The tale of Milwaukee hip-hop is a largely unappreciated work. It’s one that’s often overshadowed by more voluminous renderings regarding the subject of similarly sized Midwestern markets. After a great deal of slow build, this particular story is getting quite interesting. Though a variety of pivotal new characters have been introduced of late, longtime protagonist—Rusty P’s—have continually been driving the plot of Milwaukee’s hip-hop scene forward for years. With this week’s release of Pull The Trigger, the story goes on.
Rusty P’s officially started in 1995—then known as “Rusty Pelicans”—but the story that set the current roster into motion begins about 30 years ago in a first grade classroom at Saint Sebastian School on 54th and Washington, when Isa Ortiz (who raps under the moniker Count Classic) and Adam Haupt (Phantom Channel) first met. A friendship was quickly born, then severed when Ortiz moved to Madison, but the early bond was one that eventually led to the grade school chums reconnecting and delving into music in adulthood. Ortiz and Haupt (along with original collaborators Oneself and Dana Coppafeel, as well as later addition S. Watson) cut their teeth as part of a local rap landscape that was still very much in a developmental stage.
“It was definitely not was it is today,” Ortiz says. “There were fewer places to play, and there were very few people booking hip-hop shows that drew people.”
The early iteration managed to play shows in the Sydney HiH building, at The Globe, BBC, and Mad Planet, but it also took to warehouses and Riverwest basements to perform with definitively non-rap acts like The Mistreaters and Bongzilla. By the time the now-established Pelicans wisely opted for an abbreviation, Rusty P’s were frequently being tabbed as local support for a heft of huge names in the world of hip-hop, such as Eminem, Ludacris, Jurassic 5, Run DMC, The Roots, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Lupe Fiasco, and numerous coming through town.
As a group that’s been active since late last century and undoubtedly deserving of a slot in the pantheon of area hip-hop, Rusty P’s have watched countless other rappers arrive on the scene, only to relocate in hopes of gaining a fast route to notoriety, or quit altogether in the face of adversity. Moving was never an option for Rusty P’s.
“We’ve definitely seen a bunch of people come and go, or stay here a minute and try somewhere else,” Haupt says. “I think a lot of people have the misconception that if they leave Milwaukee, all the sudden everything is going to fall into place. I think they miss the point that you need to be able to do it wherever you’re at, and changing that environment isn’t going to change anything.”
Save for touring (including a run of European shows) Rusty P’s didn’t leave its beloved home city. However, even the local lyricists weren’t immune to change. Between the sixth studio album, 2008’s The Shape Of Things To Come and the days-old Pull The Trigger, the lineup shifted drastically, which left Ortiz and Haupt as the only two remaining Pelicans in the nest. The stripped-down cast has allowed the best friends and self-dubbed brothers to get back to basics and let them put what Ortiz calls “authentic and uncut hip-hop” on display in a peppy, tight, and overpoweringly positive 11-song package. Beyond mixing assistance and some beats, the now-two-piece took absolute creative control on the long-overdue record.
“In a nutshell, it’s almost entirely Adam and I,” Ortiz says. “I think you can hear it in the music. It’s a little more straightforward because I feel like Adam and I just needed to get this off our chests. It’s motivating and I love it. It’s almost like we found a new life.”
While the duo is invigorated and claims to have another album close to being entirely written, the 19-year-old act is peaking later than most. Some of the modern counterparts adding their own contributions to the ever-growing tale of Milwaukee hip-hop wore diapers when Rusty P’s were playing “beans and rice” shows with punk bands during the Clinton administration. As late and measured as the veteran hip-hop project’s strides are, they’re still moving forward. Perhaps those strides will yield things Haupt and Ortiz had imagined as teenagers nearly two decades back. Regardless, the important goals have already been accomplished.
“A long time ago it got to the point where it was like, ‘Success? Well, what is that?’ Haupt says. “I get to have a blast with my best buddy, do all the shit we love to do, and have all these crazy-ass adventures because of our music. That seems pretty fucking successful to me.”
Rusty P’s will be featured on 414 Music Live at the 88Nine Radio Milwaukee studios at 5:30 p.m. today. The Pull The Trigger release show is Saturday, August 23 at Mad Planet with KingHellBastard, Dana Coppa & SpeakEasy, and DJ Speed. Cover is $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 after. Cover charge includes a copy of the album.