and Ethic — the lesser-known business strategist and MC — both of the ginormous Portland posse, Sandpeople, prefer to be known as Debaser when working collaboratively.

Their sophomore album, Peerless, dropped early in May, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed Crown Control. The duo got up with aboveGround Magazine about the album, where their crew fits in, and how they handle those extra-special groupies that try to score a grand slam with all of the Sandpeople.


AG: The album title, Peerless, you said in an interview that it means exactly what it seems; essentially that you don’t even consider other rappers as peers because they aren’t on the same level as Debaser. Well, let’s play devil’s advocate, I’ve got to assume that there are at least a handful of cats out there that y’all consider Peers. Who do you guys consider to be doing hip-hop at a really high level right now?

Sapient: I know there has to be a lot of cats out there who might be killing it on the “rap” tip but are unheard of, and there are definitely a lot of cats out there who are killing it at the “business” tip, but I feel like it’s rare to see both in action. I think it’s easier to identify some of the business savvy rappers by the lack of skill but the abundance of buzz… but to answer the question – some dudes that I think are real dope at rapping right now are Emilio Rojas, Copywrite, Royce and Crooked I, Phonte, Guilty Simpson and my boys from SP Illmaculate and Onlyone, to name a few.

AG: For guest features, you guys had two MCs that put out some music with a very different sound last year (Eyedea and Cage), which caught a lot of people off guard. How did you guys feel about the whole situation with them changing sounds and people’s reactions?

Ethic: I wasn’t really aware that there was a big reaction by their fan-base.  I get that though.  Both sides, really.  As an artist, you want to be progressive and make music that you feel.  Sometimes fans that have been supportive of an artist from the beginning, or from very early on, can feel an attachment to not just the artist themselves, but their sound as well.  They get used to being in a certain mind-state when listening to that artist’s music and I guess almost feel a sense of betrayal if that is taken from them. We feel like with Peerless that we’re keeping it moving and improving our sound, but there have been plenty of fans that feel like we did Crown Control a disservice by changing it up the way we did.  It’s almost like when you make music that will appeal to a new audience (even if subtle) that there is a trade-off where you lose some of the folks that were there from the beginning.

AG: You mentioned that sense of attachment, which I think is pretty much what’s at the root of this kind of thing. People growing attached to you as an artist. Is it flattering for you as an artist to know that people care so much about your music that they don’t want you to change?

Ethic: Yeah.  I think that it would be stupid not to appreciate it when someone feels an attachment to us as artists.  Even if we might feel like what we’re doing now is superior to our older material.

AG: Apparently Eyedea even had death threats from a fan who was so upset about his “new sound”.

Sapient: That wasn’t actually a fan, that was Ethic… he hadn’t even heard the new E&A album, he was just feeling particularly “death threaty” that day.

Ethic: I wasn’t actually feeling all that “death threaty” that particular day.  I think my blood-sugar level was just low.

AG: In terms of the whole Sandpeople collective on a local level, put the group into context for us as to what role they play in Portland. Where do they fit in?

Ethic: I think that Sandpeople plays a varied role in the Portland hip-hop scene.  In terms of us being a bigger crew, we’ve sort of maintained a path paved by Oldominion in the Northwest.  I feel like when we started really pushing the crew as a movement that we brought an energy to the local scene that had been lacking for awhile.  We were embraced favorably by the local media and were able to span genres in terms of fans and the shows we were doing.  I think we brought a spotlight back to the idea of Portland-based hip-hop in the local community.

There were plenty of nationally recognized hip-hop artists located in Portland, but Sandpeople had a spark that wasn’t easy to come by in a town dominated by indie rock.  It also helped that Illmaculate was crushing egos and winning world rap championships back-to-back.  That is something that the city was proud of and gave us a different angle.  People were excited by Illmac’s success.

AG: Yeah that’s a good point, I don’t think a lot of people realize that you guys came in on this huge level of success with Illmaculate snatching national spotlights everywhere. How has working with a guy like that — I mean, literally, the best rapper in the world, according to his resume — shaped the way you do things?

Ethic: Illmaculate being in the crew is definitely a good look for us – no doubt.  As far as how it has shaped how I do things. I suppose having him as a part of Sandpeople helped me start seeing “little” people as valuable contributors to society, which has made me a better overall person.

AG: Were you ever intimidated by his huge personal successes, as individual artists yourselves?

Sapient: {Laughs} No.

AG: The West coast has a history of producing big ass hip hop collectives like Living Legends and Hiero; are Sandpeople next in that line?

