Mont Brown and Pace-O Beats of The Astronauts drive through Southwest Philadelphia, anxious to start their tour of their old neighborhood -- near 54th and Trinity streets, where much of the inspiration for their music is derived from.
They park a few blocks away from Mont's former home. As they walk down Trinity, Brown takes a moment to look down at the very spot where a friend was gunned down a few years back. He was targeted, Brown says, but no one really knows why.
The Astronauts' music represents the truth of what they and others have experienced -- it's sometimes violent and otherwise off-color, much like the way life was when they were growing up and still is for some of their friends today.
"I'm the one who does the lyrics," Brown says. "It's no hold punches. Everything I'm saying is real."
In his song "All I Had," the chorus rings: "I do this for my mom, I do this for my son / I do it with this rap or I do it with a gun / I sell a little crack just to eat a little lunch."
But The Astronauts also try to motivate people to do better. They took their group's name from Guion "Guy" Bluford, a West Philly native, who in 1983 was the first black astronaut to enter space.
"It's a message," Brown says.
It's 'Mona Lisa,' like a picture that is being painted. We're not lying, that's first and foremost. These are real situations. Everything we rap about is the God's honest truth. Nothing is fabricated. And I'm just telling these kids that Guy Bluford, he made it and we can make it just as well.
Last summer, The Astronauts hosted a huge block party in Southwest Philly called the Stop The Violence Festival. With proceeds benefiting the Mothers in Charge Foundation, the intention was to bring the community together to show there are ways to interact peacefully.
"There was no violence the whole day," Brown says. "We just proved right there that we all can come together for one common goal and that's exactly what happened. I'm around this shit everyday, I know that we got so much potential to do better."
Brown continues the tour, coming to a friend's home, which is now abandoned. On the wall is a collection of old gum that is plastered to bricks, forming the words "54th and Ghetto."
It's the same rawness and bluntness of this mixed media graffiti that Pace says The Astronauts employ in their songs. A level of ratchetry grabs people's attention.
"It's quicker when you try to give a message, I mean, especially in our culture as black people," he says. "If you're glorifying it, I think people are just going to go with the flow."
And not hiding the ratchetry or debauchery of life from art, Mont adds, is actually a positive thing for his people, his community.
"I'm literally telling you what we're doing, you know, in the neighborhood that I'm from," he says. "The neighborhood respects me and him for doing this. No matter what I'm talking about, even though we're from the ghetto, it's still a positive thing that we're doing."
In our modern media-saturated world, where violence is regularly portrayed on television, in movies, in video games, in music and readily available anywhere on the Internet, the question of the impact of such messages is open for debate.
Music affects people. That cannot be denied. We would not listen to it if it didn't. But what are the lasting impressions that it leaves?
Read the rest of my story with Mont Brown, Pace-O Beats, and others at jumpphilly.com