Local group celebrates its hip-hop formula

By Swarna Sunkara

Formula412: CD Release Party

Mr. Small’s

Sponsored by WPTS

Saturday at 8… Formula412: CD Release Party

Mr. Small’s

Sponsored by WPTS

Saturday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $12

If you mix the right elements, a chemical reaction is bound to happen. For Formula412, Pittsburgh is the catalyst for this reaction, and its music is the product.

Winner of the Best Duo or Group of the Year award at this year’s Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards, the local rap group Formula412 is rapidly expanding its geographic fanbase: The five-member band has opened shows for national artists like 50 Cent, N.E.R.D and Busta Rhymes. Nevertheless, the group’s members attribute their success to hometown enthusiasm.

“It’s kind of surreal. I’ve never seen a group that wasn’t a national act get this much support. All the accolades are a result of the support centrally, and the opportunities that come from outside are because of the extreme buzz internally from Pittsburgh,” said vocalist, songwriter and emcee Masai Turner.

Formula412 will release its new CD, Reality Show, at its WPTS-sponsored release party this Saturday at Mr. Small’s in Millvale.

“I’m excited, because this is the first time that anyone — whether they are new or old fans — gets to hear us play the new album in its entirety. When people leave the concert and they’re putting CDs into their cars, that’s when people get to listen to the music for the first time, pick their favorite songs, play it for their friends, talk about the lyrics … It’s a big deal for us,” Turner said.

Turner is joined in the group by guitarist Byron “Nasty” Nash, keyboardist Akil Esoon, drummer “Bigg Cliff” Foster and bassist Dennis “Young D” Garner Jr. All the band members were born and raised in Pittsburgh. Accordingly, they find their area code-referencing name and their decision to perform this second CD-release concert in Pittsburgh extremely appropriate.

“There will be much more of a sing-along participation at the show. The people there are our biggest supporters and have watched us grow from the very beginning, so they’re going to know the music and lyrics. We are really excited to play new music at another Pittsburgh show that is packed to capacity,” Turner said.

Formula412’s music employs a fusion of genres.

“The band’s music is grounded in hip-hop, but there’s always live instrumentation with rock, soul, funk and modern influences,” Nash said.

In addition to expanding the musical palatte, Turner remarked that his main responsibility as a hip-hop artist and songwriter is to give the public a chance to recognize the difference between “fast food and a home-cooked meal.” He does this by using his talent to share “pieces of wisdom” that don’t only, as “fast-food” hip-hop does, deal with the topics of drugs, money or women.

Others in the industry have praised the band’s wholesome approach to the genre..

“When I think about Formula412, I think about The Roots. They bring more to the table than The Roots themselves,” said Dwayne Muhammad, founder of the annual Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards. “[The band] encompasses everything that is cutting edge about hip-hop music. I’m listening to their song ‘Step to the Rear’ right now. I love their energy,” he said, speaking about the first song on the new album.

Turner said that the inspiration for his band’s lyrics, including those of “Step to the Rear,” often derives from the band’s experiences, or even from the members’ casual observations.

“I was riding the bus one day, and there are little stickers on the Port Authority buses that say ‘Please step to the rear.’ I did a little research on that, and actually a lot of buses in ’50s and ’60s had those signs, but it was only for black people, because they wanted them to move to the back of the bus whether there were seats or not. So I said to myself ‘What would I have done if I was in that situation?’” Turner said.

Like many socially conscious hip-hop acts, the band is an independent group that does not work under a label, so the members must manage production, marketing, record sales and everything else themselves. The same went for the music video for “Step to the Rear,” which was filmed entirely in the back of a Port Authority bus.

“Balancing regular life with the dream and everything it requires — time, attention, focus — is challenging. You have to be hungry. That’s part of what success is,” Nash said.

With Formula412 already having held a majority of its performances in colleges from South Carolina to New York to Toronto, Turner hopes the CD release concert in Millvale will attract a good number of Pitt students.

“It’s a great way to get Pitt students out of Oakland and experience the city. Students from everywhere come to Pitt, so this is an opportunity for them to experience the ‘Pittsburgh culture’ themselves,” Turner said.