A light shining through a circular window leads to a small record studio tucked inside a Bonita Springs shopping center. Alongside a dentist office and a day-care, Orange Glow Music is home to a local musician who is ready to explode onto the international hip hop stage.
His name is Ernie Bordon. His stage name is E-b-G-b. But to friends he’s just E-b.
The 25-year-old St. John Neumann graduate and North Naples resident is one of the faces of the emerging local hip hop music scene.
As E-b’s voice and the background beat vibrate Orange Glow’s soundproof booth, artists elsewhere in Naples and Fort Myers are also rapping, but in makeshift studios.
They lay down tracks in closets, bedrooms and rented rooms in manicured subdivisions. Egg crate padding is stapled to walls to deaden the sound and black lights create a literal purple haze.
This is where it begins. From “kitchen-table kings” to standing on the edge of making it big, rappers, producers, promoters, b-boy dancers and singers are trying to break out.
Unlike the Philharmonic orchestra or the singer-songwriter hotel acts, hip hop is an obscure local culture populated by people with monikers such as Klynn, Big Goon and Gutta Slim.
“There’s talent here, more than people know,” E-b said. “Southwest Florida isn’t exactly a hotbed of activity, but we most definitely have our fair share of musicians.”
At introductions, E-b is polite, friendly, a married man who is working at a computer store. In the vocal booth, E-b is a wolf. He’s clever. He’s fearless. He’s stealth. He has no regard for anything, only his music. It’s as though E-b imagines a massive crowd. No walls — just lights, people and echoes.
“I’m selfish when I get on stage and get on the microphone,” he said. “I feel like I just want to yell and scream, direct attention. It’s a natural reaction.”
E-b takes to a performance at Loft 59 in East Naples with fervor. His hands grip the mic so tightly, the tattooed letters spelling his childhood nickname glow in the blue stage lights.
“Musicman, through and through / God must have known what he was doing when he gave me these hands,” E-b raps on his song “No More.”
His mother gave him the nickname Musicman.
She was the first to recognize his talent — what he sees as his passion, first love, his blessing and his curse.
Before the studio and the stage, E-b was just a 13-year-old white kid from Marco Island who could flow.
For E-b and other Naples artists, rhyming is not about money or fame. It’s therapy. It’s catharsis. It’s revealing his soul without shame.
With an eclectic group of musical influences — from Etta James and Jim Morrison to Big Pun — E-b has developed a style all his own he calls “swamp hop.”
Not quite Southern rap, it can’t be defined by a coast. Even now, a description is elusive. But to E-b, it’s an integral part of his identity. So valuable, “swamp hop” is tattooed on his right leg.
“Florida is on the bottom of the map. When you think about Florida, the first thing that comes to mind is definitely not hip hop,” he said. “On the other hand, I love Florida. I’m proud to be where I’m from.”
E-b’s music has matured since his days at St. John Neumann High School. But that unique “swamp hop” vibe is woven into his current tracks.
“It is and always will be an influence and a part of my roots,” E-b said.“You can always hear it reflected in my music.”
Inside a laughter-filled North Naples apartment swirling with smoke, a rap musical collective has been born.
It’s called Freedom Hall. They’re this generation’s Bohemians.
The group’s emcee, James Klynn, writes songs about world events, politics and Utopian ideals. The producer, Josh Giha, mixes beats as Rossini Morisma layers in some original music. Then Passion Ward or Maeva Kem add vocals when the mood strikes. Graphic artist, Jeremy Evans, adds the finishing touches, wrapping up the sounds snugly under the group’s brand.
Days turn into nights. Arguments turn into epiphanies. Finally, words and the collaboration turn into song.
For Klynn, hip hop started with poetry.
The clean-cut 25-year-old from Brooklyn has been shaped by days watching drug dealers run the streets and neighbors scraping together dollars for rent. He said he was taken away from his mother because of her drug habits and then spent a stretch in foster care until moving to Naples to live with his aunt.
Klynn turned to poetry, then hip hop, to give voice to the pain from his youth.
“It became a way of communicating,” he says. “I started writing to express myself.”
Graduating from Gulf Coast High School as Kendell James Meares, he grew into a professional lyricist and assumed the stage name James Klynn, Klynn, an abbreviation, of sorts, of Brooklyn, an homage to his New York roots.
“So just to have people sit down and listen to it, and like it,” he adds. “It’s the biggest compliment ever.”
Reserved and shy by day, he seldom talks about himself or his talent. On stage, he’s electric.
“Wake up, wake up,” Klynn raps at a performance during Art Walk in Downtown Fort Myers as a hipster crowd cheers.
