Cover Stories

You Down With OCC?

Outstanding Citizens Collective hip-hop crew nears 15 years with roots that stretch back even further

It all comes back to Benito Martinez III—aka Benzo.

In June, the Santa Fe musician died, sending shockwaves through the local hip-hop community and beyond. He’d been a diverse and singular style-setter, experimenter and connector. And though his friends and collaborators continue to grieve and contend with Martinez’s untimely death at age 32, the seeds he planted nearly two decades ago in a trailer home on the Southside continue to flourish.

Indeed, as local hip-hop crew Outstanding Citizens Collective, which Martinez helped found, continues its multi-tiered approach to writing, performance, design, business and more, he would surely be cheering them on and basking in the glow of their mid- and post-pandemic plans. In a town like Santa Fe, where the refrain seems to be something like “We just don’t have hip-hop,” MCs and DJs like Wolfman Jack, Fluid, Cap, OG Willikers, Rill, Prismatic Soul, Anthonius Monk and Shatter might have a little something to say about that. And though there will likely be nothing that ever fills that Benzo void, the legacy he spawned continues strong, both through the core OCC members contained herein and those who’ve come and gone over the years.

As the crew returns to live shows and its members consistently release albums—including a new, previously unreleased track from Benzo, Wolfman Jack, Prismatic Soul and Anthonius Monk dubbed “Art of Oz” and released Nov. 3 for what would have Martinez’s birthday—the question remains: You down with OCC?

The Record Keeper

“They call me the historian because, for some reason, I remember all this stuff,” Pablo Paz tells SFR.

These days, Paz spends more time behind the decks as his DJ Shatter persona, but he worked previously as an MC under the moniker Adrenaline Truth with hip-hop act SBLMNL RNSNS (no relation to the Outstanding Citizens Collective). Paz cites 2004 as the earliest beginnings of the the OCC, though, he says, there was no grand unifying group at the time, just numerous high school-aged hip-hop fans making lo-fi beats and freestyling in Martinez’s trailer home, dubbed The Sweatshop for the heat of the computers used in the recording process—and the lack of air conditioning. Paz had known Martinez since elementary school, and the two were close; he would eventually introduce Martinez to other students at Santa Fe High School.

“In that first iteration, it was called Line of Sight,” Paz says of the group formed by Benzo and Dylan Delgado, aka Wolfman Jack, who would go on to be a close collaborator with and confidant of Martinez. “It was people we played football with, a community atmosphere. That’s why it would get so hot in The Sweatshop, and that’s when I first saw the madness going on.”

Paz says Martinez, Delgado, himself and anyone else brave enough would record on low-quality stick microphones over primitive beats Martinez created. By 2005, Line of Sight was ready to perform.

“We did a couple open mics at Warehouse 21, and it was just goofing around, but people like [Warehouse 21 founder] Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt supported us,” Paz says. “So she put us in touch with a promoter and it ended up being one of the first times we were ever booked—prom night.”

Line of Sight would open for hip-hop legends CunninLynguists, and the crowd would be crammed with high schoolers in their finery, fresh off a night at the formal dance.

“We listened to CunninLynguists growing up, and that inspired us,” Paz says. “For us, it was huge, and since it was prom night, we talked [the promoter] into letting people have a discount if they came in their tux or gown. Everybody came.”

Paz says the night collectively opened the group’s eyes.

“Before the music, we didn’t really hang out much, but that’s what created the synergy,” he recalls.

Local shows would follow, but soon Line of Sight’s members would graduate high school and head off to college. The collaborations lessened for a time, but Paz says Martinez never quit making music, even while attending New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and, later, New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas.

“I went off to college at the University of Hawaii, and Benzo recorded two or three albums after I moved,” he tells SFR. “Those became like the soundtrack for all of us and we were playing it wherever we were. I was playing the tracks on my college radio show.”

After college, Paz returned to Santa Fe hoping to get into the film business, and indeed he has with minor roles in projects like Better Call Saul and Cry Macho. The OCC is still very much a part of his life, though.

“I think the passion is back and we need it more,” he explains of the crew returning to live performances amid COVID-19. “As a crew, for our mental health and sanity, I can see it every time we get onstage. And because we’ve soaked up Benzo’s vibe, we have more to give. There’s no quit in any of us.”

The Originator

“Pablo introduced me to everybody because he’s a jock and a nerd at the same time,” says Dylan Delgado, aka Wolfman Jack. In high school, Delgado was a skater, and by his sophomore year, discovering hip-hop acts like Jedi Mind Tricks, Gang Starr and Pete Rock changed his entire idea of what music could be. Paz would take him to meet Martinez at The Sweatshop and, Delgado says, “I was definitely onboard.”

“Benzo was miles ahead of us, though,” Delgado continues, “but for whatever reason, he saw potential in us, so we were like, ‘Yeah. Let’s keep going.’”

Like it had been for Paz, Delgado’s experience at the prom night CunninLynguists show changed a lot.

“After that, it was nose to the grindstone,” he says. “Line of Sight made the Milestone Mixtape, and we were selling it at the school cafeteria senior year. After that, it was off to college at NMSU.”

