Category Archives: Interviews

A Bonus Cut Feature: An Interview With Ess Be and Sareem Poems

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By: Gus Navarro

Photo Credit: Carla Hernandez

Whether you’re talking sports, music or some other scenario, there is nothing quite like the tandem between a veteran and a rookie. Bringing past experiences to the table, the veteran can share knowledge and insight gained through the years. As a relative newcomer, the rookie has a lot to learn but is also an invaluable asset, equipped with a fresh perspective and new ideas. On their new EP, Beautiful Noise, Sareem Poems and Ess Be harness this dynamic to the fullest. Originally from Los Angeles, Sareem Poems has been rapping and making music with his group, LA Symphony, for over a decade. In short, he’s been around the block a few times. On the other hand, Lansing native Ess Be is still a relative newcomer to the world of hip-hop. Ess Be may be “new” to the game, but his summer EP, Bag Fries, demonstrates his versatility.

Beautiful Noise finds both artists at different points in their lives. Despite that, it is the commonalities that bring them together. Representing the Lansing based AOTA hip-hop collective, they see this project as a step towards making music full time. For Sareem, it’s about returning to that. For Ess Be, it’s about stepping into that arena for the first time. Released via Illect Recordings, Beautiful Noise features Ess Be’s production and incorporates live instrumentation, adding depth and energy to an already strong project. Thematically, Beautiful Noise is driven by messages of perseverance and of working to redefine the ways in which we think about personal wealth. In speaking with them on the development of Beautiful Noise, it is clear they learned a lot from each other and about themselves. It is never too late to grow as individuals and to change your perceptions of the world around us. On Beautiful Noise, Sareem Poems and Ess Be remind us of this

Bonus Cut (BC): How did Beautiful Noise come to be?

Ess Be (EB): When I met Sareem I actually didn’t tell him I made music. Eventually, one of my boys mentioned it. At that point I’d been workin’ on making music for awhile but was actually thinking about stopping. Once I started talking to Sareem a bit more he asked me to send him some beats. I sent him some joints, he let me know how he felt about them and asked me to do an EP with him.

Sareem Poems (SP): There’s a difference between beatmakers and producers, and a lot times people lump them together. When I first heard Ess Be’s beats, I thought they were dope. But he also showed me what he’s produced. For example, he’s got EDM under his belt. That proved to me that he has more than just boom-bap or straight forward hip-hop tracks. When I heard the spectrum of what he can do, I knew it was going to be a great project to work on. 

Bonus Cut: How does the veteran and rookie dynamic play out between the two of you?

SP: My whole goal behind doing the EP with Ess Be was to give him a chance to fully use what he’s capable of in one project. His versatility shows throughout the project. His style and how good he is. All I did was bring my ability of song writing to the table and he produced the tracks.

EB:  Being an up and coming producer, it was weird that a veteran MC would want to work with someone who really doesn’t have a catalogue. I had never done a full project, so Sareem played a huge part in pushing me to complete the EP. Just to have someone believe in me and show me some things about creating a project has been amazing. I’m very appreciative for Sareem for the knowledge, wisdom and encouragement he’s given me.

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BC:  What have you learned from the whole process of making Beautiful Noise?

SP:  Throughout this process, I’ve learned that no matter how long you feel that you’ve been doing something, there’s always something new that you can learn. From Ess Be, I’ve learned to look at music as an outsider instead of being an artist. Ess Be is a fan of a lot of different types of music and I had to work on just getting back to appreciating music. I got back to giving things a full listen and becoming a fan again.

EB: Throughout this process I’ve learned about not just making songs, but making music. Anybody can have a song, but not everyone can make music. It stretched me during the creation process. There would be nights where I’d just be up late, ti’l two or three in the morning, tryin’ to figure out what needed to be added or taken away from each song. It’s different when you’re making music for somebody else versus just a beat for yourself. It was a growing experience because it stretched me to think outside the box and to push my personal work ethic.

SP: Yes. Makin’ a project is harder than most people think! It sounds cliche, but hard work and diligence pays off. Especially because neither of us are full time artists.

BC: Right, and you both have other jobs and commitments.

