By Christian Schaeffer
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In the world of Transformers geekdom, controversy surrounds the name "Megatron." Those who dislike the leader of the evil Decepticons interpret the name as an allusion to the character's megalomania, deriding the cyborg for harboring false fantasies of wealth, power and genius. His supporters point out that Megatron's actions have a cold sense of logic behind them, and that he fights with fairness and a sense of honor.
St. Louis rapper/producer Vandalyzm explains that he had all this in mind when he titled his self-released debut Megatron Majorz.
"I set out to make an album that was so good people would hate me, to the point where they'd think that I'm a villain," Vandalyzm says of the album, which officially dropped on December 18. "So I thought, 'Why not be the most badass villain that I know: Megatron?' So I went ahead with that. My alias is V-Majorz, so it became Van Megatron Majorz. If you don't like it, fuck you."
Clearly, he isn't afraid to piss people off. Packed with disses of varying degrees of seriousness and playfulness, Majorz could create enough beefs to supply a Ruth's Chris Steak House. The album's eighteen tracks decry the stigma of the post-Nelly era in St. Louis hip-hop, dumbed-down lyrics, and emcees who brag without the street cred to back up their boasts.
It would be easy to dismiss Vandalyzm (given name: Van Coleman) himself for such a fault if he didn't possess such an impressive resumé. His achievements include collaborations with independent hip-hop icons Little Brother and their crew the Justus League, production work for Usher's US Records label, and an ability to recruit a veritable who's who of the St. Louis underground to appear on Majorz. What's more, the album is full of enough wisecracks, irony and self-depreciating humor to disarm even the most jilted rival. Seated in a booth at Blueberry Hill, not far from the University City neighborhood where he grew up, Vandalyzm's wry sense of humor is in full effect. He explains how he deals with the misperceptions about him and his music that arise because of his clean-cut appearance and baby-faced grin.
"It's a little awkward when people see me and I tell 'em I rhyme," he says. "Most of the time, especially when it's women, I just tell them I'm a magician or a stripper."
Such wit is often given more serious treatment on the album, cutting deep on songs like "Studio Gangsters," which disparages emcees who have a tendency to boast about riches that don't exist or claim drug-dealing exploits that never happened. "Out the booth screaming, 'Yo, I flip ki's like janitor,' when there's no doubt about it, you flip keys 'cause you a janitor," Vandalyzm raps with typically clever wordplay.
"Listening to his music is like having a conversation with a person who makes you laugh the whole time you're talking to them — but at the end you're like 'Damn, you telling me something,'" says fellow St. Louis emcee Rockwell Knuckles, who drops verses on the Majorz track "Charity Case." "He tries to be honest and clever and charismatic, and I've got to salute him for trying to do it. A lot of people don't take it that far to get attention, and in my opinion it's not shock value; he's trying to make an artistic statement. He's trying to show people what he really thinks."
"Studio Gangstas," like several other tracks, ends with a flurry of spoken-word trash-talk and a proclamation of "Yeah, I said it." It's this air of defiance that the rapper assumes for virtually all of his outspoken views, particularly when it comes to his take on the impact that Nelly's success has had on St. Louis hip-hop.
"No dis to Nelly, props for being successful and doing what he did, but the process of this is, you look at every signed national artist from St. Louis, what do they sound like? Nelly," Vandalyzm says. "Reason being, only way they were going to get signed was to sound like him. And now nationally we've been looked [at] as a gimmick, because beyond the steps that Nelly took, with everyone copying what he doing and looking like buffoons, [the industry] is not taking us seriously."
Vandalyzm's music is certainly a far cry from the stereotypical St. Louis sound. His beats sample everything from Billy Joel to I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, while the rapper has an abrasive delivery reminiscent of Pharoahe Monch and Aesop Rock. In order to broaden his horizons — and with the hope that he'd be able to garner national attention without the baggage associated with a 314 area code — he says he cast his lot outside the city. He caught a break in November 2005 when a friend in Chicago passed on a copy of his demo to the acclaimed North Carolina hip-hop duo Little Brother.
The music made an immediate impression.
"Honestly, most of the CDs we get on the road suck," Phonte of Little Brother says in an e-mail. "Luckily, Van's didn't. My first thought when I heard his music was, 'Finally somebody got it right.'"
"It only had a couple tracks on there and they were all heaters," adds Big Pooh, the other half of the duo, who contributes a verse on the Majorz track "Hands High."
Collaborations with Little Brother's crew the Justus League followed. In October 2007, Vandalyzm was featured on a track produced by former Little Brother DJ 9th Wonder, on which he traded verses with Detroit emcee Royce Da 5'9". DJ Khrysis, also affiliated with the Justus League, produced the Majorz track "Money on the Table."
For the past two years Vandalyzm has lived in Atlanta, where he worked as a producer for the R&B group One Chance, who are signed to US Records. (Vandalyzm's double-duty as a producer/emcee — he crafted his own beats on ten of the eighteen tracks on Majorz — is clearly a point of pride: He makes a point of including production credits for each song on the album's track listing.) But after returning to St. Louis late last year and enlisting several notable St. Louis emcees and producers to contribute to Majorz — Black Spade, Wafeek, Gotta Be Karim, among others — Vandalyzm says he's proud to be representing the city again. He just hopes you won't hold that against him.
"I keep my Cardinals hat on, but don't let that be something that you judge me automatically on, on the strength of 'Hot In Herre,'" he says, adding a playful declaration that embraces the spirit of his Megatron alter-ego. "I'm speaking some truth in a lot of people's faces, and as much as it might hurt people to listen to it, the truth is they're going to enjoy it 'cause it's a damn good album. You can't front. Even if I might be talking about you, it's a damn good album."
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