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Origins of the Supa Friends hip-hop universe

The Madison group’s debut EP is the first in a planned series of solo and collaborative releases.

Photo: Supa Friends are, from left to right: SooDoNiM, Maruchan Chef, Hardface The Pilot, Tyrel the Well Treated, Soup The Fifth, and Al D. Photo by Indigo+ Photography.

When the five MCs in Madison’s Supa Friends perform live, a volatile dynamic plays out. Each member brings a distinct voice and tightly interlocking rhymes to the boisterous mix while making their respective individual talents clear. At the same time, they always seem like they’re on the verge of breaking into laughter and spinning out of control. That on-the-edge giddiness also comes through on the group’s debut EP, Super? No, Supa., released in June. Producer Tavian Walker (stage name Hardface The Pilot) and rappers James Horton Jr. (SooDoNiM), Justin Watts (Maruchan Chef), Corey Dean (Soup The Fifth), Tyler Brunsell (Tyrel the Well Treated), and Alex Driver (Al D) pack a ton of charismatic verses into each brief track, yet there’s no point where any one member of the group hogs the spotlight or crowds out another voice. Supa Friends are also planning an ambitious slate of releases for the rest of the year, including a run of solo outings that has already started with the August 19 release of Al D’s mixtape Megafauna and the September 1 release of Hardface’s Vol. 1 beat tape.

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 “Tyler and I went through the same Middleton school system, Alex and Justin went to the same high school together and middle school, and James has been in Madison as long as all of us have,” says Dean. “We all have kind of known each other in some way or another for most of our lives.”

Because the members shared so many formative experiences, their styles of writing, vocal delivery, and beatmaking developed with and around each other. These are six people in their early 20s, all bursting with ideas and bravado—Brunsell describes it as “a group of six energetic fifth-graders”—yet they’ve also learned how to give each other space and support. Dean, Brunsell, and Walker all took a hip-hop class together at Clark Street Community School, and through that met Madison rapper and educator Rob Dz, who also mentors young artists and helps them produce music and videos in his role at the Madison Public Library’s Media Lab. Watts and Driver played in punk bands in high school, sometimes with each other and sometimes with Walker.

The actual group Supa Friends came into being about three years ago, both as a music project and as an effort to  “jump start the scene a little, put that adrenaline back into it,” as Watts puts it. Up until the pandemic, Supa Friends were hosting regular open mics at the Goodman Community Center to help even-younger performers develop their voices, and host the Supa Syndicated show on the Lussier Community Education Center’s radio station, WWMV-LP. Dean had gotten it in his head that it would be cool to have a hip-hop project called Supa Friends, but after attending an open mic at The Depot coffeehouse in Hopkins, Minnesota, he felt inspired to start something similar here in Madison—where there’s always been plenty of hip-hop talent and never enough stages or support infrastructure to nurture it.

“We’ve had enough repeat offenders, if you will”—says Watts, cracking up his four fellow MCs with the characterization—”we’ve been blessed to see their growth. There’s folks who get up and you can tell that it’s their first time performing and they’re not as confident, and three or four months later they’ve been coming to these a while, and they’re up there with a presence. It’s dope to be able to, one, provide and facilitate that, and two, to see it happen.”

In just the past few years, the members of Supa Friends have done a lot of that development and confidence-building themselves. Driver estimates the six members usually spent 15 to 20 hours a week writing and working on music together (pre-pandemic), and that’s not counting all the time they spent just hanging out, presumably in the whimsical blur of weed and video games depicted in their video for “Heart Made Of Gold.”

“We also rehearse the hell out of our music,” Watts says. “Our manager Dash Dub, he got us really on the path. Before he started to put us up on rehearsal and all that, we were just kind of getting up onstage with each other and rapping, just kind of going with it, balls-to-the-wall intense, but he instilled in us, ‘No, you guys gotta tighten up and put this together.’ That helps at least with our stage show. Much like a normal band would do with our instruments, it gives us the confidence that knowing that if I fall on a bar, or if I want backup, that I’ve got four cats behind me that know my bars.”

Driver adds: “When we first started I used to face my back towards the crowd a lot. And I think part of it was that I was trying to get you guys involved more, but it was mostly that I was really nervous. And then once we all were on the same page with the bars, we’re all one unit, rather than being the next dude who’s about to rap. That started to make it a lot easier, on me at least, as a performer.”

The writing process behind most of the tracks on Super? No, Supa. was intensely collaborative and in-person. The five MCs often take one of Hardface’s beats and a topic as their starting point, and spend a lot of time just riffing off of each other, though sometimes the members break off to write by themselves or with one or two other members rather than the whole group. The Megafauna mixtape, for instance, is just Driver and Walker working together closely without the involvement of the rest of the Supa Friends.

“Whenever we create music, we’re normally in the environment that we hang out in as well,” Brunsell says. “When it comes down to the sound, it almost derives from cypher culture in a way, where you’ve got people writing verses you share out…as you continue writing together, you start to play off of each other’s styles, flows, things like that. You just start to pick up on what starts to really mesh.”

