- Matthew Thorsen
The antiseptic set of a local TV news show is an awkward venue for hip-hop. But the bright lights didn't seem to faze Burlington rapper S.I.N.siZZle. When WCAX-TV booked him last year, he opted to deliver his dynamic track "Rock Out," complete with howling soul hooks from vocalist Stacy Campbell. "See, I've been waiting for a long time / to hit the stage, make it all mine," S.I.N. raps on the chorus.
That cut comes from S.I.N.'s latest album, Winters in Vermont. It's a statement of purpose, a manifesto advising that, after years of hustling to help build Vermont's hip-hop scene, the rapper is ready to take his place at its forefront. The WCAX appearance might as well have been a breaking news bulletin to that effect. The rapper's conviction and charisma shone through the screen. The clip was passed around on social media for months, helping new fans to find one of Burlington's most respected but overlooked hip-hop figures.
"I feel like that was a big moment," S.I.N. says in an interview with Seven Days. "That was when I realized a lot of people who don't know me are getting an introduction."
Even more will get to know him soon. On Saturday, June 10, the rapper performs with local Prince tribute act Operation Prince, who are opening for Arrested Development at Burlington's Waterfront Park as part of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. The initiation of wider audiences to S.I.N.'s music is overdue. But, in reality, he's been hiding in plain sight.
When S.I.N. — whose given name is Edwin Nana Owusu — first arrived in Burlington as a University of Vermont student in 2001, Vermont hip-hop was in a very different place. The Loyalists were just getting started, and seminal groups such as the VT Union and the Aztext hadn't even formed yet. At the time, the epicenter of the scene was Eye Oh You and their residencies at Red Square.
That group featured Konflik, MC Fattie B and the iconic DJ A-Dog, the last of whom has become the patron saint of Vermont hip-hop since his passing in 2013. The crew was always keen to spotlight new talent and immediately saw the potential in young S.I.N.
"They would let me get on the mic with them all the time," S.I.N. says, recalling his introduction to Burlington.
- Matthew Thorsen
Since then, he's done more than 300 shows. And S.I.N. has been one of the go-to local opening acts when serious hip-hop is coming though town. Given any opportunity to perform, he generally delivers home runs. Whether opening at Higher Ground for the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Planet Asia or headlining at the FlynnSpace, as he did last fall, S.I.N. leaves it all onstage every time.
Born in Ghana in 1981, he grew up in New York City before coming to Vermont. A natural at networking, S.I.N. has been an integral part of Burlington's rap scene since he arrived. One of his first major projects was the King of VT rap battles, which he envisioned not as a competition but as a means to showcase local talent.
"I realized we all needed a new way to grab people's eye," S.I.N. explains. "It wasn't really about proving who the king of the mountain was; it was a new way for all of us to showcase our talents. And it was fun."
The battles were also a turning point for Vermont hip-hop.
"It really helped everyone get to know each other," confirms rapper Learic, head of the Aztext family and occasional rap-battle champion himself.
"My first-ever battle was against him, which I barely won," Learic recalls of a competition at Burlington's Manhattan Pizza & Pub, circa 2009. However, S.I.N. would get his revenge in a 2015 battle at the now-defunct Zen Lounge. Friendly rivalry aside, Learic credits S.I.N. as a mentor and positive force in Burlington, a sentiment that is widely shared.
"He is an important artist in our community," says Anthill Collective artist Scottie Raymond. "[S.I.N.] has done a lot of work in helping raise awareness for nonprofits and played a significant role in the lives of a lot of younger performers who look to him for support, knowledge and guidance."
The camera loves him, too.
Last month, he sat in on the Fox 44 show "Morning Brew" to show off the new music video for his single "Never Scared." S.I.N. was calm and genuine, at ease with hosts Brittney Hibbs and Megan Carpenter. The video itself nearly stole the show, though.
Created by Trezise Productions, an up-and-coming video outfit based in Burlington, it's a cinema-quality piece of work. Featuring sweeping drone shots and carefully composed DSLR work, the shoot took place during a miles-long hike through the woods on a flawlessly frozen Valentine's Day.
"Jumping around on a frozen lake when you can't swim is probably not the best idea," S.I.N. says, chuckling. The results were well worth the risk. Indeed, it's one of the best-looking rap videos Vermont has ever seen. And it's evidence that S.I.N. is going all in on his music, a development that has been a long time coming.
The reinvention of S.I.N. could be traced back to 2015, when he incorporated his Green Mountain Music Group and started getting more serious about event promotion. But the real turning point was probably his last mixtape.
Most mixtapes are rushed affairs. Yet when S.I.N. dropped Living in Sin early last year, it sounded more like a warning shot. His flow was more focused than ever, and the songs were richly detailed and often intensely personal. The project made it clear he was gearing up for something big.
Winters in Vermont delivers on that promise. It's a short but potent set.
Part of what makes the album so remarkable is the balance between slickly commercial product and heartfelt, lyrical hip-hop. Radio-ready rap singles are seldom as brutally honest as "Never Scared" or "Think Back" — the latter a perfectly executed tribute rap to some fallen friends, including A-Dog.
"I really cut it down to the very best tracks," S.I.N. explains of the record. "I was very focused on how to package and present my ambition, you know? But I also wanted to make people know it's all authentically me."
The summer of 2017 is looking like the summer of S.I.N. In addition to the jazz fest gig, he's been booking a long lineup of shows locally and beyond and promises more music is on the way. But in his typically humble fashion, S.I.N. views his own momentum as an opportunity to build a bigger platform to introduce Vermont artists to the world.
"I feel very free," he says. "I don't feel like I'm a traditional rapper. I don't feel pigeonholed by any one style. I'm an artist before anything."
Years after helping to give S.I.N. his start, Fattie B very much agrees. "It's been an honor to watch him grow," he says. "I'd say the scene is better because of him. He did it the right way: by earning it."Correction, May 31, 2017: An earlier version of this story misstated the details of S.I.N.siZZle's performance on Saturday, June 10. He is performing as part of local Prince tribute band Operation Prince, who are one of the opening acts.