Detroit's Passalacqua mix hip hop with community

It's one of those days during the summer of 2014 that starts out warm and sunny on an urban farm, then has you running for cover as dark clouds and rain suddenly appear overhead, before all blows over as quickly as it came. You know the kind.
It's a perfect kind of Detroit day, one of contrasts, to meet the two guys behind Passalacqua -- equal parts wordsmiths, community activists, serial collaborators, and hip hop artists whose music happens to be blowing up at the moment. Sitting down on a porch across from the farm and beginning to talk with Brent "Blak" Smith and Bryan Lackner for just a few minutes, you get a sense that the best is yet to come. And when you hear them call what they do "place-based entertainment," you know they have the future right where they want it.

"It's important to us that we do music at the same time giving something back to the community," says Smith, 27. "When we travel, we want to do community-based work where some of our collaborators live. Sweat equity is a big part of what we do, on stage or in the neighborhoods."

In Smith's case, his immediate community is the Banglatown neighborhood, a few blocks north of Hamtramck. Lackner, 28, lives in Eastern Market. The two are originally from Rochester, where they met in middle school before Lackner moved out of state. After he came back, the two reconnected over a love for hip hop. Smith was in the group Cold Men Young; Lackner was flying solo as Mister, a stage name he still uses in Passalacqua.

"I was Mister's 'hype' man," Smith says. "That was 2009-2010."

"We found out we had some good chemistry and decided to work together," Lackner says. "(Blaksmith) was into theater and we wanted the new project to be really theatrical."
Passalacqua shows are indeed all about visual excitement, on stage and in the way the group engages its audience. Smith and Lackner are two stylish dudes, wearing colorful clothing, shooting streams of confetti each time they perform, working crowds into a frenzy.

"We spend a lot of money on confetti at Party City," Smith says.

Lackner does a quick calculation.

"That's about $1,000 a year based on doing over 40 shows."

Passalacqua put down the confetti long enough in earn a Kresge Performing Arts Fellowship in 2012. Smith and Lackner say that winning the award helped them consolidate their interests in music and community work, while also sharpening their stagecraft.

"The Kresge (grant) put us on another more real, authentic track," Smith says. "It was an important step forward for us."

"Our vision was getting cluttered and a bit hazy," Lackner says. "The (Kresge fellows) retreat weekend helped us put things into better perspective. It gave us a sense that hip hop has a place along with other disciplines and other styles of music. Things began to gel for us in terms of collaboration with other artists. We learned how to do more with less."

At around the same time Smith and Lackner saw their Detroit mission come into focus and even intensify.

"We always had a lot of friends from the suburbs come see us; we still do," Smith says. "But we found we had much more to say and do in Detroit. We wanted to become more omnipresent in our work, using social media to our advantage, showing people we are active in our community."

Other Detroit cutting edge artists like hip hop activist Invincible, one-man performance artist Carjack, and electro-punk band Marco Polio and the Vaccines are local inspirations for Passalacqua.

"They are all different but they all inspired us, we wanted to emulate them," Smith says.

"We do shows with rock people, funk people -- hip hop definitely has a place in all kinds of music," Lackner says. "We want to inspire people in the same way that it happened for us."

It likely happened to many in the crowd earlier this summer at Eight & Sand, a Hamtramck venue connected to a former manufacturing facility that now houses the fleet of the Detroit Bus Company. Passalacqua hosted a release party there for its new CD, Church. The group pummelled the crowd with beats, bass, and words from new tracks "Power," "The Baptism," "Stray Dogs," and others from the new release. The crowd surged back, bodies slamming, hands in air -- call it danceable community engagement or place-based entertainment. Or cut through all that and just call it smart fun.

Church is a collaboration between Passalacqua and Flint Eastwood's Seth and Jax Anderson (also known as SYBLYNG), who produced it, and Chris Koltay of Corktown's High Bias Recordings, who mixed it. The writing was done by Smith, Lackner, and the Andersons. Other partners in the new release are the Right Brothers -- Andrew Miller and Jamin Townsley -- who shot the video for 'The Baptism.'" The video also features urban art provocateurs the Hygienic Dress League.

"It was a two-year collaborative process that made this happen," Lackner says. Passalacqua is working on a full length release with producer Zach Shipps of the Electric Six, scheduled for a 2015 release with plans for a tour out west in March.

Conversation over, Smith and Lackner head over to the farm across the street, where some neighborhood boys have gathered. They ask if they can pick some food from the garden and Smith says to go for it. The kids say thanks and scurry off. Rain clouds gather, and small drops begin to fall, but the guys from Passalacqua don't seem to mind. They grab some tools and get to work.

Walter Wasacz is a Hamtramck-based freelance writer and DJ. Follow him on Twitter @nospectacle.

This story originally appeared on, the Experience Engine for Southeast Michigan.

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Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.