Over the past few years, Rick Feltes has made plenty of cold calls to his favorite MCs. He doesn't get the jitters anymore--by now he expects people to be suspicious when he asks them to rap over his tracks. But last summer Feltes, aka DJ Rude 1 of the hip-hop production duo Single Minded Pros, dialed Kool G Rap's number and started to feel nervous again--after all, this was one of the MCs from the legendary Juice Crew, which also included Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, and Biz Markie. Feltes left a message, and within 15 minutes the rapper's wife, fellow MC Ma Barker, called back. "She was like, 'Well, send the tracks, and if they're good we'll get with you,'" says Feltes. "So I FedExed over a copy of the disc and two days later we were in the studio with them."
Feltes and his partner, Keino West (aka Doc West), specialize in building customized beats to suit different rappers. Single Minded Pros' first full-length, just out on Evanston's new EV Productions label, showcases Rap among 17 other guest artists, including current indie heavyweights like Mr. Lif. Last Friday the duo celebrated the release of From Now On with a sold-out show at the Metro. Rap performed his own set--and he says the SMP cut "You Know I'm Wit' It" was "one of the best-sounding songs" in it.
Feltes and West met in 1991 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when Feltes, a Chicago native, was still in high school. "I was like the baddest DJ in town at the time," he says, laughing. "And I had this friend who said, 'Man, my cousin is better than you.' I'm like, 'Bring him on! Let's see what he's got!' And it ended up being Doc."
West was in college in South Carolina, but over holidays and school breaks the two bonded and SMP was born. "There's not a lot to do in Pittsfield," says Feltes, "so we used to hang out in my basement and drink 40s and just sit around and mix and scratch all night."
After Feltes returned to Chicago in 1992 to attend Columbia, he and West made mix tapes by mail under the SMP name and distributed them to record stores in Chicago and Boston, where West had moved when he finished school. Feltes graduated and went to Boston in 1996, but after a frustrating year trying to establish the group there--West was working as an IRS collector, Feltes as a bike messenger--they relocated to Chicago and mapped out a strategy. "We knew it'd be easier for us to make a name for ourselves as DJs first, 'cause we were a good team," says West. "And then we could build up the production side of things."
In the late 90s, the pair's loft in Wicker Park was a hub of hip-hop activity, hosting regular breakdancing and open-turntable sessions. "We'd get together all the time, every Sunday, and just keep it going until the middle of the night," says Feltes. "We did that for a year and then just started spinning out and doing DJ nights." SMP held down residencies at Lava Lounge and Subterranean, among other clubs, while developing their catalog of beats.
In 2001 Feltes decided to cold-call Chicago freestyle king Juice about a collection of tracks SMP had put together especially for him. "I just hit him up," says Feltes. "I told him, 'I'm a big fan and I got these beats I think you'd be perfect on, you want to hear them?'"
The resulting cut, "Dumb Hot," with its taut, menacing beat and sinister piano trills, became the centerpiece of the first volume of SMP's "Session" series of 12-inches, released in October of that year. The duo sold about 4,000 copies of the record from their living room. "As a fan it's how I wanted to hear Juice sound," says Feltes. "It was like, 'Let me just do a real raw beat, hard drums, scratches for the hook, and you do what you do best, just spit.'"
After that, says West, "we made a list, like a wish list of people we wanted to mess with, locals and nationals." Over the next two years they corralled more than two dozen rappers, using bookings at their regular Subterranean night to bring in out-of-towners. "We'd do a show and record a song that weekend," says West.
The second "Session" record, released in 2002, was split between Outsidaz cofounder Pace Won--cold-called at a number Feltes had found on the back of a single--and local freestyler Profound. Later that year New York DJ Tony Touch licensed the Pace Won track "You Know It's Like That" for his The Last of the Pro Ricans mix, and the success of that song helped earn SMP an unexpected spot in Urb magazine's "Next 100" issue in spring 2003. "We had no idea about it, 'cause we didn't have a publicist or anything," says Feltes. "One day someone just sent me an e-mail saying, 'Hey, props on the Urb thing.' So we go down to the newsstand and there's Premiere and Guru on the cover and us inside."
A handful of labels courted SMP, and soon a deal was almost in place for a full-length release in the fall of 2003. Feltes and West won't say who with. "They fucked with us on the contract at the last minute--changed a bunch of stuff we'd already agreed to--so we didn't sign," says Feltes. "But it was good 'cause it bought us time to get a couple more tracks that are vital to the album." During the delay SMP recorded songs with Kool G Rap, Earatik Statik, and Binkis Recs, all of which first appeared on a third "Session" 12-inch this summer--also released by EV Productions, with whom the duo had signed in July.
To assemble From Now On SMP picked their 17 favorites from 30-plus finished tunes: the album collects the best of the "Session" series as well as unreleased tracks by Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, imprisoned New York rapper Shabaam Sahdeeq, and locals like Capital D, Rubberoom, and Iomos Marad. "People are going to see we got Mr. Lif and Akrobatik on it and think it's a backpacker album," says Feltes. "But at the same time if you listen to the stuff we did for Kool G Rap, it's as gutter as it gets. There's boom-bap on there and there's street shit too."
Though both members of SMP have been busy outside the group--Feltes with Pace Won and the Mobb Deep offshoot Infamous Mobb, West with Atlanta's Hylandaz crew--they remain focused on a follow-up to From Now On.
"It'll be a lot easier to make those telephone calls, man," says Feltes. "The new album is a great resume for us to give people we want to work with. It's like, 'Check this out. We did this. We did that. Wassup? Come fuck with us.' Now when we say the name Single Minded Pros, it carries some weight."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.