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Lifesavas star is high and rising

Portland hip-hop trio creates a buzz with its debut disk

Over the years, the Lifesavas' marketing department has been a staple gun and a flier. The tour bus was a beat-up Ford Torino, and the product distribution center was in the trunk.

But now the veteran Portland hip-hop act may be on the verge of overnight stardom.

'If we're overnight sensations,' says frontman Vursatyl (Marlon Irving), 'that was a long night.'

Lifesavas are generating a very large buzz in the record industry with their first full-length CD, 'Spirit in Stone.' The group will celebrate with an album release party at the Roseland Theater.

'It's an amazing record, especially considering it's their first,' says Isaac Bess, label manager at Quannum Projects, the Lifesavas' independent San Francisco area label. 'We're all elated.'

'These guys have really done something to make Portland proud,' says Aaron Marquez of 360 Vinyl.Cd.Gear in Old Town, which specializes in underground hip-hop and dance music. 'In my opinion, it's the best album of the year so far.'

'For us, the album was a success as soon as it was mastered,' Vursatyl says. 'If we did this for money, we would've had to have stopped a long time ago. You have to put money in the back seat and say, 'This is what we love.' '

Lifesavas are a stylistic throwback, devotees of an old school variety of brainy, upbeat hip-hop popularized by the New York trio De La Soul in the late '80s. Unlike many commercially successful rappers, Lifesavas don't seek street credibility by glorifying a culture of drugs and violence.

'You're going to write what's

real to you,' says Vursatyl, who teamed with Jumbo (Solomon David) to form Lifesavas in 1995. 'Everything is not rosy every day, but we've got to live and get through adversities.'

Bess says the group's thoughtful approach has the potential to reach an unusually broad audience. 'Their music is a delicate balance between being challenging and somewhat confrontational,' he says.

Hip-hop MCs are not angry by nature, the group insists. Rather, record companies are trading on a tested formula, cookie-cutting artists in the mold of gangsta rappers whose antisocial rhymes have struck commercial gold in the past.

'There are a lot of projects out there that are mindless,' Vursatyl says. 'They're being told what to do, how to look. Everything is fabricated. It's just big business.'

Jumbo says other hip-hop artists admire the group's independence. The band credits Quannum, which was founded by hip-hoppers Blackalicious, DJ Shadow and Lateef in 1997.

For six stressful weeks last summer, the band plugged away on 'Spirit in Stone' at studios in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland. 'We're all perfectionists,' says Rev. Shines (Ryan Shortell), who spins vinyl as the group's DJ. 'We want things to sound a certain way. '

'They are easily the hardest-working guys I've ever met,' Bess says. 'They'll drive for eight hours and go to a local record store, then go to a college radio station and then at sound check they'll be chatting with the fans. They're tireless. I think it's going to serve them well in the long run.'

The group says much of its confidence in the studio came from years of unrelenting roadwork. Manager Kenneth Erlick says Lifesavas may have played more than 100 shows this year. They recently returned from a cross-country tour that took them from an empty room in Sun Valley, Idaho, to a capacity crowd at the New York City nightclub S.O.B.'s.

At a Los Angeles show, with influential industry types present, technical problems suddenly arose with no technical support in sight. 'We had to perform a cappella the first 20 minutes of our set,' Vursatyl says. 'People loved it.'

'As hard as my job can be,' says Rev. Shines, 'it's easy with those guys up there. These guys make it look like it's part of the show.'

'Their live show has turned into an unstoppable force,' Bess says. 'Nobody wants them to open for them because the crowd gets too tired out. I get e-mails every day asking, 'When are these guys going out on tour?' '

If struggle has dampened Lifesavas' spirits, it doesn't show on 'Spirit in Stone.' The infectious 'HelloHiHey' is a clever, funny look at how ambition can stray into self-absorption. The short, hysterical 'Thuggity Skit' lampoons rappers desperate for gangsta credibility.

But the band can get serious, too. Lifesavas put aside the lighthearted tone long enough to deliver 'Resist,' a stirring polemic about demanding integrity from the people and institutions around them. 'That quickly became an anthem,' Vursatyl says.

Lifesavas hit their most affecting note on 'Me,' the final cut on the new album. Over a breezy musical track, Vursatyl and Jumbo offer poignant tributes to a family member who battled drug addiction and a friend lost forever to the quick, violent action of the street.

'We have friends that are very deep in the streets,' Jumbo says. 'They catch the real thing we're trying to say.'

He says the music's popularity in blighted corners of the country, such as South Central Los Angeles, proves that their literate message is relevant. 'They see death like the sun coming up,' Jumbo says. 'But they're human first. It gives them food for thought.'

The message is certainly reaching Portland's supportive hip-hop community, which is not well-known elsewhere.

'People can hardly believe that Portland has hip-hop,' Vursatyl says. 'They say, 'You guys from where?' '

'They're floored,' Jumbo adds. 'They can't believe that this didn't come out of New York, come out of the Bay, come out of L.A.'

'We got big love for Portland,' Vursatyl says. 'We're proud of it.' If references to the hometown are sparse on 'Spirit in Stone,' it was a simple matter of priorities.

'The thing we want people to know first about us is that the music is at the forefront,' he says. 'Marvin Gaye didn't waste a lot of time telling you he was from Detroit. The goal is to get out and make a record. '

Contact Eric Bartels at ebartels@ portlandtribune.com.