Travis Bickle's maniacal, not-all-there glare watches over the proceedings at Lock-N-Load studios, his iced gaze permanently affixed to a well-thumbed copy of "The Portable Machiavelli." A few inches away, the original members of the Rat Pack shoot a game of pool, while Tony Montana and the cast of "The Usual Suspects" battle for elbow room next to a framed poster of H. Jackson Brown's "21 Suggestions for Success" ("Be honest," "Work at something you enjoy that's worthy of your time and talent").
While any of these glossy wall hangings might be found in a typical student dorm room, the image is broken by enormous racks of digital processors and red-lighted effects, banks of imposing electronic instruments and a mixing board that seems to stretch on for a mile not-so-subtle reminders of the serious business at hand.
It is in this space, located in the back portion of z'gwon,th studios, that Keith Loneker, Will "The Weirdo" Wilson and Anthony "Tone" Wisdom spent a good deal of their days and nights, producing beats and crafting sonic backdrops for local hotshots and a few nationally known folks.
Since officially forming in November 2000, the 5150 team (which also includes occasional guitarist J. Mojo Basgall) has been busy getting busy: assisting for several numbers on Tech N9ne's major label debut, "Anghellic;" producing (with lyrical assistance from Str8 Jakkett and Killa The Hun of Topeka hip-hop outfit DVS Mindz) a theme song for syndicated sports talk show host Jim Rome; manning the boards for local rap group Bombsquad and even penning the bouncy tune played before every Kangaroos game at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
As a result, the unit's reputation is growing by leaps and rebounds. KC sportscaster Jason Whitlock recently contacted the crew to produce all the music for his show, and Tech N9ne has already contacted the group for "Anghellic's" follow up. The trio also has several projects in the works, including a solo disc for Bombsquad MC Cassanova and a compilation, tentatively entitled "The Diary," which will feature the cream of the local hip-hop underground spitting verses over 5150's patented head-knocking instrumentals. But hard-hitting urban music is merely the tip of the iceberg for the trio, whose numerous stylistic offshoots help define its sound.
"We get bored very easily; we don't really do one particular style," Wilson explains. "We all have styles we like, but we get into doing all kinds of stuff and that's why we're able to work with pretty much anybody in the country. You want some straight East Coast? Bam! Keith grew up on the East Coast. You want some straight West Coast? We all listen to West Coast Tone can get in there and just kill. He's sick with it. Fast Miami stuff, the down-South sound ... I can't make the same-style beat over and over again. I don't work that way."
All three members of the 5150 crew play a role in the operation, with Loneker handling the bulk of the business, Wilson engineering and producing the tracks and Wisdom doing a fair amount of the instrumentation.
"That's really the strength of the team," Wisdom says. "We cover all aspects. A rock 'n' roll producer would be Keith, where he's organizing. Then you got me and Will who are actually making the music, composing the music. So we have an advantage over everybody in that aspect, in my eyes because we're not just making music and then saying come get it, we'll do the whole thing."
When he was a student at Lawrence High School, Anthony Wisdom was too busy running the streets to think about a future in the music industry.
"I never wanted to do music until I was out of high school," says the lifelong local resident. "My whole problem in this town is that I've always been outspoken and I got into trouble and stuff. There was never anybody in this town that really like took an interest in helping me. My father was gone and I was just sort of out here misguided. And I found music and I was like, 'Man this is really something I can do.' So I went and hustled me up a little drum machine and started working."
Now 25, Wisdom spends most of his time doing just that honing his instrumental skills and crafting the melodies that drive 5150's productions. Quiet, reserved and a lightning-quick study, Wisdom acts as both mellow yin to Wilson's attention-deficit yang and eager upstart to Loneker's seasoned professionalism.
"I really feel music now," Wisdom says. "I do it for my soul, but the fact that I can make money off this ... When I get money for this, I feel like I've stolen something. You want to pay me to do this?"
