DJBooth readers, meet Catalyst Bars.
If you’re an underground head who's been following the growth of the TeamBackPack movement over the past few years, it’s likely you’ve seen Cat slay a cypher on your Facebook timeline. He's a talented emcee with a career resume that plenty of artists would kill for, but in the eyes of the average mainstream hip-hop consumer, Catalyst is little more than a “SoundCloud Rapper”; an MC whose skills are relegated to the obscurity of an internet landscape oversaturated with trash instrumentals and “peep my mixtape” tweets.
If it weren’t for Cat Bars, though, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article. In fact, if I had dismissed Cat’s music just because it’s more likely to be found on an underground hip-hop blog then the Billboard Hot 100, I might not even be alive.
Rewind to the winter of 2014, I was squaring off against a demon named “depression” more intensely than I ever had before, and Cat had just released his new single, “Loman.”
In one minute and 56 seconds, a SoundCloud Rapper had saved my life.
At the time, I was 22 years old and stoned too often. Bushy hair, hipster tank-top. I’d just graduated college, moved from beautiful Santa Cruz, California to the sprawling and enigmatic San Jose, and was dealing with the loss of direction and crippling weight of reality that’s par for the course in your early twenties. It’s easy to see the world as shit when you’re 22 with a self-destructive streak longer than a Tech N9ne album.
My job sucked and all my friends had either left the Bay or were working too many hours at their own sucky jobs to provide any semblance of emotional support. Typical problems, yadda yadda, woe is me, life is hard for us privileged white boys with loving families and college degrees, right?
But that winter, it got pretty bad. I was numbing all my problems with the help of all sorts of substances that muck up your body and mushify your brain. Bad news, bad choices; I was feeling too little, no sleep, no dreams—the usual suspects. It looked like I was doing just fine to everyone around me, but nothing in my life was fine.
When I finally hit rock bottom and felt all that pain I'd been dodging for years, I thought about calling it quits. I’d stare at the California coastline and fantasize about stealing a car and finding a sharp bend in Highway 1 to get morbidly acquainted with. Too many of us have been there; this isn't the place to elaborate on suicide, though those stories should and will be told.
The only thing that helped me hold on and function on most days was music. “Shortcuts & Dead Ends,” by ¡MAYDAY! Lots of Pink Floyd. And the video for “Loman,” by Catalyst Bars.
Everything about the record, from the introductory melody (“I just keep on goinnn”) and spaced-out beat, with heart-filled piano lines cascading over that head-bobbing groove, to the bars (“they all thought I'm crazy see / kids and all the neighbors see / me just talking to myself / that’s how you create a dream”) and the look on Cat’s face in that video, confronting the demons that kept me awake that entire winter, hit me hard.
So often, the kind of emotional intensity that Cat displayed in his video is what we need most to remind us that life is full of color. Struggling to get out of bed in the afternoon, I’d hear parts of that melody echoing in my head, “I gotta keep on goinnn.” Beyond the rhythm and poetry of the track, I’d focus on holding onto the feeling in the pit of my stomach that that piece as a whole still leaves me with. An emotional connection and visceral experience that defines good art.
I can’t count how many times I watched “Loman” that winter, how many late nights I’ve spent bobbing my head to artists like Cat that kept me company when the world feels cold, empty and hopeless. Not all music can provide that feeling, and certainly not all rap. But when an MC puts their soul into what they create and makes the kind of hip-hop with depth and sincerity that moves your heart and forces you to feel and live the beauty in this life, it matters. For the world. And for a depressed writer up too late too often, thinking too much about grandiose exit strategies.
Sure, it’s easy and safe to sweep a guy like Cat under the rug, label him a “SoundCloud Rapper” and focus your attention on music that’s packaged and delivered by the industry pipeline. Even if you love underground art, it’s an intimidating task to sift through the mountain of mediocrity looking for something that moves you. Not every mixtape is fire. Those are just facts.
But sometimes you need to dig deep below the surface to find the shiniest diamonds. In hip-hop, like in all other commercial art forms, the product pushed by the mainstream industry machine is beholden to big dollars and the taste of the lowest common denominator. This isn’t the case in the underground.
Indie artists have the freedom to create art that’s pure, from a place of vulnerability and emotional realness. The kind of art that reflects our own realities and experiences, battles our shared demons and gives our triumph a soundtrack. Art that saves.
I’ve got a SoundCloud rapper to thank for getting me through some of my darkest times. For that, I’m always going to be grateful, and always going to be devoted to appreciating underground art whenever I need a reminder that the world isn’t all bad.
In 2017, I recommend giving a random SoundCloud rapper a chance—you might just find the artist who one day saves your life.
By Cassidy Kakin. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram