New Voices 2008: Proton

It’s ironic that the first group in Plug One’s New Artists 2008 is hardly new.

Thomas Williams and Larry Baker, a pair of cousins who have been making music as Proton since 1999, released their debut CD, Vintage Vegetarians, in 2003. Last year, however, the duo – with the help of manager/party promoter Fadia Kader – started drawing serious attention. One reason was their mixtape album, Girls and Ghetto Shit, a clever and pop-oriented take on female relationships and ghetto clichés. Another was a revival of Atlanta’s long-suffering underground hip-hop scene, which has lately blossomed with artists such as Gripplyaz, Hollyweerd, the Labratz (formerly known as the Backwudz, who released an album in 2006 on Rowdy/Universal), B.O.B., and others.

That renaissance, of which Proton may be its leading light, has yet to reach the rest of the world. But as an ATL resident, I’ve watched Proton grow from one of the underground’s most underrated acts to a duo seizing their moment, recording sharply accessible songs (which you can hear on their MySpace page) and notching dozens of shows. Watching them on stage, they cut a distinct figure of a duo seizing their moment, mingling old-school lyricism with bouncing club-rap beats and hooks. No longer vintage vegetarians, they are remaking themselves into rappers for the future.

With luck, Proton’s second album, tentatively titled State of the Art, will be out before the end of the year. In the meantime, you can catch them at the A3C Hip-Hop Festival on Friday, March 21 at the CW Midtown Music Complex in Atlanta.

Plug One: For the people who don’t know who Proton is, can you explain what you’re about?

Larry: We’re an Atlanta-based rap duo that does what I like to call progressive hip-hop music, meaning that it uses elements of other genres, and we’re not just rapping-rapping-rap-rap-rapping.

Plug One: When did you guys form?

Larry: The two of us, we’re related – we’re first cousins. But I think the group Proton initially came out in ’99.

Plug One: You said that what you make is progressive hip-hop. But people who don’t live in Atlanta only know the city for crunk or OutKast. Where do you fit in outside of those stereotypes of what people associate with Atlanta hip-hop?

Larry: Shit, man, I guess we don’t really fit into either one of those categories because we don’t consider ourselves to be regional artists, just because the region that we happen to be coming out is creating a brand of particular music that seems to be successful but doesn’t define us. I think we’re older than these trends. Our whole style – it’s us, man. It’s really just us.

Thomas: You say between the crunk and OutKast – it’s funny that you say that because there were some writers, bloggers, whatever who wrote about us on their sites. One in particular was saying that it’s a shame that whenever something out of the South and out of Atlanta is not crunk, snap music or some gutter shit or some dope boy music that it automatically sounds like OutKast. And it’s really not true. OutKast is hip-hop/funk music, and we really don’t have any funk elements in our sound. But it’s funny because we do different things than the snap and the crunk, and people say, “Oh, they sound like OutKast!” Which really isn’t true, but I mean, shit, that’s how it goes I guess. We ride the fence between the two ‘cause, really, we can go either way when it comes to beats or concepts. We can get deep. We can keep it simple. But usually we get labeled more on the OutKast side.

Plug One: For people who haven’t heard you, do you have any CDs out? I know you have Girls and Ghetto Shit. Was that widely distributed, or was it more of a mixtape thing?

Larry: It was a limited edition.

Thomas: Yeah, that was a collector’s edition release.

We have been offered to do some kind of distribution deal for that. But essentially what we’re doing now is taking material from that, and recording new material in order to solidify an album, because that really wasn’t a legitimate album.

Plug One: It seemed like a lot of the songs on the album were talking about relationships. What songs are you working on now? Is it more songs about relationships, or are you talking about other things as well?

Larry: [Girls and Ghetto Shit] was pretty much all over the place. We had a variety of topics, but we kept coming back to the same thing. Like we were mentioning, like you said, relationships kept coming back to the young ladies, and then talking about the situation in the inner cities, ghetto shit. So it was an appropriate title for the collage of music.

Plug One: Well, you mentioned that you were working on an official album now. Do you have a title for that album, or any idea what it will be about?

Thomas: We’ve been playing around with an album title for a few years now, and it’s really about getting all the songs together that fit the concept and the title, and that title is State of the Art. It’s kind of a double meaning. You know, we want it to be current and up-to-date technically and sonically, and at the same time a lot of the material will address the state of music, be it rap music or music in general, trends and what not in the music industry, and so forth and so on. That’s like our baby right there, State of the Art.

Plug One: Which producers are you working with?

Larry: First and foremost, in-house. Thomas does production. We’re working with Battery 5…are we working with Battery 5, Thomas?

Thomas: I think we are, if Usher will get out of the studio. [Usher is finishing up his album at Red Zone Studios, home to Atlanta producers such as Battery 5 and Tricky Stewart.]

We also just started working with some other producers. One is named Drop [Derrick Braxton]. He did three tracks on Lupe Fiasco’s album The Cool. And also Bryce Wilson, who you may know from Groove Theory and Mantronix. Producer/actor. He did work for Beyonce and Toni Braxton.

We just hooked up with [Drop] a couple of days ago, and he came here to work with us. So that was very cool. We were in the studio with him last night, and we’re also supposed to go back in tonight.

Plug One: Are you guys planning to put out your album on your own label, or are you signed to a label?

Larry: That’s up in the air right now. We’re currently having meetings with different prospects…

Thomas: …some of them independent, some of them major. And I guess…they’re waiting to see what we do. Some of them are not familiar with how our live show is. We’ve got people from a major label coming to see a show in L.A. [Note: Proton is performing with Pacific Division, Black Spade and others at Temple Bar in Santa Monica on April 11.] We just did a show in New York, and had some independent label reps come check that out.

Right now, we’re just kinda seeing what happens. We’re in the studio. They’re asking for new songs. And we’re just seeing what happens.

Plug One: But it seems like you’re going to put this album out on some label. You’re not just going to put it out yourself.

Thomas: Yeah, that’s the plan.

Plug One: So I’m curious…if you haven’t put out any official music, then how are people finding out about you?

Larry: That’s a good question. Shows, word of mouth, the Internet…

Thomas: MySpace.

Larry: Press. I mean, shit man, Fadia works her ass off, constantly emailing people, constantly sending out CDs to people, constantly keeping us in the studio and performing. Yeah man, it’s a nice little buzz. I was in the barber shop today actually – it’s in the west side of Atlanta, a hood spot just off MLK Blvd. Cats in there were asking me for CDs and I don’t even have any more CDs, so…it’s interesting. It’s a lot of different avenues that keep the Proton buzz alive.

Thomas: Sometimes we don’t even know how people find out about us, because the environment won’t be conducive to us asking, or we won’t even think to ask, well, how did you hear that song, or how did you hear about us? But a lot of times, we get third-party information, where people say, yeah, I was talking to so-and-so, and they know about y’all. We don’t even know how it happens a lot of times.

Plug One: How many copies of Girls and Ghetto Shit did you give out?

Larry: Was it 500, Thomas?

Thomas: Yeah, I think it was 500. No, it was less than that. It was probably an odd number, like 462 or something like that. Like I said, a lot of times, we don’t know. In fact, one of the producers we’re working with, Drop, said he was telling a friend who works for BMI that he was in Atlanta recording with us or working on stuff with us. And she said, oh, their name came up in a meeting yesterday!

So we don’t know how this shit happens. But we’re happy it is happening. Sometimes it’s not the why that’s as important as the result, I guess. But whatever it is, we’re going to keep doing it.

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