It’s midweek, the sun is out, and a lean 24-year-old with broken glasses is teaching me about rap.
“You can say things in a really smart way,” he explains, “like I can say, man, every day I feel like I’m getting rained on, and that sucks. And it’s cool to say it that way. But then you can say something like I been spending days getting rained on and if the weather couldn’t the sprinklers probably woulda when I came home.”
I can’t help but smile. Stephan Roubinian knows what he is doing. Better recognized as Catalyst, the Bay Area rapper has developed a dedicated following. In January 2011, he put his talent on display in a competition called the TeamBackPack Cypher. He was chosen to be one of three emcees who performed live in the form of 16-bar verses. The audience was then given a chance to vote online.
It was Catalyst’s first cypher, a type of freestyle rotation among contributing rappers. Not only did he win but his video, which can be found at the TeamBackPack website or on youtube, has reached more than 23,000 views. And while he’s gone on to make music videos in New York and Las Vegas, he hasn’t forgotten his roots.
“I’m a Marin County guy, so I really want to represent Marin well,” he says. “We have a lot of good artists in this town. I feel a great deal of respect and I want to do well for this place.”
In fact, Catalyst is part of a group of musicians at the forefront in establishing a local hip-hop scene. Collectively, they are known as Peach Street. Several of the artists can be found sharing a house at that address, on Novato’s east side. Its core is made up of Catalyst, the Midwest Coast, M-Jaf, Bad Poetry and MC Wordplay. They often come together for collaborative projects and have formed a community and a support base.
“You need friends in this business,” Catalyst says. “You need people to tell you when you are doing something wrong and when you are doing something right.”
He goes on to describe how Peach Street works, sometimes as a filter if a verse doesn’t fit or as a way to bounce ideas off each other. “I trust them and know how talented everyone is,” he says of this partnership. “Everyone is doing their own part.”
The results of this collaboration are knockout pieces like Catalyst’s song, “If I Could,” featuring Bad Poetry, and produced by Billion Coast of Midwest Coast. The track opens with a line that could double as a Peach Street mission statement: “An illustrious illustration infiltrates your understanding. Occupies your frequencies they’re frequently demanding. Cultivate this culture till we overcome remission.”
Catalyst and Billion came up in the industry together, starting as high school classmates. Another longtime friend and Peach Street member, M-Jaf, often mixes, masters and engineers Catalyst’s music. He is also talented in the visual arts, working as a photographer for Grammy-award winner Ryan Leslie. M-Jaf lends this sharp eye to the production of Catalyst’s music videos which can be found on YouTube or Facebook.
As a group, these Peach Street artists are not only responsible for creating their own music, but take on the task of promoting it as well.
“Anything we do we have to build from the ground up,” Catalyst says. “We’ve got to get it jumpin’ ourselves. … Put on a good show and people come back.”
It’s working. These local boys have been getting attention online and from crowds in Fairfax clubs.
Catalyst is a studied professional who understands what the rap form can do. He writes all of his own lyrics, and even ghost writes from time to time. And like any true artist, he can discuss technique. He leans forward and his hands move quickly as he illustrates the value of establishing and altering viewpoints or the use of metaphor and the importance of content. He goes on to explain how a rap hinges on the correctness of its tone and flow. If they are on-point, then “you are enticing to the listener.” He moves into the abstract, bringing up method and his belief that the lyricist needs to “write what the beat entails, what it is calling for.”
When it comes to other artists, the ones who inspired him were the ones he saw “rapping about stuff that was interesting, different, educational, just smart and amazing material, and in a way that wasn’t lacking musical tone and pitch and excitement,” he says. “It made me realize you can be the musician you want to be.”
He holds himself to that standard and is always pushing toward creativity and innovation. “Music is a challenge and I love a challenge. The hardest thing in my life is music,” he says.
Catalyst is the by-product of a San Rafael High radio class that Stephan took with Billion Coast. It started when he was playing around with the cart machine used for public service announcements. He recorded a track of himself rapping and liked the way his voice sounded. At the same time, he was excelling in an English course and heard his teacher use the word catalyst. He liked it so much he put it in one of his songs.
“I was rapping and I slipped it in there,” he remembers, “and one of my boys told me ‘That’s tight. You should run with that.’ And I realized I think I already am.”
Editor's note: Alexis Sattler of Novato is a student at UC Santa Barbara. She last wrote about two girls for a second-grader suffering from cancer. Novato Patch thanks her for volunteering to contribute!)