Delgado would return to Santa Fe and move in with Erik Scott (aka OCC member Fluid, who we’ll get to later) and his brother Max (a former OCC collaborator who went by Symmetry).

“And we were just making songs,” Delgado explains. “Benzo was constantly giving us beats from Las Cruces, and he would come home during breaks, so we set up in the laundry room of that house. Eventually, Benzo brought his computer and that’s where it lived whether he was at school or not.”

This leads to 2007 when, according to Paz and Delgado, Erik Scott suggested the name Outstanding Citizens.

“In the community we’re living in, we were just trying to be upstanding citizens,” Delgado says with a laugh. “Erik would make these posters that said ‘Outstanding Citizens,’ and they each had pictures of us on them. Eventually, with our affiliates, it came to be, like, 15 people—even people who didn’t make music.”

There would be projects within projects, too, including Delgado and Benzo’s duo act Osmosis. Benzo would eventually pick up management for a time, which included a brief musical stint in Los Angeles. But when all was said and done, Outstanding Citizens remained whole, even throughout sporadic distances, in-fighting and life’s various milestones.

The Visionary

“Yes, Benzo is a common thread in all this,” says Erik Scott (aka Fluid), the Ohio-based rapper who came to town to attend the long-closed College of Santa Fe in 2005, met Martinez and Delgado at a house party and, as the legend goes, was the person to get up one day and say “This should be called Outstanding Citizens.”

“When I met Benito and Wolfman, at that point I had never written a song, performed a show,” Scott says. “I came from Cincinnati, and I was a freestyle rapper out there. All I knew was: Go to parties, find the people who rap. But when I came to New Mexico, it was this new energy.”

Scott says the following years found him living with his brother and Delgado, during which time they and any other Outstanding Citizens members would freestyle for hours.

“It really was that for years,” he explains. “We’d write, if not a song a day, two or three every week. And hip-hop was therapy for me; I was a very angry person, and now I have a go-be-productive, go-be-positive build.”

This can come out in various ways, according to Scott, but the most common product of his hip-hop driven way of life might be the verbosity of his rhymes. A first verse in a Fluid song, he says, might be longer than most rappers’ entire track.

“I like wordplay, syllables and sounds—playing with those to stimulate a pattern,” he tells SFR. “My last album is called P.I.E.—and it stands for ‘Presentation is Everything.’ And I would say this: I wouldn’t put me down as the connector, but I’ve always had a vision.”

The Scratcher

Justin Ulibarri (aka DJ Cap) can pinpoint the moment he fell in love with hip-hop.

“I was 12 or 13, and it was one of those weekends where you spent the night at that friend’s house who had the cool parents,” he remembers. “His dad took us cruising around the city, through all of Santa Fe, and he had this real nice stereo...My friend had just gotten a Beat Junkies mixtape, and before this I’d only heard a handful of what you might call underground hip-hop, but for me, in that moment, hearing the turntables, the samples, the horns and strings? I was like, ‘Ohmygod. I’m going to listen to this music forever.’”

But whereas most budding hip-hop fans might connect more with lyrical content right off the bat, Ulibarri was instantly drawn to the nuts and bolts—the beats and melodies. He’d known Delgado from his skating days (Delgado with the board, Ulibarri with the rollerblades) and knew that Line of Sight was making hip-hop someplace. He’d even seen them perform at Warehouse 21 after their formation in ‘05.

By 2008, Ulibarri had picked up his own turntables and taught himself to DJ and scratch—no small feat in the days before YouTube tutorials were the norm; scratch instructors and turntablist lessons weren’t exactly as commonplace as they are for the guitar or bass. Still, he says, he worked it out.

“I remember going over to Fluid’s house, and Benzo was there, and I’d brought my turntables to help lay some cuts with them,” Ulibarri recounts. “This would have been Osmosis, Wolfman and Benzo, and at first it was just playing records, but then Benzo started making a beat. I laid over some scratches. That was the first serious collaboration we did. Benzo was the driving force behind it, the guy who said ‘Let’s actually do this. Let’s take this out of the bedroom.’”

Ulibarri says he’s tried to incorporate as many sounds as possible since then, and Paz says he’s the collective’s go-to DJ.

“The whole reason I kept going, I always kept with it, was because it was one of those things that never had any boundaries,” Ulibarri says. “As soon as I think I’ve figured it out, it opens up this whole other door or I turn a corner, and there’s a whole other corner. In any art form, the more you put in, the more you get out, of course, but especially when you have other friends who do it. All we’re trying to do at the end of the day is make art.”

The Pro

Prior to 2011, local musician Zach Maloof (aka OG Willikers) had been more of a pop punk and emo kind of guy. In 2011, however, an audio software class at the Santa Fe Community College with musical mastermind Jason Goodyear changed Maloof’s tune.

“The final assignment was a performance of something you had made with electronic music,” Maloof tells SFR. “I did this rap performance with my friend Taylor Osborn as State of the Mingo, and I had such a fun time that it reminded me of the older punk days—the ones with crowds. I’d become a coffee shop acoustic player, someone for people to talk over—and it was boring, so once I got a taste of the rap show, it reminded me what I had originally gotten into music for.”

