The Honor Roll Crew could be the Bay Area's version of the Wu-Tang Clan. Headed up by Trackademicks, the eight-member collective of rappers, producers, DJs, and singers follows RZA's playbook for the Clan: An umbrella group takes in numerous artists, all free to pursue solo endeavors at will. But if the Clan's mentality was to tap into a lo-fi sound inspired by sampling dusty soul records, the Honor Roll's agenda is strictly forward-thinking. These artists plan to usher in a new strain of Bay Area hip-hop, creating music that comes with a fresh perspective.
The Honor Roll story begins in 1997, when three friends who had been rapping as the Diverse Roots enrolled in Oakland's Youth Radio program. Trackademicks, MoxMore, and Mike Baker the Bike Maker met a fellow student calling himself Whiz Kid, who suggested they pool their talents. The original trio ditched its old group name, and was gradually joined by Josie Stingray, Spank Pops, 1-O.A.K., and DJ TAP.10. They decided to call themselves the Honor Roll Crew. The common link was their voracious appetite for new sounds. As Stingray puts it, "We make progressive music that people might not expect to hear coming from the Bay Area."
Hitting shuffle on a playlist of Honor Roll songs backs up her claim. It's as likely to offer up a melancholic cover of the Cure's "Love Cats" as sung by 1-O.A.K. and produced by Trackademicks, as it is Spank Pop's soulful but straight-up hip-hop track "Make It." That could be followed by Stingray's fierce and funky Baltimore club–styled collaboration with Jack Davey, "Doing My Thang," or Mike Baker's "Espionage," which drops cocksure rhymes over a beat that includes a snippet of a tough, well-sampled Rufus Thomas break. The collective's output is eclectic, reflecting a group of people with genuinely broad musical appreciation.
As Baker explains, "Whiz instilled in me the ideal of being comfortable with listening to whatever you want to listen to, as long as it's good. Then you let that influence the music you make." So when the crew interpolates the chorus to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" on Spank's "Orchestrate," it comes over without hip irony or deliberate kitsch. You get the impression they're simply reflecting their listening habits. The word "breezy" often comes up when any of the members are asked to describe the Honor Roll sound. Listening to the buoyant synths and mellifluous chord changes on Trackademicks' "Top Sidin'," the tag seems apt.
Trackademicks is currently the crew's most recognizable face. He has produced most of the Honor Roll catalogue, released a solo single ("Enjoy What You Do," on Fool's Gold), and has a portfolio of remixes that includes E-40, Zero 7, and Chromeo. He has no qualms about taking on the burden of the RZA role. "I definitely put my foot out there first, and a lot of things that happened to the crew have followed in my court," he says. "But the crew is diverse, and a lot of things that we have individually are soon going to come to life and shake it up."
The next wave of the Honor Roll's ascent involves three releases by the end of summer. Baker is finishing an expanded version of his Now or Never EP. Stingray has the Preview project, plus some guest spots with higher-profile artists she's coy about naming. And Track's State of the Arts has him "pretty much rapping all the time, so more like an artist than just a producer."
After that, the various factions are concentrating on the debut Honor Roll album proper, which Track promises will materialize before the end of the year. They talk excitedly of the collaboration, with Stingray gushing about a "phenomenal" song titled "Roll with It" that was produced by Track, features 1-O.A.K. singing the hook, and has Baker and Spank as MCs. Stingray isn't on it, but she doesn't mind. "It's okay," she says. "I've got other tracks that other people want to be on. We're a crew, after all."