For generations, musical talent has come from inside the rowhomes lining our streets. Whether opera or doo-wop, the neighborhoods have earned bragging rights courtesy of the Billboard charts.
For the three men behind Beat Garden Entertainment, the area offers more than just a home — it provides inspiration.
Steve "Zilla Rocca" Zales, Domenic "Nico the Beast" Zarrella and Octavius "Big O" Mitchell are founding members of Beat Garden, an independent hip-hop label with strong ties to their roots. The trio’s goal is to make and share music that relates to the tight-knit bonds they’ve experienced living here.
"There’s more to South Philly than the everyday violent things you may see on the news," Mitchell, a 32-year-old from Fifth and Ritner streets, said. "When you look at the news, on a daily basis you see things [about Philadelphia] like, ‘murder capital.’ There may be some sort of truth to that, but there are areas in neighborhoods where you get a nostalgic feeling — something you also get when you walk into certain corner stores."
Mitchell, who performed as a hip-hop artist around the city in the 1990s, fills the management role for Beat Garden, a set of skills he’s familiar with as a supervisor at Best Buy, 2300 Columbus Blvd. He met Zales, a 25-year-old former resident of Third and Tasker streets and the 2600 block of Eighth Street, years ago while the two were working at Coconuts at Pier 70. The pair ended up hanging out with shared circles of friends in the music industry. At the time, Mitchell was learning everything he could about the business of hip-hop and Zales was working to get the music he and childhood friend Zarrella, 25, had written and recorded at a now-shuttered studio at Temple University.
May 2006, the three decided to blend their skills for Beat Garden — a name suggested by a former music colleague of Zales. Since then, they’ve put out a CD and performed all over the city.
"I don’t know if music companies are different — everybody wants to make money and be the best," Zarrella, who grew up on the 2400 block of Mole Street, said. "It’s what we do that separates us. It’s more than just putting our name on something."
Zales and Zarrella are better known as Clean Guns, a play the words of two one would not likely associate with the other. Despite the seemingly rough name, their performances have the opposite effect. The two men rap about losing grandparents and friends, growing up in the city and the positive aspects of South Philly.
In "Croskey Street" on Zarrella’s solo album "No Beast So Fierce," which Beat Garden produced, the lyrics reflect what a typical day in Zales and Zarrella’s childhood neighborhood is like from street cleaners to kids playing in the park. The track — as well as all of the others — is what Mitchell describes as "feel-good music."
"That’s basically what you get in South Philly," he said. "Everyone is basically a family."
And so, it seems, are the friends. Devoting all of their free time to further their venture just comes naturally, as did learning how to do everything required in-house. Zales, who lives in Pennsauken, N.J., and works for a nonprofit health and human services agency, and Zarrella, who works in South Jersey for American Discount Fence, started writing lyrics and rapping as teens. Recording, producing, editing, promoting and design have been learned by simply watching and observing those in the local scene.
"It’s not just one guy does music, one guy does graphic design, we all kind of handle it all," Zarrella, who resides in Runnemeade, N.J., with wife Christy and daughters Jainna, 6, and Bianca, 1, said.
Beat Garden represents Clean Guns and local hip-hop group, Triple Nickels. The latter is working on an album for later this year, while Clean Guns is performing throughout the tri-state area, including a show 9 p.m. June 27 at the Khyber, Second and Market streets. Within the next month, video by Comcast at a showcase where Clean Guns performed two weeks ago at the Trocadero Theatre, 1003 Arch St., will be available on the cable company’s On Demand menu under Get Local.
Their music and videos also can be found at www.yadibox.com, an entertainment site for artists across the country and world that last year received four million hits. Beat Garden is working to continue selling and expanding its hits on iTunes and Amazon through Clean Guns’ "Sometimes There Is Trouble" and their mixed tape, "Living in Harmony," each of which have sold hundreds of copies. Sales are mainly done online, but their work also is available at the Record Bar, 1832 E. Passyunk Ave.
Beat Garden is looking forward to further exposure, especially since all three share the same hope.
"My dream is to wake up, do music full-time, hang out with my friends, see the world and not have someone control or taint my music," Zales said. "It’s much easier to jump on a trend, but our whole thing is to do the groundwork ourselves and when the reward comes, it’s what we want it to be, not what someone else wants it to be."
Contact Staff Writer Caitlin Meals at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.