"That's all people want you to do," explains Cesar Comanche as he leans forward in his chair in his Missie Ann Studio, a simple affair utilizing a computer, some really nice microphones, and crates full of records. "To just sound like you and express yourself the best way you can."
Since his high school days in Jacksonville, N.C., Comanche has been doing just that and then some. He's a proud founder of the Justus League, a 13-member hip-hop enclave in the Triangle from whose ranks Little Brother sprung to national acclaim. He's released two albums of his own--Wooden Nickels and this year's Paper Gods, a fun, no-frills record filled with homage to the MCs and djs he grew up listening to--Pete Rock, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Brand Nubian, to name a few. He and League member Big Dho run the label that releases his albums as well as those by fellow Leaguers, and has his own distribution company, Defenders of the Free World, that makes sure all League releases are in stores throughout the U.S. and overseas. And if that's not enough, he and Big Dho also act as booking agents for all Justus League artists. He's a world away from his days managing Planet Smoothie, but it's been (and still is) "an uphill battle."
"We had to take everything by storm to make it happen, because there were a lot of doors that just weren't open," Comanche says of the League's climb to local and worldwide recognition.
Rewind to Jacksonville in 1979, when Comanche's older sister, Missie Ann (the studio is named for her), started weaning the young Cesar on a steady diet of hip-hop. Throughout his childhood, between playing with Transformers and G.I. Joes in his hometown (documented in the Paper Gods' track "Land of Hate"), he absorbed all the music his sister exposed him to, until "one day, back when I was in high school, words started coming into my head just out of nowhere, so I just started writing 'em down. That's basically how I started MCing."
"It took me a while to let anybody know I did it; it was just something for my own-self enjoyment at first. I never thought I could actually do it and make money, be professional at it," he continues. "I saw MCs as more than human beings ... the people who made the dope stuff were more than human, so how could I possibly do that?" Attending summer school at NCSU in 1996, Comanche met 9th Wonder, a young dj who would become Little Brother's now highly-sought after producer. It took the two of them almost a year and a half to realize that they each made music, at which point Comanche started hanging out in 308 North Hall, the first Justus League studio.
"After that, different people like Phonte and Pooh [Little Brother MCs], Chaundon, Median, and Egdar Allen Floe [other League MCs], and myself, we all went over [to 308] and recorded, but we didn't go together," he explains. "For instance, I would go, and I would hear a song Phonte did, and then I would do another song, and then Pooh would hear a song I did and then he would do another song. But then me and 9th, one day we just talked, and we was like, 'Why don't we just create a crew out of everyone that comes and records here?', and we just called it the Justus League."
In addition to a lack of venues willing to host hip-hop shows, the League experienced difficulty fitting into the Triangle rap scene and even getting people in their classes to come to the shows. Other local acts provided a cold shoulder as well.
"A lot of times musicians have this thing like, if you do an exceptional job at giving a show, they'll take it personally, like 'How dare you outdo us?' So at first, we got resistance from the scene around here--some musicians didn't want to do shows with us," says Comanche, adding that some of these attitudes still linger. "We still get a lot of flak around here--people think we have egos just because we did this and did that or we tour, or we do this and that ... now they feel like we think we're better than everybody, and we're like, 'Why's it even gotta be like that?'"
Comanche's respect for the artists that inspired him to pick up a microphone is evident both in his constant references to late '80s/early '90s pioneers like Pete Rock, but also literally in his songs. On "Underground Heaven," a Paper Gods track championing "small-chain record stores," Comanche and 9th Wonder cut and paste hooks out of classics from Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, Gang Starr, and more, as Comanche pays lyrical tribute to each group over their respective sample. But it's not a matter of imitation as much as emulation--Comanche and the League are attempting to maintain a level of integrity they feel was established by their predecessors.
"People see us as underground heads, or whatever, but the fact of the matter is, the stuff we grew up listening to really wasn't underground music--it was the mainstream music of its time," he explains, illustrating a line in the air with his hands. "But it really wasn't even 'mainstream or underground'; it was just this line of 'we're just gonna try to make this dope music for the sake of making dope music'. We live the way and try to make music the way it was when we were younger--when it was just this line."
In addition to Comanche's attempts to honor the ways of his influences, he recognizes the gap in opportunities between his generation and that of their forebears. Technology has provided artists with entirely new methods of making records and promoting their music, from countless types of recording software to email, to the vast world of online fans.
"The good side [of current technology] is that it's taken away power from the powers that be. Nowadays, maybe someone with talent, if they've got half a brain in their head, they can figure out how to make something happen. Before, the cats we grew up listening to didn't have that option--it was like, either you got signed, or you could forget it. If you didn't get signed, there was no hope for you," says Comanche.
But with the freedom of doing everything oneself also comes the limitations of shouldering multiple responsibilities alone. Many artists, after years of struggling to make ends meet, and being exhausted by the multiple facets of the music industry, jump at the opportunity to let bigger record labels handle their day-to-day business. Comanche's take on this involves a middle ground with a safety net.
"As far as with big companies, I want to have one-night stands with them--I don't want to get married to them. As far as being on some [label] and then that's what I do--I'm just Big Label X's artist--I can't do that, because I like doing whatever the hell I want to," he says. "I make my albums without having to compromise with people who are not looking out for my best interests. When [the Justus League] does albums, we bounce stuff off each other, but we know whatever that person's sayin', they're sayin' in our best interests, not because, 'Well, what's best for me is for you to do this.'"
It's a tall order for any artist to be able to stay afloat on their own these days, which makes Comanche and the Justus League's goals that much more admirable. Out of love for hip-hop history and the satisfaction of a job well done without industry backing, the League intends to keep making fans the way they always have.
"We are going to be able to create our own market, have our own thing ... to do music the way we want to," Comanche explains. "If we change what we do, the people who came up with us--the fans ... we're going to lose them, and we can't do that."