'This is a kid to watch out for," Toki Wright says, introducing one of the half-dozen teens at the Circle of Discipline gym on a recent afternoon.
While most rappers would use that phrase to describe themselves -- and many adults would mean "watch out" in a bad way -- Toki is talking glowingly about a 15-year-old who goes by the name Freeze. The kid already has his own group, Illuminous 3. He also has torn up a few opposing MCs at the Loring Pasta Bar's Monday open-mike nights, for which Wright has been host.
Believing in young men's capabilities is central to the Circle of Discipline, at 1201 E. Lake St. in south Minneapolis.
Wright and his fellow rapper and roommate, Adonis Frazier, are two guys who have felt the nonprofit gym's positive impact. They are now sharing it through music.
The duo fronts the burgeoning rap group the C.O.R.E., which enters the local hip-hop ring this week with its gutsy debut CD, "Metropolis." The release party is tonight at the Quest.
While it shares the playful, wise-acre energy of other notable Twin Cities hip-hop acts such as Atmosphere, Kanser and Heiruspecs, "Metropolis" takes itself more seriously than most local rap releases.
Wright and Frazier -- who perform as Toki and AD, respectively -- still believe rappers can be positive players without being too preachy or goody-goody. On the CD, they tackle social themes and topical issues, such as the title track's boiling-pot view of urban life. But they can goof off with the best of them, too.
In one track, for instance, the duo takes hard punches at young people who cry about injustice without working for it ("Grievance"). In another, they're taking swipes at themselves for overdue porn videos ("Metropolis Video").
Musically, much of the disc has the urgency that presumably comes with working in a boxing gym. Much like the role that producer Ant plays on Atmosphere records, the C.O.R.E. features the production team of Xavier (X-Man) Smith and Flyte Tyme protégé Reggie Henderson on CD. A few tracks, including "Slow It Down" and "Venus," also show off a sexual, slower-grooving side of the group that's suitable for R&B radio.
In person, Wright and Frazier show the same balance -- funny yet serious -- as their music.
"We work hard, and we play hard," said AD, who's also a boxer. "That's really what [Circle of Discipline] is all about: The discipline and fight that it takes to do something positive in your life and other people's lives, plus having a little fun."
Boys to men
At 25, AD is a third-generation do-gooder. His grandfather, Bishop Stanley Frazier of Emmanuel Tabernacle Church of God in Christ in south Minneapolis, is a longstanding local activist. And his father, Sankara Frazier, started Circle of Discipline, which has been an outreach center for at-risk kids for 12 years.
Just as a boxing ring might not seem a wholesome place for combating violence, AD's dad believes that the C.O.R.E.'s sometimes raunchy and aggressive-sounding music is still a positive force.
"You can't reach out to gang members and these tough kids in trouble with candy-coated methods," Sankara Frazier said.
Of AD's choice to rap, he said, "When it has the right message, I don't know if there's any more positive tool right now."
Toki, 22, certainly benefited from hip-hop's bright power. As a kid, he bounced around in a split-marriage household, living in Chicago, St. Louis and many other places before settling in the Twin Cities and graduating from Washburn High School a few years after AD.
While still in high school, Toki started writing poetry and going to open-mike spoken-word nights. More soft-spoken and introverted than most rappers are offstage, he takes classes at the University of Minnesota as his circle of discipline.