This project took place in the spring of 2018 for an Editorial Photography for New Media course at NYU.
Navigating the Noise
In the basement of a modest residence in Baldwin, New York, a rap collective by the name of If The Shoe Fits—ITSF for short—sets up their recording equipment. Sound effects from a Nintendo GameCube whir in the background through their light banter. Takeout Jamaican food sits on the coffee table. They soon begin recording their new song, titled Ultra.
Three of the four members are present at this Baldwin recording session, with one member finishing up his final year of college upstate. “We’re working on getting a draft of this song before we send it out to our producer,” says Kendle Bramble. Then, they’ll get in a professional studio to re-record and master the levels with their producer and a sound technician. As Bramble explains, they “absolutely believe” that having such resources gives them an advantage over their competition.
The rest of ITSF consists of Budd Brown, Nkosi Archibald, and Robert Mckissick, who, along with Bramble, respectively perform under the stage names of Candid, Katharsis, Robert Dawkins, and Grant. Self-described as a “different kind of ordinary,” the idea behind ITSF’s moniker derives from notions of individuality and versatility. The group currently operates in their free time—for they have their postgraduate careers to pursue—and for Mckissick, an undergraduate career to finish. Their lyricism thus encounters the strife of a conventional everyday life in addition to their social, political, and philosophical perspectives. “We’re eclectic,” adds Archibald.
Their producer, who goes by Ten, notes how the chemistry between the members sets a foundation for the overall success of the group. Indeed, though the group was recently started, they have all known each other for at least seven years, having attended the same high school. “It translates to a bigger picture,” says Ten. He likens them to various rap-group antecedents like The Leaders of the New School, and De La Soul. As for ITSF, Ten recognizes that “they have many stories to tell.” In the near future, he hopes for the group to start touring to perform within the college circuit, and on college radio stations. Then, Ten says, he hopes for them to “blow up, you know—be what they’re supposed to be—that catalyst that shares with the community their real story, and telling it in a poetic way.”
Yet, they still face the challenge of making their voices heard in a competition-centric industry.
Just as the landscape of the rap scene has transformed over the years since its inception, so too have the mediums through which young artists spread their platforms. Cassette mixtapes became CDs, which subsequently turned into SoundCloud links and social media handles. In an entertainment space densely inhabited by those striving for the stardom often boasted about in the very content they create, young hip hop artists must play their cards wisely, and reckon with the success of their tactics.
With accessibility comes congestion—in today’s media culture, basic recording equipment is affordable, and audio-distribution platforms like SoundCloud are accessible to the masses. “Hip hop is at a point of oversaturation,” notes Brown. “People have realized that there's a lot of money to be made in music and entertaining. . . they’re more focused on making a career than making art.” A group like ITSF, then, relies on their talent and artistry to generate their success.
Still, navigating the dynamic enterprise that is social media poses its own obstacles for the group to overcome. Active on Instagram and Twitter, ITSF’s members also promote their group through their personal accounts. The challenging part about growing a brand through online platforms, explains Archibald, “is being genuine while catering to what works.”
The group’s efforts to reach new audiences has not been entirely futile; their primary music content is posted on their Instagram feed in the form of a weekly series called Freestyle Fridays. For each post, one member writes a verse and creates an accompanying video. They take turns each week, which, in addition to the full-form content they post on their SoundCloud page, gives their audience a taste of each member's style—their flow, lyricism, aesthetic, and general character.
Ten likens the ITSF style to a revival of the rap scene in the 1990s. They certainly embody many of the ideals of old-school rap, though in many ways they bring new styles to the table. “We place high value upon lyrical ability just like they did in the 90's,” says Mckissick. “Lyrical ability is a focal point in our music.” They are new-school, Mckissick continues, in that they “don’t shy away from beats that aren’t traditional.”
As for their material, they are able to cover a wide range of subjects, as their name suggests. “We’ve covered toxic behavior, consent, enjoying life, being frugal, friendship, and navigating America as a minority,” says Archibald. This versatility is what they will rely on as they continue the process of spreading their name.
As Brown notes regarding “oversaturation” of competition, “hip-hop may hit a point where everyone gets tired of hearing the same stuff, and the artistry takes precedence over hype.” For a group whose passion and dexterity are evident in their sound, ITSF surely has what it takes to change the game. ∎
Take a look at the mini-documentary below to learn more about ITSF.
Listen to "Afrodite" by ITSF below. Follow their music at https://soundcloud.com/iftheshoefits
Article written by Robin Takami
Photographs by Robin Takami and Leo Liu
Instagram video (link) by Robin Takami, posted by @itsfcollective
Mini-doc shot & edited by Leo Liu, Produced by Robin Takami
Special thanks to ITSF and Ten for making this possible!