Wisdom's youthful exuberance extends into larger arenas as well. While many musicians have lofty goals, his are downright stratospheric. "I love hip-hop and I want to do hip-hop," he says. "But that's not where I plan to be in 20 years. I wanna take this to unseen, unheard-of levels. I'd like to be in Radio City Music Hall with a 150-piece orchestra and hip-hop drums. I don't want to die and they say, 'He was a great hip-hop producer.' I want to die and be like Mozart or Beethoven eternal, forever.
"Music definitely saved my life. I can't lie about it. I was headed down a road where I was gonna do life in prison or I was gonna be dead. How can I be successful and not do that for somebody else? In this society, to get a platform, all you gotta do is be rich you'll get your 30 minutes to speak or whatever. And I want to take advantage of my platform. I have this crazy idea that I can heal the damn world, and I wanna try. It may seem crazy, but I'm (expletive) serious. If it don't work, it don't work, but at least I know I tried."
"We're not 88 percent, 98 percent, it's 100 percent," Wilson adds. "Mr. Loneker here, he only knows one level of success, and that's to the very top. He dictates that to us."
Former New Jerseyan Keith Loneker moved to Lawrence after accepting a football scholarship at Kansas University from 1989-1992. Following four years as a Jayhawk, he was drafted by the National Football League, playing for the Rams and the Falcons. After being released by the NFL, Loneker was recruited again, this time by a Hollywood agent, who signed the hulking athlete for a prominent role in the George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez flick "Out of Sight." Loneker's presence was more than felt in the film, and his character villainous henchman White Boy Bob had the distinction of meeting one of the movie world's most unforgettable demises.
"They needed a big guy, couldn't find a big guy with some attitude and personality, so they called me," Loneker explains. "All the big guys they were calling in were like big, meathead bodybuilders who couldn't act ... (People) say I'm the only working actor in Hollywood who doesn't work there and doesn't have an agent."
Loneker took his film spoils and used it to help found 5150, California police code for an escaped mental patient. But he hasn't left the world of drama completely behind, either. In fact, he just returned from the set of "Campus Bookie," an Ernest Dickerson-directed vehicle that tells the true-life story of Arizona point guard Steven Smith, arrested a couple years ago in a highly publicized point-shaving scandal.
Last fall, Loneker also began joining Jason Whitlock on the radio (WHB 810 AM) Wednesday mornings to discuss music, sports, entertainment and any other topic that comes to mind. Though the 30-year-old former football pro certainly seems content with his numerous successes to date, he is equally thrilled to be living and working in a location that's right for his family.
"I've had money," Loneker says. "It's not as important as getting my kids raised in a place where I wanna raise 'em. Right now, I think this is the best place I've been ... We're all very lucky, because we all have women behind us right now who are supportive of what we're doing. If they weren't supportive of what we're doing, there's no way we could get it done. Our kids even support what we do. My kids love music my daughter wants to be in here recording, she loves to be in here."
So does her father, who can be found turning the knobs for some of 5150's more laid-back productions.
"Keith is the smooth one. Keith is pimp-daddy No. 1, GQ smooth, Mr. Mellow," Wilson enthuses. "I'm the exact opposite. I want energy, I want 100 miles per hour. I'm the aggressive one. I love it fast, I love it hard, and I love it hittin' you right in the face."
"He ain't got a smooth bone in his body," Loneker chuckles.
"Grab the globe, throw a dart at it and it might be where I'm from," says Wilson, whose father spent 21 years in the Air Force. Born in Kansas City, Wilson lived in California before spending his formative years in Germany, near the Belgium border. He then moved to New Jersey for a while and back to Germany, before returning to KC to finish high school. By this point, the well-traveled youth knew exactly where he wanted to end up.
"When I was 14 years old, my dad asked me what I wanted to do when I got older and I said I want to make records," Wilson recalls. "And it's been the only thing the only thing that I've ever wanted to do since. It's the only thing that's ever consumed me like that."
