P Smoov is in the middle of hosting an impromptu listening session while cruising through the Central District. Seven of us have just pulled out of a convenience store at 20th and Jackson in a white minivan stocked with 30 beers, two packs of cigarettes, and a dozen new Mad Rad tracks that nobody has heard before. We're driving to Portland, where the group has two shows over the weekend—but we're already two hours behind schedule because the entire crew is hungover as hell. Everyone except Buffalo Madonna, the one person who should be in the worst shape.
The night before, May 29, Mad Rad had triumphantly returned to Capitol Hill, the neighborhood that birthed and then banned them for various shenanigans roughly six months ago. Given that the foursome hadn't headlined a proper show on the Hill in close to half a year, their gig that night at the Comet was a predictably sold-out, raucous, beer-soaked affair.
Madonna, who later admitted he'd drunk more than a pint of whiskey before the show, spent the bulk of the night reciting his lyrics from the ground. He occasionally pulled himself up the side of a speaker, surfed on top of fans, and rapped seemingly everywhere except the stage. But liquor can't be blamed for all his disappearances. The crowd at the Comet was at full-on mosh-pit level when Mad Rad started their set just after midnight. Folks inside the club pushed, punched, and bumped into the band so much during their set that cords kept getting unplugged and an inebriated Madonna frequently faded into the crowd for minutes at a time. It wasn't the greatest Mad Rad show of all time, but those lucky enough to be there got the mayhem they expected—one of the biggest reasons people come out to see Mad Rad in the first place.
Considering how inebriated Madonna (real name, Nate Quiroga) was that night, you'd have thought he'd be in bad shape the next day, stuffed in a hot minivan with six other dudes. But as we drive away from the Seven Star mini-mart on a hilarious journey toward Portland, Madonna just cracks a beer and laughs. "Can you believe I had to be at work at 9:00 this morning?" he says with a grin. Then he leans his head back, takes a swig of Rainier, and says: "Fuck it."
For those in need of a primer on Mad Rad, they're the same group of electro hip-hop hooligans you might have read about for all the wrong reasons on a dozen music blogs across the city. Comprising MCs P Smoov, Buffalo Madonna, Terry Radjaw, and DJ Darwin, the foursome first made waves a year ago as some of the liveliest (and drunkest) party rappers in Seattle. They rose to fame, seemingly at warp speed, within certain pockets of the local music scene for their blatant who-gives-a-fuck attitude and their reputation for playing shows that felt more like hair-metal house parties on the Sunset Strip than official gigs.
Building off that energy, the foursome started playing actual living-room soirées to keep their buzz on a steady incline, and as the city's hipsters fell in love with their eclectic brew of synthed-out electro production and outrageously crass rhymes, Mad Rad had the feel of a group that was of the people rather than above them. Of course, that they're white rappers who look and dress exactly like their target audience undoubtedly helped; it's the same shtick that helped the Beastie Boys surpass more talented rap groups in New York more than 20 years ago.
Mad Rad's growing reputation as drug-addled rappers (which still applies) had its share of pluses and minuses. Sure, people were, and still are, quick to stigmatize them as such, but the spectacle of it all kept people coming back for more. By the time they dropped their debut LP, White Gold, near the end of last year, it seemed like the crew could do no wrong. They were arrogant as fuck, but tore up half the venues they played, and booking agents are quick to note that the group is good for business and can pack a venue due to their devoted fan base around the city.
"You'd be stupid to not book Mad Rad," says Melissa Darby, the main talent buyer at Nectar and head of Obese Promotions. "They put on great shows and they hit the numbers. I've had them pull over 150 people on a Monday with less than two days notice. They have people who will leave Capitol Hill to come watch them. They're an extremely viable group. Basically they're über-scenesters, and people come out and support them."
Mamma Casserole, the lead booking agent for the Comet, won't say what the exact attendance figures were for Mad Rad's May 29 gig, but says with a laugh that the club was way over capacity and that it was one of the best shows she's ever booked. But it's well-documented that the group has its share of detractors as well. At one point they were banned from seven venues in the city—Neumos, Havana, The War Room, Chop Suey, The Saint, and both Showbox locations—due to a series of immature incidents that have recently cast a dark cloud over the group.
That's partly why it's so important for Mad Rad to play shows like the one we're headed to in Portland: The band needs other outlets and markets to embrace them as they fight through a rather personal squeeze-out by the club owners of Seattle's music epicenter.