SP:  That’s right. I’ve got a full time gig and a son. If you put that on top of the music stuff, it’s tough sometimes. At the end of the day, you want the music you make to come out and have a big impact, but you also don’t want to take away from your normal life. Making music isn’t my everyday right now, but I want to get back to a point where it is.

BC:  And for you Sareem, Beautiful Noise is the first step to getting back to making music full time. For Ess Be, the project is moving you in the direction of becoming a full time artist.

SP:  Absolutely.

EB:  Yes, exactly!

SP:  That’s the goal, man. I took a long break. January of 2015 will officially be four years since I’ve put anything out. It’s been a minute, but it was a good, much needed break. There needed to be a recalibration in my approach to music. I needed to figure out how I can have an impact without trying to fit into any particular mode.

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BC:  Can you speak a little on your relationship with the record label?

SP:  We’re putting the project out via Illect Recordings. They’ve worked with Theory Hazit, Scribbling Idiots, Imperial, Sivion and some other cats. They’re making moves in a very good direction and I’m proud to be a part of the team. Shout out to Josh Niemyjsk who runs the label! His work ethic it out of control and inspires me, man. He’s puttin’ in work all the time.

BC:  What would both of you say are some of the major themes in the record?

EB: I feel like the common theme in the project is perseverance. The record is mad encouraging. Not to speak ill of some of the cats in music right now, but it’s definitely time for something different to be heard. Something that’s encouraging, uplifting and motivating. Just hearing the same stuff, time after time, after time, can start to desensitize people. We want this music to push people forward through pain from the past, and to help them understand their self-worth. We’re hoping we do it in a way that everyone can relate to and connect with. I hope that with the music I was a part of making, people will hear it and be able to travel to a different place mentally.

SP: For me, a lot of it has to be do with not staying stagnant. They call it the past for a reason, know what I mean? We’re living in the present, but at the same time, you gotta have a medium. You can’t let the future be the driving force because it ain’t here yet. If you’re chasin’ the future, and you don’t fully know what the future is going to be, you’re just going to keep chasing random things. A lot of the songs on the EP are about moving forward and climbing to a higher state of being. Whatever that is for you. A lot of people in society are obsessed with material things. The main thing for me is about being rich with time. I had to redefine what wealth was for me. You can have all the money in the world, but if I’m able to live and not worry then I don’t need millions. That’s a goal for me and you’ll hear that in the music.

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Bonus Cut Presents: An Interview With Red Pill

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By: Gus Navarro
Photo Credit:  Jeremy Deputat

Red Pill was the first rapper I interviewed for Bonus Cut back in May, 2013. At the time, he was working at a factory, had put out The Kick with Hir-O in January and Ugly Heroes was just being released. During our conversation, I distinctly remember an earnest restlessness and fear of complacency about him. It seemed that the anxiety of not working hard enough was keeping him up at night but also fueling his pursuit of success as a rapper. His music has that angst because he writes from personal experience. That being said, there is much more to his lines. If you listen to Red Pill, you will hear blue-collar, political raps, as well as thoughts on relationships and anecdotes about drinking a little too much. Conversationally he might worry about not working hard enough, something I relate with, but on the mic, he’s fearless.

The work Red Pill has put in since his early days with the BLAT! Pack has paid off. In the past year-and-a-half, he has toured Europe with Ugly Heroes twice and signed a multi-album deal with Mello Music Group. There is relief in knowing that he’s guaranteed to have music to work on for at least the next two years, motivation to keep making quality music and tour the United States. In this interview we touch on some of his experiences in Europe, shooting a cypher video with some of Detroit’s finest and his first official solo album with Mello Music Group, Look What This World Did To Us. It’s been fun to see his successes over the past year and I wish him all the best.

Bonus Cut (BC):  In our first interview you told me off the record that there was a European tour in the works. Since then, you’ve been over there twice with Ugly Heroes. What are some of the moments that stand out to you?

Red Pill (RP):  The moment I think it actually hit me that I was on tour in Europe was during our first show, which was at a festival called Hip Opsession in Nantes, France. We knew it was going to be a good show because we were one of the main acts. It was the first time I had ever been at a show that had catered food and our own dressing room. It was a crazy experience. The second performance we did was in Paris, and I’ll never forget it. We got in the van and asked the promoter how many people he thought were going to show up and he was like, “Oh, it’s sold out.” At that point, I’ve never sold out a show anywhere and now I’m in Paris, France and we have a sold out 500 capacity venue. That’s a pretty average sized club but for me, it was an incredible experience. For whatever reason, they’re really into the music over there.

