Preserving the past with Stephen Dallas’ Private Sector Music Group
MC / producer Demarque Dallas Barber (aka Stephen Dallas) is a prolific musician with deep roots in Philadelphia’s hip-hop scene. One can gather clear evidence of those deep roots by glancing at Dallas’ Bandcamp page, The Private Sector Music Group. There are nearly 40 releases uploaded — including solo projects, music produced for local acts like soul singer Mary Harris and Wiz Dinero, as well as his work with his groups S.P.R. (Sound Plus Rhythm) and R.I.P.C. (Rolling in Packs Crew). Covering the past four decades, Dallas’ music charts a stylistic evolution that moves from spirited, sample-heavy hip hop in the 80s and 90s, hardcore rap, neo-soul in the 2000s, up to his current work in the lo-fi / instrumental hip hop subgenre.
Dallas’ music journey began in the early 80s in West Philly where he was inspired by the sound of hip-hop music and the burgeoning culture around him. Speaking with The Key for this piece, Dallas describes the vibrant Philly Hip Hop culture that he absorbed in his neighborhood throughout the 80s.
“I’m from West Philly, 55th and Locust, and I grew up around the era of the great DJs: Jazzy Jeff, Cash (Money), K Swift, and I could just name them all, but this one little area in West Philly just had a lot of musical talent. We went to the jams and I was basically the fly on the wall, you know, that guy that stands by the side and listens, taking notes. The hip-hop bug bit me and everything changed from there.”
Dallas’ musical curiosity and love of rap music led him to begin creating his own music with fellow teenagers from his neighborhood.
“We’re talking ’84, ’85. You know, everybody gets the Casio, and I was fortunate that I had a nice crew of people that were my boys and you become a crew,” Dallas remembers. “My DJ, his name was Simms [Christian Simms], rest in peace. He was an awesome DJ. He was so good, he would just blend breaks back and forth. You didn’t have a [sampling] machine back then. You just keep the beat going [on two turntables], keep the break going. And then eventually, of course, you bug your parents, and here comes the MPC [an Akai drum machine / sampler] and the [Roland] 808 and 909 [drum machines]. My man Brian “Basun” Foster had the 808 and my man Kev [Kevin Bell aka “Omnitek”] had the DX7 [Yamaha keyboard].”
Donning the name S.P.R. (Sound Plus Rhythm), the young musical crew began recording their own demos in a makeshift studio located in an enclosed porch at Dallas’ home in West Philly. The porch would soon become a hotspot, attracting talented kids from around the neighborhood. Although the vast majority of the music that they made would never see an “official” release, Dallas has collected the S.P.R. recordings on two compilations that capture the energetic, forward-thinking sound that the young rap crew was exploring throughout the 80s and early 90s.
Even through the hazy 4-track cassette quality, The Early Years – S.P.R. Pt 1: 1983-1986 is a revelation. Cuts like “Simms is the man with the Music” sport some slick sample flipping and a trippy vocal sound courtesy of a Roland Space Echo while “Live At the Cricket Club 86” is a live cut featuring MCs Ronnie Ron Devine and Reggie B rocking the mic while Simms cuts up Herman Kelly & Life’s Philly block party staple “Let’s Dance To The Drummer’s Beat.” The album still sounds fresh and is an important document of Philly hip-hop’s first generation.
As the mid-80s gave way to the late 80s and early 90s, rap music not only exploded as a commercial force, the genre continued to evolve stylistically with groups experimenting with more complex rhyme schemes and musical compositions. Like many acts, S.P.R’s sound would undergo some serious changes during this time. The Early Years – S.P.R. Pt. 2 1987 – 1991 documents this evolution with S.P.R. taking on influences from The Native Tongues, De la Soul, and Jamaican-born super-producer, Kurtis Mantronik. With songs like “Age Of Sagittarius”, “Venus’ Fly Trap” and “H.E.L.P. Wanted (Hope Equality Love Peace) Pt 2 1987-1991 is full of trippy samples and interludes, reflecting a more playful and abstract style than the group’s older work.
During our interview, I noted that the music that S.P.R. was making around this time sounded a bit ahead of its time and weirder than their contemporaries, and Dallas’ mentions that this was intentional.
“When we were making it, that’s what we were setting out to do. That was our thing, we were always to the left. We’d do everything to the left of center. We were out there.”
Throughout the 90s, hip-hop music took on a rougher tone with more hardcore, battle-ready lyrics and aggressive beats coming into vogue. During this time, S.P.R. and their affiliated related crew R.I.P.C (a project that came about as a result of Dallas visiting and making music with his cousins in Wheaton Maryland), would transform into a new, massive 20+-person collective called The Planet Of Blaxville.
“When we all came back to Philly, we became The Planet Of Blaxville,” Dallas says. “And from there we were just off and running. And then we got more people. We were starting to get that buzz throughout the neighborhood. So more MCs are coming by, more producers were coming by, producers from other groups that we’d absorb, and we actually became a planet. I mean, we’re talking at least 20 members. And we would just go to the studio at my house and just spill. It was beautiful. We all ran with the “Blak” thing and changed our last names to “Blak” so-and-so Blak and It became more of a fraternity. If we gave you a last name, you would be in the Planet Of Blaxville.
Some of the earliest and best of the material from this time period is collected on the compilation, Best of The Planet of Blaxville (1993-94). Featuring Elder Blak, Hot Shit Blak, Boy Scout Blak, Profit Blak, Turtle Blak, Baby Blak, King Blak, Mad-Hatter Blak (Dallas himself), and others, Best of The Planet of Blaxville is full of lively, roughly-hewn hardcore rap songs. Songs like “Tune In Tomorrow”, “You Know What It Is”, “K.B. Klick Cypher” combined heavy beats and the crew’s dexterous rhymes.
Today, Dallas remains active with the Private Sector Facebook Group, a community where Blaxville O.G.s can post music and share stories about the old days while musicians from all over post their own tracks. Dallas also continues to produce and release his own independent projects like Lo-Phi-Delphia Presents: Final Destination, The Foundation Vol. 1 1/2, and The Alternate Universe presents: Cicadas Vol.1 (Twisting The Time Stone), a comic book-themed album that finds Dallas returning to the mic with production from DJ Simms, Betsy Gifted, Groove Da Most and more. He reflects fondly on his time making music with his friends all those years ago.
“We were not just a one-trick pony and we were adamant about that,” he says. “We do more than just gutter hip-hop and we knew that might not get us famous. We were proud that we did exactly what we wanted to do.”