Southern Vermont isn’t widely known for its hip-hop music, but four Vermont artists, who have formed a group called The Horsemen, are looking to change that.
Jason Dansby, Doug Hammond, Joseph Castillo and Christopher Stevens — all with roots in Bennington County — were pursuing individual music careers when they realized they were performing at the same venues, interested in many of the same themes, and running in the same social circles.
In 2018, they performed together in shows around New England and were immediately encouraged by crowd responses. One show, at a venue in New Hampshire, convinced them to work together.
“The crowd was going wild,” said Hammond, also known by his artist name, Forever Fresh. “We knew at that point that we really had something good.”
Last week, the group released its first album. Within a few days, several of the songs had more than a thousand views on Spotify, and they have listeners from countries as far-flung as Australia, Germany and Indonesia.
While the state has a wealth of bluegrass, rock and country musicians — and has been the seedbed for bands like Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Twiddle, Dispatch and Phish — the hip-hop scene has slid under the radar.
Many of Vermont’s hip-hop groups are based in Chittenden County. The Horsemen look to build the appetite for hip-hop in southwestern Vermont.
“It’s been tough and fun at the same time because the northern Vermont area has their own group of music artists,” Hammond said. “We did break into that barrier, and we do a lot of shows up there. Those are fun because you get to know all these other Vermont artists and be accepted, but you also stand out at the same time.”
With venues shuttered during Covid-19, the album (which contains explicit content) has been the group’s passion project. Dansby, who also goes by his artist name, DarealaFlex45, acts as the group’s sound engineer, compiling the tracks in his Manchester studio.
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Justin Boland, who runs a blog called Vermont Hip-Hop, said the group has an edge.
“They’ve always stood out because they’re friendly, genuine guys, and their pure love of the music is contagious,” he said. “They also have the innate hustle independent artists need in any era, so seeing them come together makes a lot of sense. The album reflects what an interesting mix of personalities and styles they’ve got.”
While the group’s first album is largely lighthearted, Dansby said much of Vermont hip-hop “informs and educates.”
“The tension between party music and emcees doing community education has cut through the entire history of the genre,” Boland said. “I completely agree that Vermont has always been more about conscious hip-hop. The Horsemen themselves have a good balance of both.”
Stevens, whose artist name is SirhcoBangz, said that on an upcoming solo album, his lyrics focus on real-life experiences — like the death of his sister and his struggles with anxiety and depression — that he hopes will make listeners think.
“I don’t want to make music that’s just there to soothe the ear,” Castillo (also called Just Cauz) said. “I want the music to have a thought process. I want the listener to think about the lyrics that have been spoken, and maybe it has that replay value, where you’d care to listen to again so you could truly understand what I’m trying to convey, and my message.”
Maple syrup, cheddar cheese and Twiddle
By some indications, The Horsemen are taking part in the growth of the genre within the state. Boland says he’s been encouraged by a recent expansion in Vermont hip-hop.
“Ten years ago, the Vermont scene was notable for having some standout talent for its size,” he said. “In 2021, I think the scene is notable because it’s way more sonically diverse and talented than it should be, especially for such a small state. The growth has been amazing to witness.”
One song on the album, called “Homegrown,” featured a collaboration with another Vermont hip-hop group, Causin’ Effect. The track focuses specifically on the group’s roots in the state.
“I’m glad to be a part of this because Vermont is known for Twiddle and maple syrup and cheddar cheese, but now it’s going to be known for The Horsemen,” Hammond said with a laugh, adding that he means no disrespect toward Twiddle, a band whose genre rests somewhere between bluegrass and reggae.
Of all the shows the group has performed, the most meaningful was in Bennington at a Black Lives Matter mural painting event, Dansby said. Tensions ran high that day, with four arrested during a gathering that was meant to be family-friendly.
But the group helped defuse the conflict, leading the group in the “Cha-Cha Slide” dance and some of The Horsemen’s original material. They said police officers thanked them for providing a distraction from the scene’s negativity.
“Who can fight while listening to music?” Dansby said. “It’s a universal language.”