BC:  You met KRS-One over there, how was that?

RP:  I’ve never been around big, big celebrities, ya know? Locally, there are people you look up to and that sort of thing. For me, two of those guys are Apollo Brown and Black Milk. You know they’re important to underground hip-hop and they’ve done shit. Meeting KRS was crazy because he pioneered the music that we’re making today, over thirty years ago. We were at this massive hip-hop festival called Hip-Hop Kemp in the Czech Republic. We’re in the backstage area and there was this commotion and I just see this gigantic human being, KRS-One, just walking by, pointing and giving high-fives to people. There was an aura about him that I can’t explain. You don’t get how impactful this man was until you see him. And he’s so humble. Cee-Lo Green was at the festival one night to perform. It didn’t matter who you were, everyone had to leave the backstage area. KRS could have requested that, but he didn’t. Even though he’s a huge name, he was a super humble and cool dude which is something to learn from.

BC:  On the second tour you were on the road with Skyzoo and Torae performing as the Barrel Brothers, what was that like?

RP:  They are incredible dudes, man. Skyzoo and Torae have been people that I looked up to comin’ up, but you never know what people are going to be like. They’re just super nice, genuine people. They’re incredible tour partners. It was cool because I got to see a lot of what they do. Torae is just constantly fuckin’ working. He’s got his radio show on Sirius XM. We’d get done with a performance, and he’d go back to his hotel room and work on his show. He’s just a fuckin’ workhorse and you learn from that. You don’t have to be workin’ every second of your life, but in this line of work you have to put in the hours. You gotta be on time with your shit and all that.

BC:  I think something I’ve learned over the past year is that people that are successful in the “underground” hip-hop scene are fucking smart and they work super hard.

RP:  You have to be. I’m a stickler for showing up to my recording sessions on time. I don’t write in the studio and shit like that. I’m there, ready to go. It’s the little details in everything and doing all the small things as best as you can. Sometimes I get down on myself because I feel that I’m not working hard enough. I think that’s a good thing though. It keeps my on my toes.

BC:  You were part of an Apollo Brown Cypher video with Marv Won, Miz Korona, Ras Kass and Noveliss of Clear Soul Forces. How fun was that?

RP:  The cypher video was cool. As an “up-and-coming” artist you get to a point where you start asserting yourself as someone who deserves to be where you’re at. I’m not super well known yet, but being able to get in a cypher video with Miz Korona and Noveliss, people I’ve known for awhile, and then Marv Won and Ras Kass was a big deal to me. The thing about it was that it was so fuckin’ hot. I was pouring sweat and my pants felt like they were melting to my legs. We had to do takes of each person’s verse a few times. Apparently being in an alley with a barrel fire for a few hours get’s pretty hot.

BC: From the last time we talked, it was clear that succeeding as a rapper in United States, specifically in Michigan, was very important to you. Does that still hold true despite the success of your music in other places such as Europe?

RP:  It definitely does. Outside of putting out music and those things, the biggest goal for next year is going on tour in the U.S.. MindFeederz, the booking agents from overseas, are trying to break into the North American market so I’ll hopefully be a part of that. Even with all of the success I’ve had over the past year with Mello Music Group as a member of Ugly Heroes and now a solo artist, I’m still a relatively unknown artist. As a stand alone artist, it’s time for me to break out. To do that, I think it’s going to take touring the U.S. and becoming someone that people know about over here.

BC:  Your music is always reflective of what you’re going through in life and what you’re thinking about. Based on that, what are some of the themes and ideas the new album addresses? 

RP:  A lot of it is about trying to understand what our generation, the post-college, whiny millennials, are going through. I’m trying to put my experiences of getting out of college and not knowing what the hell I’m doing with my life into it. I worked at the plant for awhile and that’s what you hear throughout Ugly Heroes. The new album is from there on. I feel that a lot of us just sort of feel lost. We still kind of feel like kids, and we’re trying to bridge that gap from being a young adult to an actual adult. From my particular experiences, I’ve dealt with drinking and personal issues with my girlfriend. We had a rough patch and it was all because I was struggling with being depressed. It was like this sickness that hurt our relationship as well as relationships with some of my friends and family.

