Athletic Mic League
Sweats And Kicks
Lab Technicians Productions, 2002
Out of the hip-hop realm of the overlooked and under-appreciated is Athletic Mic League, a group of musicians from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Meeting in high school, Athletic Mic League originally intended to use their collective as a recreational thing, spitting verbs and verses as a side-note. But out of this came something bigger, something brushing up more against the real and sufficient than your everyday Friday night freestyle. After a move out East and some time shifting through the scene, Athletic Mic League was able to construct and identify to a sound. Somewhere between biting tenderness and supreme flows (think: Binary Star, Masta Ace, Murs), it was here where people really took notice. Their debut album Sweats And Kicks is just as much a statement as it is a hip-hop record, and on it we see the League’s true purpose: “It’s called hip-hop and we rock it for the cause.”
Soulful sampling and slow-swing progressions combine with constructed percussion breakbeats here, and through this Haircut (Mayer Hawthorne) supplies plenty of room for the group’s six MCs. This isn’t to say the entire album is calm: the title track clinks and clacks through blues guitars and horns; “Unconscious” is spacey, almost sounding like a G-Funk/Sci-Fi hybrid; and “Living Life” jabs and weaves through stuttering strings. On the more somber notes though is where this album flourishes. “Vibin'” is a perfect example, as it rattles through the group’s MCs, showing how important it is to carry yourself through a live show: “Don’t blame the sound man, the DJ got breaks/ Why don’t you utilize the crowd and prove the vibe in this place.”
What is criminally under-looked as an album can sometimes benefit those who truly appreciate it as a piece in their library. Since it’s something rarely sought after, records like these hold deeper meanings. Without that though, Sweats And Kicks is a wonderful record without the nitty gritty consumer backstory. Here we get a “coming-of-age” story, or better yet, something that just happened. It’s amazing how one thing can lead to another, and when you look at Athletic Mic League’s history, let it stand as a testament to life and its wondrous workings. Also, do yourself a favor and just listen to this album.
Rapping is a skill that can be compared to one’s abilities on a basketball court, football field or any other type of athletic arena. Similar to playing a sport, it takes practice, discipline and more practice to develop the skills necessary to be a true master of ceremony. It’s not always the easiest to work hard. However, there’s no limit to the fun and camaraderie you can build when working to get better at something you love to do. Taking it back to 2002, Athletic Mic League’s (AML) debut record, Sweats And Kicks is perhaps one of the best slept-on examples of this in the past fifteen years.
AML is made up of Jamall Bufford (Buff1), 14KT, Grand Cee, Vital, Vaughan T., Mayer Hawthorne (DJ Haircut), and Trés Styles, high school friends from Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of the first things that cuts through on this record is the close bond that is shared between these seven friends. There is a willingness to share from each artist on Sweats And Kicks that is perhaps only possible because the group was founded on friendship and a passion for hip-hop. This creates the opportunity for a wide range of topics to be discussed with a certain lyrical athleticism, thoughtfulness and swagger that’s all their own.
From a production standpoint, Sweats And Kicks combines beats that pop with the familiarity of hip-hop from the mid to late 90’s with a fresh millennial mentality. There is the title track, “Sweats and Kicks,” that hums with a thumping bassline and scratchy guitar as the group shouts to the world, “don’t hate me cause we what you ain’t.” The seventh cut, “F.E.V.E.R.,” is a potent criticism of mainstream hip-hop featuring Majestik Lenged and One Man Army (OneBeLo), driven by a heavy, staggering hi-hat that will put you on your back: “As MCs we gotta stop writing that shit and as consumers we gotta stop buying that shit.” Detroit MC Invincible drops by on “Got ‘Em Sayin,’” a track that pounds with the kick drum and floats with the delicacy of its flute sample. “Got ‘Em Sayin’” is an example of that millennial mentality as it is a celebration of turning up the music to full blast and never letting the beats stop.
Lyrically, Sweats And Kicks is multi-layered and rich. There is the discussion of many different themes and ideas that reveal what was going on with some aspiring, college aged kids from Michigan at the turn of the the 21st century. Let’s not forget the humor on this album as Jamall Bufford delivers one of the funniest verses to ever be recorded. On “Trouble” Buff tells a story of a date night gone horribly wrong: “You ever been on a date and had to poo real bad?” I think you can tell where this is going.
Considering the solo careers that Mayer Hawthorne, 14KT and Jamall Bufford have had and continue to build on, AML honed their skills and prepared them to make their mark. Sweats And Kicks takes us back to the time before fame, when success was a dream. However, if you listen to what these dudes from Ann Arbor were saying over ten years ago, the success and the fortune is no surprise. They were putting in the back and honing their craft, just as athletes do. Few things are stronger than the bond of friendship and when you stick with your friends, anything is possible. Sweats And Kicks by Athletic Mic League is a great example of this.