As of this moment, Huntsville, Ala., is the "Rocket City," a place best known for housing the military's missile development program.
But if it were up to G-Side, the city's of-the-moment rap duo of ST 2 Lettaz and Yung Clova, Huntsville would be hip-hop's next hub. ST compares his hometown to another significant location in rap history.
"Huntsville is the 'Ville, man," ST says. "Everyone hustles here. It's Alabama's Harlem. Everyone has a job and a side hustle."
Everyone, including his partner-in-rhyme. In the group's videos, Clova wears high-end labels such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but his luxuries come from an unexpected place.
"Clova rides 24[-inch rims] and not off the strength of rap," ST says. "He runs a barbershop."
It's clear Huntsville's hard-working attitude has informed G-Side's ascent from nothing to the poster boys of an innovative and inviting slice of Southern hip-hop. Through five free albums only available online, G-Side has steadily built a loyal following that stretches from Baltimore (the duo plays Club Hippo on Friday) to Norway. Last year, G-Side played to full rooms in Oslo and Bergen.
It's their unique grab-bag brand of rap — part Outkast's "Aquemini," part trance, part exploratory jazz, all knocking drums — that connects with listeners of all backgrounds. But while Clova and ST make the tracks come alive with vivid verses and clever phrasing, it's their production team, Block Beattaz, steering the ship.
ST remembers being 17 and hearing a Block Beattaz beat for the first time.
"It was the most beautiful beat I ever heard," he says of a track from Huntsville duo South P.A.W.'s "Live From Northwood Projects." "[I said,] 'That's the soundscape I need to make my vision come to life.' Block Beattaz make that trunk rattle."
Armed with its favorite beats, G-Side has kept plenty of trunks busy this year, releasing the critically acclaimed "The One ... Cohesive," which featured the Beach House-sampling "How Far," in January and "iSLAND" earlier this month. Both albums have been well received, despite reflecting two different sides of the group.
"With 'Cohesive,' we were trying to make really big, worldly songs that could be played anywhere and some to potentially crossover," ST says. "With 'iSLAND,' we just wanted to have fun and rap."
That push-and-pull dynamic remains at the heart of G-Side. The group has found fans but not in droves. Labels have shown interest, but they refuse to agree to a deal not on their terms. The duo wants mainstream success but can't help but make the left-field rap that comes naturally.
ST isn't bothered by the dichotomy.
"Bruh, I'm a Libra," he says. "I'm on both ends of the spectrum with things. That's the dope thing with me and Clova — we balance. I like making songs that could change people's lives, and sometimes I like making songs where I can rap real ignorant."
This is a hard balance to strike, but not for G-Side. With every release and glowing review, labels continue to look their way. All ST and Clova can do is learn from the mistakes of the Alabama rappers currently on major labels.
"We've seen cats sign and thought they were gonna [flop], and then they end up on the shelves," ST says. "We're not afraid to stay independent."
Part of that fearlessness comes from Huntsville and its blue-collar mentality. ST is betting on his music being his most profitable career move. He recently quit his job as a gas station clerk to fully concentrate on G-Side.
"I get paid to rap, and it's the coolest [thing] ever," he says. "I love my Jordans but I rock white T's. I'm a simple man. Like I said on the record, 'I'll ride a bicycle until I ride a Ferrari.'"
It remains to be seen whether ST will ever get that foreign sports car, but it's not on his mind. He's too busy touring the world, performing songs for whoever is interested in his group's slice of the South. The journey itself seems to satisfy him just fine.
"Where I'm from, man, people don't get to go to Texas and definitely not New York or Scandinavia," ST says as he rattles off recent tour stops. "It's a lot deeper than money. Not having money, you learn money isn't everything."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun