Rusty Pelicans: Forgotten Pioneers of Milwaukee Rap

Mitch Kreitzman breaks down the history of Milwaukee rap pioneers, Rusty Pelicans.
By    July 26, 2017

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Mitch Kreitzman is just waiting for Anthony Davis to ditch the Pelies.

With the recent wave of rappers like milo, WebsterX, and IshDARR making names for themselves out of Milwaukee, anyone who came before has fallen by the wayside, but if you ask any veteran of Milwaukee music who pioneered hip hop locally, the answer is unanimous: Rusty Pelicans.

Comprised of  Adam James (aka Phantom Channel), Aron Smith (aka MC Oneself), Isaias Ortiz (aka Count Classic), and Dana Reeder (aka Dana Coppa), Rusty Pelicans made waves in the Midwest in the late 1990s by personally booking and opening for the biggest names in alternative hip hop, despite Milwaukee’s aversion to hip hop at the time. Their lyrical prowess, minimalistic production, and unique 4-person dynamic fit right in with groups like Atmosphere and The Pharcyde, whom they collaborated with on their debut album in 2001.

But their rise in popularity fizzled out in the early 2000s, with member departures and a lack of industry resources in Milwaukee killing their momentum. After spending over a decade in obscurity, the group’s original lineup reunited in 2015 for an acclaimed album that encompassed their careers, yet sounded like nothing they’d done before, and made their presence felt once again.

The group met at Milwaukee High School of the Arts  and moved into an apartment on Milwaukee’s East Side after graduating, where they had a wide range of diverse visitors early on, with the biggest unifying factor between everyone being the ability to freestyle and hold their own in a cypher.

“It was what originally brought us together,” Reeder tells me. “There was a brotherhood of freestylers at apartment 7 that would come from all over the city. It was an art, and something we were very conscious of. We were very boastful of that ability, and will still use that ability to this day,” he continues. In typical old-head fashion, this conversation turns into a discussion on the Stretch and Bobbito documentary, whether or not freestyling should be off the dome, and whether or not trap rappers will have any longevity.

Freestyling together in their East Side apartment eventually turned into their first official performance as Rusty Pelicans in December of 1995, at a now-defunct  Milwaukee venue called Globe East. In their first couple years, performing came with its struggles, due to Milwaukee having no precedent for hip hop, leading to skeptical fans at most shows. This is still an issue for many rappers in Milwaukee today, with a crowd full of scowls and crossed arms being the norm.

“If you can play in Milwaukee, you can play anywhere, because we’ve been doing this for 20 years, and we still gotta earn it every time,” James says, with an almost exasperated laugh. “Everyone in the crowd would rather be smoking weed at home for free.” These performance issues eventually paid off, and Rusty Pelicans began their explosion as a group, not by going on tour, but by bringing the best shows to them.

For most of the 1990s, no major venues in Milwaukee were booking hip hop shows. The only venue doing it previously was The Rave, which had stopped scheduling hip hop shows after a shooting during a Too Short concert in the early 1990s; however, Rusty Pelicans forever changed the landscape for Milwaukee concertgoers in 1998, and helped themselves in the process.

The group’s first big  performance came opening for Hieroglyphics at The Rave in 1998, a show they personally booked. According to Smith, this was the show that opened the doors for more hip hop in Milwaukee. “It was the first time hip hop played in Milwaukee in a long time, and it sold out,” he recalls. “It showed Milwaukee that there is money to be made doing hip hop shows and nothing bad will happen.” After this point, the floodgates opened wide for the group.

In the late ‘90s, Rusty Pelicans made a name for themselves as the prime hip hop group in Milwaukee, not just by booking nearly every major hip hop show to come through the city, but by being the only local group that could open for them. Though that is not to say they did not have the talent to do it otherwise; they were still blowing these crowds away.

Their style early on fit in perfectly with the alternative hip hop style pioneered by groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest in the early ‘90s. Their production had organic, boom-bap style rhythm sections, combined with creative sampling laced in for a style that will shake the room and get stuck in your head. Vocally, James and Ortiz were the consistent, straight-ahead parts of the group, bringing clever lyrics and traditional flows to every song.

But what made them stand out was what Smith and Reeder brought to the music, with their distinct voices and flows adding style that other groups just did not have. This unique group dynamic, combined with their alternative style, helped them leave lasting impressions on tons of fans. During their career, they have performed with Run DMC, Slick Rick, Talib Kweli, and countless others, many of which they booked themselves.

They brought up one particularly memorable experience from opening for Eminem, just before the release of The Marshall Mathers LP.  “We were so in the zone that we killed that fucking show,” Smith said. “We bonded with his hype man, Proof, during sound check, so Proof wanted to see us perform, but Isa accidentally gave him the wrong time, so he showed up right at the end of our set, which was basically our best show ever. So, long story short, we could’ve been part of D12.”

One of Rusty Pelicans’ most frequent collaborators was LA group The Pharcyde. The group went on a full Midwestern tour with The Pharcyde, and even worked with them in their LA studio, which the group recalled as one of their biggest “rock star” moments. “We were in the booth and had guys from The Pharcyde cheering us on behind the windows,” Reeder remembers. “It was such an ‘oh shit’ moment, just getting lit with our heroes in the studio.”

The also regularly performed with members of the Rhymesayers collective. Smith recalls a realization he had at a Rhymesayers show years after performing with them. “Brother Ali did a show here a few years ago, and he said on stage, ‘big shout out to the Rusty Pelicans, I came up opening for them,’ and I was like, ‘oh shit he’s right.’”

