He’d probably be called a “backpack rapper.”
But the 180s that rap has made over its relatively short history—from lo-fi to big time and then from “thoughtful” rap to a present in which complaining about rap’s stereotyped platitudes is verboten—have not fazed Circumference 360, aka Mark J Ortiz.
In fact, he’s glad to hear the proliferation of “backpack rapper,” a derogatory term coined for those who carry around underground hip-hop CDs in their backpacks.
“That’s good because that means it’s relevant to the youth. There’s still a niche for it,” Ortiz says.
For Ortiz, the term is synonymous with conscientious rap, which he describes as music that inspires people.
“Inspiration is a very powerful weapon,” he says, slowing his pace as he switches his meter—“a weapon that doesn’t kill people, but fills people.”
Ortiz is clean-cut with a medium build, unremarkable enough to belie a lazy, deep voice that unfolds at a thankfully slow clip—thankfully because he has a lot to say. His arsenal of opinions has been assembled over a lifetime of playing music, during which he’s witnessed a waxing, waning, never fully blooming hip-hop scene in Santa Fe.
He fondly recollects going to shows as a youth at what is now Sol Santa Fe Stage & Grill.
There he witnessed both “hip-hop heads” and “thrashers” absorbed in hip-hop shows. That doesn’t mean he privileges the past over the present.
“[Hip-hop] is still here and thriving,” Ortiz says. “There are a lot of young faces I don’t recognize,” he says. “New groups are keeping it alive.”
Ortiz, born to a family of musicians, has lived in Santa Fe all his life. Both sides of his family—grandfathers, grandmother, great uncle—played in Los Nativos, which he describes as northern New Mexico and ranchera music, “music of the poor.”
From his father’s father, he learned to play guitar when he was 13 and soon began playing classic teenage guitar standards, such as Metallica and Led Zeppelin. Around the same time, he saw the movies Beat Street and Breakin’ and for the first time was exposed to a hip-hop lifestyle.
“I was blown away by this different culture,” he says, looking away as if into his youth. “I had no idea about it here. In Santa Fe, hip-hop didn’t exist until later.”
This experience catapulted him into an entirely new listening experience—Kurtis Blow, Houdini, Grandmaster Flash—but his musical roots remained near.
At age 15, Oritz performed rock ’n’ roll and oldies with local band Yerba Buena—not his title, and he swears he didn’t smoke weed—where he picked up a number of other instruments, including drums and keyboard. Throughout high school and to this day, he DJs and can be found mixing musical decades Thursdays at Plush.
Ortiz says he can’t “write or read [music]” in the notational sense (“I hear it and feel it,” he says), but he plays a broad swath of instruments and has composed numerous songs, often collaborating with others—his ability to convey music clearly not hindered by notes.
Over the years he’s contributed to a number of local outfits, including La Conecta, The Unknown and Rubixu and has opened under the auspices of DJ Qbert, The X-Ecutioners and Ozomatli.
Prompted by a trip to Mexico (his first time out of the state) where he witnessed abject poverty, his lyrics shed the yoke of the gangster rap he’d followed as a youth for more meaningful subject matter: politics, racism, spirituality.
Ortiz describes his sound as a mixture of the music he made with The Unknown, combined with northern New Mexico, Latin and Reggae influences. What makes him more of a rarity is that he also prefers playing live music instead of the traditional sample culture of hip-hop, personally composing and playing all of the instruments on his releases.
Now 36, Ortiz has independently released three albums, worked on a slew of projects and even put out a music video in March for his latest album New Mexiflow.
But, like many artists in Santa Fe, he works a full-time job unrelated to his passion, dealing cards at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino.
These days, Ortiz owns his own studio equipment and plays with BoomRoots Collective, a collaborative effort among reggae artist Mister Kali, singer and keyboardist Alberto Zalma and Ortiz. This project is a departure from his work with Rubixu in which he had the mic while the other musicians “put their own touch” on music he wrote.
“I’m getting to the age where I’m more about producing music than being the headliner,” he says.
The nagginess associated with backpack rappers is notably mild in Ortiz’ demeanor and dictum.
“Hip-hop now, what you hear on the radio—you didn’t hear conscientious music anyway—has gone the way of the club scene, house music,” he says without a trace of rancor. He attributes its homogenization to Clear Channel and its relatively few stations. “Various styles,” he says, “are still out there.”
Accordingly, that’s the type of music he makes.
“I do music that’s original because it’s an art form, not a fad,” Ortiz says.
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