BC:  Do you feel like you have a better sense of where you’re trying to go and what you’re trying to accomplish?

RP:  I feel more okay with what I’m doing. I’ve signed a multi-album deal with MMG so I’ll be with them for a while. I’m a little younger than the artists I look up to were when things started to happen for them. I’m about to be 27 so I’m not young per se, but I feel pretty good about where I am. It makes me feel that it was worth it to forego trying to find a normal 9-5 job because I’ve got something to say for it. I still feel like I’m trying to figure things out, but it’s nice to have a sense of where I’ll be for the next few years at least. There’s less of an unknown.

BC:   So you’re basically saying that at 22 I’ve still got at least five more years of feeling this way?

RP:  Yeah, pretty much.

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Bonus Cut Presents: An Interview With Bambu

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By: Gus Navarro

I want to start where Bambu de Pistola ended his show. Drenched in sweat after ripping up the stage for a solid forty-five minutes, he spoke to the crowd. With Dead Prez’s “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” thumping behind him, he stressed to us that while artists such as Dead Prez, Immortal Technique and himself make music from a radical perspective, it doesn’t start and end with the music. He explained that if you’re simply into the music, you’re just a fan. There is nothing wrong with being a fan, but in order to demand change, people need to go out and take it. Communities have to organize and come together around the issues that are important to them. Hip-hop is absolutely a powerful manifestation of this, but it can’t end when your favorite album reaches the outro.

Representing Los Angeles and currently residing in Oakland, Bambu walks and talks the life he raps about. Whether it’s on his 2012 release, …one rifle per family., or his recent album, Party Worker, you will find an MC that reps his Filipino-American heritage to the fullest and is unafraid to tell it like it is with politically charged, and at times, humorous lyricism. Following the show, we sat down and chopped it up over the creation of his new his record, his work as a community organizer, raising a child and some of the albums that were most influential to him. Being on tour can be hectic, so I appreciate his willingness to sit down and speak with me following his performance.

Bonus Cut (BC):  Based on your experiences, what has hip-hop meant to you?

Bambu:  It’s been positive. I grew up around hip-hop so it was just always a part of my life in some form or fashion before we even labeled it hip-hop. It was just always around. It’s difficult to figure out where it fits in because it runs parallel with all the significant moments in my life. It’s a difficult question to answer, but I think the bottom line is that it’s been a positive experience for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s saved my life, but it’s given my life direction.

BC:  Do you want to talk about your time in the military?

Bambu:  I mean there’s not much to say. It was a strong suggestion I was given. I had been getting in trouble, a lot. I got locked up for armed robbery. I was let off house arrest and on probation and upon my release from house arrest I moved in with my adopted family. Then joined the military. I started to become politicized only because I was starting to see things from within. I went to East Timor, and saw people that looked just like me. I heard what people said about them, and came home with a different fervor. And you know, George Bush was in office so it was pretty easy to put a critical eye on things.

BC:  I work with youth in underprivileged communities and the military is presented as a viable option as far as getting out of the hood. For me to even say that is just wrong.

Bambu:  Yeah I mean it’s calculated. It’s marketed that way to us. And they specifically target low-income, marginalized communities. I was talking to a security guard yesterday, a young kid who had just turned eighteen. He was working security at the venue we were at last night, and he was going to boot camp in a few days. We were talking about what he was going to experience and go through. He was telling me how they just brought the ASVAB test to him. They make recruiting so easy.

BC:  And this is something we see throughout history.

Bambu:  Right. It’s the school-to-prison pipeline system, but also the school-to-military system as well. It’s one or the other.

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BC:  As you’ve already said, hip-hop is a positive thing, and was for you specifically. That being said, is there a side of it that isn’t positive?

Bambu:  I mean there’s a lot of lying in hip-hop. That’s something I don’t need to speak on that much. I think anyone with intelligence knows that half of these cats out there are lying. I’m hoping we don’t believe it. Yeah, it can influence kids. But I don’t think it influences kids more than what’s actually going on in their communities. It’s their life. The problem is that somebody else is getting paid from exploiting them. That is the negative side, and that usually comes with the business side of hip-hop. All of this is very calculated. I don’t think it’s an accident that record labels put money behind and push certain kinds of music.

