Puma, who moved to Saugerties from Queens at the age of 15, was a longtime fan of hip-hop before leaving the land of LL Cool J, Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest for an area better known for Bob Dylan and The Band. But it wasn’t until arriving in Saugerties that Puma considered becoming an MC.
“I had an interest in [hip-hop], but physically I didn’t get into it until I moved up and became good friends with a kid named Jack Trojan. He was a local DJ at the time.”
Puma was just 16, full of the energy that comes with finding your voice at an early age.
“It was at my Jack’s house up in Mount Marion,” Puma said. “We would always just get together, and everybody would sit have a couple of drinks and listen to music anyway. [Trojan] talked me into writing something and we had this whole kid-and-play back-and-forth type rap. We plugged in the mics and everybody liked it, and the rest is history.”
The pair released a mixtape, a hip-hop tradition that goes back into the genre’s late-Seventies infancy when emcees and DJs would generate hype by circulating grey-area compilations often using other artists’ music as the backdrop. The practice has remained a part of the scene, even as technology introduced the CD and digital downloads as mixtape outlets.
The partnership looked likely to thrive, with the pair performing at wild house parties and developing a local following. And then suddenly, it was over.
What’s in a name?
“He passed away in a car accident when he was 18, and it’s basically been me ever since,” said Puma.
While the tragedy might have derailed some, Puma put his head down and kept performing, evolving as an artist in a genre that’s tough enough to break into even when your home base isn’t 100 miles away from New York City. His voice and message have changed over the years. Now that he’s 29, Puma feels like he’s on the precipice of something big.
“Back then I was just a kid,” he said. “I was writing stuff for house parties, things for my friends to listen to driving around. Fast-forward ten years, I’ve been through quite a bit. My lyrical content is very different now, and I’ve been trying to step it up to a more professional level now.”
Puma’s hip-hop career saw him using his own name, not an ordinary practice in a genre so full of creative aliases. His instinct was to come up with a new moniker, but for years he stuck by who he really was.
“I didn’t want to use it just because it was my regular name, but people kept telling me it sounded good,” he said.
That changed two years ago at a show in Connecticut. “A bunch of kids out there just turned around and called me The Blue-Eyed Devil,” he said. “That stuck, and then I recently switched it to Sane. That was always there. We figured The Blue-Eyed Devil would be like an alias.”
Puma prefers Sane in all capital letters (SANE), though that’s only significant because of the attention he thinks it receives.
“It’s not an acronym for anything,” he said. “It’s just mainly because some of the things that go on in people’s lives sometimes, it’s kind of hard to be sane. It’s almost a sarcastic thing. It’s more a point of view title, and you should take it any way you want it.”
While still performing as The Blue Eyed Devil, Puma played a show in Harlem sponsored by Hot 97, an urban radio station. The stage name further illustrated one of other reasons Puma will have to prove himself: Despite the success of everyone from Eminem to the Beastie Boys, white rappers are in the minority.
Brandon DeWeever, a hip-hop recording engineer and promoter recalled the Hot 97 show. “We were the only two white people in a huge crowd,” DeWeever said. “That name (Blue Eyed Devil) didn’t go too well when he first got on stage; people were booing, and throwing stuff. But by the end they were chanting his name and he won second place. I’m nervous for him like I was performing. I’m not a performer, but I know what he’s going through. The thing that gets me through it is I can’t wait for people to hear him. Up until he goes on stage no one is really into us or likes us or talks to us. But the minute he gets off the stage, he’s like the Pied Piper walking through the club.”
Skill is skill, and talent rises to the top. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s still something often heard in the entertainment game. Maybe it’s true for Puma. His artist page on Reverb Nation features a quote from Luke Wryder, who in a blurb about Puma being named USA 4 Real’s Artist of the Month last August said the following: “His poetry flows with real amazing surprises how he ties all his tracks together with smooth lyrical rants and solid hooks that you just can’t help to sin along with the devil.”
It’s itself something of a free-form line of poetry, but it does get the point across: Sane is something special.
“We’re all love”
DeWeever, Puma’s cousin and de-facto manager, said coming from Saugerties hasn’t made the road an easy one to travel.
“There’s no scene here, not at all, and that’s the hardest part,” DeWeever said. “It’s kind of hard to get a show here, because nobody wants hip-hop. We couldn’t get into the Steel House in Kingston because there’s enough shootings there. But we’re all love. There’s no violence, and it’s more than just gangsters in hip-hop. It’s the farthest thing from that. But that’s why we’re forced to go to the city. We’re not too far away, so we can make it work.”
Puma’s most recent gig was a showcase at Jelani Lounge in Brooklyn as part of the Top Mics/50mics tournament. Puma recently did a radio show in advance of the event, and he and DeWeever feel it went well. “They said the white thing is a big ordeal, and they said we don’t hear too many white artists we appreciate, but you’re one of them,” said DeWeever.
From Brooklyn to Baltimore, Sane has been making a name for himself, and he’s not just doing it on the stage. His “Warrior” was recorded exclusively for MMA fighter Joey Gambino, a Saugerties native and friend of Puma’s who has been breaking into the sport north of the border in Canada. Gambino enters the ring to “Warrior” at every match.
Puma also has a mixtape available that he’s giving away for free, both on his Reverb Nation profile (http://www.reverbnation.com/PhilPumaAKAsane) and as soon as it’s ready, in physical copies at shows and other events.
“It’s done, it just needs to be printed,” DeWeever said. “It’s all mastered and ready to go. I’m going to put them all over town here. Since it’s a mixtape, I can’t sell it in FYE. All of it isn’t original. This being a mixtape album it has his originals and remixes of other people’s stuff. But I’m going to hit every dance station from here to the city.”
Puma’s lyrics are his own, and many of his beats have been produced by Chris Bittner of Applehead Recording & Production in Woodstock. This partnership will eventually result in the first full-length album by Sane, Speak of the Devil, which Puma said he hopes to have finished by next summer.
“I want to give the mixtape away because I kind of want people to get the feel for me who don’t know me already,” he said. “This way when I make the all original album, people will buy it. I don’t buy stuff off people’s word, so the mixtape is kind of like, ‘Here I am, this is what I do.’”
Puma said his message is simple: Be real and have fun.
“I don’t lie,” he said. “I can entertain people with real stuff. I think a lot of people appreciate that. You have too many people in the game right now trying got be someone else, and that’s not what I do. I’m living my life, having fun and struggling for something better. I’m on this road right now, and from the first song I’ve ever made to the current date I try to take people along that road with me.”