Prior to their first album, Reeder left the group to pursue solo aspirations. In the years after, he found plenty of success, working with artists like Action Bronson and Riff Raff. With the departure of Reeder came the group’s name change to Rusty P’s. Despite going into their debut album without Reeder, their common collaborations with Rhymesayers and The Pharcyde were huge assets for the group.

The single from their debut album, “Tread Water,” featuring Imani of The Pharcyde on side A, and “All I Have” featuring Atmosphere and DJ Abilities on side B, was one of their biggest moments as a group, giving way for the group’s debut album, which may have been their creative peak.

It is apparent while listening that they were chomping at the bit to put out this project, and were putting their best foot forward on every track; it felt like a perfect synthesis of all the hard work up until that point. It was on par with Atmosphere’s debut, Overcast!, and, much like the Minneapolis group, could have been the tip of the iceberg on their way to stardom; but it was instead the closest the group would ever come to the mainstream success of their contemporaries and collaborators.

After their second album, entitled One, Smith left Rusty P’s to pursue his own work, leaving the group with two members: James and Ortiz. In their four album stretch as a duo, they never managed to find near the same success and notoriety from their earlier days, due in large part to their lack of professional production resources in Milwaukee.

Often an overlooked part of music production, mixing and mastering is vital to creating professional-sounding music that separates real artists from the average Joe. Unfortunately for Rusty Pelicans, being independent led to a lack accessibility in a city like Milwaukee at the time, because there were no national music connections there.

Because of this, they could not achieve the professional sound needed to reach the next level as a group. Luckily for today’s artists in Milwaukee, development of music recording technology, combined with the development of Milwaukee’s music scene, has made it possible for local, independent artists to have professional production.

Jordan Lee, program director at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, and DJ for Rusty P’s during the mid to late 2000s, believes that these limited resources led to a huge waste of potential. “If they’d had the opportunities of a major label artist, they could have made something as good as Stakes is High by De La Soul,” he says.

Another problem that came with operating out of  Milwaukee was the inability of the group to get their name out there on a national level before the days of the internet. With services like SoundCloud now making it possible for any artist to give their music to the world, local artists from any city can find fame no matter where they are. Before this existed, signing to a major label and touring extensively were the only ways to expand.

Despite having national distribution as an independent group, Rusty Pelicans never toured in America besides the Midwest, making it difficult for other regions to ever hear about them without modern technology to help. “The big difference between them and Atmosphere was that Atmosphere would go out on minivan tours, and do shows for thirty people in Dallas, which Rusty P’s never really did.” Lee says.

Arguably the biggest issue that the group faced during this time was the lack of their group dynamic. While they still had the anchors of James and Ortiz to keep the music consistent, the flair that Reeder and Smith brought to the table was sorely missing from their work at the time, and they simply did not grab the attention of listeners in the same way. After this long stretch for Rusty P’s came their triumphant return, thanks to the reunion of the original lineup.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the formation of Rusty Pelicans, Smith and Reeder decided to join back with Ortiz and James. According to James, it took some time to get back into form. “Once we got to talking, it took a while for our ideas to mesh together and have the chemistry again. But once that happened it just became so much fun to do, and everything happened naturally.”

While they weren’t sure where the reunion would lead at first, things happened so organically that it turned into creating a full project together. The album, aptly titled Apartment 7 after the East Side apartment where the group got their start, sounded nothing like their previous work. “We didn’t want to do what we started out doing, because it was what everyone expected,” Reeder recalls.  “We still brought the same feeling to it, and put in a few sprinkles for the backpackers, but we wanted to evolve and test our blade.”

The production on the album had everything they were missing early on, and experimentation unlike anything they had done previously. Using Milwaukee producer Mammyth for the entire album, the project keeps the listener guessing by using a variety of different styles, both modern and classic, that feel shockingly fresh for a group with two decades under their belt. Their ability to evolve was impressive, and something that many older groups refuse to do.

Vocally, Apartment 7 was a return to form of what made them so great in the late 1990s. On songs like “Mo Fiya,” they perfectly display what works about their 4-person dynamic: James and Ortiz are the 1-2 punch, with Reeder and Smith filling in the gaps. 4-person groups are rare in hip hop, especially in the modern age, and they use it to their advantage.

Despite the intense focus on the music itself, what they appreciated most about the album was its impact on the group’s relationship. “It was so much fun, that was the best part,” Smith recalls with a smile. “The most important part of this whole story was us just coming back together as brothers and friends.”

For many Milwaukee music listeners, Apartment 7 was not just some of their best work, but some of the best music Milwaukee has ever seen. “Their most recent album is better than anything they’ve ever done,” Lee declares. “Because they’ve gotten all this experience and are better rappers than they ever were, because they all learned so much while they were off doing their own thing, They almost had to go through that divorce to get better as a group.”

Now that they are once again active in Milwaukee music as a four-piece group, their influence on hip hop in Milwaukee has never been more obvious, especially with the recent hip hop boom in Milwaukee in the last two years. On top of opening the door for countless opportunities in Milwaukee hip hop, what Rusty Pelicans have done for Milwaukee hip hop can be stated very simply: they did it first.

“Go on Discogs and try to find a hip hop single from Milwaukee that came out before them: it is going to be hard to find,” Lee says. “They’re like Milwaukee’s Grandmaster Flash in the sense that they did it first, they paved the way, and never got the money, success, and fame that was coming to them.”

With the group back in their original form, and coming off of one of their best albums, the future is wide open for Rusty Pelicans. Knowing where they’ve gone before, Reeder is taking it one day at a time. “I think we’re just trying to focus on making music and see where it takes us,” he says. “I think we’re just trying to figure out what we want to do.”

But Smith has much bigger plans. “Sharon Jones’ first album came out in her 40s. Run The Jewels are our age doing it big. If we keep making good music, who knows what could happen.”