Upon arriving in KC, Wilson made a name for himself as DJ Style, issuing underground cassettes to a mostly uninterested local public. Eventually, as hip-hop slowly encroached into the Midwestern mentality, Wilson's tapes became a hot item and his productions became a calling card of sorts.
"I remember the first time a car pulled up next to me and was bumping (my music)," he says. "There's nothing better. You're sitting there at a light and you hear someone pull up and they're bumpin' your stuff and you look over and you don't know 'em. And you're just like ..."
Wilson's fortunes changed dramatically upon meeting Loneker during the footballer's sophomore year at KU. The pair had instant chemistry, with Loneker's knack for business tempering the producer's fringe-dwelling, artistic nature. The two also found workaholic soulmates in one another, with both agreeing that 16-hour days weren't merely out of the question, but a fundamental ingredient for large-scale success.
"You gotta put in the time," the 31-year-old Wilson says. "This is work. The truth of the matter is, you'll probably spend more time doing this, than any normal job you'll ever do in your life. The difference is, I'm working for myself. But that's what it takes. If you want to do this, you've got to work. I can never stress it enough ... I don't want to be known as a production team, I want to be known as a production team that breaks artists, like a Dr. Dre, a Jermaine Dupri, a Timbaland. You have that upper echelon of guys, who not only make beats for people, they break the new artists. They break the Bubba Sparxxx or the Eminems or the Bow Wows. We all have goals, but I want to break artists."
Breaking artists requires a fair amount of homework, a philosophy the 5150 crew adheres to with near-religious devotion. By studying the trends and tools of the music business, the team is able to see patterns emerging from what, on the surface, might appear to be random acts of chaos. While similar analytical tools have been used by graduate students for years, Loneker learned it by conducting his own form of field research.
"To watch football and realize all those times when you're like, 'He ran the ball all the way down the field, why did they pull him out on the goal line?' Well, because he gets a bonus if he scores too many touchdowns and they don't want him to score too many touchdowns or they gotta pay him $250,000," Loneker says. "So all the questions where you sit back like, 'Why did they do that?' There's answers for all those, and that's the same thing with music. If you sit back and you peep it out, there's patterns and there's answers."
For the members of 5150, chart-topping CDs are the textbooks; heavily rotated music videos, the upper-level music-biz seminar courses and radio stations, the academic journals of their chosen area of study. Local clubs act as litmus tests, on-the-spot rankings of what's currently heading the class. Though some are quick to criticize 5150's scrutinization of and influence by the mainstream, it's all part of being a pop-culture valedictorian, according to Loneker.
"We go to clubs, we sit on MTV, we sit on the radio, we go to underground clubs, parties and break down what everybody's into," he explains. "Which isn't really commercializing your music or trying to make pop music. You get a lot of rappers around here who are stuck in one certain genre of music, and if you try and stretch 'em, alls they can say is, 'Aw, you trying to make pop music.' Well when we made it, it wasn't pop music. The fact that we made it good and everybody liked it and bought it, it became popular. So is it pop music? Hell no."
Still, one of the team's more prominent works is "Timz Up!" the debut CD issued by Bombsquad last summer. Released on 5150's in-house label, Lock-N-Load and peppered with slick, head-bobbing beats; poppy, sing-song choruses and a heaping helping of vocoder boogie, Bombsquad's effort was as catchy as it was crunky, a phenomenon that made it both popular with Mass. Street stereo systems and a target for criticism by the hip-hop underground.
"The Bombsquad album came out last summer, bangin'." Wilson recalls. "We're pulling down 400 or 500 people in showsTech's the only other rapper doing that because the music was fun. You listen to that album, it was a fun album. That's the reason why everyone was enjoying it. Now you're starting to see the trend, other rappers around the area, people are starting to see that it's OK to make some fun music. It's almost an oxymoron. You have to stay on the streets, but you can't be fun?"
