By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In a city hailed for its alternative and indie rock music scene, Seattle doesn’t have much street cred when it comes to mainstream hip hop. However, the underground hip hop scene is thriving as many local MCs eagerly show that the Emerald City can offer more than just rock chords.
Enter Saturday Morning Cartoon (SMC) — a local hip hop duo made up of John Alvis and Max Youn. These two have been shaking up the local scene with their on-the-spot beats improvised during performances, a feat that is uncommon at most live hip hop shows.
Known to fans by their stage names Nitro Fresh and Jonnie Storm, Youn and Alvis, respectively, met in 2008 at a mutual friend’s rap show.
At the time, Youn was trying to network with other people in the industry by distributing CDs of his self-produced music. Alvis received one of the discs, listened to it, and decided to invite Youn out for coffee to discuss the possibility of creating music together — just for fun.
Improvisation as a way of creating and performing music
Then one day, on a whim, Alvis proposed the idea of performing and working together.
Because he is an avid toy collector, the group’s name was inspired by his collection.
“I have so many [toys], and each one is all over the place. They’re free-range,” said Alvis. “And much like cartoons on a Saturday morning, I wanted our music to reflect our fun and out-of-the-box thinking. We didn’t want to be limited.”
“From our live shows to mixtapes to [our group] name, many of the things we do are improvised,” added Youn.
A flexible mindset dictates how SMC approaches their music. While the majority of hip hop MCs bring a pre-produced CD for a DJ to play at a venue as they rap over it in live shows, SMC sets their music apart.
They produce all of their music on-the-spot, giving their songs a more organic sound and feel.
While Alvis typically raps in shows, Youn creates the unique beats that set the backdrop for Alvis.
“When we perform live, we use something that is more like what I’d call our ‘hip hop instruments,’ ” said Alvis of Youn’s production work. “Audiences are always surprised by what we do because everyone expects to see performers use CDs, mp3s, or iPods in a live show,” said Alvis.
In any live performance, Youn utilizes a drum machine called an MPC, which produces percussive beats. He also plays a synthesizer keyboard and uses a talk box, which is an effects unit that combines a musical instrument’s sound with a person’s voice.
Alvis and Youn performed more than 25 shows last year and believe that Seattle audiences are accustomed to spontaneous live music performances, as influenced by many of the live shows put on by rock bands that come to the city.
“We got to be on that same level of live performance,” said Youn. “Seattle audiences are used to that energy [in a show], so that’s why we bring a high level of love, spontaneity, and improvisation to our performances. You need to give people something they’ve never seen before, but still meet their expectations for a good show.”
Defying profile expectations in music
Beside surprising audiences with their original live beats, SMC also challenges the general audience expectation of a hip hop group.
“When people hear our CD before they see us live, [due to our group name,] they think our music comes from white guys,” said Alvis, who is Black. Youn is a 1.5-generation Korean American. “People see us on stage before the show begins, and they think we’re just going to do some comedy rap. It’s just the way Seattle is.”
But Youn and Alvis enjoy showing the crowd what they’re capable of, despite first impressions.
Delton Mosby, a local hip hop artist known by his MC name Delton Son, has known Alvis since high school. Despite years of friendship, even Mosby admitted that he was taken aback the first time he saw SMC perform.
“When you see SMC on stage, it’s like looking at two formal businessmen,” said Mosby. “You have no idea that they’re MCs, let alone [two MCs] working together. They’re like night and day. And then [Alvis] starts spitting rhymes and [Youn] plays his beats, and you realize it’s the look and the music together that sets them apart from other artists.”
“My cousins came to one of our shows, and they didn’t expect me to be working with an Asian guy,” said Alvis. “After the show, they raved about [Youn], saying, ‘That Asian boy is [awesome]!’ ”
Likewise, Youn’s parents are unperturbed that their son is working with a Black musician.
“My parents are more annoyed that I focus on music as opposed to who I’m working with,” joked Youn.
Neither Youn nor Alvis has met anyone who has questioned their working relationship. Alvis said he encounters more racism in his day job as a maintenance technician for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. Because he routinely checks on buildings in the International District, Alvis meets and encounters many Asians on the street. Most are nice to him. But a few are not.
“That’s why what we have is a beautiful thing,” said Alvis. “We can just get together and make our own noise and not talk about race. And show that two people who don’t look alike shouldn’t be limited to stereotypes.”
Despite racial differences, Alvis and Youn both grew up with skepticism from their parents about their respective music endeavors.
When he was young, Alvis’ father, a Baptist preacher, viewed the hip hop genre and musicians as a fad.
Upon his parents’ insistence, Youn went to law school, but he didn’t finish because he knew it wasn’t for him. Though both sets of parents hoped only to protect Alvis and Youn from the instability of a music career, both men still pursued music on the side.
“I bought my first keyboard without telling my parents, and I had to hide it for a week in the back of my car,” said Youn about his college days. “And I had to come up with some excuse to my parents every time I went out to a rehearsal or show.”
These days, Youn is a consultant with a business strategy consulting firm. He also helps his brother run a beer and wine specialty store.
On the horizon
This month, SMC dropped their 19-track debut album, “Cereal Box Superheroes.” From party tunes to hardcore hip hop, the songs focus on all aspects of life, such as listening to one’s inner voice during times of doubt and overcoming obstacles to achieve positive outcomes.
SMC will also perform locally during the next few months, including a special show called Arts in Fusion, where local artists collaborate with musicians. In the show, artists will paint while musicians perform alongside them.
Along with Mosby, Alvis and Youn coordinated this particular show to provide an outlet for minority artists and musicians not only to create and perform, but also to expose Seattle audiences to hidden talents within the local arts community.
“These visual artists don’t have many places to showcase their work. Some of them are literally unknown,” said Mosby about the event. “We’re hoping that Arts in Fusion will give voice to these minority artists, just like hip hop does with its music.” ♦
Arts in Fusion will occur at the Rendezvous/Jewelbox Theater on May 27 at 10 p.m. Event cover is $5. For more information about Saturday Morning Cartoon and Arts in Fusion, please visit www.saturdaymorningcartoon.tumblr.com and www.facebook.com/smcmusic.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was edited May 20, 2011