Mike 'Man in Charge' Hyter, formerly of Tree City, rhymes solo on new album, 'Pentelligent'
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Save the band or save the friendship?
That was the dilemma confronting Mike "Man in Charge" Hyter shortly after the release of Tree City's album "Thus Far."
As its title implied, "Thus Far" was the culmination of years of work for the high-energy quintet, a way for the band to not only attract audience but show parents, girlfriends and classmates what they'd been working on all those years.
Hyter had been working on his own music on the side for a while but always put it on the back burner whenever Tree City business took precedence, first with the 2008 release of "Black Trees," then again with the 2010 release of "Thus Far."
After seeing "Thus Far" through to the end, Hyter decided to go his separate ways.
"I still miss performing with those guys, man," Hyter told AnnArbor.com. "We had great times, great songs. It was just creative differences."
The friendship still runs deep - Hyter has known Kyle "General Population" Hunter since fifth grade and the others since at least high school - but the business side just seemed strained toward the end.
"I used to be more the out-in-front guy, but the more I kept working with (Carlos "L05" Garcia) it was obvious that we had something special," Hyter said.
He and Garcia formed a group of their own, Celsius Electronics, or Cel-El for short.
"By that point I was more just 'involved' in Tree City than a leader," Hyter said, "and I had been with some of those guys since before I was even rapping. It was time to find my own voice."
Each one, teach one
But at The Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor's teen center at 310 E. Washington Street, Hyter helps aspiring teenage artists develop voices and personas of their own. His path from student to artist to teacher reflects the intergenerational nature of the Ann Arbor youth music scene.
Back when Hyter was just dropping in, back when the center was located on Main Street near Hill, he learned how to mix beats from no less than Nick Ayers, vocalist and percussionist for Ann Arbor funk group The Macpodz.
"I wasn't really paying attention that first time, but he taught me again," Hyter recalled. That, plus the forum the Neutral Zone provided for Hyter to try things out led to the birth of the "Man in Charge" persona Hyter embodies.
Hyter has returned the favor by co-founding, along with local hip hop legend "Ant the Champ," the Neutral Zone's Art of the Emcee workshop, which he now co-teaches with Danny Brown.
Oren "O.D.D." Bregman, who attends Skyline High School by day and is one of Hyter's more promising MC workshop students on Tuesday nights, said that Hyter's gift is helping young musicians round out their personas and their stagecraft.
"Mike never tries to get me to be a different person," Bregman said. "It's always about what I'm trying to do, and how to pull it off successfully."
At the end of a recent workshop, where hometowns had been the theme of writing time that day, Hyter and Brown marched the students from the Neutral Zone to the corner of East Liberty Street and Fifth Avenue, to the porch of the AnnArbor.com building.
Sometimes, Hyter's lesson seemed to illustrate, you have to perform acapella, without a beat. Sometimes, you have to perform without an audience. And sometimes you have to do both, in less than favorable weather conditions. The unspoken lesson was clear: Toughen up, because things don't get any easier from here.
It's a lesson Hyter is learning for himself with the release of his first solo effort, "Pentelligent," a phrase he coined in high school to define an artist who thinks while he writes. "Pentelligent" consists of 16 tracks, mostly produced by Hyter and a generous amount of features.
Getting the album done and released on Oct. 10 - Hyter wanted to take advantage of the date 10-10-10 - was a challenge of creativity and endurance.
"When I was in Tree City, I'd write one crazy 16 (verse), knowing there'd be four other crazy ones after me," he said in an interview at the Neutral Zone's recording studio. "Now I have to think in terms of tracks as a whole. It's different."
Though his room at home is outfitted as a studio, Hyter took advantage of the Neutral Zone's recording studio to put "Pentelligent" to bed.
"Sometimes I'd look over at L05 and it's 3 in the morning, and while I'm fading out, he's still going," Hyter said.
But with the glut of high-quality hip hop being produced in the Ann Arbor market — some of it, as in the case of Isaac "Gameboi" Castor's 'Posterchild', produced by Hyter’s own students — Hyter's challenge is finding relevance beyond Treetown's tight-knit, supportive music community.
It could be said that Hyter is making his own job tougher by training up what will become the competition. Youngsters like Gameboi and O.D.D. might be relegated to performing at The Neutral Zone and all-ages shows at The Blind Pig for now, but they'll be 18 and on the scene before long.
Hyter sees no threat. As an artist who has gone, in a few short years, from learning beatmaking from Nick Ayres to actually opening for The Macpodz with Garcia, Hyter views the local scene as more cooperative than competitive.
"My attitude is, there's more than enough fame and money out there for all of us; that's why we buy each other's albums and show support when we can," he said.
"Besides," Hyter said as we parted ways, "the young guys keep my writing pen sharp."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.