"You can be an MC and still produce good songs that people want to listen to for a whole album," Loneker adds. "Traditionally, you get on some MC stuff, and it's like, 'Alls I need is a drum beat and a snare drum and I can rap.' And they CAN! We got a lot of MCs around here who, shoot, you can beat box for 'em and they can entertain you for hours. But when it comes to paying the bills, you do have to sell some records to masses. It's a business."
While Loneker has a business sense that is the stuff of legends, and Wilson and Wisdom are known for their dextrous musical abilities, they insist that typecasting any member of the 5150 team is a mistake. All three take part in the operation, and all have the talent to fluctuate as needed. Loneker, for example, handled most of the instruments and production for Bombsquad tracks "Ghetto Princess" and "Kizzy Kizzy."
"People just don't know what happens up here," he says. "People want to believe that I'm the only one that handles any business If you want something done over there, if you don't talk to Keith, you can't get it done. Will can make decisions and Tone can make decisions. They want to believe that certain people in here ain't playin' nothin'. Nobody wants to believe that I ever touch a keyboard."
The 5150 members are also peeved at the notion launched by some musicians and critics that they are not producing "real" music, and that hip-hop and R&B producers lack the authenticism that comes with sweating out alt-rock in a cobwebby basement or oil-stained garage.
"We're not classically trained," Wisdom says. "You're not gonna get a whole bunch of theory coming out of here, we're playing by feel. But a bass player only has to worry about his bass. We have to put every single instrument in there and make it work, not having played any of those instruments. So I gotta know how a bass goes and I gotta know how a piano's gonna fit in there, or a bell or where the snare goes."
"I've always thought that musicians were people who made music," adds Loneker, who once played drums in a rock band. "I mean is 'Stomp' music? Kids playing in garages saying that we're not musicians, they can come up here and bring their guitar, and I'll play power chords and the stuff they're playing. (laughs) Or they can bring their guitars and we'll produce it."
Despite 5150's plans for platinum success, rubbing elbows with local musicians of all genres remains an important aspect of the day-to-day operation. Being located inside z'gwon,th means that a steady stream of area artists stop by to check out works in progress. Moreover, 5150's deeply connected ties to the local rap community makes Lawrence a better place to live for everyone, according to Loneker.
"There's some guys that we mess with right now, that if they didn't have this music thing, Lawrence would not be as happy a place," he says. "These guys are trying to better themselves and do some different things and we want to be part of that."
Thus, packing up the monitors and heading off to a coastal city, is not part of 5150's current agenda.
"If I'm a fish, why am I gonna move to a crowded fish tank full of fish?" Wilson asks. "You're not as out of touch as you think you are. Everything's cheaper here. To survive, you gotta charge X amount in New York. I can charge you less here and give you the same quality ... The whole thing is, if you can get the area blowing up, everyone will benefit."
Blowing up the area requires cooperation and hard work, says Loneker, who laments the lack of commercial radio support for area acts, but is quick to place some of the blame on artistic laziness.
"We really do hope that all the other producers in town and in the Kansas City area, make fantastic beats," Loneker says. "And we really hope that everybody else's albums sound great and is beautiful and they sell it. We just hope that when ours comes out, it sounds great too and everybody likes it. If everybody's stuff sounds great here, you'll be doing stories in New York and L.A. about why don't they move here. That's the goal. But everybody else wants to hate one another, hate what everybody's doing, instead of getting better and buying the equipment, or working your ass off and getting a good job or ANY job to get themselves to the next level."
For the members of 5150, getting to the next level means achieving success on their own terms, staying home in Larryville rather than looking for the brass ring elsewhere. For them, true success means doing what they love from a place where they love to do it.
"I was born here in Lawrence and I've lived here all my life," Wisdom says. "I got more motivation every day, waking up here, looking at the same thing and knowing that I can actually make it out of here and do music and not have to go to New York. I can stay here with my family and it's a beautiful thing. Because we're not rappers, we don't have to be face-to-face with people all the time. It means a lot to me to make it from here and not be in L.A. or New York. I just want to be here; I love this place."