BC:  As a community organizer, what is the work that you’re involved in?

Bambu:  As of recently, I’ve been working a lot on my music. I did youth and student organizing. I started working for a non-profit that I love dearly called People’s CORE, People’s Community Organization for Reform Empowerment, where we would go out to the community and try to create small people’s organizations and help facilitate that. We would try and find communities that needed us. We’d go in and try to identify issues. The last campaign I worked on with them was a smoke-free multi-unit housing project. We taught about the tobacco industry, how they work, their marketing ploys and things like that. While I’m in Oakland, I’m a full time dad, a “domestic engineer” if you will. My partner, Rocky Rivera, she does a lot of the community organizing. There was one year while I was doing it, and now she’s doing it. We just try and balance it out with being at home with our son. It’s too tough to have two community organizers going full time with a kid. 

BC:  Things must change when you have a child.

Bambu:  Yeah, it definitely puts things into perspective. Even to your ideology and political work.

BC:  How so?

Bambu:  Ideology wise, you start to realize that you gave a shit before. Now that you have a child, you really give a shit now. This means something to you. Not that it didn’t before. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve had a child. You see your child, and you start to genuinely care about what happens in the future. For that reason alone, the way I thought ten years ago compared to now isn’t necessarily different, but it’s more mature.

BC:  What are some of the books that influenced your thinking and that you really learned from?

Bambu:  The first book I ever sat and read, front to back, was in the day room of the Los Padrinos Detention Center. You had the option to either go outside and play basketball or stay inside a read books. I stayed in there and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Wonderful book. I felt like it related to me. This was before even all the hype around the nation (of Islam) through hip-hop and what not. That book made me feel powerful. For a long time I just felt worthless and stupid and dumb. Here was a guy who came from worse conditions and he managed to transform that same energy, not change, but mature that attitude and that energy into something that was structured and uplifting. That was beautiful to me. That’s where little things started to spark in my mind. What I will say is that along the way, hip-hop influenced a lot of my life. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate is an album I praise like some people praise the Bible. I pull verses from it, you know? I wrote a whole song about it on …one rifle per family. It was powerful for me and forced me to read books. It forced me to read Native Son because I was searching, I was looking and that really opened the door for me. Without them, I wouldn’t have even read those books and I’d rather talk about that.

BC:  What are some of those albums?

Bambu:  Kam’s Neva Again blew my mind the first time I heard it. The Coup’s first album, Kill My Landlord, love that album front to back. Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez. As a youth, I would hear what they were rappin’ about, and I’d want to take that bar or line and research it. Where does this come from? Why is it this way? I learned so much before I even traveled the country. I already knew about some of the cultures. I had a sense about the mid-west, northwest and east coast, all because of hip-hop. I understood that there was a different language, but our struggles were the same. Jeru the Damaja’s first album, The Sun Rises in the East, developed my sound so much. I come from a time, in the Freestyle Fellowship era, where rap was a lot of giant words for no reason. I say no reason because I sucked at it. Those brothas, Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed did that to the utmost. We were mimicking it, we thought we just had to use giant words just to mimic them. That’s where I came from. Then I listened to things like Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. Prodigy was saying such powerful things with such a short amount of words. He wasn’t killing you with all these bars, just throwin’ em at your face. He would say, “My gun shots’ll make you levitate.” That’s it. That’s all that I needed to know! That was poetic in just one bar. We gotta stop there or I’ll just keep going…

BC:  What was some of the music that was in your house growing up?

Bambu:  Carlos Santana was in my house a lot. My dad was a huge Santana fan. I remember a Tower of Power LP. My mom listened to horrible shit like Doris Day. My mom was corny with that whole music thing.

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BC:  Speaking of family and heritage, can you speak on some of the history of American colonization and how that has affected Filipino-Americans living in the United States but also in the Philippines?

