He captivates audiences with a lightning-quick delivery and positive lyrical flow. He's worked with impressionable youth and shared bills with rap heroes Run-DMC. His work -- both on and off the stage -- crosses boundaries, cultures and age groups. He's a man with a mission. Some would say a mission impossible.
He's the voice of Orlando: The Next Generation. But don't mistake him for some guy on a star trip -- he wants just as much to see you succeed, gaining an audience for your own creative efforts. Even the casual downtowner has seen him in full-on cheerleader mode, hopping from club to club, talking up the music scene and its many talented players. Anybody, somebody -- just do it, he says. And do it with heart. Asaan Brooks -- a.k.a. Swamburger -- is Orlando's outspoken, outnumbered and sometimes outrageous town crier.
Few local artists have made such an impact so quickly. Since becoming a regular at the Sapphire-hosted acid-jazz, hip-hop and R&B night "Phat-N-Jazzy" more than three years ago, the 25-year-old's rise has been constant. As lead performer and executive producer on Beef Wellington's genre-hopping 2000 debut, "Cultural Starvation, Round One," Swamburger's voice and vision helped push the CD to the top of the locally produced heap, nabbing a pair of Orlando Music Awards nominations in the process. No doubt the follow-up -- "Cultural Starvation, The Second Coming" -- will do as well when unleashed at a release party/performance on Wednesday, March 28, at Sapphire.
You may have sampled his skills at the recent acoustic extravaganza "Daddy Likes! 5," where Swamburger, backed by some of the hottest players in town, more than demonstrated his verbal gymnastics. He's the current emcee of choice for club crawlers and corporate entities alike. Anthony Cole features him at his Thursday night "Garage" free-form performances at Dante's (where Swamburger also hosted "Writes of Passage," a monthly installment of hip-hop and jazzy storytelling). And the folks who run the House of Blues picked Swamburger to be the voice of their educational program.
Orlando got its first taste of what was to come with Swamburger & BMF's funky "S.W.A.M. (Survival With a Mind)" hip-hop single, released early last year on local imprint Eighth Dimension Records. The track, pairing Swamburger with "Phat-N-Jazzy" resident DJ BMF (real name: Greg Lentz), gained the duo international notice and a hungry local audience eager to hear more. The pair stepped up with additional studio work and a series of live performances punctuated by Swamburger's phonic boom and BMF's good-time thump. It was at one of these shows that Swamburger caught the ear of producer-engineer Wellington, who approached him about doing a project.
"I was really intrigued by him as a person and as an artist, the originality of `his flow`," says Wellington. "A lot of what he does is very similar to a lot of the emcees I grew up listening to. A lot of the emcees today aren't talking about anything that hip-hop was founded on and evolved from. He goes back to the real roots of hip-hop, in addition to adding his own futuristic kind of consciousness of his lyrics."
"Round One" was born.
"He had the idea for the 'Cultural Starvation' thing," says Wellington of the highly regarded release. "He wanted to work on it with a bunch of different producers ... make it kind of like an Orlando compilation thing. He really wasn't able to find anyone else that was available or motivated enough. `But` we kept working on it, and it turned into being my CD."
But Swamburger's journey didn't begin at "Phat-N-Jazzy." It didn't even start in Florida. He grew up on the south side of Chicago -- in the "wild hundreds," he says -- the child of "positive and spiritual beings," under whose nurturing he blossomed. Rhyming developed naturally along with reading his father's poetry. His mother's artistic influence exposed him to drawing and painting. He spent his younger days skateboarding, reading books and playing guitar. It all culminated with a bachelor's degree in art management from Columbia Art School in Ohio.
When Swamburger headed off to school, his parents moved south in 1994 to Lake Mary. On breaks he visited them in Central Florida home, where he ventured into the great unknown, sampling the scene, looking for like-minded hip-hop activists. He wasn't impressed with what he saw.
"It was whack," says Swamburger, laughing. "The only thing that was banging was the skateboard industry."
