Since its inception, hip hop has transformed from a street-based subculture to its present state as a springboard for both thuggery and entrepreneurship. It's become the world's most popular music, but in its worst form can be a forum for materialistic excess, misogyny, and regressive stereotype-mongering. Knoxville hip-hop group 2nd String addresses this paradox on its excellent album, The Defiant Ones, with an intro by guest MC Courageous: "I'm all about using your talents to get paid, making a good living off the gifts that God made…/Just imagine what you could do with some positivity and the money too—that's what we setting out to do."
2nd String is undoubtedly breathing a gust of fresh air into post-millennial Knoxville rap with an uplifting outlook, block-rocking beats, and deft rhyming skills. Simply put, these kids are great.
"We just want to make the kind of music we like, and we want to relate it to the everyday person—so that you can listen to it and say, ‘Yeah, I understand,'" enthuses Preston Mynatt, the MC who, along with cohorts Joe King, Brian Tate, and Samuel King, constitutes 2nd String.
"I feel like hip hop has kind of shifted," Mynatt continues. "In the past, to be an MC, you had to have skill, to rehearse and know your rhymes, whereas today you can just have a nice beat with a hook, then be a star. I don't have anything against snap, but when people associate hip hop with that, it just gets off track. We're just trying to reintroduce some of the old-school sounds."
The Defiant Ones presents a group that is certainly on track, with 15 selections that showcase a wide spectrum of talents without overstaying its welcome. The MCs all have a steady, intelligible flow, smart, insightful, and sometimes humorous rhymes, bolstered by Joe King's smoother-than-usual beats, which introduce elements of jazz, R&B, and soul into the mix. The album evokes comparisons to A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. and Rakim, KRS-One, or, more recently, Common and Soul Position.
The group originally came together at West High School around 2003, first known as The YoungStars. "We were just trying to experiment with sound," Mynatt says. "We didn't really buckle down until around 2005."
The last couple of years have been productive for the the group, whose members are still redefining and expanding their sound. "We're always working," Mynatt says. "People see me at school and they think I'm crazy because I'll be talking to myself, putting ideas together.
"The Defiant Ones, I love it," he continues. "I'm really proud of what it is. But the next one, man, it's gonna be crazy. It seems like every time we do something, it just gets better."
With its debut and several subsequent performances at Old City Java, 2nd String has built a strong fan base in Knoxville. Now the group is spreading its wings in a different venue, the Corner Lounge, presenting its first headlining show.
"It's gonna be our concert," Mynatt says. "We've usually just performed at other people's events. This time we're gonna give you the whole 2nd String experience. It's fun putting together a whole show."
Asked his projections for the group, Mynatt contends that he'll be happy as long as 2nd String continues its ongoing creative process, playing more shows, and gaining new supporters. Getting shows is no longer such a challenge for the group, which recently acquired long-time scenester Chase Valentine of the band Past Mistakes as manager.
Refreshingly, 2nd String has consciously avoided getting mired in the gangsta clichés that have weighed down too much of hip hop for the last 20 years. Instead, the group offers a populist perspective, unashamed of its suburban roots, that appeals to a wide audience without resorting to smarmy sentimentality or self-righteous posturing.
"With each song there's a message," Mynatt says. "With this generation, I see a lot of kids who don't seem inspired to do anything. We get fed so much ignorance through music, and we're trying to balance that out. But we want our audiences to have fun. Overall, we're just making the kind of music that we love to hear."