True Crew

With some new blood added to the family, local hip-hop label 3rd Level Productions is pumped up and ready to share the truth

HIP-HOP LABEL MATES The crew members of Chico hip-hop label 3rd Level Productions scan their surroundings for signs of their fast-approaching and possibly brilliant future. Front row, left to right: P.R. person and recording artist Devitto Swoop and performer Solo Boots; back row: label president D-Boy and rhythm creator M.C. Shoantel.

HIP-HOP LABEL MATES The crew members of Chico hip-hop label 3rd Level Productions scan their surroundings for signs of their fast-approaching and possibly brilliant future. Front row, left to right: P.R. person and recording artist Devitto Swoop and performer Solo Boots; back row: label president D-Boy and rhythm creator M.C. Shoantel.

Photo By Tom Angel

His crew calls him “D-Boy,” or sometimes “Damon.” But out here, in the way-north end of Chico, the president of 3rd Level Productions is just “Daddy” to the two little girls who greet me from the weak shadow of a fruitless olive tree.

This quiet apartment complex is not the type of place you’d expect a group of young Chico musicians to congregate. There’s no 50 Cent blaring from screen-less windows, and the lawns actually have grass. But a young dad and his friends are out here creating hip-hop and preparing to reveal their new sound to the population of our little college town.

Within the cozy confines of D-Boy’s home, the whole 3rd Level Productions family is kicking back. The tiny bedroom where D-Boy, Solo Boots ("Tha Freestyla"), M.C. Shoantel and Devitto Swoop (the newest M.C. and the label’s promoter) are gathered is so immaculate, it nearly camouflages the fact that it houses a working recording studio. I notice the framed business license on the wall and the delicately soundproofed vocal booth in the closet, and it becomes apparent that this is definitely not the typical snake-pit of guitar cords and power strips that characterizes most apartment band rooms.

The pulse of the label’s two-year existence, this home studio is where the group has honed its craft and made its plans. “We’re not a big label,” D-Boy points out, “and we’re not waiting for that.”

Instead, they’ve done the work themselves. They’ve already produced a D-Boy solo album, Hypocrite (featuring Vingogh, D-Boy’s alter-ego), a compilation titled Consequences and Repercussions, and a 3rd Level collaborative effort, 6-Degrees of Separation. With three more releases nearly finished, 3rd Level is set to pop.

D-Boy is a good dad. You can feel it through the gentle tone he takes with his daughter as he patiently answers her questions. You can also feel it in the very tangible bond he’s created with his collaborators. Soft-spoken and determined, he has the quiet confidence of a leader whose crew feels safe following him.

“I’m from San Francisco, and he [D-Boy] brought me here to do music,” shares Solo Boots, one of 3rd Level’s artists and its de facto vice president. “He saved me.”

Growing up in San Jose and drawing on his own Bay Area roots, D-Boy remembers, “I would always rap and vent what’s on my mind through poetry. If I have something to say about the war, police or prejudice, I’m going to. The truth is what we’re into. If you make a song from your soul, and it touches another person, they’ll take that into their own life.”

Openness to a free exchange of feelings and ideas is one of the keys to the relationship between the label’s members. In addition to the artistic, D-Boy models an intense work ethic, too. Through his Vingogh persona, D-Boy emulates the commitment to expression that the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh possessed, despite almost no public attention paid to his work. “I identify with his work effort,” explains D-Boy.

Perhaps the most significant key to the healthy relationships at 3rd Level is D-Boy’s relationship with his wife, Lannie. With their two children and two jobs of her own, her support of a music career that generates from a closet in her own bedroom is nothing short of miraculous. “Music time is usually from eight to five,” D-Boy carefully spells out, adding that things are fine “as long as it doesn’t interfere with family time.”

IN THE GROOVE Solo Boots and D-Boy lay down some vocals in the sound booth created within the closet of their apartment recording space. Their label has three different CD releases coming out this summer.

Photo By Tom Angel

On his upcoming release (street date: July 28), D-Boy/Vingogh expresses a clear-eyed view of the injustices of corporate America, the social problems of the inner city, and the more personal issues of relationships and broken dreams. His vocals are comparable to the casual style of Mystikal (maybe a little lower and definitely more serious), and he puts his determined pacing to work on the wishful rant “Imagine,” where he envisions a “life without death, without heartbreak” and underlines his mixed themes of truth and positive thinking: “We only got one life to live/ Isn’t it beautiful/ Despite this shit/ Imagine life when the lights stay on/ Friends that pass, I can see ’em when I have to.”

The 3rd Level crew has been putting a lot of work into their songs and recordings. In the samples from D-Boy/Vingogh’s new release, unique beats build upon layers of guitars and pianos, and extra voices provide for a refreshing mix of eclectic compositions that cross-pollinate genres, with little attention paid to the typical rap blueprint.

The man responsible for the fresh approach to the music is Scotty K—Scott Kaminski. A multi-instrumentalist who moved from Oakland to Chico for school, Scotty K ended up making a lot of music alone before running into the 3rd Level guys. “I bought myself a 4-track and started making music,” he says. “Then I ran into Solo—he said he raps, and I said I make beats.”

The beats are great, too. Building on diverse foundations, from flamenco-style classical guitar to funked-out psychedelic romps, Scotty K has created an original vision that is very compelling, definitely setting the stage for a unique brand of hip-hop.

Rounding out the original crew members, Solo Boots (who has Solo Still Standing coming out in August) and M.C. Shoantel respectively bring the specialized skills of freestyle and deejaying to the mix. As the ‘wild one of the bunch,” Solo characterizes his process of freestyle as having ‘ants working in my head.” It’s a very freeing and very necessary process for the young rapper: ‘It’s helped me grow as a person,” he confesses, ‘helped me enjoy my insanity.”

Shoantel, on the other hand, is more straightforward. Having apprenticed under D.J. Badrock, he mans the turntables during live shows and does the scratching and some rapping on many of the recordings.

The new guy might make the difference. If good music plus hard work plus promotion equals success, then Devitto Swoop completes 3rd Level’s equation. Through his Swoop Collione Promotions company, Swoop is already using his networking mindset and his gift for gab to make as many connections as he can. His presence should provide the push the label has been looking for.

Plus, the man has style. A matching outfit, carefully-manicured facial hair, and a little bit of gold goes a long way toward making a notable first impression. The slickness of his style carries over into his music as well. On his upcoming Fastlane release, his smooth delivery and party-time lyrics are the framework that he drapes his gift for melody around, fashioning songs with a distinct R&B flavor.

‘What I want to do here,” Swoop almost sings in a quiet yet raspy voice, ‘is unify things and bring people together, get people interested. I’m working on setting up shows for the beginning of the school year.”

The experience he gained promoting and performing shows back in Oregon, combined with the foundation laid down over the last couple of years by the original 3rd Level guys, will be tested now. Swoop is optimistic about the collaboration. ‘One idea, one mind,” he explains. ‘We all come from different aspects of life, and we all meet in the same place.”

‘Keeping the music vibe alive” is 3rd Level Productions’ motto. And that’s the plan. If they get a chance to show their stuff and are heard by even a handful of college students, there’s no doubt that D-Boy’s prediction will be put to the test:

'Truth, love and beats will set you free."