Feeling the group’s vibe, a trumpeter hops up on stage. The blend is seamless.
Klynn reaches down from the stage and gives the only man dancing a high-five.
“I appreciate that, man,” Klynn jokes with the dancing man. “That’s the (beat) I’d dance to, too.”
Freedom Hall’s entrepreneurial spirit has created a diverse following in the community.
SPECIAL REPORT: HIP HOP IN THE 239
- Video: Hip hop in the 239
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - From the Hood
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - A Tale of Cartelle and Corleone
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - Making it Big
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - Enjoy the Ride
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - Freedom Hall
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - Gutta Slim and Tim Wes
- Photos: Hip Hop in the 239 - Being seen in the Scene
- Story: Local hip hop artists fueled by desire to make it
- Story: Collaboration overshadows rivalries in local hip hop scene
- Story: Local women breaking trend of male-dominate hip hop culture
- Story: Debate rages over hip hop's correlation with crime
From rap collaborations with E-b, to ennui indie mixes to southern rap mash-ups with Fort Myers and Naples based group, Hygher Level, members of the group say they don’t necessarily desire notoriety or fame. It’s the artistic challenge.
Plies enters Level, a downtown Fort Myers club, shimmering in diamonds and decked out in all-white, blinding a provocatively dressed crowd.
“I’m from the hood though, like the hood though, like really, really, really from the hood though,” Plies raps to the crowd.
Moments later, he leans on his screaming fans and crowd surfs onto the bar counter. Moving onto the balcony, he addresses his hometown crowd:
“Everybody in here is drinkin’ for free,” And he hands $10,000 in cash to the manager.
“Racks on racks,” the crowd chants.
Plies, 35, buys the crowd top-shelf liquor as they recite his raps verbatim.
Plies, born Algernod Lanier Washington, escaped Fort Myers’ East Dunbar street-life struggle and made it. He put Fort Myers on the map by rapping about thuggin’, money, cars, women, bling, He’s been featured on MTV cribs, and was nominated for a Grammy.
Now other area artists, like Big Goon, are hungry for that same success. They are looking for a way out of the ghetto. They see hip hop as a rocket ship blasting them away from the crime, away from the violence, away from the “hood struggle.”
To those rappers, hip hop is a skill, a trade, a tool. Something learned that promises success. There’s a formula to follow: Take the elements that sell and put them to a beat that bounces. Making it isn’t about expression as it is about making a product to sell.
“I don’t judge my own music, I let other people listen to it,” says Big Goon grew up with Plies. “I know I’m not writing for me,” he says. “I’m writing for the people.”
Unlike Plies, who was the homecoming king at Fort Myers High and played college football at University of Miami (Ohio), Big Goon, born Marshall Bland, earned a street education and lived a life of crime.
While Plies has been accused of and criticized for lying about his criminal past, Big Goon has an exhaustive rap sheet including domestic violence and grand theft.
“I am the struggle,” the 39-year-old Big Goon says. “I am the ghetto. I grew up in the hood, right in the heart of the ghetto.”
Breaking out of the ‘hood
Vodka is poured into a tall cup with a splash of juice. Gutta Slim, a rapper, takes a sip and leads a group of friends and producers to a Fort Myers bedroom studio to shoot a music video for his song, “Fairytales.”
After a few shots — both drinks and video — they move on to shoot the next scene in Delay Park.
As dusk settles on a dingy, white apartment complex, a milk-chocolate-brown Ford Crown Victoria leisurely bounces down the 1100 block of Polk Street.
The group and Gutta Slim crowd around the retired cop car, now owned by his brother, in the parking lot. The trunk pops open and “Fairtytales” blasts through the sub woofers.
Alvester Conner works six days a week in telemarketing at Fort Myers based Mo Entertainment selling magazine subscriptions. On the seventh day, he’s rapper Gutta Slim, a self-described “new voice of Lee County” who also grew up with absent parents and stints in jail.
He’s created a YouTube video that has more than 15,000 hits. Now he’s signed to a new label, Mo Money Music Group, along with with rappers and promoters Steve Woodz and Cordell Fyoucha Paige. He says the label also is opening a professional recording studio in Fort Myers, the first of its kind in the city.
“Money is the motivator,” says Gutta Slim, a tall, thin, 22-year-old with teardrops tattooed on his face. He has a mix tape coming out in October. “It’s a lovely feelin’, man.”
Competing with rappers like Plies, or the more famous Kanye West, Gutta Slim calls them “studio gangstas” on “Fairytales,” which has too many curse words to print entirely.
