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Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013

Ragelife Spin Conscious Hip-Hop from the Party Lifestyle

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Like clockwork, the University of Wisconsin is ranked one of the country’s top party schools year after year, much to the chagrin of administrators and to the pride of students. Party culture is so deeply embedded into the UW-Madison campus that even the most straight-laced or academically minded students eventually succumb to it. That was certainly the case for the members of the hip-hop trio Ragelife, which formed on campus. Rappers ¡OYÉ! (Milwaukee’s Karl Iglesias) and P/1 (Minneapolis’ Andrew Thomas) met while attending Madison as part of the First Wave program, which offers full scholarships to artists with ties to hip-hop, and each viewed that scholarship as a great responsibility. Theater majors from minority backgrounds, they each worked on socially minded performance pieces, exploring serious issues of race and identity, but by the end of their time on campus, they were as interested in having a good time as they were in trying to change the world.

“Both of us partied a lot, and we partied together, and we partied while making our record,” ¡OYÉ! says of Ragelife’s self-titled debut. “We were 22 when we were working on the record, about to finish our fifth-year senior victory lap, and we were drinking a lot, having a blast, but at the same time, we were both feeling conflicted about it. We both had this anxiety about graduating, and what that meant.”

On some level, they felt disappointed with themselves. They’d come to campus with ambitions of advancing hip-hop yet ended up succumbing to the very party culture dismissed by hip-hop purists as vacuous. But was that really such a contradiction? Hip-hop is, at its roots, party music, and the tension between moving crowds and saying something meaningful has existed since its very first recordings. That’s something all conscious hip-hop acts have to reconcile eventually—Ragelife just seem to be having more fun doing it than most.

Especially in its opening stretch, Ragelife’s debut album goes unapologetically hard with that kind of heavy, hyped-up hip-hop that drives college dudes in backward Wisconsin hats wild. That’s a crowd the trio has plenty of experience with. Before they hit the studio, they began as a live act, sculpting their live shows heavily around their turntablist, DJ *hitmayng, a veteran of Milwaukee’s Miltown Beat Down. His brisk scratching, knowledge of both classic hip-hop and contemporary rap and background in Madison’s electronic club scene lent the group’s live shows an energy that made them fast favorites around the UW campus. Within months, they were landing big shows opening for Lil B, Chance The Rapper and Mac Miller, who they warmed the stage for at Freakfest—perhaps the ragiest of Madison’s many ragey events, an annual shit show that draws tens of thousands of costumed partiers to State Street.

In the album’s second half, though, Ragelife takes a mellower turn. The party vibe subsides as the record clears space for more contemplative tracks, including several rich, typically soulful ones produced by Milwaukee’s Klassik. A somber examination of inner-city instability featuring Milwaukee hard head Yo-Dot, “The Rage” in particular hits like a splash of cold water to the face, a chilling reality check that takes the action miles away from the safety of campus and puts the comparatively shallow concerns of the album’s first half in perspective.

“Those are just real-life stories about growing up in the inner city,” ¡OYÉ! says. “A lot of Ragelife is derived from our histories: We’re students on full-tuition scholarships at UW, which is 92% white, and when you factor in that a lot of those students are coasties or from the burbs, our little bubble just feels smaller and smaller. We’d hear of racist things going on around campus and get mad, but weren’t sure how to address it. We come from that poetry, spoken-word, activist background, so we could get mad and address the campus that way, or we figured we could give the crowd what they want. They want party shit? OK, we’re going to give it to them, but we’re going to do it in a way that conveys our perspective.”

Ragelife’s self-titled album is available for streaming or download at ragelife.bandcamp.com.