Jacking other people’s beats, flows and rhymes has become a staple in the rap world. The Dean’s List, however, makes a point to make its music as distinctive as possible.
“We don’t try to sound like anything, so when the production comes together, it’s all over the place sometimes,” says DJ Mendoza, who is joined in The Dean’s List by rapper Sonny Shotz and DJ-mixer Mik Beats. “We’re always expanding what we started with and taking it from there.”
True to its word, the Boston-based trio’s "The Drive In” mixtape features beats with acoustic guitar, French language samples, brassy horn selections, electronic flourishes and boom bap slap. It’s exactly the type of diverse, disparate and unexpected sonic mélange that excites Sonny Shotz when he writes his raps.
“I just don’t like feeling comfortable on a track,” the rapper says. “I like having to think about how I want to it sound. If the production is different than a lot of other stuff out there, I feel like if I’m rapping on it I have to match. It has to go hand in hand.”
The Dean’s List interesting musical approach comes from a few particular sources. For one, the group members listen to everything from classic rock to Top 40 radio, as well as rap, of course. They also draw from their musical education. Mendoza and Mik met while studying at Berkeley College of Music in Boston. Mendoza and Sonny Shotz, who attended the nearby The New England Institute of Art, went to high school together and joined forced with Mik in 2009 to form The Dean’s List.
Given their knowledge of music theory, Mendoza and Mik don’t necessarily create songs with the type of song structure typical of music made explicitly for the radio. “We don’t aim to have 16 measures of rapping, eight measures on a hook, another 16 [rapping],” Mendoza says. “Not every song has to have three verses of rapping. A lot of tracks we’re doing recently, maybe seven bars is the hook and there’s a breakdown. It’s kind of all over the place. We don’t ever want to force anything so that the song drags on.”
We don’t aim to have 16 measures of rapping, eight measures on a hook, another 16 [rapping].
Sonny agrees. Sometimes shorter songs are better. “If you have a song that’s a minute and 50 seconds and you got the message that you wanted to get out in that amount of time, why make it longer?” he says.
It’s this type of mentality that has earned The Dean’s List a loyal underground following since the 2010 release of its “Undeclared” mixtape. Since then, the group has toured extensively, released “The Drive In” and drawn the interest of some major labels.
But The Dean’s List isn’t rushing into getting a record deal. They’re on their own schedule and enjoying the freedom that comes with being independent.
“Something that really is important to us is creativity with our music,” DJ Mendoza says, “and making sure we have complete control over that 200 percent of the time.”
For more from Soren Baker follow him on Twitter: @SorenBaker.