June 5 2013 03:27 PM

Hip-hop duo tackle local economic issues

Stuntdouble (right) put out his first album with Tenshun in 2005
Photo by Antonio Maristela/StarInTheSkyPhotography

Bob Surratt’s spacious Rolando house looks like it’s been ripped out of a family sitcom. He and his wife, Zar, are first-time homeowners, having moved in last year with their 2-year-old daughter, Paige. The living room features elegant, minimalist décor, and sunlight pours in through several large windows. In the backyard sits a behemoth of a child’s play set—a slide, swing and rock-climbing wall, all part of a tree house that would make Chuck E. Cheese scurry away into his hole.

It’s not a strange sight unless you know that Surratt makes hip-hop, a genre predicated on coming from the bottom to the top. Many rappers take great pride in going from rags to riches, using their struggle to flaunt their success. But what do rappers do when they go from rags to the middle class?

For Surratt, who performs as Stuntdouble, his answer is to take on local politics. In his music with Tenshun, a local producer and DJ, he offers his own alternative to the sunny vision of San Diego represented by that oft-repeated slogan, “America’s Finest City.” But far from hard-boiled gangster rap, it’s an alternative that represents his working-class background.

“I’m just trying to talk about our hometown in a way that’s appropriate for me, for who I am—mid- 30s, white guy, entering middle class,” Stuntdouble tells CityBeat.

Instead of weaving edgy tales of street life as other rappers might, he takes a skeptical look at complex economic issues like gentrification to the tourism industry. He approaches songs by posing questions, like, “What’s the reality of that? What’s underneath that rug? What’s behind all that?” 

He now hopes to spread his insights further. Stuntdouble & Tenshun have been making funky, intelligent hip-hop since the mid-’00s. In 2011, the duo released the first of three EPs as part of Welcome to San Diego, a series that speaks to local issues with biting humor. At the end of May, they dropped Pay Us a Visit, the series’ second EP.

As a rapper, Stuntdouble sounds like an awkward white guy with a flow that’s at times stilted. While other awkward white rappers might hide their deficiencies behind pseudo high art or, worse, hammy comedy, Stuntdouble focuses on smart writing: He’s a thinking-man’s rapper, prone to fleshing out concepts in a genre  that’s prone to stream-of-consciousness lyricism.

He’s often lighthearted—two recent songs are about knee pain and his love of alcohol. One of his most popular songs, “El Guapo” (Spanish for “the handsome one”), is an ode to beards and a nod to his own, a burly masterpiece that would rival the whiskers of a Nordic Viking.

But he tackles more serious concepts on the latest EP. The title track to Pay Us a Visit takes aim at San Diego’s pervasive tourism: Stuntdouble calls out “the giant gift shop that we call the Comic-Con” and “the world-famous, A-list critter prison” known as the San Diego Zoo, among other attractions. In a clever hook, he chants, “We put the ‘pay’ in ‘Pay us a visit.’” 

“Certainly the tourism industry is what makes this town tick,” Stuntdouble says. But between the city’s wealthy hoteliers and low-wage service jobs, he wonders, “How’s this really gonna benefit our town? How’s this gonna build a middle class? How are more people gonna be buying homes?” 

On the first EP in the Welcome to San Diego series, Stuntdouble also addressed the city’s then-dominant conservative political slant. On the third EP, he promises to explore “the gentrification of San Diego” and its effects on the lower class.

Stuntdouble, tall with a welcoming smile buried in his beard, grew up in Golden Hill. He was introduced to hip-hop when a friend of his older brother gave him a tape that included songs by Slick Rick and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. He started rapping in high school by freestyling in a friend’s garage.

Meanwhile, by 2003, Tenshun had been making a name for himself in the local scene for his dirty beats and insane scratching abilities. Eventually, a mutual friend passed Tenshun’s just-released project, Grey Death, along to Stuntdouble. He was thoroughly impressed.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is fucking hard as fuck,’” Stuntdouble recalls. “It was just so raw. You could tell he put a lot of craft into it.” The two soon linked up and dropped their first album in 2005.

Nowadays, on top of his duties as a husband and father, Stuntdouble attends SDSU, where he studies English. He’s also a film enthusiast, listing Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock among his favorite directors.

Despite the EP’s release, Stuntdouble has no illusions about stardom. The music business has shrunk considerably from what it was in the ’90s. The only thing that keeps him going is compulsion.

“Fools don’t blow up anymore unless you’re that dude,” he says. “But the vast majority of people that are putting out good music that I listen to are workingclass folk that just do it because they have to be creative. That’s how it is for me.”

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.