Sick of hearing the same ol’ contrived ’hood stories from rappers? Local duo Ply & Reaper have two genuinely compelling tales that dovetail into one and fuel some of the best hip-hop in town.
Ply (real name: Turaj Zaim) was born in the mother of all ’hoods: Tehran, Iran, during the Iran-Iraq War of the ’80s. Ply’s memories, up until he left for the United States at age 6, are war on the television, tanks in the streets and tracer bullets piercing his home. “Air raid alarms, bombing,” he recalls. “I remember when Saddam Hussein got some Russian MiGs. They thought they couldn’t reach [Tehran], but they did.”
At age 5, Iranian soldiers taught him how to fire an automatic weapon. “They taught us the triangle stance so we could fire and still maybe keep our balance.” His main diversion was Persian poetry, and Dr. Seuss, which his American mother introduced for a better kind of balance. The diet of wordplay and war led Ply to pursue a life of activism and the art of hip-hop.
Reaper, or Thomas Earl Hurrington, also grew up amid struggle and strife in Houston. His beleaguered but “militant” mother relied on him to be her “counselor”—a heavy role for a kid. He watched her endure abusive relationships and helped her heal while recognizing similar hardships around him. Notwithstanding his role, Reaper was “the black sheep. I was the one that was supposed to deal drugs, or be a gangsta.”
Reaper’s outlet was the stage. He sang in high school choir and toured with a vocal group while scratching an increasingly insistent itch of activism. He joined West High’s touring theatrical group, in which he counseled audiences on self-esteem to rape recovery. It was here he met Ply.
“We ended up being the ‘stars’ of the troupe,” Ply recalls. “We were creating scenes and traveling, training other troupes. Then I left and went to school.”
He attended Oberlin University in Ohio, where he edited the school’s political magazine, The Voice, only to drop out and pursue his activism out West. He landed back in Utah, where Reaper had begun to work as a caregiver at a home for violent autistics. Reaper helped Ply get a job at the home; Ply, in turn, taught Reaper to rap. The two began to collaborate until Ply left again, this time touring through Colorado, California and Oregon where he briefly attended the University of Oregon at Eugene.
“I dropped out of there after only a few months,” he admits, saying he and Reaper had envisioned a dark hip-hop project inspired by their respective experiences. Bad Dreams was released in 2003 on Ply & Reaper’s own RacelessRecords.com.
Bad Dreams isn’t dark as much as it’s serious, both musically and thematically. Over beats created almost exclusively with live instruments (courtesy locals Sanjuro and Mark McKnight), Ply & Reaper delve into their histories, personal relationships and societal mores and poke and prod—more like stab—with their words. Ply is a “court poet,” playing off words like a jester but with intellectual venom against the king. Reaper is a storyteller; he sets scenes and opens the minds of his characters as a way to open the minds of his listener. Each acts as the other’s foil; they bounce off each other and set up alley-oops for slam-dunk lines.
“It’s just a concept album,” says Reaper, “of a day going into the night and [subsequently having] insomnia … nightmares about your fears. It’s about how, in the end, you gotta push through your fears and make a change.”
It applies to Ply & Reaper as much as anyone. Their aim is to make real music that affects people and, to borrow an idea from Timothy “Speed” Levitch, helps rewrite their souls. And, of course, make you dance. Reaper promises that when he and Ply take the stage at DV8 on Saturday night, they’re going to “rock the show.” No doubt there.
PLY & REAPER DV8, 115 S. West Temple. Saturday, Feb. 26. 9 p.m. 328-0115