But he did see something here that he hadn't seen in Chicago: potential. Back home he would be but one of many struggling voices in that city's crowded musical landscape, but in Orlando, he could shine. (Heretofore, Orlando's only successful hip-hoppers had been bassbin king DJ Magic Mike, booty-rappers 69 Boyz and the now belly-up hip-hop imprint Rip-It Records.)
"I thought this would be the perfect place for a utopia," recalls Swamburger. "Everybody knows each other, it's real small, not too much material going on, although there's a lot of materialistic people. But the only thing that people have to change is their minds."
During these visits he began to plant the seeds for his full-fledged arrival, showing up at The Club at Firestone's hip-hop night and begging the DJ to let the fearless out-of-towner showcase his skills on the mike. Eventually, DJ Paleface gave the eager emcee his chance, and the crowd cheered him on. Pairing up with Medway, Swamburger dropped his first cassette-only single release, Solo, and also handed out copies at Badlands Skate Park, where he worked. By 1997, the two had completed the full-length "Becoming What Became Who?" The raw-sounding cassette contained Medway-Brooks material as well as early recordings Swamburger had made back in Chicago.
After that, the collaborations came fast and furious. At the Go Lounge's "Back Room Words" with Patrick Scott Barnes and DJ Nigel, he hooked up with another positive-flow crew, DaFew. (That's also where well-known jock and hip-hop head BMF caught Swamburger's second-place emcee-battle performance.) Next up was Cafe Eleven, where Brooks freestyled over beats by the likes of DJ MOT, with whom he teamed for the B-side to MOT's "Bugs, Rocks and Vampires" single. Their track, "Time Aside," featured looped samples of Swamburger's rants.
"He stood out," says BMF. "All the other emcees were using clichés. He had depth. His flow just stood out."
By the time he relocated to Orlando in 1998, Swamburger had laid the groundwork for his hip-hop crusade. He easily settled into his weekly appearances at "Phat-N-Jazzy" which have been, by far, his most productive and inspirational. That's where he opened for respected national acts Dead Prez and Rahzel, debuted Swamburger and BMF live, and met Wellington. "Round One" shook up Orlando's hip-hop scene, which until that point had been dominated by metal-rappers Nature Kids.
But Swamburger's presence has been felt far beyond the clubs that serve as his petri dish.
"He's a good example of someone who is out there trying to help the scene and help the downtown community grow," says Wellington. "And grow in the direction that he wants to see it go. He's involved in everything that he believes in ... trying to see his environment turn into what he wants it to be. He's just someone who takes pride in what he contributes to and what he's a part of."
For Swamburger, though, few experiences equal the thrill he gets being a part of the International House of Blues Foundation's Blues School House program. About five times a month, Swamburger, singer Jacqueline Jones and a hand-picked band of local musicians perform for an educational Orange County Public Schools program. The fact that HOB chose Swamburger as the point man between the corporation and kids speaks volumes.
"From our first conversation I knew he was the person for the job," says Chrissy Roache, local program director for the International House of Blues Foundation. "He puts his whole heart into each performance, and it shows. He has a way of pulling the students out of their shells and getting them excited about learning."
And the feedback has been great. "As far as our youth are concerned, they thought the field trip was 'cool' and 'tight,'" offered teacher Nancy Charles of Excel Alternatives. And Lake Sybelia art instructor Sue Wiser called the program a "treat for the eyes and ears."
But the ever-outspoken Swamburger isn't all swirling with positivity. He has a decidedly negative view of how the city and county governments respond to its citizens. "They are not listening," he says, pointing to the tattoo-parlor crackdown and the high-profile debates over late-night dance clubs. And he should know: Until about eight months ago, he worked for the city's Department of Community and Youth Services as an art instructor-counselor, teaching kids about art and life. He also helped Mayor Glenda Hood with the "Horizon 2000" time-capsule project.
"I want to make sure that everybody is getting heard," he says. "The government here sounds like they're on some Nazi shit. ... Right now, anybody that expresses themselves is being `made an outcast`. They are being heard to a sense, but the government tries to turn it around and it's like, 'Look, aren't these some freaks?'"