Despite the band's reputation for partying, they're actually not hitting it too hard on the drive down I-5. Sure, those 30 beers purchased in the Central District don't even make it to Olympia, let alone Portland, but there's six people drinking them—in addition to the four members of Mad Rad, Bryce Brown and David Audino of local scream-heavy indie-rock outfit Chk Minus are along for the drive. And for the record, Audino, who is behind the wheel, doesn't touch a lick of alcohol until the final destination is reached.
Madonna was set to debut as Chk Minus' new lead singer on June 16 at Chop Suey. By the time this story goes to print, Madonna may have managed to sneak into the club and perform, possibly under an assumed name. Surprisingly, he won't be the first member of Mad Rad to play a gig at one of the venues where the group is banned.
"I actually played a set at Havana a couple of months back, when Tigerbeat felt ill and asked me to take his place," Darwin (real name, Ty Finnan) says with a laugh. "So I was like, 'All right'—and it totally worked. None of their staff people even noticed."
What is noticeable, however, is the serious progression and growth of the new Mad Rad beats that P Smoov is flipping through from the front seat of the minivan. The production is surging electro, with heavier keys and synths that sort of orbit hip-hop, Baltimore club, fidget house, grime, and rock without distinctly landing on any one style. "The age of specific musical classifications is over," Smoov says. "Genres are limiting. We make 'hover music.' We float above genres."
Dressed all in black with a mini-Mohawk, like a slightly goth anarcho kid trapped in the wrong scene, P Smoov (real name, Peter Robinson) is the 23-year-old production whiz and driving force behind Mad Rad. He's the one responsible for the far-out astral sounds that helped set the group apart when they first started, and spits the most sexually charged lyrics as well. He's admittedly Type A to the core, and if anybody in the group has a chip on his shoulder, it's P. He grew up in the tiny burg of Niles, Mich. (population, just over 12,000), but says he's been focused since his early teens on becoming a successful music producer.
"Since I was 14, I've had it all planned out," he says. "I was, like, one, graduate high school, two, graduate Full Sail, and three, move to L.A. and work in a major studio. I never had a problem with knowing whatI wanted to do whenI grew up."
As self-gratifying and overcalculated as that might sound, he's accomplished all three. He drove out of his hometown within days of graduating from high school and headed to Winter Park, Fla., to enlist in Full Sail, one of the top-notch music production and digital-arts programs in the country. It was there, he says, that he learned the ins and outs of how to run a real studio, and developed the audio-science skills to be more than just a self-taught producer. Within days of gaining accreditation at Full Sail, he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent the next year and a half as a studio rat, first at Westlake Studios in Hollywood (where Michael Jackson's Thriller was recorded), then at The Village, where he was actually hired as an engineer and programmer. In September 2006, Smoov landed in Seattle on his 21st birthday, and dove straight into the local hip-hop world.
But that was almost three years ago. These days, his beats are going in a different direction. "I used to be in the hip-hop scene here in Seattle," Smoov says. "But it's boring...a bunch of dudes who don't dance but fold their arms at the back of the club drinking cheap beer is not my idea of a fun night." It should be noted that Smoov's also a member of spaced-out hip-hop duo Fresh Espresso alongside Rik Rude, and he's got a production called Don't Sleep in the works, featuring a who's-who of local rappers including Geo of Blue Scholars, Spaceman, Thig Natural, and others.
When asked if he feels isolated at all as a producer by Seattle's hip-hop community (partly because of the way Mad Rad is perceived), he replies: "I don't thinkI am totally isolated, but I feel that I ama black sheep in that community," he says, oblivious to the irony. "Catsstill fuck with my beats, but the ones I am selling them are the ones I consider my least inventive/unique. I can chop a sample and add some slapping drums, but that shit is getting boring. I can't stand beats that are just loops with a synth added for the hook. I want movement."
If it's movement he wants, he and Mad Red certainly don't get much once we arrive at Rotture, the venue in an industrial neighborhood of Portland where the group is set to open for hometown favorite Jaguar Love. Here, less than a hundred cooler-than-thou kids sit around waiting to be impressed. It's a stark contrast to Mad Rad's show the previous night at the Comet, which had a line wrapped around the corner. In Portland, unwavering support is not in abundance, and winning over this crowd with both style and substance is a must.
