Hip-hop group has big dreams: Relies on self-termed style called 'intellectual violence'
WEST NEW YORK - For now, a stopgap recording studio in Alex and Willie Melendrez's bedroom that is illuminated by a single dull light portends greater things to come. Four Memorial High School graduates dressed in varying degrees of hip-hop apparel wander around the room, clicking switches and turning knobs with microphones in hand as they prepare to saturate the air with volumes of a rhythm they have labeled "intellectual violence." "Intellectual violence is the way to describe our music," said 20-year old Jorge Gerena, looking intently at the other members of the rap group IRS (Infamous Rhythm Scholars) sitting to the left and right of him in Melendrez's living room. "The vulgarity is there but if you listen to our music you'll learn something." The four young men are 1996 and 1997 graduates of Memorial High School in West New York. They frequent the homemade recording studio four times a week after work, giving up their Friday nights and sometimes their weekends. They come to "drop beats," playing off each other's resources for cultivating a sound of their own after forming the hip-hop group back in 1996. Every member makes some contribution. Tommy Santiago is known as the "ears of the group" because he has a knack for good beats. Gerena, they all agree, is the main vocalist because of his natural ability to rhyme. Twenty-two-year-old Alex Melendrez is the designated songwriter. "He's the sorcerer," said his twin brother, Willie, who also writes songs. "He's the one that comes up with all the lyrics, and he does it so well, like magic. He'll take anything and make it work." Alex, sitting on a sofa chair next to Santiago, talks more about intellectual violence. "It's a way of saying we're going to attack you verbally." His brother Willie, sitting opposite him, adds, "We're not talking about guns, we're not talking about jewelry. Everyone's talking about killing. It's unnecessary. People think you have to talk about drugs and killing. We want to entertain people." "That's the misconception of hip-hop," said Gerena. "We're pretty much anti-drugs. But I wouldn't consider us positive, I consider us real. We have hard messages. We're going to tell it like it is. People are quick to dismiss rap as violent but they don't understand that it's all intellectual." "We don't want people to be afraid of us. We want them to be entertained," said Alex. After gaining encouragement from friends and graduating from Memorial High, the group decided to invest their time and money into recording their music. They saved and combined funds and attempted to make an album at a recording studio, but were not pleased with the results. Afraid to lose more money, they decided to make their own recordings. "That's when Alex set up the studio at home," said Gerena. Home is apartment 15 on the fourth floor of a white building near 49th and Hudson streets in West New York. Alex and Willie Melendrez live with their mother, who can be heard cooking in the kitchen down the hall, in the two-bedroom apartment. "She would get mad," said Willie about his mother when they first began recording at home. "She would bang on our room walls to tell us to turn down the music at 2 in the morning. But after she realized how much money he [Alex] had spent on the equipment, she realized how much he had invested in it. Then she listened to our recordings and couldn't believe that it was us. Now she supports us." In the bedroom
Willie leads the group into his bedroom and puts the light on. In one corner resting on top of a shelf is a contraption that looks like an equalizer. Alex presses a few buttons and a red light blinks on. "We've spent close to $5,000 on all this, mixers, pianos, mics and so on," he said. Willie adds, "Money is not the question." "It's all about being heard," said Gerena. "We want to be heard, we demand to be heard." They play a song that could easily be a hit single with its catchy tune reverberating from two large speakers that blasts deep bass and smooth rhymes. Alex said his taste for music in general has allowed him to experiment with sounds produced by instruments not traditionally associated with hip-hop such as the electric guitar. "We don't want to do the same thing," he said, before disappearing into a dark corner in the room. He returned with a compact disk with the markings "IRS" and explained that it was the demo that has been handed out to friends. He said the demo has already been handed out on the streets of West New York and Union City to anyone willing to listen to it. The demo, the group said, would soon be available for free in local record stores to those who purchase any hip-hop album. The group has already performed at Seton Hall University but said it can be difficult finding clubs willing to hosts unsigned hip-hop performers. Willie added that the group is currently working towards launching its web site, but the project is still in its earliest stage. When completed, the music of IRS could reach millions. "We're pretty much known around here," said Gerena, who added that the group must now carry around demos because of a high demand from friends and relatives to play their music at parties. "There's a lot of hip-hop in West New York that people don't know about. We're trying to put West New York and Union City on the map. We feel like we're going to get some response." Asked what would happen if there was no response, Willie said, "We're not even thinking like that. We're definitely going to be out there, to be heard." Not to be mistaken for cockiness, the group's self-assured confidence in their music stems from a desire to find a better life for their families. Willie said, "It's not really a great neighborhood. We'd probably be outside dealing the drugs if it weren't for this. We've seen it happen to people we know. They have excuses. We're just smarter than that. We don't let anything around here mess us up." Sitting up smartly, Gerena adds, "We love West New York, but we want to give our families the life. And you know what? We're going to do it."