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The Astronauts: Soaring in Southwest Philadelphia.

May 30, 2012

Text by Kiara McKnight. Images by G.W. Miller III.

The tan colored house on 66th street looks like every other rowhome on this quiet Southwest Philadelphia block. Then the front door swings open and out walks Steve “Pace-O Beats” Ferguson, clad in a red Sheridan Generals sweatshirt, black skinny jeans and red Vans to match.

He sits on the steps outside, embracing the warm spring day while waiting for his partner, Lamont “Mont” Brown. After 20 minutes, Mont arrives, fresh from work in his dark blue U.S. Airways uniform, and they make their way to the room where all of The Astronauts’ songs are born.

Mont Brown and Pace-O Beats came together in 2009 to form The Astronauts, a rapper/producer combination that creates danceable music but also encourages their fans to be themselves no matter what other people say.

“If you stay true to what you do and stay focused, anything can happen,” Mont says. “That’s why we’re The Astronauts. Because anything you want to do in life, you can do it. Look at Guy Bluford.”

The duo’s moniker pays homage to Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first black astronaut to enter into space in 1983.

Bluford, a West Philadelphia native, attended Overbrook High School. He was told by a guidance counselor that he was not college material and should take up a trade instead. Unlike many African-American men who were  given the same advice at the time, Bluford ignored it and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering at Penn State University, a Ph.D in Aerospace Engineering  from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a masters degree in business administration from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

“The Astronauts is a metaphor meaning you can do whatever you want,” says Pace-O. “Because who would’ve thought the first black astronaut would be from West Philly?”

Pace-O sits down at a marble-top dinner table, in his makeshift recording studio – a Macbook Pro covered in skateboard stickers, and to a 26-inch monitor with speakers stacked up on each side. He plays a beat he came up with the night before.

As the bass kicks in, Mont energetically bobs his head up and down, an intense look upon his face. Suddenly, he begins to freestyle a verse, going off of the pure emotion of the beat. His verse flows out effortlessly like a rap veteran who has been doing it for years. And in a way he has.

Mont has always had a passion for music and a love for hip-hop culture. When he was 11, an older cousin showed him how to write rhymes, stoking the flames of his interest in music. But he credits seeing Mase for making him really want to pursue music on another level.

“I was like, ‘I really want to do what he do,’” says Mont, now a 25-year old MC. “And that’s how I really started doing that shit.”

Pace-O Beats’ background in music goes a little deeper. He got his first taste of music in the first grade when his parents enrolled him in piano lessons. Everyone on his father’s side of the family knew how to play an instrument. But it wasn’t easy for him to tell his friends he had to practice the piano.

“I didn’t even think it was cool,” the 25-year old producer explains. “From first to eighth grade, I didn’t even tell people about it. I wanted to play football. So I would go do that, and then go take piano lessons. People used to clown me about it.”

That all changed, however, during the summer of eighth grade when he heard N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star.”

“I always was into other stuff,” he says. “I guess you could say I was on some weirdo stuff. So when I seen Pharrell I was like, ‘Yo, this is my dude right here. I want to be just like this dude, yo.’ And that’s what really inspired me to make beats.”

The Astronauts have worked with numerous Philly artists like Meek Mill, Gillie da Kid, Chic Raw and Freeway. They’ve also worked with Lil Chuckee from Young Money and the Diplomats’ Hell Rell. But they’re interested in collaborating with artists beyond hip- hop as well.

“It’s a difference between a rap song and a record,” says Mont, whom DJ Diamond Kuts hailed as the “Wale of Philly.” “I want to make records!”

The Astronauts have already begun working on a collaborative project with the local indie pop/punk band Members Only.

“Pace-O and Mont are two of the coolest and smartest guys we have met in the business,” Members Only drummer Gabe Rosen says excitedly. “They have really shown us a lot of love. The fact that they are so excited about working with young kids like us is inspiring. And fucking awesome!”

The Astronauts created much of the music in the documentary, Tailor Made: The Bucky Davis Story, which drops on June 19. Directed by Damony Giles, it chronicles the life of Mont’s father. Davis was a promising young boxer who put his career on hold when he joined Philadelphia’s ultra-violent crime cartel, the Junior Black Mafia, thinking it would provide a better life for his family. Davis was murdered on Mother’s Day in 1990.

“That goes to show I’m not about that life,” Mont states defiantly. “It was so negative what he was doing but he had a good reason for doing it. He wanted the best for his family. I just take the hustle that he was doing and put it into my music.”

As the beat begins to fade out, Pace-O already has a hook formulating in his head and beings to record himself singing the hook.

Once he finishes he looks up at me and says, “And that’s pretty much how we do it.”

A year ago, The Astronauts were patiently waiting for their big break. They keep dropping new music and reaching new audiences. This spring, they performed with Theodore Grams and Chill Moody, and that touring bill will likely continue.

The Astronauts have always seen success in their future, despite what anyone else has thought about them, and they plan to keep that optimistic mentality throughout their career.

“You just gotta put your faith in God and just go,” says Mont. “That’s all we doing.”

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