Which is too bad, because Swamburger feels that "my generation really knows what's going on."
Look for yourself if you can honestly see
Are you comfortable enough to be yourself in front of me?
And are you serious enough to understand that your identity is
nothing without me, we, represent individualism, hints the word dualism
meaning two parts exist to the whole
But if I'm connected to you then she's connected to us thus
everyone can answer in whom we trust
-- Swamburger's wake-up call to Orlando
Asaan Brooks is a spiritual man, but he doesn't live by the teachings of any of the most common denominations. His personal belief system doesn't stem from a single church or book but from knowledge learned by studying a variety of theologies. Answers to questions about higher powers came via his uncle, a professor, who helped him read and discuss "every bible there was." That overview led him to look into the Bah&224;'&236; Faith, an independent religion that believes "humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society."
"They said every religion is one, so I was like, why don't we go to the Lutheran churches, the Seventh-Day Adventists' -- why don't we go to all of these? They were just like, 'We're gonna stay right here in our little temple.'" He decided the Bahà'ì was "just like every other religion" and walked away, but took with him a guiding principle. "What I learned from the Bah&224;'&236;s -- what I was reassured -- was that everything was one," he says. "So when I talk about everything, it is narrowed down, but it's broad at the same time."
"He's someone that's more spiritually aware than the average person, and that is very inspiring to me," says Wellington. "I like to express -- nonverbally -- my spiritual beliefs and my spiritual journey through my music. He's someone that verbalizes that through all of his songs. It makes a good pairing. ... He's really feeling it, whatever I put forward. Whether it's something that's really funky or hip-hop or a real slow soul jam, he'll be up singing on it. It's a real good energy."
"I gotta make sure that I'm an activist and I practice what I preach," says Swamburger, who, as a believer of clean living, also doesn't drink or smoke. But who would need to if you could see what he sees, hear what he hears?
"Ever since I was 9, I've been having prophetic dreams," he says. "The first dream I `remember` was this black woman, and she was naked. I had never seen a naked woman, but I saw this red-and-yellow aura around her and I just became scared. ... After that, I never had a girlfriend until I was 21 or 22." But that was OK, he says, because another dream told him he wouldn't be able to have a family "until I knew who I was and what purpose I served to this world." He feels such visions have guided him, making him a stronger, more focused person. He believes that the girl in his dreams is his sister who died at birth when he was just 13 years old. And he claims he's not alone in experiencing such phenomena. "My whole family has had that connection with the spiritual realm," he says.
Those who characterize Swamburger's energized flow as out-of-this-world may be onto something; his dreams include vivid flashes of a spaceship crashing to Earth, and he believes he was on it. He weaves these stories through his work, which came to full realization during Beef Wellington's "Close Encounters"-inspired performance at the 2000 Orlando Music Awards last October at House of Blues.
"I've been working with him, and I still don't have a clue of what half his lyrics are about," says Wellington. "But that's something that makes his music very interesting; it's not just something that you listen to once and you know what it's all about. You figure out more the more you listen to it."
Wellington soon will start to work on Swamburger's first solo effort, for which Swamburger already has thrown down most of the beats. Expect the long-player to be less diverse than either of the "Starvation" recordings, containing mostly "straight-up hip-hop songs."
And there's plenty more in the works. A BMF cut featuring Swamburger comes out in England in May, and the two collaborated on DJ Spinna's soon-to-be released "Beyond Real Experience Vol. 2." This summer BMF also will issue an Eighth Dimension mix CD that boasts Swamburger on three cuts.
"He creates a threshold that will make everyone step up, as far as ... live performances, content of the music, his message," says Wellington. "Because his message is so strong, it's really influencing a lot of other groups and acts to create something that's more global and community-oriented. Not necessarily drunken bar music -- the same rock we're used to hearing in Orlando -- with no real message. A lot of music here has a lot of energy behind it, but there's no substance to that energy. People get excited about the band, but they go home and they don't really come out with anything from the group. Asaan's music really reflects who he is as a person. It's real. It's personal."