Clearing the Field 

Kool Keith's Collaborator Motion Man Flows Solo

The Domino's Pizza delivery representative at Motion Man's door is smiling from ear to ear. "This is my very good friend!" exalts the deliveryman in a heavy Indian accent outside the rapper's hidden Hayward apartment. As Motion Man (aka Clifton Santiago) drops a $30 tip on a $9 pie, one can see why he makes friends wherever he goes. "That's a fucked-up job to have," Santiago explains as he shuts the door. "I used to deliver pizzas, and I remember what it's like. I tip big, and now Domino's looks out for me. They see my address, and they come running!"

Domino's isn't the only company beating a path to Santiago's door these days. Labels, other rappers, DJs, and producers have taken notice of the veteran East Bay MC. After a stellar vocal turn on the acclaimed Masters of Illusion record with Kool Keith last year, all eyes are on Motion Man's first solo outing, to be released in January 2002. In an industry notoriously impressed with youth and image, it says something that Motion has earned his success in the underground rap game the hard way -- with pure rhyming ability tested on the streets of Oakland and New York. Suffice it to say, Motion Man is not a newcomer.

"I started out in the rap game by accident," remembers Santiago. "Back in the '80s I was a DJ for a group called Zero Tolerance. I used to make answering machine messages for people just for fun. Everyone who heard those messages was like, 'You should rap!'" The move from out behind the decks has proved to be a good one for Santiago. But it's been a long road from DJing and break dancing to holding lyrical court with Kool Keith and E-40.

Santiago moved to New York in the late 1980s with Zero Tolerance. While there, he honed his skills against some of the nation's best MCs. A deal that Zero Tolerance nearly scored with Loud/RCA Records fell through at the last minute. But Motion Man always waved his Bay Area flag high. "I used to rap in clubs and on street corners back then -- wherever there was competition -- and I would just rhyme. Nobody believed I was from Cali out there. Nobody was comin' with shit like I had back then. And I was fuckin' New York heads up with my California flow."

Santiago's careful cadence remains the secret to his success; it's an irresistible honey-trap to any true hip-hop head. "I'm the flowmaster," he says. "You'll never hear a rapper flip it the way I do it." Chances are, you'll never hear lyrics put together the way Motion Man does either, if you listen to the woeful state of Top 40 hip-hop these days. Witness the following Motion Man lyrical blizzard off the Masters of Illusion track "Scared Straight":

Change your Rang yo / I drop my styles often at an obtuse angle / I'm threatenin', miraculous things be happening, every time I spit the verbal through speakers / I'm on the court while you sorry niggas sit in the bleachers / Cheerleaders, fear leaders, sissy niggas with skirts / I'm catchin' waves like white-nose surfers with tans / My King Kong style climbin' buildings, holdin' your bitch / I'm dichotomy to everybody, I'm fuckin' melodic / Niggas comin' out with drama lookin' mad histrionic/ I bounce uniquely get up on this land, destroy you like water / Yo, Mother Nature, that's my ho and I been pimpin' her, bro / My conversations built like Spiderman, it's neighborhood friendly / But expands like apocalypse, for niggas that's envy .

Motion Man's precise, melodic, rapid-fire delivery leaves the listener breathless and wanting more. As a former hip-hop DJ, Santiago knows how to construct an original hip-hop style. As Threshold Records owner and DJ/producer Kut Masta Kurt puts it, "What I like about Motion Man is that he's got his head around what rap is about. When you're a DJ, you have to start with the basics of mixing two records together before you can start doing all the crazy scratching tricks. A lot of DJs today call themselves turntablists but they can't even mix a record on beat. Motion has learned the basics of how to really write a rhyme, and how to rap. He understands that a rapper is a personality, a character, an individual style that people have to identify with. There are so many rappers and DJs out there who don't do that -- they just copy off of each other. Motion has an advantage over other rappers as a former DJ in that he understands the fundamentals of how to write lyrics and recite rhymes."

As much respect as Motion continues to garner on his own, it's hard to separate Motion Man from his longtime rhyming collaborator Kool Keith. "I've known Keith forever," says a suddenly animated Santiago. While Kut Masta Kurt has been trying to get the two together on a record for years, it was only last year that he was able to finish producing the critically acclaimed Masters of Illusion full-length. Following up a much-loved 1998 Masters of Illusion single, the M.O.I. full-length is reminiscent of Kool Keith's legendary "Dr. Octagon" -- which Kurt also produced a few tracks on. "I love Keith, but that record took forever to make," continues Motion. "You gotta do the record around Keith. You know, we gotta take Keith shopping, get chicken, to the porno store -- wherever you gotta go to keep him happy and awake." Although Motion likes telling Kool Keith stories (apparently Keith is a bit of a narcoleptic), he is much more excited when talking about Motion Man's forthcoming solo record.

"Motion Man is a regular guy," says Santiago of his alter ego. "It's just that when he gets in front of a mike, he can outrun and outgun everybody." His debut Clearing the Field contains evidence of just how Motion plans to slay the competition: more abstract, rapid-fire urban tales pumping from his stereo like hollow-point bullets whizzing by at four hundred miles per hour. A track with fellow East Bay rapper E-40 slows things down a bit, but the track still sways with underground confidence and booming bass.

"On my record you're not going to hear love songs or songs about 'Ice,'" asserts Santiago. "What you're going to get is a guy that's lyrically talking about deep shit with nice flow." A modest assertion maybe, but Santiago knows the difference between a rapper who rhymes from the heart, and an MC who emulates what the current lyrical fads are. Santiago explains: "A rapper might need a thesaurus, might need a New Webster's Dictionary, might need to go online to look up the meaning of 'Caligula.' Motion doesn't have to do that. Motion cannot rap for a whole week delivering packages for Fed Ex, and he will step to the mike and spin it differently than the guy who went online for inspiration." Motion Man's sole inspiration comes from the thrill of the mike in his face and the DAT running. He doesn't aspire to wealth, cars, or fame; he'd rather get a compliment from a fan whose mind he has just blown. "I'm not trying to be the number-one MC anymore," says Santiago, "Right now I'm just like, 'This is how Motion raps. If you like it, fine -- if you don't, that's fine too.'"

Thankfully, most everyone agrees that Motion Man is one of the West Coast's most underrated rappers. NinjaTune recording artist DJ Vadim asked the MC to tour with him in Europe. Motion also appears on Vadim's USSR: Life from the Other Side on a track called "The Terrorist," and he's been asked to appear on the highly anticipated Dust Brothers record. But the older Santiago remains grounded. After all, there are packages that must be delivered every day. Santiago proudly works for Fed Ex, where he has delivered next-day envelopes with a smile for over three years. The stock options certainly beat delivering pizzas, though one gets the sense that in a few years he won't be working for Fed Ex anymore. When he hits it big, chances are Motion Man will remain a good tipper, a better DJ, and one hell of an MC.

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