Most up-and-coming rappers don't initially think of Salt Lake City as a place with a viable hip-hop scene. Rather than sticking around to help define the fairly open SLC rap market, they move to bigger hubs like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York where the rap market is firmly established. While the logic of this seems sound, the untapped territory of defining local rap is drawing out pioneering artists like Midvale's Zigga (born Zane Dennison). "It's a blessing to live in Salt Lake," Dennison says. "It's cool to make your own statement for a place."
Dennison spent his childhood in Oakland, Calif., developing an interest in jazz music and poetry while he was still young. As a teenager, Dennison's family moved to Utah where he felt like he could explore his musical talents more fully. "Here in Utah, you have a little bit more freedom because there's more to do economically without turning to drugs and gangs—that's not the reality in some California neighborhoods," he says.
While the local burgeoning hip-hop scene is still wide open, the work and responsibility of building a fan base, seeking out new opportunities to perform and raising three children weighs heavily on Dennison. "The biggest thing is balance," he says. "My music career was blossoming right when I started having kids. The good thing is that every one of those things are rewarding." The benefit of being able to find his own sound is contrasted by the hard work of forging a path.
Collaboration is also important to Dennison, and his upcoming mixtape Cherubs and Scarabs features local rappers Dine Krew and Swell Merchants. "It takes a community to change things," Dennison says, "One of the things that people liked most about my first mixtape is that I had so many collaborations with other artists. It's always better to get people involved than it is to be exclusive."
Cherubs and Scarabs is a fascinating collision of beats and arrangements of West Coast rappers like Dr. Dre and the machine-gun wordsmithing of East Coast rappers like Jay-Z. Yet, Dennison only uses those influences as a platform from which to build his own style, one that is heavy on jazz instruments and stream-of-consciousness wordplay. "As an artist, you have to be able to adapt," he says, "I choose different beats and live instrumentations because I want to sound genuine."
Perhaps the most successful part of Dennison's newest mixtape is that it doesn't sound like the work of someone who is following in the artistic footsteps of others. Dennison raps with a style all his own, and the local references mixed with his jazz-inspired arrangements make for a unique listen.
For those who don't want to wait for the album's June 22 release, Dennison runs "Wired Wednesdays," from his Soundcloud page, where he's been previewing one song from Cherubs and Scarabs every week. Currently, he's released the powerful "Blvcc Chervbs" and the trippy party anthem "Molly Water," along with several others that will give fans a taste of the upcoming release, which will be available on iTunes and Spotify.
The rapper has already created a vast arsenal of songs, but he shows no signs of stopping. In addition to the June release of his new mixtape, he plans to appear at one of SLUG magazine's "Localized" shows at Urban Lounge, and he's also started focusing on building his brand through merchandising. "Merchandise is huge now," Dennison says. "Developing a brand is where I see the most potential."
For those young hip-hop artists who happen to find themselves in Utah, keep in mind that there is a rap scene here, but its full potential has yet to be explored. "It's rare to find a market like this," Dennison says. "How many opportunities do you have to be the pioneer?"