Newburgh, admittedly, feels at least a decade away from matching the level of renewal that has recently swept other urban areas of the Hudson Valley—Beacon, Kingston, and Hudson, to be specific. But a handful of proud and hearty Newburghers are on the case. They're taking advantage of the city's wealth of raw infrastructure—block upon block of beautifully built, but boarded-up, Federal-era brick row houses—and opening restaurants, coffeehouses, small shops, and other businesses, with an optimistic eye toward the future. And then there's Space Create, the 24-hour collaborative workspace in a restored Broadway building that's been partially spearheaded by local hip-hop artist and poet Decora.
"The goal of Space Create is to have a central location within the City of Newburgh for people to meet and come up with ideas on how to better the city," he explains about the center, which was conceived a year ago and features studios for artists, offices and retail spaces for small-business entrepreneurs, a weekly farmers' market, and other facilities. "What drew me to Newburgh in 2006 was that it has a 'blank canvas' vibe. True creativity always comes out of a place of struggle."
A more serious and committed Hudson Valley musical figure than Decora does not come to mind. Everything the 32-year-old does and says comes with a breathtaking level of locked-down, unwaveringly intense focus. What's further inspiring is the way in which this dead-set devotion has not only been brought to bear on his own craft as an artist but firsthand local- and world-improving efforts like the one mentioned above. Perhaps, then, it's not so surprising that one of his biggest heroes is the man he also calls a mentor: his late across-the-Hudson neighbor, Beacon's Pete Seeger. "I met Pete at Clearwater in 2010," says Decora, who was inspired by Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" to write "Flowers," the single from his solo debut Bread and Oats (Debefore Records). "He showed me how there's no separation between art and activism." The album's title, its maker explains, is an allusion to the creative process. "To make bread or to make art, you need more than just the right ingredients," he says. "You also need the heat—the creative spark. And by making your art—your bread—you're also feeding your soul."
We last met up with Decora in these pages in August 2010, when he was profiled as a member of ReadNex Poetry Squad, the group he co-founded in 2001. Since then, ReadNex has gone on hiatus but the vocalist himself has been constantly on the move, working on his music and organizing events like last June's second annual Newburgh Illuminated cultural festival. He's no stranger to movement, though. "Newburgh is stop 24 for me," says the rapper, who was born in Texas. "I was very much a gypsy growing up. My parents split up when I was young and I moved around a lot. My dad is a drummer who played in rock bands, and I come from a family of entrepreneurs. So there was definitely a feeling in the family of us being against the grain."
As for his introduction to hip-hop, Decora, who spent his formative years in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, says he was "born into the culture. It was the place M.O.P. and [the late MC] Sean Price came from." He cites A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, and J. Dilla as hip-hop influences, but "funk, soul, and jazz also spoke to me: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Miles Davis. Poetry went hand in hand with music for me, I started writing lyrics when I was 13." After moving upstate he enrolled at Orange County Community College, majoring in business before switching his focus to sociology. ReadNex Poetry Squad came together in 2001, when he met fellow students/MCs Jarabe Del Sol, Latin Translator, and Freeflowin (his eventual partner in Space Create), and turntablist DJ H20 at a campus open-mike. Within two years, the group was touring the US at the same time that Decora was earning a bachelor's degree. A year after that they were rocking Europe, and by 2006 they'd released their third album. Eventually, though, the group's nonstop itinerary of touring, self-management, recording, and co-conducted youth workshops and other activist work caught up with them. "We were basically on tour for six years," he recalls. "The last time we were on the road was in 2012, and it was for 18 months. That was the hardest." Currently, the other members are, variously, concentrating on teaching hip-hop and poetry, art therapy, and yoga, along with running a startup fashion business.
The panoramic, state-of-the-nation commentary of "Flowers" aside, Bread and Oats is a distinctly more personal effort than the issue-driven albums Decora made with ReadNex. Was this a conscious move, to further define himself as his own man? With characteristic thoughtfulness and solemnity, he nods. "Conscious and difficult," he says. "It definitely makes me feel more exposed. As an artist, I always describe myself as an introvert with well-seasoned extrovert tendencies. There are no hidden messages [on the album]." Chief among the set's self-baring tracks are the opener, "Something," a reaffirmation of the MC's chosen art ("I love rhymin' / like Neil's wife loves diamonds") and a statement on his newfound openness ("I'm puttin' down my chips / like Frito-Lay") above a bubbly, head-bobbing bass line and amid an insistent horn loop. Co-produced by engineer Angelo Quaglia (Teairra Marie, Mario, Joe), Bread and Oats features guest appearances by rising singer Ruby Stinson and two notable Newburgh locals: keyboardist Neil "Nail" Alexander and Living Colour front man Corey Glover.
"Decora and I met through [Newburgh rapper, poet, and actor] Saul Williams," says Glover, who sings on the tracks "Nantucket" and "Beautiful Bitch." "One of the things that strikes me about him as an artist is that he really reflects the total diversity of his environment, not just where he lives but the world as a whole. And sonically the album reflects that as well. It's all over the place. There are elements of rock, folk, soul, all kinds of stuff." Debuting this month is a video for the track "Nah Mean."
Another departure from Decora's music with ReadNex Poetry Squad is his working with a live band instead of the traditional hip-hop DJ. At Kingston's 0+ Festival last month, he and his five-piece group slammed the front room of BSP with a funky force that left the thick crowd a whooping mass of ecstatic goo. "I definitely think the live-band thing is the direction hip-hop is going in," says the lyricist, who also counts Bob Dylan and Nina Simone among his foremost inspirations. "Ska, rock, and funk have always been favorite genres of mine, so putting a hip-hop flow together with a band felt like a natural evolution for me. I like the random element that comes from collaborating live with musicians, and the way a live band helps move people to dance. I've worked with a 13-piece band, and I'd decided to set that as a size limit. But now I'm saying, 'No limit.' I'd love to work with a large orchestra at some point."
No limit. And seemingly no break, as the dedicated family man and father of a four-year-old son continues to pump the new album, perform, organize events (watch for news about a New Year's Eve party at Newburgh venue 299 Washington Street), work to advance the community, and, of course, create. "I'm on what I call my 120-hour-a-week schedule," he says. "I sleep six hours a night and the rest of my time goes toward my art. But art isn't work. It's just what you do as an artist, an extension of who you are. And I believe everyone is an artist—whether they're aware of it or not."
Bread and Oats is out now on Debefore Records. Iamdecora.com.