When the show starts around 10:30 p.m., there are, at best, 20 people on the dance floor. But that's of no concern to DJ Darwin, who's going epileptic behind his laptop: cuing up dancehall, air horns, electro—anything to help bring this crowd to life. Radjaw, easily the group's most lyrical MC, is hitting folks with his old-school rap delivery; Madonna has his shirt off and is writhing around, muscles taut like a young Iggy Pop; and Smoov, now sporting black shades, looks like the Johnny Cash of party rap.
As they shift from songs like "Glitzerland," "Superdope," and "My Product," the number of folks on the dance floor doubles. The passion of Mad Rad's performance is winning people over even more than the music itself is. Just when the room's energy feels overwhelmingly in Mad Rad's favor, a DJ cord gets unplugged, the sound cuts out for 20 seconds, and the dudes end up starting a song over. It's a fairly insignificant delay, but later in the van, as the crew heads to their second performance of the night, Smoov lets Darwin have it.
"Why the fuck does that keep happening!" he yells. "We should just use CDJs [turntables that play CDs] and not have to deal with this shit." It's a diss against Darwin's skills in front of everyone, and a rather uncomfortable moment. But a few minutes later, everything eases back to normal.
The night's second gig is in the basement at a raging house party, and is set to go from midnight to 6 a.m. In typical Portland style, half the folks have ridden their bikes to the party, and every stop sign and lamppost in sight has five or six bicycles chained to it. There are a ton more people at this underground music venue than there were at Rotture, and as Mad Rad walks into the place, partygoers point, step aside, and seem to be well aware of who they are. It's set to be the redemption show of the weekend—but unfortunately the speakers barely work and the sound system is shot; and despite the fact that the foursome has a hard-on to finally rock the fuck out, it can't happen.
"We want nothing more than to perform for you," Madonna tells a basement full of people while holding a microphone, "but we got to get these speakers right." Unfortunately, they never rap a single lyric. But rather than pout, they attempt to finally relax. The stress that Mad Rad's felt for the past few hours, however, shows that they aren't as carefree as most people might assume.
There have been times when the group's been too careless, with negative results. In December, the owners of Chop Suey were sued by Gerald Simonsen, the owner of the Capitol Hill building where Amante Pizza is located, after Mad Rad members admittedly wheat-pasted large posters on the side of the building to promote an upcoming show at Chop Suey. Simonsen asked Mad Rad to remove the posters, and it should have been an easy fix. But by the time he called with the simple request last November, Mad Rad was on tour promoting White Gold and were unable to do it. Simonsen eventually sued Chop Suey for damages. Chop Suey demanded that Mad Rad simply cough up the $400 it would take to clean up the mess, but they didn't. According to Radjaw (real name, Gregory Smith), they didn't feel responsible financially.
"I said I don't want to pay it. I want to fight it," Radjaw says. "That's some vandalism shit, but if they can't even prove that we put those posters up, we're not responsible."
It was an immature reaction that left bad blood between the group and Chop Suey. Pete Greenberg, the lead talent buyer at Chop Suey, refused to comment on the story, but according to Mad Rad that's the real reason they were banned from the club. And it's highly possible that the bad karma of that event is what sent their popularity spiraling in the wrong direction.
Roughly a month later, on January 10, when Mad Rad showed up at Moe Bar to continue an hours-long drinking bender, they didn't think anything negative would happen—even though they were trashed off of E&J and had just acted like asses at a dinner party for local hip-hop figures that evening, and even though Madonna had gotten kicked out of Neumos a few days earlier by the same security.
According to Steven Severin, co-owner of both Neumos and Moe Bar, the infamous altercation which led to Mad Rad being banned from most places on the Hill was completely the band's fault. "They were being nuts, jumping around, causing trouble, climbing on top of shit, so we kicked them out," Severin says. "One of the guys in the group said something to our head of security, and then he punched them."
But according to Darwin, it didn't go down like that. Asked if he'd punched anyone that night, his reply is emphatic: "Fuck, no! I know better. You just don't hit bouncers. The second I stepped outside I got tackled. They pinned us to the ground until the cops showed up."
What's clear is that the group was asked to leave, an altercation outside the club occurred, and Madonna, Smoov, and Darwin spent two nights in jail. Madonna and Darwin were charged with gross misdemeanor assault, while Smoov was charged with criminal tresspassing and obstrucion of justice.
Although Smoov pled guilty to avoid further legal hang-ups and paid a fine, Darwin and Madonna pled not guilty and are due in court on July 21.
"Dude, they were after us because we're Mad Rad," says Darwin, still pissed. "That's the whole point. It was because it was us. Our profile kinda sucks sometimes. [Security] totally overreacted. If it was other Joe Schmoes, it wouldn't have gotten to that level at all. But they had it out for us."
