Longtime friends in Columbus rap group return with 'Attack of the Drum,' the first EP in a three-part series

The four MCs in Columbus rap crew the 3rd Power go way back, tracing their history to now-closed Monroe Middle School on the East Side, where the friends would scribble down rhymes and cobble together beats at the urging of Rashad Thomas, who played the producer role even in those early years.

“I've always been guilty of making my friends rap,” said Rashad, who produces, performs and records under his first name. “I'm big on creating art with my friends. I have a way of making everybody reach their potential.”

Even with wives and kids now in the picture, the four best friends are like furniture in each other's life. “They come with the place. They're always there,” Rashad said, comparing his relationship with the group to rapper/producer J Dilla's role in Detroit hip-hop trio Slum Village. (The 3rd Power was previously known as the 3rd before regrouping under its new moniker after former fifth member Sh8kes bowed out.)

Still, after all these years and all that shared history, the four friends — Rashad, Blaksmif and brothers Co City and P.A. Flex — manage to surprise each other when they get in the studio. On 2009's Nineteen Seventy Nine, the group's first proper LP that came on the heels of a few mixtapes, Co City takes the first verse of “Hip Hop Part One,” rattling off rhymes about loneliness, an uncaring father and an overworked mother. But it's the line about sleeping on the cold, damp ground that really got to Rashad and the others.

“We're like, ‘What?! Bro, call us, man! You know where I live!'” said Rashad, seated outside a Downtown coffee shop and joined by his 1-year-old daughter, Dilla (who occasionally chimed in from her stroller), and Co City. “We find out about each other through our raps, like, ‘I thought we were friends, dude. I didn't know.'”

“I purposely do it that way sometimes because I like the shock value,” Co City said.

“And you're not the best communicator in real life,” Rashad responded.

“That's the only way I really know how to communicate,” Co City said. “It's my therapy. I could pay a therapist $100 an hour, or I could write a song. ... To some degree it's a confession. You're standing there, and you're saying, ‘Please forgive me for these things that I've done.'”

On “They Know,” the leadoff track on the 3rd Power's newly released EP, Attack of the Drum (Act 1), Co City again gets personal, rapping about his father's death from melanoma cancer, his recent marriage and giving up his son for adoption. “Drinkin' a lot lately, the pains in my belly/My son got adopted, it's cuttin' like a machete,” Co City spits, his flow intact but his serrated voice sounding harsher than it did on Nineteen Seventy Nine.

“All this happened within a five-year timespan. I was trying to give people a glimpse of it, a snapshot,” Co City said. “I was dealing with some drinking issues, substance abuse — things that people go through in life but they don't know how to deal with it, or they don't talk about it. I would never hurt myself, but the pain of a machete, that's the pain I felt internally, in my heart.”

“Co's like this nice guy taking walks in the park in real life, but he and [P.A. Flex], on the mic, they're raw,” Rashad said. “In their house growing up, they were allowed to cuss. To this day, I'm a grown man but I don't say certain things because I don't feel like I'm allowed to say them. But there's a rawness that they were allowed to have growing up that comes through in their raps.”

Rashad considers P.A. the 3rd Power's lead rapper. He's the bookworm and wordsmith who doesn't need a beat to compose, while Co City is all about the beat; he feeds off it to communicate the uncut version of himself. Blaksmif, meanwhile, showcases his unmatched tone on Attack of the Drum's final track “No Such Thing as Luck.”

“I'm a Tribe Called Quest/J Dilla lover, and Blak sounds just like Q-Tip,” Rashad said. “It's like I get to try my stuff out on Q-Tip's voice. It's perfect.”

The 3rd Power allows Rashad to showcase a different artistic side. The musician garnered acclaim at a young age as an R&B singer, landing major label deals that eventually fizzled, and while Rashad has always kept his hip-hop side alive, he tends to focus more on R&B and modern soul (see 2015's The Quiet Loud and 2013's Museum).

“When I get around soul and R&B people, I'm always too hip-hop. Whenever I get around hip-hop guys, I'm too R&B. I've never really fit into any circle,” Rashad said. “[The 3rd Power] is my way to be a rapper. I don't rap on my own projects the same way, with the same intention. When someone hears me rap on my own project, it's way different from a 3rd project. I'm a serious rapper with the 3rd.”

On his own, Rashad spends much of his time producing younger rappers like Lil Bizzy, son of Bone Thugz-N-Harmony's Bizzy Bone. “Hip-hop changes so much that I don't wanna be pigeonholed in an era or a time. That's why I like living through Lil Bizzy and these young cats,” Rashad said. “But it's not always about releasing stuff. I think that irks people, but it's not about that. It's about craft. I'm like, ‘How's your craft sounding? Is it ready? Or do you just wanna make some money?'”

Rashad applies the same principles to his own music. “My discography is very important to me,” he said. “I don't like blemishes on it. I don't like rushing through stuff. I have this weird idea that someone is gonna look at what I did when I die and judge me, like, ‘I don't know, man. I thought he was the real deal, but he did this.' I have a little paranoia about that.”

Given Rashad's penchant for quality control, it's saying something that the 3rd Power plans to release Act II and Act III of Attack of the Drum in the coming months — about 15 songs in all. On future tracks, Co City plans to step into the confession booth once more to revisit some of the tough topics he touched on in Act I, which the group will celebrate with a release show at Rumba Cafe on Saturday, May 26.

“It's like Christmas when you call me and say you got a beat,” Co City told Rashad. “I get to create something beautiful.”