Athletic Mic League returns after a 15-year hiatus to confirm its status as Ann Arbor's "Playground Legends"


Athletic Mic League

The Ann Arbor hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League was on hiatus for more than 15 years as its members pursued solo projects—and life.

The group formed in 1995 at Huron High School and released three albums during its 10-year run—The Thrill of Victory...The Agony of Defeat (1998), Sweats and Kicks (2002), Jungle Gym Jungle (2004)—and two EPs: Feel Good (2001) and Isolation (2005).

But right before the pandemic started, Athletic Mic League reunited for a four-day studio retreat and recorded the majority of Playground Legends there, a seven-song mini-album that will come out soon. But the group has released three singles from the sessions: "Hold My Hand," "Finish Line," and "Complications." The current lineup of the collective includes Grand Cee, Buff1, Trés Styles, 14KT, Wes Taylor, VaughanTego, and Mayer Hawthorne (not shown in the photo above). 

Athletic Mic League (AML) takes inspiration from Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, and Hieroglyphics Crew, as well as soul and jazz music. AML's songs showcase sharp lyrical content and instrumentals decorated with soul-music loops. "Hold My Hand" and "Complications" feature retro-soul vocals over laid-back beats. In contrast, "Finish Line" is a nice uptempo track that opens and closes with a sample from motivational speaking guru Eric Thomas.

Below, AML dishes on the stories behind its new singles, the reunion, and what’s next for them. 

Q: This is the first new music from the group in over 15 years. What was behind releasing new music now?
Trés Styles: There were a few things for me. First, I kept seeing artists from our era or ones we used to look up to, release new albums over the last three, four years that were pretty good. I thought if they can do it, I know we can figure it out. Second, I happened to see all the guys on different trips and whatnot and got a sense of where everybody was at in life. I noticed we were all still involved with music in some way or another and all seemed to be dealing with different situations in life at the time. Third, I was missing the camaraderie that doing music and us being around each other usually brings with it. I felt like everyone might feel the same and decided that I wanted that back in some way and it might help each of us beyond music. I knew with all we've achieved individually, if we could pool half of our experience and resources together that we could do some dope things in 2020. It was something I've been wanting to do for a really long time and because of those things I just finally started speaking up about it to see where it would go. 

Q: What were some of the conversations and energy like during the studio reunion?
Trés Styles: Amazing, fun, emotional! Even though we've always been around and involved in each other's lives and music over the years, this was very different. It didn't take long before we felt a level of nostalgia and family reunion type of vibe. We got caught up with each other, did some team-building exercises thanks to Buff, and then put the music on and tried to see where it would take things.

Q: The new singles so far are "Finish Line," "Hold My Hand," and "Complications." What are the stories behind these?
Trés Styles: Wow, that's a loaded question. They happened in the reverse order actually. The "Hold My Hand" story is sort of talked about on our IG posts when we first dropped it. But that was the first joint at the retreat that really spoke to everybody right away. I heard KT making the beat the night before. I was a little hypnotized by it almost and told him he really needed to play that for everybody the next day. "Finish Line" was a beat Mayer sent right before we left for the retreat and I had a hook idea by the time we got there. Buff just stepped up and led the way on both of those and set the tone; I think it took off from there.
Buff1: Really, the beat for "Hold My Hand" led to the subject matter. We subconsciously all interpreted what the sample singing “Hold My Hand” meant to us individually and Trés’ chorus led to what we wrote in the verses. KT made the beat and wrote his verse for "Complications" just messing around without AML in mind. Then Vaughan heard that and that inspired him to write.

Q: When the pandemic subsides, does the group plan to do any live shows?
Trés Styles: I don't think that's even crossed our minds really. The pandemic slowed us down a bit after the retreat. So we've barely scratched the surface of this thing yet, trying to get things done remotely has been tedious.  

Q: How do you feel you’ve grown as solo artists? Is there a new album in the works?
VaughanTego: I think the growth as solo artists comes in two ways. First, obviously, for 14KT, Buff, and Mayer Hawthorne, they continued to put music out while the rest of us kind of put it on the back burner. But not only did they keep going, they perfected it, reached that 10,000-hour mark long ago, and there is practically nothing they can't do musically.

But I was just as astonished when we all got together from the growth you can hear from the rest of us that stopped making music. I think that's a direct result of us growing as individuals and each of us being great at other things besides music. We have experienced a lot more and are more comfortable with who we are. We also understand our strengths and weaknesses better and that allows us to take the lead on certain things and not be afraid to ask for help in other areas. There are no egos or personal agendas, just one goal to make the best music possible. We are putting out a new seven-song project next month [Playground Legends]. 

Q: Do any members have solo projects in the works?
Buff1: Yeah, for sure. Vaughan just released Shoot Shots Forever, KT recently released For My Sanity, and Mayer has dropped a ton of new singles this year. He's always working on Mayer stuff and Tuxedo stuff. KT is working on the new RSXGLD music with Ro Spit, a new jazz album, and some instrumental beat releases. I'm finalizing a new project from The Black Opera with Magestik Legend and I'll be releasing a top-secret solo project later this year.

Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.