Named after a coalition of comic book superheros, Justice League, a hip-hop group consisting of Kwame Owusu-Kesse ’06, Brandon M. Terry ’05, Nicholas H.O. Barnes ’05 and Dominique C. Deleon ’04, may not be supermen, but they have all the makings of superstars. Only weeks after the group first came into being, Justice League made its first public appearance together last Thursday at the Orpheum Theatre, warming up the stage for the MTV favorite and chart topper Fabolous.
Almost a month ago, the four friends won the opening spot at an audition where their two-hour freestyle set impressed the judges enough to earn them the job, as well as a respectable billing on the flyer. Their collective musical experience includes years of crafting lyrics, battling freestyle in school cafeterias and working the Black Students’ Association’s Apollo Nights. Though they hadn’t originally planned on auditioning as a group, they traveled to the audition together and quickly decided that four hip-hop heads were better than one.
The chemistry, they all note in unison, was undeniable, enriched by the fact that each member brought his unique style and background to the League. Owusu-Kesse clearly shows his influences from the lyrical prodigy Jay-Z, with his low-slung staccato rhymes; Terry brings the in-your-face gangsta excitement with wit to spare; Barnes utilizes a Jamaican accent and silky vocals to represent a dancehall flavor with straight-up “ragga” delivery; and Deleon rocks a style that merges the playful, smooth lyricism of underground acts like De La Soul with the rapid-fire flow of Eminem. Deleon also produces the group’s beats, a skillful take on the jagged rhythms which dominate the airwaves but still retain a crucial underground rawness. The group boasts a fifth member: D.J. (Jonathan R.) Ardrey ’05, who, according to Barnes, helped the group mix their songs and put their ideas “out there in a way the crowd would feel.”
Their powers combined—uniting underground, mainstream, and Caribbean hip-hop traditions—“represent something you haven’t seen before,” Barnes notes, with agreement from the others. This includes a comparison to all previous Harvard hip-hop acts, like Witness Protection Program and David Mays. While giving props to their predecessors, Terry notes, “We’re just trying to take it to the next level.”
The next level certainly could be considered opening for a name like Fabolous at a professional venue like the Orpheum; the way they rocked the crowd renders their achievement undeniable. They had everyone up on their feet from the moment the first beat was dropped; their mastery of call-and-response with the audience, catchy sing-along hooks like “it’s your birthday” and onstage banter as they egged on each others’ intros started things off on a high note, despite some technical difficulties with Owusu-Kesse’s mic that took ten minutes to get sorted out. “I don’t think anyone expected the crowd to be as into our performance as they were,” Deleon says. “The crowd up front was going crazy, and, for the most part, all of our main supporters were in the back. So it was crazy to see that we almost got the crowd as hyped as the main act without any songs on the radio.”
Part of the hype was probably the product of style; from the sideways caps to the arm sweatbands to the baggy pants, they had the look to get the girlies in the front rows putting their hands in the air. Their movement over the stage was energetic and balanced, and they even broke out with some choreographed little moves here and there, to the crowd’s delight.
Most captivating was the dynamic they established through their individuality. Terry, true to form, displayed the requisite crotch-grabbing and at several points jumped off stage to run into the crowd. His provocative lyricism included a line about Goodyear rubber as well as some banter with the females in the crowd, saying, “You all came to see Fabolous...but I know one of you will settle for me.” The subsequent screams concurred. Barnes received frenzied applause for representing Jamaica; his voice and elegant style were featured in several impressive dancehall solos. Deleon surprised when he broke out into a beat-boxing session, breaking from his rapid melodic flow alternating with hammering back-up rhymes. Owusu-Kesse dependably delivered emphatic gestures and rhymes, epitomizing the hip-hop star. The group as a whole obviously knew how to keep the energy up, as Deleon got the audience hyped over a song about hating your job and boss, or, as they all enjoined the crowd, to ”bounce wit it.”
Also impressive was their willingness to earn their cred and captivate their audience without conspicuously dropping the H-bomb. No one in the crowd, aside from the Harvard students (and there was a solid contingent there) seemed to know they were an all-Harvard act. Aside from some shout-outs to “HU” toward the end of their set, Justice League didn’t refer to Harvard, unless one can read into the lyrics of one of their songs: “Class dismissed/You aint rappin this/You aint got the aptitude/To pass the test.” They might as well have been talking about the stream of opening-act successors. The on-stage fog and coordinated lighting show weren’t enough to rile the crowd back up to Justice League-levels of excitement, even with the addition of a break-dancing and an all-girl hip-hop crew.
While the group was satisfied with its performance, it was icing on the cake to get props from the crowd and even Fabolous himself after the show. “The thing that surprised me the most was that as Fabolous was walking towards the stage, still backstage at this point, he looked at us and told us that we did a good job,” Barnes writes in a post-show analysis e-mail. “At that point I knew that our performance was notable, seeing that he didn’t have to say anything at all. We were also surprised by all the love that non-Harvard people gave us. It was weird to hear so many kids and adults ask for pictures, hugs, autographs, etc.”
Despite the success of their first gig, the group’s plans for the future remain uncertain. Deleon notes that more gigs would be nice, to get more public exposure and, more importantly, to develop connections that would secure them studio time. They have about a dozen songs developed, but no way to record them at the moment. FM has a feeling that some studio time will open up when the clock runs out on Fabolous’s 15 minutes. In the mean time, the group can treat the Harvard music scene to their phat beats; it’s the only just thing this league could do.