We’ve all got to start somewhere.

For Callous, an MC with the Humboldt-come-Isla Vista hip hop ensemble Dirty Rats, everything started on the floor. “I remember when I was first in the living room in our old house,” he said. “It was probably the end of summer, last year. The computer was on the floor, we didn’t have our shit in the house really … and I really wanted to, like, rap and shit, but I was hella nervous and the first time I did everything my voice was shaking and I was totally pussy sounding. … That was the beginning for me.”

Yet, in another sense, the recipients of Artsweek’s first annual Next Spoiled Rock Star Award are all at the beginning. Callous, along with co-MC Aaron and producers Point 2 and Doctor Damage, just turned 21. Fellow rhymer Bida is still 18. Fusion Lab, their demo, is full of rookie mistakes and rough edges. But, more importantly, it is also full of raw talent, an ability to surprise, and the occasional original sparkle.

“The thing with pop/mainstream,” Bida said, “is that it’s all become a uniform thing. It just like, my main problem with that is the uniformity … Being original is the shit that, if you’re good at it, then you eventually become pop.”

Not that becoming pop is the point.

“It doesn’t take talent to be famous,” he added, “and there’s original music that sucks ass, too. You just never hear it because nobody wants to hear it.”

Dirty Rats’ loops are mostly constructed by Point 2, and are heavy on “classical” instruments – brass, piano, the occasional string – although the occasional heavily synthesized or distorted sound breaks in from time to time.

“We want to get playing live,” Point 2 said, “[with] guitar, drums, and keyboard … [but] we don’t have any of the equipment. Or a keyboard player. Or anything.”

A tall order for any group, and ambitious for as new a member as Point 2.

“I’m pretty new at making beats,” he said. “I just joined the crew this year. I knew this other guy Franco who’s in the crew, he’s from Santa Cruz and I just transferred here from Santa Cruz.”

Franco, though absent from the interview, has a heavy presence on the Fusion Lab demo and is spiritually never far from Dirty Rats.

“Franco … is like the freestyle master,” Aaron said. “He’s, like, so good … he’ll annoy the hell out of you. He doesn’t shut the fuck up. He makes me wanna get better, just so I can get behind him.”

“I saw Franco shut down this kid battling in Humboldt, and this kid got so, like, frustrated that he had to resort to violence. And Franco wasn’t even talking dirty or, like, anything bad,” he added. “He’s this little dude, he’s like five five or something, but he’s so quick-witted.”

Dirty Rats toes the line between classic cred and a modern intellectual “backpacker” aesthetic. Citing influences from Aesop Rock to hardcore to flamenco, the group is not afraid of a breadth beyond the typical “bitches-and-Benjamins” mien (though the group is not above mentioning bitches when it seems appropriate to do so).

“One of the main aspects of hip hop beats that really draws me in,” Doctor Damage said, “is how versatile it is, how many different types of music you can incorporate into hip hop beats. Basically anything, any type of music that is out there, can be made into a beat, and it all can sound totally different.”

“I don’t think hip hop matters, really,” Bida said. “I think hip hop is one of those bullshit labels where people are like, you can stray from it and somebody’ll get offended and they’re like, ‘that’s not hip hop.’ And who the fuck cares, that’s my opinion. It’s all just music.”

But “just music” is more than enough for the members of Dirty Rats, who unanimously agreed that beats and rhymes were how they wanted to spend their lives.

“I can’t imagine what I’d do [if not for Dirty Rats],” Callous said. “It just feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

“I’d be playing a lot of video games,” Aaron said.

“I’d be touching myself,” Bida said.

That single mindedness has brought Dirty Rats this far, but there’s always somewhere else to go.

“Our beats keep getting better and better,” Callous said.

And the future portends good things for the crew.

“2008,”Point 2 said, “[it’s] the year of the rat.”