Sapient: Seems to me the whole big-ass crew idea isn’t just a West coast thing, over on the East they got Wu-Tang and Boot Camp Clik. I do feel that Sandpeople is next in line, but the industry is becoming complicated in new ways, and the line might be ending right before we have our chance at the front – however – I think SP has gained a healthy chunk of notoriety, especially for our region and era.

AG: Definitely, definitely, things are changing. Is it particularly more difficult for big crews to thrive in this new era of Twitter and Band Camp?

Sapient: Maybe, but we don’t really have a huge basis for comparison, things have been shifting in that direction since we formed. Some things are definitely easier in a big way because of the DIY tools of today, but the opportunities for help ($) from labels are basically nil for a group this size.

AG: In “My Brain” from the album you guys touch on groupies — the girl in the song had already gotten with 4 crew members, I had to laugh at that idea. But, I started thinking: Have you guys ever had a groupie that’s that uhhh … dedicated?

Ethic: We haven’t really passed any girls around all grimy.  There have been some questionable encounters for sure.  Some high-stress clinic visit situations, but that aint too common for us.  Most of us have girls/wives and are pretty boring outside of rap.  Then there are the others…

AG: If one of the Sandpeople members was going to make the mistake of sleeping with this Kat Stacks mess, who would it be?

Sapient & Ethic: Mo-b

AG: One of the tracks on Peerless also mentions social media, and I think it’s pretty much a part of hip-hop at this point. Almost every MC is on Twitter or Facebook, etc. What are you guys doing differently now, in terms of technology, that you weren’t doing back in ’03 or ’05?

Sapient: As you and everybody but our grandparents knows, the internet has changed everything in the realm of the music business.  The free streaming, pirating and poser over saturation has devalued music and created vacuum where that income source used to be. As Ethic states in the song “Results”: “they say that music is free, then aight, guess I’ll find a different revenue stream”, the music alone isn’t a reliable income generator, so we have supplement by touring and making sure we have enough shirts, etc. This also has created a new appreciation for the artist/fan relationship. The social networks are where the fans are, so that’s where the artists are.

AG: Do you think fans get a better deal now because artists are forced to treat them more personally and maybe be more humble?

Ethic: Definitely.  I mean, we can complain as artists that there is diminishing returns on the music we make, but the flip-side is that it is entirely for the benefit of music fans.  The cheaper music becomes, the more of it fans can enjoy. And the more accessible artists are, the greater the fan experience.  I feel like there can be a balance where artists aren’t propelled needlessly onto a pedestal, but still can be paid decently for their work.

AG (To Sapient): You have sort of made this pledge that you’re going to put out tons of quality content over the near future, and you’ve been really keeping up with it. Like Ethic said, you’re easily one of the most prolific artists in hip hop right now. Do you ever feel like you’re getting to point of OVER-saturation with new material?

Sapient: We’ll have to see. The consumer-affordable and pirate-able music equipment and software, combined with the access to these online social networks has created a flood of undeveloped music being sharted out into the world. No quality control, major and indie labels hemorrhaging money, record stores going out of business. There is a TON of wack shit… so much.  I feel I must flood back.  I am by no means at a point where I can relax and make music because it’s fun and makes me feel good. This is survival… I’m bout to drown these fuckers.

AG (To Sapient): Do you ever have to check yourself? Do you run some sort of quality control to make sure you’re not becoming “one of them” in that sense?

Sapient: Well I’m not really making an insane amount of music, just working like it’s a job, while most artists act like music is some sort of come-up to take advantage of. I only think it’s making my music better. The quality control is right here *points to head*, the same quality control method used since day one. If I make something that I’m not proud of, or don’t think is rad, then my wife and friends won’t even hear it, let alone you. It will be deleted, or transformed until I am satisfied with it. I think you will be surprised with whatcha boy releases this year!

AG (To Ethic): I feel like your role in Debaser kind of gets outshined sometimes because Sapient is everywhere doing his grind and working with everyone. But, what are you doing outside of the group? Should we expect some solo stuff from you in the near future?

Ethic: I wouldn’t hold your breath for any solo stuff from me.  That’s not really what I’m looking to do and am cool with continuing as an artist in Debaser and Sandpeople.  I tend to play more of a behind-the-scenes role in both cases though.  On the grind, but just in a less visibly manner.  You might not always see what I’m doing from the public eye, but my job is to keep the wheels turning. Outside of the group, I’m working for a digital distributor and constantly trying to assess where indie music is headed.  Doing my best to stay up on what options are out there for us and trying to stay ahead of trends while, as Sape mentions above, the accessibility becomes instant and price becomes free.

Debaser’s new album isn’t free. But you can cop Peerless from iTunes by clicking here.

Check out Sandpeople on their website, and Sapient’s new site

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