“ Ya’ll startin’ to piss me off, acting real but inside ... you know you’re soft. Never been in no block, never been in that cell. You’re just a studio gangsta livin’ fairytales ... Actin’ all tough behind the mic in the studios.”
Elsewhere in Fort Myers, rapper Tim Wes sounds similar but his message is different.
Born Timothy Powell, his goal to make it the legal way. No drug selling. No violence. No thieving. He refuses to beg, borrow and steal just to make it. The moral rapper. He lives on “receipt money” — he earns it legit, he says.
The recent Edison State College graduate wants to use his own money so he’s not dependent upon a record label.
If Tim Wes, 25, does make it big, he hopes to set an example for other rappers.
“I want to be able to expand the culture into another one. You don’t have to sell drugs to make money,” he says. “You can have the hip hop lifestyle without the drugs and the killing. Go to college, get an education.”
With mix tapes in hand, E-b has paced parking lots from Tampa to Miami pushing playlists on anyone willing to pay attention. No gig too small, no venue too far, he has accepted opportunities tirelessly.
Finally, during his senior year of high school, he opened for hip hop legends Bone Thugs & Harmony, best known for their ‘90s hit, “Tha Crossroads,” at Germain Arena.
But that underground buzz didn’t get E-b “put on,” or on the radio.
Likewise, even with promoting themselves for free on their website, or at various performances at clubs, bars and street corners, Freedom Hall’s grass roots efforts are still seeds in the ground.
Big Goon and Tim Wes are shamelessly self-promoting, too. Even though they have produced — at their own expense — stacks of mix-tapes and they perform the occasional paid gig, there’s no record deal for them, either. They’re still keeping their day jobs.
“There’s so much to being successful in hip hop and it’s not just having talent,” said Scrap “Scrappy” Jackson, a D.J. and program director at 105.5 “The Beat.” “It’s having swagger, having a certain person carry that talent, team of people around you, create your own movement if you will, a street team and viral media to quantify to a record label.”
Some local artists, like Streetz, have more views on YouTube than some Plies songs. But views can be purchased and therefore don’t necessarily indicate a strong fan-base.
“There’s all sorts of tricks to make it look like something’s happening,” says Paul Easton, general manager of Orange Glow Music. “At the end of day you gotta be able to draw people to shows, sell product and have an active fan base. Day in and day out.”
Easton’s father, Eric Easton, managed the Rolling Stones in the early ‘60s, and with his ties to the music business he managed artists, worked as an agent and promoted groups like Blues Traveler, Toby Keith and Cheap Trick.
“Because it’s expensive to break artists into the industry these days,” he says. “they look for a real response in marketplace before they commit their resources to taking the artist to next level.”
E-b’s dreams are on the verge of becoming a reality. He signed with Orange Glow almost two years ago.
Tony Catania, a producer known for hits like “Scatman” and “Ready to Rumble,” also is one of the owners of Orange Glow. He has been working with E-b for a year and half.
“If artists are doing good business, they’ll attract interest of different labels, large and small,” Easton says. “Then, it’s a courtship, who’s going to bring most to the table, on both sides of the coin.”
The veteran European producer and the Florida white kid make magic happen at the studio — sometimes their visions align, and other times they conflict -- creative conflict, complete with arguments, frustrations and late-night studio sessions.
“It’s a big commitment of time and resources, beyond just financial, and there’s never a guarantee we’ll get a return,” Easton says.
As “Doors & Gateways Vol. 1,” E-b’s mix-tape, is gaining momentum, he’s taking meetings with record company executives and relentlessly completing his album.
“It’s time to sit back and enjoy the ride,” E-b says, “and do what I can with my own music and stay true to me.”
For some artists the best way to break into the scene is to start abroad. Dance records, Easton, says do better in Europe first. But hip hop is starting to gain an international momentum. What began as urban American street music from New York and Los Angeles has become an art-form providing an outlet for artists in war-torn countries. Matisyahu, for example, is an Israeli rapper who shares his country’s struggle through his music.
Freedom Hall’s style is similar to Matisyahu’s; in fact, they have a song, “To Live in Jerusalem,” that focuses on the war there. That song may not be heard during one of their sets at South Street or other local bars as they rap about more than their lives in Naples.
That attitude is being appreciated, too. They were recently nominated for best local hip hop artist by Southwest Florida’s Spot Magazine Spot Awards.
“People don’t understand that anyone can do it,” Klynn says. “People think hip hop is just for the ghettos or inner city kids. It’s a form of music, all kinds of people in it, making the culture.”