Clay Armor is (from left to right): Kyle Haas and Jarod Ortel.
by Shiloh Slaughter

Sometimes the roots of hip-hop tear up memories of struggle, poverty, and crime, but when it comes to Clay Armor, their roots entangle with comedy, the hit movie Footloose, hippies, Tom Hanks, and comic books. Yes, say it with me: White Rappers.

You may have first seen Clay Armor, who is Kyle Haas (Haaspittable) and Jarod Oertel (J-DubZ), rocking house parties under DJ Snakes before he was DJ of the Year and before his hip-hop show The Realness represented the realness. Now, Clay Armor mingles with the smoking kids and bouncers outside Saginaw’s glamorous smoke-free bars. They pass the mic with local rappers such as Keef Courage and Alphabetics. But five years back, they were still spitting to slow grooves and funky beats, apparitions no doubt from 60s soul and television theme songs. Still laying hot tracks between scratches, these boys with their chants are resurrecting the 80s from the grave. The only bling they wear is their own clay armor, their own flesh, their own realness, and Sean Jean with some clean sneaks. Besides DJ Snakes, their realness includes a colorful web of local artists, such as recent Tri-City Art Battle winner Jimmy Hughes, EST, and Keef Courage, among others, who promote each others' talent by displaying and name dropping in albums, videos, and performances.

Yet through Clay Armor, J-DubZ curbs this pleasant atmosphere with memories of an L.A. childhood, where his dreams were shaken from train tracks and his feet tiptoed through needles, and of Arizona, which taught him the no-longer-needed skills of drug trafficking and grinding. Haas often lightens the mood with comical pleasantries. Outside of Clay Armor, J-DubZ talks about underground pop group Soul Coughing, and he and Haas often have disputes regarding Tom Hanks. J-DubZ is known to argue with himself about whether Genesis or King Crimson should represent classic rock, and Haas has been heard to speak of himself in third person about the movie Footloose and its soundtrack king, Kenny Loggins. The dark side of J-DubZ decides that it's fucked, but Haas insists that it's legit too, and to keep bumpin' it. What does this mean? This is the sort of conversation that can be expected from them, leading to a night of chillin' in a living room framed with artwork by J-DubZ and Jimmy Hughes (also done prior to his Art Battle win), while Kyle's lovely girlfriend in a flowered dress offers me, then a strange writer to them, a cup of tea.

Though Haas seasons the moment with pop culture and comic charm, some fans may get the sense he is holding back. The memories he leaks are of what he calls his average life, raised in Macomb County in a full house of seven people, and the move to Saginaw with his grandfather lending support. Though an accident-prone child, always watched by his mother, he stumbled into hip-hop during high school. There, he became part of rap group Blind Man's Bluff, which included Eric Anspach as "The Verbal Gerbil," Adam Poindexter as "Luke SlyStalker," and himself as "Kurupted K." They played shows at Jamestown Hall, Rose Bowling Alley in Bay City, and the Comedy Club.

Meanwhile, J-DubZ was still Jarod and was rockin' as a drummer in a variety of bands, such as Viral Infection and M.O.D.O.C.K., all of which he claims never made it to the stage. Jarod's first show was with Kyle at Jamestown, where he became J-DubZ, the new member of Clay Armor. J-DubZ took his talent from drums and transformed rhythm into beats, which first bonded him with Kyle. It was as if the rhythm was heard through the grapevine, or Kyle's cousin's living room in 2006. It was Jimmy Hughes who had earlier swapped J-DubZ's beats with one of Kyle's earlier albums, Innerlight Spectrum. When they were sitting in the living room, J-DubZ began talking about Haaspittable, not realizing that Haas was Haaspittable. Now they mesh like Journey on the dance floor and a 80s pop song in a college art gallery.

From the colorful web of local artists and underground influences, Clay Armor spins a new album, Yellow Fever. Inside, you will find a colorful slip of art and photography designed by J-DubZ, a collage of memories, including a picture of Kyle in a Santa Claus hat slurping a pot of coffee. The album gives shout-outs to Kurt Cobain, Ozzy Osborne, Dr. Kevorkian, Lou Reed, and a throwback to Saginaw Style, when 989 was 517, claiming that "hip-hop ain't been real since '93." The deep voice of J-DubZ stretches syllables in a resonant presence that carries the attack that Haaspittable's sarcasm promises. However, if emo kids are bringing back skinny jeans and chucks, surely Saginaw is bringing back hip-hop. Actually, hip-hop was already brought last month on May 12, when DJ Snakes brought Clay Armor to The Realness, and on May 14, when Keef Courage also saved a spot onstage for them. So if you're hiding your soul albums and secretly like Tom Hanks, it is safe to dust off your records. Clay Armor is in the building, or in the house, or possibly in your living room.

For more information on Clay Armor, visit their MySpace page here: You might also want to check out Jarod's side project, I Am Hip Hop Show, on YouTube, where he promotes other local artists through independent film. Look for him at area shows. He will be the guy with the backpack on who is always filming local bands.

© Shiloh Slaughter, 2010