Still, Maloof says, as a newcomer, he was unfamiliar with rap and hip-hop culture. Not wanting to piggyback onto something without doing his due diligence, Maloof did the work—studying artists and developing his style. Sometime the following year, Delgado offered OG Willikers a spot on an Outstanding Citizens show during sadly-defunct nightclub Corazón’s heyday.

“It was just one of those moments,” Maloof says.

State of the Mingo would split up and Maloof would continue his relationship with Outstanding Citizens. Together, they’d host parties on a train that breifly became a nightclub and assume a weekly residency at also-since-closed local punk and rap mecca The Underground. Maloof was eventually invited to join the Outstanding Citizens crew.

“They recognized I’d elevated myself as an MC,” he says. “Plus, I’d always been a promoter since I came from Warehouse 21—I’m DIY everything, so I had a lot to offer. We became a little more serious, and that’s how Outstanding Citizens, the OC, got that extra ‘C’ for ‘Collective.’”

“Hip-hop is like the voice of the unheard,” Maloof continues. “It’s like graffiti—you write your name to say ‘I was here. I exist,’ and that, to me, is what punk is like, too. In hip-hop, you can say anything. I got tired of writing my love songs, and now I can write about absolutely anything.”

By 2016, the crew had toured, released multiple records in various configurations, tightened their shared idea of professionalism and even kicked off the Ra Ra Room podcast, named for Maloof’s studio. That was also the year they officially adopted the Outstanding Citizens Collective moniker. By 2020, Maloof had both a dedicated hip-hop show on Madrid’s KMRD radio station and a monthly residency at the Mine Shaft Tavern dubbed Rhyme Craft at the Mine Shaft. Today, he’s gearing up to release his next album, Feast/Famine, produced by Albuquerque hip-hop vet iGod, on Nov. 19.

“It’s one of my more honest and darker albums,” he explains. “I say more about my mental health than I usually do, and more about myself than I usually do. This was a good experience, and even if the world listened to it and thought it was my worst album, I didn’t make it to top anything—I made it as a mental health practice because I wanted to stay as honest as I could.”

The Storyteller

“I heard a quote from Quincy Jones, and I can’t remember it exactly,” says OCC outlier Josh Reed (aka Rill, who’ll henceforth rap under the moniker OHGOODIE), “but it was something like‚ ‘what music really is, is where the goodie is.’”

Reed hails from Chicago but relocated to Santa Fe around 2011. He met Delgado at an Underground show that first year.

“I was solo but had come from this group GWAP Team,” he tells SFR. “In Santa Fe, right away we started doing shows together—mostly Outstanding Citizens would have their own set, and they’d sneak me in here and there, and it started building.”

Reed doesn’t have any official releases through the OCC, but he’s collaborated with Wolfman Jack on a few tracks. As a lyricist and father, he says, his practice has evolved to showcase more positivity. Still, growing up listening to Mos Def, Jay-Z and Biggie influenced his style and sound. They were, he says, storytellers, and that’s what he aspires to do.

“I want to be happy,” Reed says, “but I want it to come with that edge. Coming to Santa Fe, working with these tested me. I take more time, for sure. There’s a grit you can find. You can really make something. We are a city that needs that.”

The New Kids

Outstanding Citizens Collective isn’t just focused on the now, though, and this is most apparent when it comes to its newest members, Anthony Gallardo (aka Anthonius Monk) and Alexandria Hernandez (aka Prismatic Soul). Together, the roommates and collaborators are Art of Rhyme; separately, they’re skillful MCs and lyricists in their own respective rights.

“It’s kind of funny, because he was giving me a ride to Albuquerque one night after work [at Trader Joe’s] and I was like, ‘did you know I make hip-hop?’ and we just vibed from there,” Hernandez says. “It was kind of coincidental. I’d written poetry before, but I had just written my first rhyme and, I guess, being new to the world of hip-hop, I didn’t know if I could be taken seriously.”

Hernandez says she had already been a fast fan of Gallardo’s music, and that his confidence in her from that point was instrumental in the creative pairing. The more she received feedback from him and others, she says, the more confident she became in her ability. Now she and Gallardo work together most days, with him crafting beats and her writing nonstop.

“I knew we had to work together,” Gallardo explains. “I had my own little recording setup, and I would push her to record with me. Now we’re always passing ideas to each other through notes in our phones.”

Both Gallardo and Hernandez see big things in the future. As of now, they plan to tour come January, but Santa Fe, they say, will remain home base. In the past, Gallardo points out, artists would have to move to a bigger city to make a go of it. With the rise of free or affordable streaming and downloads through services like Bandcamp and Spotify, though, it’s easier to get the music out there.

“It’s definitely a lot brighter,” he says.

“And we’ve been trying to create as much as possible,” Hernandez adds. “Hip-hop can teach you so many things that are important. Our mission is to show it in a positive light.”

As she stands in the fall Santa Fe light, post-interview and exchanging a few more words on hip-hop, Hernandez lifts her hand to show off a piece of jewelry. The small, custom-made ring is gold and comprises a single name: Benzo.

“This way, I’ll always have him with me,” she says.

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