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Pittsburgh hip-hop artists chase musical dreams

Pavel Gaydos (left) and Alex Abramson approach the gateway of LTV Steel Mill in the music video “The Calm.” Photo: Carey McKelvey | Point Park News Service
Pavel Gaydos (left) and Alex Abramson approach the gateway of LTV Steel Mill in the music video ‘The Calm.’
Photo: Carey McKelvey | Point Park News Service

By Carey McKelvey, Point Park News Service:

Hip-hop was everywhere for Alex Abramson, a.k.a. “Eclypse,” in high school. He heard it on the bus, in the hallways, and he began crafting words and beats with a little help from friends and the music producing software Garageband.

Beats began to roll through Pavel Gaydos’ head when he learned to play drums in middle school and throughout high school when he met Abramson. They have been collaborators to this day.

“We’ve all grown up together. That adds an element that not all hip-hop groups have,” Abramson said. He has completed his first album, “The Belgreen Sessions,” and is now on the cusp of releasing his second, titled “Bird’s Eye View.”

Abramson, Gaydos, Jackson Card, known as “Jay Card,” and Diego Bernardo, called “Paco,” all went to Pittsburgh’s Taylor Alderdice High School. They began crafting beats and lyrics in their free time, and eight years later, they’re still chasing the dream — even if that means working a day job or two to make ends meet and to fund their musical ambitions.

They are among many rappers and beat makers in the Pittsburgh region who walk in the shadow of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, two Taylor Alderdice alumni who have had hip-hop success.

While these proteges haven’t hit it big yet, they are examples of Pittsburgh’s diverse, fertile landscape of hip-hop artists who are creating a strong network of people centered around the East End.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Card and Bernardo moved into a house in Oakland on Belgreen Avenue.  This environment cultivated the group’s first collaborations.

“The house was super in the cut, back road of South Oakland. I never knew that the street even existed before we moved there,” Card said.

When Abramson would escape through the winter of 2009 from his own rundown house with no heat and a caving roof, he would go to the Belgreen house to record with his friends. The gritty tone to Abramson’s work expressed how he used his lyrics to lift him out of the doldrums of scraping by. From this album came the creation of the song and music video “The Calm,” a collaboration between Gaydos and Abramson.

They are depicted in the music video from February 2013, approaching an unused industrial site with flashlights in hand and the cold billowing from their breath. The music video tells the story of how they find their potential, searching through the junk and garbage of a steel mill to find an old empty journal.

Abramson’s words and music paint a picture of perseverance: “I bootlegged my own face to give it to them free” and “life is getting harder every minute trying to keep my digits up, paying the cost just to be living” are lines off of his album “The Belgreen Sessions.” These lyrics are often coupled with piano and needle-on-vinyl sounds, giving it a more old-time feel. His tone and lyrics express how he produces music not for fame, but to spread his message for anyone and for free.

“The energy of that house really brought everything about. We kind of had our own little enclave to ourselves and the other kids that were living on that street,” Card recalled.

Originally, Card came up with the title of the album, “The Belgreen Sessions,” for a mix tape of beats he was creating to promote his producing work. All the work they were doing on Abramson’s album led to Card giving Abramson permission to use the name.

Gaydos lived at Belgreen and was a major part in collaborating with Abramson. But he often goes his own way when creating music for himself, producing the beat and writing the lyrics for his music.

Gaydos’ life as a biracial Asian permeates in his music through using samples of music with international themes in his songs such as “Can’t F— with my Chi” and “Kanai Kiggit.” Both songs fuse Latin and Asian music to create the beats. “Kanai Kiggit” is a song inspired by Gaydos’ love for soccer and explores his life through college.

“I’m building my identity, which is one of the most important concepts of creating hip-hop music,” he said.

Gaydos often incorporates humor into his music especially in “Can’t F— With My Chi,” where he drops the lines, “I write a mixture of poetical spiritual bliss” and “the universe king and I’m just the jester.”

His humor weaves into the music video too, where an eccentric bearded man with a fishing cap pretends to play mahjong and magically appears at Gaydos’ convenience and need.

Luqmon Abdus-Salaam, a spoken word poet, consultant and educator in the hip-hop community, explained the uniqueness of hip-hop music.

“It’s a cultural expression, and the concept of it is that it’s always reinventing itself,” he said.

Abdus-Salaam travels to high schools to teach students kids about hip-hop and art.  The pattern of collaboration is something that Abdus-Salaam has seen greatly in Pittsburgh, he said. He believes it’s not only important for the community but important for youth.

“You want to have something that brings young people together,”he said, “and that’s what hip-hop does.”

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