- Courtesy Of Valley News/Jovelle Tamayo
- Yung Breeze (center) performing at the Upper Valley Hip-Hop Showcase in 2017
It was 3 p.m. on a Friday, and Yung Breeze was about to explode. Also known as Chris Brown (seriously), the 29-year-old Brattleboro rapper, producer and self-described "floor general" behind the prolific Street Religion crew is always a hyperactive ball of energy. But on this particular afternoon, he was gearing up for the release of his new solo album, Ja'lani Skye, a labor of love years in the making. Oh, and he was preparing to celebrate his birthday. On tap: a weekend-long party in the boonies, complete with a pig roast, a sound system and a packed lineup of local hip-hop performances.
So the man, whose personality is outsize even in dull moments, was understandably wound up.
I had come to his back porch ostensibly to talk about the new record, which marks a career high point. But throughout our conversation, Breeze emphasized that his team's success is inseparable from his own. "It's family first," he told me. "Street Religion works because these are real, deep, personal bonds. And not just personal bonds that I have with these people — it's bonds they have with each other."
Street Religion is a sprawling collective of rappers, singers, producers and other local hip-hop artists who help produce and promote one another's work. The core team took form in 2010 with videographer Samuel Martin, who works under the name Sammy Chan TV; R&B singer (and Breeze's cousin) Jun Fargo; and rapper Reginald "RG" Dessasure, who died in 2021 at age 27. That loss features prominently on Breeze's latest LP, a raw wound he's still trying to process. "I couldn't even look at the mic for a while there," he said.
The team has expanded considerably over the years and now includes New Hampshire MC Raw Deff, unpredictable St. Albans artist D.FRENCH and the gleefully profane hardcore rapper Shorty Bang. All three have dropped outstanding solo projects this year. While Breeze is grateful for their newfound success, he's already thinking 10 steps ahead.
His hands flying as he talked, Breeze outlined a packed schedule of future releases: a group compilation project, albums with Jun Fargo and D.FRENCH, a new installment in his Golden Era mixtape series. He also emphasized the role of rappers Kasidon and YM, both recent additions to the squad and promising talents in their own right.
The advantage of having a roster that's constantly working is that there's always new music ready to go. This teamwork approach to quality control — along with friendly competition among artists — makes for a fertile creative environment.
"We constantly battle to see who is more versatile," D.FRENCH said of Breeze. "He is a hell of a recording artist, and watching him track verses and hooks live motivates you to step up your game."
Ja'lani Skye showcases a master at work. Over the album's 50-minute running time, Breeze displays a staggering vocal range, from a cartoonish high rasp to a laid-back growl. He even hits some showstopping high notes on "Please Forgive Me."
He is equally proficient with his pen game, delivering high-concept songwriting and cinematically detailed storytelling with a tsunami of flow patterns and rapid-fire cadences.
Making music has been a way of life for almost as long as Breeze can remember. Growing up bouncing between Massachusetts and Vermont, he started writing and recording himself with GarageBand at 13. "And really, to this day, that's pretty much all I do," he said.
The chaos of the coronavirus era changed almost nothing for Breeze. He was, as always, on lockdown in his home studio. "During the pandemic, we all stuck close to each other, and we stayed close to the music," he said.
Although Breeze has been a mentor to many artists and engineers in Vermont's growing hip-hop scene, his own engineering chops are largely self-taught.
"I made it into my own personal video game," he said. "I just wanted to learn everything about everything, you know? I got into making beats because I had to. I couldn't rely on anyone else to re-create the sounds I heard in my head."
It's no surprise, then, that Breeze is a driven perfectionist in the mold of Kanye West or Dr. Dre. He said he was still working on final mixes for Ja'lani Skye the week before it dropped.
Which brings us to his role as "floor general" — a basketball term for point guards who run the offense, seeing the plays before they happen and getting the ball into the right hands. Breeze is quick to point out that much of Street Religion's output happens organically, but his passion is connecting artists and carefully assembling the perfect ingredients for every song. Back when record labels still cared about artist development, he would have been a perfect A&R man.
Breeze loves his team, but he has a deep affection for his league, too. Keenly aware of the larger Vermont hip-hop ecosystem, he is full of ideas for collaborations. He's open, even eager, to work more with producers outside his crew, such as Burlington legend Nastee and Danville producer SKYWISE. While many Vermont rappers who operate outside Chittenden County view the BTV scene with contempt, he bears the Queen City no ill will, he said, viewing its artists as contemporaries rather than competition.
Besides, he's looking at a much bigger picture: the dawning of a larger, more connected New England regional circuit.
"We don't need to be fighting over the same food anymore; we can be out here paving new roads," he said, citing his recent show with Burlington artist Charlie Mayne at Jewel Music Venue in Manchester, N.H., as an example.
He also pointed to the growth of the weekly Rap Nights that have long been a fixture in Manchester and Portland, Maine. Starting in September, Nastee and DJ Kanga will hold down the Vermont edition every Friday in the basement of downtown Burlington bar Drink. To Breeze, this is just the beginning of something bigger.
"We don't need to keep doing north versus south, old school versus new school," he said. Citing local success stories Jarv, 99 Neighbors and North Ave Jax, he described this moment as one of unprecedented opportunity for Vermont hip-hop. He also recognizes that he can't do it all.
"It's not up to me," he said with a sigh, rubbing his chin. "And it sucks, because I want it so bad. I wish I could just make the calls on what needs to happen, keeping the north side and the south side working together to make this whole region pop. The egos have gotta dissolve!"
That sentiment might seem to contrast strangely with his God complex persona on the mic, but Breeze insisted it ain't so. "I don't really have an ego like that. I just like to make great music, mind my business and take care of my kids. What I love is the music. This shit is the only thing that I know how to do!"
And with that, it was time for him to get back to his daughter — who is also, not coincidentally, named Ja'lani Skye. As the man said, family first.