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The Fresh Air Fund

Let's continue this column's recent praise of South Florida underground hip-hop. Between Wreckonize, newcomer Protoman, a handful of the MCs from Efon's Free Album, and of course the Audio Thrift Shop crew, we've amassed a real-deal, true-school scene right here in Broward County. It's a reality we should celebrate.

And don't forget Butta Verses, the Fort Lauderdale rapper who's gone furthest afield to establish his presence on the national scene. Appearances on a few De La Soul tracks — including the scorching "No" off 2004's The Grind Date — plus heavy off-album plugs from Plugs 1 through 3 have lifted this cat into rare company. Butta and fellow spitter Raw Filth make up the Fresh Air Fund, and with Fresh Air Ain't Free, the pair lay down further proof that the middle ground between backpack and Benzi — one that South Floridians seem to know well — is one of the most vital and untapped in hip-hop.

To understand what I mean by that middle ground, cue up a few tunes on Fresh Air. "36 Bars" and "Motivate" bounce over a crackling beat and hard-hitting rhymes while "Ride" and "Summertime" sway with slow-rolling swagger. None of these tracks are hard-ass gangsta, but they aren't soft and sensitive either. Real is probably the best way to describe the candid but guarded lyricism here. And unpredictable is the best way to describe Butta's verses — certainly not a 4/4, on-the-one MC, Butta skips, slips, and pauses all over the beat, rhyming to his own internal rhythm but never dropping the flow. That's gotta be the talent that De La saw in him, and it's all over this mixtape. Which this CD certainly is — occasionally iffy production and canned vocal tones are its only weak spots. Still, thanks to Fresh Air Fund, South Florida hip-hop earns another merit badge.

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Jonathan Zwickel