"They know what they did," counters Severin. "Terry [Radjaw] came and apologized the next day. Listen, you punch our security, you're going to get banned. It's real simple. I'm kind of bummed it went down like that. I think their music is cool, and I like when people cause trouble. Just the right kind of trouble, not all fucking-up-my-business kind of trouble."
After that incident, several clubs instituted a joint ban on Mad Rad, which is still in place. But they're scheduled to play Chop Suey on July 25, the night of the Capitol Hill Block Party (the club wouldn't confirm this booking). Until that happens, they're mostly personae non gratae in the neighborhood where they can earn the most money performing.
"We got no issues with those guys," says Marcus Lalario, co-owner of The War Room on Capitol Hill, "but we stand in solidarity with Neumos. The clubs communicate, and we have each others' back. If they clear all this up with Neumos, then we're good. But until then I'm not letting them in."
But not everyone is following suit. Jed Smithson, the owner of Nectar, doesn't mind that Mad Rad is banned from half the places on the Hill. He's had them play at Nectar three times in the past six months. Melissa Darby, who books the venue, says she's received numerous phone calls from various club owners (but declines to say who on the record) urging her not to let the group play at Nectar.
"I think people have a right to do what they want," Mamma Casserole says when asked if she thinks the joint ban on Mad Rad has gone too far. "I can't criticize [venues] for not booking them, but we're a small club and I have a right to book 'em. We take chances. I think the main reason that I book them is because I'm a social worker and we give people second chances. No matter what happened at Neumos that night—and they probably did do the wrong thing, although I don't know the circumstances—I wanted to see if they could make good on a second chance, and they did."
Asked what it would take for the ban to be lifted, Severin blankly says: "I don't know. I've got shows to book, man...it's not on my radar." Mad Rad is now mostly relegated to places like Fremont, Georgetown, and Eastlake.
"They think by banning us that they're gonna hurt us, but they're not," says Darwin. "We'll go up to Mill Creek and play at the Jet. Kids will come and see us. Our fans just don't live in Capitol Hill. They live in Ballard, in the U District, and all over. Yeah, six months ago our crowd was mostly Capitol Hill, but now our fan base is bigger 'cause we play elsewhere."
"I'm not going to kiss anybody's ass just to play their club," Radjaw adds. "Fuck that. Either you want us to play at your club or you don't."
Darwin also doesn't seem too worried about the court case he's facing, as he's dealt with harsher realities. While it's not something he readily shares, the fun-loving, party-rocking club DJ is ex-military and a combat veteran. He served on the USS Abraham Lincoln for two years, and was in the Persian Gulf for a few months at the onset of the current war. Interestingly, he learned to DJ while in the Navy.
When it comes to show posters and flyers, Radjaw is one of the best graphic designers in Seattle. He could also be a part-time comedian, as he cracks more jokes than anyone in the group. Madonna, a theater major at Cornish College, hopes to pursue acting seriously in the future. His theatrical background may have been a major factor in the act of redemption that turned Mad Rad's fate around last month.
When Madonna first walked onto the Yeti Stage at the Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre over Memorial Day weekend, he knew he was going to create a spectacle. For the 22-year-old, that's not terribly different than any other show he plays. Yet an hour later, practically hovering some 50 feet above the crowd and rapping his verses on the stage's hot metal roof, it was apparent to nearly everyone in attendance that not only was Mad Rad causing another ruckus, but they were performing the most memorable concert of their career.
Although Sasquatch security couldn't have been pleased, Madonna had the huevos to climb the scaffolding and recite the final verse of the song "Quest Que Cest" with arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross—by far the gutsiest move a performer pulled during the three-day festival. Writers and bloggers from around the country instantly swooned. The crowd cheered incessantly. A barefoot DJ Darwin, who had already chucked his shoes into the crowd, stood on the DJ table pumping his fists—and just like that, Mad Rad's appeal was surging more strongly than ever.
"I knew going in that I needed to do something big," Madonna says. "I'm a theater major. When I walk into a room, I look at what I can use as a prop. I'm very much spatially aware, and I feel like I know how to connect with energy."
So with a killer show at Sasquatch behind them, does Mad Rad think people will stop hating on them for their past?
"Naw," Smoov replies. "People are either going to love us or hate us no matter what. We like that our music makes people passionate to voice their opinions...but most folks who hate on us don't even know us, and that's something that will never change."