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Word up (from up high)

With Backbreakanomics, Atlanta duo Mars ILL give praise to, and with, hip-hop

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One tall and wiry, one stocky and hirsute, DJ Dust and MC manCHILD -- the duo known to followers of Atlanta's underground hip-hop scene as Mars ILL -- look more like managers than members of a rap group.

"When I first saw manCHILD [the self-described "6-foot-5-inch uncoordinated" one], he was part of a crew but carrying a box of records, so I really thought he was their manager," says Dust, the heftier, more soft-spoken one. "We both get that a lot. The most recent time it happened was when somebody asked me if I was the group's manager on the set of our own video."

Though their partnership follows a pattern similar to the classic hip-hop structure and streetwise synergy of Gang Starr's Guru and DJ Premier, "managers" is somehow an apt description for Dust and manCHILD. Not only do the two manage their own business affairs, but they've also managed to chisel a modicum of success in independent hip-hop as a double minority: as two white guys who are open about their religious convictions.

The group -- whose name is a hip-hop spin on the Mars Hill, the spot in Athens (Greece) where the New Testament's Paul preached -- formed in 1998. After moving down from Cincinnati, Dust met Georgia native battle rapper manCHILD at a Florida hip-hop convention, where the two exchanged mixtapes. Dust, now 30, and manCHILD, 29, found an almost immediate kinship in having been weaned on gritty boom-bap hip-hop, and set about putting passion for life and the Lord into a sampler. They recently signed to Nashville-based Gotee Records (an EMI boutique label) for their latest full-length release, Backbreakanomics.

With Backbreakanomics, Mars ILL furthers the humid head bob of the group's aggressive working-class wordsmithery. Dust's basement beats are dusky and melodic, etched with acidic '60s rock with an almost subterranean stroll. They complement manCHILD's acerbic, always forthright flow, which profess structural inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut's tightly woven spiral, and assisted at times by MCs Pigeon John (LA Symphony), Bigg Jus (Company Flow), Blueprint and Playdough. Testifying but not preaching, Backbreakanomics has its share of personal shout-outs and references to the Almighty, but no explicit altar calls. Dust and manCHILD stay faithful to their ideals without pigeonholing their audience as the "faithful."

Dust's production style revolves around intentionally distressed lo-fi. "For me, everything I use comes from the analog world, was once on tape, so thinking it can be made to sound better doesn't make sense," he says. "I just try to make it sound bigger."

As for manCHILD, chief influences Chuck D, Pharoache Monch and KRS-One have lead to a gruff, bold delivery that addresses issues from dead center with a 360-degree worldview. "KRS-One, he strikes the balance between showing people something new and just giving people an inspiring show," manCHILD says. "I'm always taking mental notes."

Eyeing their idols, Dust and manCHILD set out to establish a stripped-down aesthetic so people could literally see what Mars ILL is all about. "When people see us, we're a producer/DJ and an MC. We don't have eight guys with water bottles and towels on stage," manCHILD says. That helps the duo focus on delivering a spirited, spiritual message unencumbered by many of the materialistic trappings that have become associated with hip-hop.

"Dust is the creative force behind Mars ILL," manCHILD says. "I know what's good and what's not, but he comes from a graphic arts background so he understands what people will see and get out of something. He's very clear and good at laying the foundation of our music."

Dust continues, "ManCHILD is the brute force that slams it into existence. I understand now what it takes to make it happen, but he helped me identify the angles. Without him, I might still just be that guy making beats and not doing anything with them. Thank the Lord I met him."

And there it is. To most it's a cliche, a figure of speech. But when conversing with Mars ILL, there's always that curiosity that when Dust or manCHILD toss around phrases such as "Thank the Lord" and "I hope and pray people under stand," the possibility exists that before bed each night one, the other, or both, physically drop to their knees and offer God thanks, and pray that God bestow understanding. Because if there's one topic that is hard to circumvent when discussing Mars ILL it is that Dust and manCHILD are publicly professed men of faith.

"We used to say, 'Ah, there it is. That's all they're talking about,' when [Christianity] was the first thing people would mention in an article," manCHILD says. "Even in Creative Loafing you made up an award [a Best Of Atlanta 2002 pick for Best Local Christian Act That Doesn't Seem Like One] for us. Which is great to me. My relationship with God is certainly nothing I am ashamed about. I like that people can see a dialogue on Christianity being delivered other than from someone in a suit and tie yelling at them on the street corner -- for people to be able to see someone of faith not as a Jerry Falwell but as someone who is out there with them, doing the same things, seeing the same shows. But I want the music judged on the music and my skill to be judged on the basis of my level."

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