Working this way also has its frustrations, Brunsell admits: “I think it mainly becomes a challenge when you have everybody in the same room, but not necessarily everybody enjoys the beat that was chosen for the day. For example, I personally have moments where we’ll all be writing and then I get to the point where I hit a wall, and then it becomes a thing where I feel that I can’t necessarily contribute to the track, so it becomes a waste-of-space type deal.” But usually the group can compromise and work through these snags.

When it’s going well, this process creates songs that fit together more like exuberant mosaics than like regimented puzzles. The differentiation between each MC’s voice is crucial: Maruchan Chef’s husky baritone, Tyrel’s darting higher-register, SooDoNiM’s unflappable intricacy, Soup’s deep but ever playful, and Al D somewhere in the middle of the group’s range with a brash and bristling presence. Hardface’s production on Super? No, Supa. draws heavily on gently warped jazz and R&B samples, balancing out even the NES hooks of “Heart Made Of Gold” with warm rim-and-stick drum sounds.  

It’s all about how the different styles overlap and contrast. “When it comes to our sound and everything, we are all learning how to express ourselves to the fullest while also being…” Dean says, then searches for a word—sincere? “I’m learning how to express myself while giving Tyler the room to express himself to the fullest while I do the same. We’re learning how to co-exist together and share the light with everybody while expressing ourselves to the fullest.”

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But it’s also impressive how solidly the first verse on each track sets the tone and theme, while also leaving room for plenty of variations and tangents. The EP’s shortest track, “Blackheart,” begins with an absolute standout performance from SooDoNiM, who maintains a sober gravity through numerous twists in rhythm and structure: “Aw damn, SooDoNiM back again, your arch-nemesis / Talk shit, suspended like a slightly racist analyst / Catastrophe, kindling, cannabis catalyst / All you n___ do is cry, Shinji on Neon Genesis / Learn to love yourself, congratulations / Never read the rules and regulations / Every new track a revelation / And I revel in his creation / Where’s your dedication, determination? / This nation is where I leave my mark, via evisceration and decimation / Cut quick with the razor rhetoric, bleeding from the laceration / Torture leaving 100 scars, remember this sensation / SooDo disassemble imitations / Villain crashing the spot, no invitation / Blacker heart than Blackheart / Pitch-black, who can illuminate the dark?” 

Maruchan Chef’s opening verse on “Look Out,” on the other hand, launches the track into raucous and smart-assed territory: “Test tube bubble like Maruchan bong rip / Bring trouble double, make the crowd go ‘aww, shit!’ / Supa spit 85 Kelvin on wax / Melt that down and simmer it with show money, facts / Slow backs better than no money / How you rock the spot and then leave the show funny / You are really not who you claim to be sonny / Pull up in that fit have scuzzy and them lookin’ at he like ‘run it!'”

The variety of cadences, rhyme schemes, and themes across the EP also reflects Supa Friends’ openness to being any number of different things. Like the group’s name, that creative attitude is drawn very much from the world of comics, where characters and stories can morph almost infinitely through different generations, writers, artists and spin-offs. “In terms of comics you can create many alternate versions or parallels or however you want, so it’s almost like you can endlessly reinvent yourself, while also remaining true to your source material or your original canon,” Watts says.

Supa Friends incorporate a lot of comic-book imagery, and a mischievous sense of humor, into their videos and online presence. The combination video for “Halfway Crooks” and “Blackheart” is a crime caper that devolves into the members giving each other noogies, throwing around rubber snakes, and playing basketball. The “Heart Made Of Gold” video ends with the group accidentally breaking Justin’s futon. When Al D’s Megafauna came out, the Supa Friends Facebook page hyped a supposedly impending review from infamous/omnipresent YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano. This turned out to be “Soup-tony Fantano”—Dean struggling not to crack up as he offered some disconnected thoughts on the mixtape.

During the pandemic, Supa Friends have helped organize online events like the Social Distance Cyber Cypher and a get-out-the-vote effort called Bars & Ballots. The difficulty of getting together as often as they’re used to has also shaken up the members’ creative processes, often in healthy ways.”Before the coronavirus and everything happened, we were meeting every day, and doing just whatever 22-year-old men who write poetry in a room together do, and we were really going crazy,” Dean says. “But once the lockdown happened…now, I’m not with six other dudes writing poetry, I’m with myself writing poetry in my dimly lit room, going crazy. I say that to say that we’ve all had time to ferment in our own environments.” Justin laughs at this and tells Corey, “You make it sound miserable.” Corey clarifies that the situation has given the members an opportunity to work on their own individual styles and offshoot projects. 

The result is that the group plans to roll out solo recordings from each member in the near future under the Supa Friends umbrella. (Watts calls this the “Wu-Tang business model.”) Plans for the rest of September include a new group single and a Maruchan Chef solo record. Driver is working on producing some music for fellow Madison rappers SUVI and Red The Bully. Dean also hints that there’s a new Supa Friends group record in the works that is “completely different than the Supa Friends that the public knows about.”

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