Music News

Smooth as Butta

Back in 1993, John Joseph Cullen, the local MC known as Butta Verses, left the grimy streets of his native Bronx, New York, to surf and attend classes in sunny South Florida. But instead of catching that perfect wave, the now-33-year-old b-boy ended up frequenting spots like the Sugar Shack and Club Boca and meeting local MCs, DJs, and producers. Soon, he realized his true calling — rhyming— and picked up his nom de guerre thanks to his smooth flow.

Settling in Coral Springs, Butta came up going to MC battles at a time when the local scene was just starting to grow. "Back then, it was just hip-hop, not I'm the realest dude in the street," he says.

Then one day, randomly, Maseo of De la Soul got a copy of one of Butta's CDs. Impressed, he signed the MC to his fledgling Bear Mountain Recordings imprint. In the end, Butta would record only one track with De la, the bouncy "No" off the group's Grind Date LP. But the experience of accompanying the crew on shows around the globe was priceless.

"I would open up, then come out and do 'No' with them, and then do Common's spot on 'The Bizness,' " Butta recalls. "The dopest thing was there were dates where Common was on the bill, and I would do my part and he came out and did his. Then another time in New York, I did my part and [Talib] Kweli came out and did his thing. It was like a dream come true."

While touring, he was also working on his own music, culminating in his slept-on first album, Brand Spankin', in 2004. Featuring bangers like "Round and Round" and "Grow Up," Butta felt the release didn't get the right push from his label, prompting him to step out of his situation with Maseo. Still, he insists there are no hard feelings. "We're still fam. I haven't made music with them in a minute or been on the road with them. On my side, it's still straight love, nothing but good memories."

Around 2005, there wasn't one local show in which Butta's name wouldn't pop up on a flier. He opened for KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan, and other artists, either solo or with his group with MC Filth, the Fresh Air Fund. He also dropped his first mixtape, The Fixtape. It showcased a unique, versatile flow that recalls A Tribe Called Quest and Outkast, with comedic interludes and fresh beats from his Glee Club Detention crew. Around the same time came another track with De la, the Bobby Byrd-sampling "You Got It," off that group's Impossible Mission mixtape.

Today, he continues the grind, with a to-do list heavier than most. Besides trying to make a living from music, Butta does freelance work as an artist and barber while helping take care of his 7-year-old daughter. But he refuses to compromise. "I've been told by labels, 'You need more of a street image; you need to talk about this or that,' " he says. "But I'm like, There is another side of life out there — that's not all that goes on. There are people that will buy what you push to them. It's really about taking a risk. I never thought anybody would really be afraid of taking a risk."

Enter Reality BV, Butta's second full-length, dropping September 30 as the first release on local sneaker boutique Culture Kings' music label, Culture Kings Music. It features 16 solid tracks from Broward County's finest, with appearances by indie hip-hop champs such as Joell Ortiz, C.L. Smooth, and A-Butta, with beats from Marco Polo, Doc Sus, and Shorte, among others. "It's dealing with me at this particular point over the past two years of my life, towards music, females, my situation monetarily," Butta says. "It's definitely something that I could sit and ride with. There aren't too many albums that only cater to the real hip-hop heads, and this one absolutely does."

A standout is one of the first tracks on the album, "If I Die," featuring Lucian on vocals. In it, Butta hypothetically considers what would happen if he left the Earth today, weighing the relationships he would leave behind, and his good and bad deeds. A slow head-nodder, it's been steadily making the rounds on the internet.

What's clear is Butta's dedication to hip-hop as a craft rather than an image and the influence of old-school hip-hop greats that provided the soundtrack to his early days as a b-boy: "I was breakdancing to the Sugar Hill Gang, taking linoleum from my bathroom and bringing it outside to break," Butta says. "I knew I was a part of rap. Whether I wanted to be or not, I just was."

Butta V. reminisces on three albums that shaped him as an MC:

De la Soul, De la Soul Is Dead

"This was the joint that really made me want to rap. I played this record out that whole summer [1991]. Everything they would talk about I would actually understand; it wasn't something I had to look into. Very relevant, social-commentary-type stuff, and the beats were fire. This joint definitely pushed me in the direction like, I could do this; this is what I want to do."

Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

"I remember right after hearing it, I went looking for eight more dudes to rock with! It was different to me. The beats were so dirty and raw, the way they flipped the aggression and sadness. I remember on 'Tearz,' when I heard RZA's ad libs, like 'Yo, yo, my mother got shot,' the first time I heard that, my face felt like it was really happening in front of me. This joint really put an emphasis on expressing emotion."

Slum Village, Fantastic Vol. 2

"This is the nail in the coffin on what's affected my style to this day. I first saw the video for 'Raise It Up' and I was like, This is dope, but I didn't look into it. Then maybe a year and a half later, my man Shorte was driving around playing it, and I was like, This shit is bangin' — let me hold it. I sat with the album for weeks, just analyzing it, listening to the beats, how the MCs say what they say and change their voice. It really felt free to me. Since then, I haven't really heard anything like it. Fantastic Vol. 2 really changed the way I do my thing."

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Bernard Hacker