There was a time when rap groups were commonplace. There were actually hip-hop artists who weren't pursuing solo careers, who basically didn't perform outside the confines of a group dynamic. Hiphop heads enjoy arguing over the greatest individual rappers ever, but many don't get that rap groups—likeA Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Outkast and Beastie Boys—are responsible for the most revered music in the hip-hop canon.
The Icons, a local group of rap vets, get it. On a Friday night in mid-August, at Sadaf, a Persian restaurant Downtown, for the release party for their latest EP, Not a Scratch on Us, they're sporting matching uniforms, taking a cue from '80s legends Run-DMC. While The Icons' uniform— white hoodies, white cargo shorts and orange Nikes—isn't as iconic as Run-DMC's black fedoras, leather jackets and Adidas, their attention to branding displays a certain level of showmanship.
More importantly, they have chemistry. The group's two MCs, Frosty da Know-matic and Ech-U-Sketch, trade lines back and forth constantly, finishing each other's rhymes in a way that Run-DMC made famous.
"We're challenging each other in front of you," Sketch tells CityBeat. "Everything that runs onto each verse is a complete thought between both of us, so you gotta hear us both to catch it." He also likens their interplay to "fighting for breathing space."
This year, they hope to breathe life back into their group. The Icons have been seasoned battle rappers in the local scene since the mid-'90s. After a successful run, including a San Diego Music Award for their 2001 album Capture the Flag, the group went on hiatus in 2008. Now with two new DJs and a new EP out, they hope to rekindle the fire.
The Icons clearly retain the style of the '90s underground. Back then, many underground rappers were delving deeper into abstraction, testing the limits of vocabulary, wordplay and battling. The Icons' new album operates in much the same way. The song "Iconography (I.C.O.N.S.)," for example, finds the two rappers hurling flurries of I's, C's, O's, N's and S's in an exercise of alliterative self-aggrandizement. And it all happens when Frosty and Ech are in the same room—a rare thing in an age of Internet-enabled collaboration.
Although a decade has passed since their last proper album, The Icons' chemistry remains mostly intact. On the EP's first single, "Rap Music," which pays homage to the genre itself, Sketch and Frosty contribute separate verses before coming together on the third verse. At that point, they go back and forth, becoming increasingly intertwined, at first trading couplets then trading single lines before they start finishing each other's lines every halfmeasure. It's dynamic.
"One of the things we were complimented on all throughout our history is the way that we work together," Frosty says. "So, you'll see a lot more of a blend of that on this release." They almost chose "Back and Fourth" as the album title, a double entendre of their interplay and the fact that it's their fourth release.
This chemistry should come as no surprise, though, as Frosty and Sketch have been rapping together for roughly 20 years. The two were originally in a larger crew known as The Glasshouse. In the mid-'90s, they'd perform regularly at The Underground Improv, a weekly open-mic series in Encanto. Shortly after local rap legend and series host Orko Eloheim introduced them one night as "San Diego's icons," they broke out and formed the group, along with DJs Syko and H.O.P.
Despite relative success, the group began drifting apart in the late '00s. Sketch chalks it up to age and growing families. It certainly didn't help that they recorded an album for a label that went under before the album dropped.
In early 2012, Frosty and his wife Glady organized a show to raise funds to send their eldest son, Akil, to the trials for the U.S. Paralympics (Akil has cerebral palsy). Little did Frosty know that his wife put The Icons down as performers for the event. Luckily, Frosty and Sketch had already been in talks about reuniting.
"It forced us to step into the level of acting like a group again, instead of just two long-time friends talking about rap," Frosty says. They quickly came back together, along with a new DJ, K-Swift. Soon after, K-Swift brought DJ Qoolee Kid into the fold.
Back at the release party, the group performs to an intimate crowd inside Sadaf. The night feels less like a show than a family reunion. Most of the crowd consists of family, friends and fellow artists, there to hang out with each other more than anything else.
Everywhere they turn, Sketch and Frosty are greeted with huge smiles and cheers as if from long-lost friends. It's the kind of interaction that no doubt makes a group more than just the sum of its parts.
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