Looking to make it big
Hip-hop trio Underplayed went from underground project to potential breakout in a matter of months.
“This business is easy. If within the first 30 seconds you don’t like a song, move on,” said John Gilberti, president and CEO of Smoke Tree Records. “Within the first 10 seconds of listening to Underplayed, I knew we needed to sign them.”
Smoke Tree is a start-up independent label run by Gilberti, of Saddle River, N.J., and Shannon Cerrigone and Stephanie Findley, of downtown McMinnville-based social media company Heels in the Rain. Gilberti flew to Oregon on Wednesday and will be at 3rd Street Pizza tonight for the Underplayed concert, and Sunday night for a show by the label’s other recent signee, indie-country duo Sky Bound Blue (formally known as The Behnkes), featured previously in this column.
Signing a record deal was an unexpected development for Underplayed. It’s a new direction in the long road taken by rappers Taylor Hower (T-James) and David Stottlemyre (Hype).
The two began collaborating at the age of 15, and ever since they’ve been “trying to figure out if it’s a hobby or a goal,” Stottlemyre said. The duo was inspired by hip-hop acts like Atmosphere — “He’s so visual, and he’s great at pulling emotion out of a three-minute song,” Stottlemyre said. — as well as Tech N9ne and, more recently, Machine Gun Kelly. The two developed a mix of heady lyrics with big hooks, and eventually decided to add a powerful singer to the group.
They found those vocal chops in McMinnville resident Sam Dinsmore, a Linfield graduate and performer who went on to San Francisco to study opera. He and Hower met through friends, and they arranged a meetup with Stottlemyre. Last August, “Hype” drove from Olympia to Portland, and walked into Hower’s basement to discover the group’s new addition was a childhood friend.
“Our dads worked together for 30 years,” Stottlemyre said.
The trio tested the waters with a four-song demo and started performing in Portland. Dinsmore, who acquired the stage name Sammy D Soul, praises the craft of his partners.
“They’re both talented, really talented,” he said. “They study the craft and know what style they’re going for.”
For his own part, Dinsmore said, it took a while to break from stricter operatic habits after six years of rigorous studies. “It took a lot of hours of singing in the car and at home” to free his voice to the hip-hop genre. All three members have been impressed by the trio’s development in a short time. “It will kick you in the face a little, especially the first time you hear it live,” Dinsmore said.
Underplayed performed at several open mics around Portland, and eventually an October show at the Sellwood Public House. Cerrigone and Findley were at that show.
“Shannon and Steph heard us, liked us, called John, and here we are,” Stottlymyre said.
Stottlemyre said he and Hower always planned to go it alone, with plans to manage their own record label. Relinquishing creative control was a slippery slope in their minds. Stottlymyre admitted they were skeptical when Smoke Tree offered a record deal. But the relationship is off to a solid start with the record company, which touts loyalty to its artist.
“It’s all kind of moved quickly,” Dinsmore said.
Gilberti invited Underplayed to the East Coast last month and set up two shows. The first was the upstairs lounge of a sports bar that turned into a show for the waitstaff and the marketing team. The next night was a 180 from that experience, as the trio performed in front of 1,200 students from Lincoln University — a predominantly African American college — on a bill tabbed “Hip-hop Revolution.”
“It was like a fight; I don’t even remember being on stage,” Stottlymyre said. “But by the end of the night, they were fans of Underplayed. …
“It was a good trip all things considered.”
The group is calling tonight’s gig at 3rd Street Pizza a “pre-release” party. They plan to release their first single, “Tears from the Sky,” on April 20, then, later in the year, they’ll put out a full length album. Stottlymyre calls the album thus far “a sweaty rollercoaster,” packed with moments of high emotion, as well as relaxed front porch hip-hop.
Gilbert expresses a lot of confidence that Underplayed’s unique brand of hip-hop will catch national attention.
“I think the first single will be a Top 40 single,” he said. “I believe they are going to blow up on a big level.”
The concert begins at 8 p.m. Admission is $8, $6 for students. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/.UnderplayedRecords.
Ossie Bladine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.