Bambu:  Yeah so the Phillipines was a colonized territory, a strategic launching point, militarily and tradewise. Everyone wanted to be on those set of islands, it was a gateway to the Orient. The United States came in, put their puppet in play and did what they do best; colonize. All this began during the late 1800’s, but the U.S. still has a very strong influence on the islands, monetarily and even through the government. Militarily, the Philippines are very dependent on the United States. Land is getting exploited by companies that stem from the United States. For example, Nestle. All these companies come and what happens is that you force people to leave their homes. There’s nothing there for them anymore, the land is depleted. What you pay them is not enough to survive and the wealth is owned, just like here (the United States), by a very few. So then there’s this move to migrate. The way that it’s connected is that a lot of the money that is being recycled within the Philippines, especially on the neighborhood level, comes from the United States. Now there’s this huge push for tourism in the Philippines, which is just going to fuck the country up. You’re going to allow the Hiltons, which Paris Hilton already has a club there, and the Trumps to build on this land and ultimately push people out and force people into the service industry, and then they won’t have any self-sufficiency.

BC:  Have you been to the Philippines before?

Bambu:  Yeah and I’m going back this December. I try and go once or twice a year.

BC:  That’s cool. What’s it like there?

Bambu:  It’s beautiful. I have kind of a different experience when I go there. Usually when I go home it’s in a performance capacity. What’s great about that is that I have access to a different world while I also have one foot in the organizing community, and I have one foot with the masa, with the people. I can go and see that side, do the work there, and then go to this club in a nicer part of town and perform. I’m privileged to see both worlds. The corrupt, the shitty and you know, the people on the ground.

BC:   Do you see your new album, Party Worker, as a continuation of your previous record, …One rifle per family.?

Bambu:  No, no. If you look at my album catalogue, and this is calculated, I always have ellipses that go with my titles. So if you notice, One Rifle Per Family has a period at the end (…One Rifle Per Family.) because that series of albums is done. I felt like One Rifle was it for me. It didn’t come as naturally to me as it does for a (Brother) Ali or somebody else who’s done this for a while. Making this kind of music took me a long time. To figure out my path, I had to be in a group called Native Guns. I had to learn a lot of things before I could do an album like …One Rifle Per Family. I did it and I was like, “Dope. I said what I wanted to say. That Bambu is done.” Party Worker is a whole new venture. I wrote three versions of this album. The first version I wrote was a party record. It was a lot of party music on stupid ass beats. It was dumb. I had received all of this money from a kickstarter campaign I did. The label (Beat Rock Music) has always taken care of me, so this was the first time money like that was in my account. I was like, “Oh shit, party time!” So I’m writin’ this party music and it was shit. Then I decided to throw the party outside the window and go with the worker. So then I wrote this really pro-union, socialist record that was heavily influenced by punk. And I didn’t like that either. Not that it was a bad record, the party version was horrible, but this worker one wasn’t what I wanted to project. Then I put the two together and realized a rapper is essentially a “party worker.” The DJ is the party and what we do is help them along. Then I said, “What if rappers had a grassroots people’s organization, what would that sound like? What would that meeting sound like?” And that’s all I did.

BC: I totally got that vibe when I listened to it. Some of my favorite moments of the album are the interludes because you really do feel as if you’re sitting and participating in this meeting.

Bambu:  Thank you, man! That’s exactly what I was going for. Conceptually, Party Worker is similar to Barrel Men, the Native Guns album we did. It starts with a kid getting jumped into a gang, and the gang was the Native Guns. He gets jumped into it throughout the album. It goes from this really hard stuff to this more cultural stuff. Party Worker kind of mirrors that through the meeting interludes. I’m very proud of it and I got to work with Phatty, man! I always wanted to work with DJ Phatrick. If you like the album, half of it is all him. I entrusted that album to him. We wrote and we recorded in this hotel. We shut down this hotel floor and we had rooms for recording. My boy Roy Choi hooked it up! He gave us two rooms and we built up this studio in there. I slept, woke up, wrote and recorded there for four days. We had guests come in, we put them on album and it was great.

BC:  So it kind of was like a meeting.

Bambu: It was, it was. And then when I was done with that, I left it in Phatty’s hands and went on tour. The record was really put together by Phatty. I wrote it and he did what I wanted him to do. It was beautiful and I’m very, very proud of that of that record. I’m never doing a kickstarter again, though. Never. That shit was tough. I still haven’t talked to the IRS about it. I can’t wait for that conversation.

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Bonus Cut Presents: An Interview With Open Mike Eagle

 

The past year has been good to L.A. art-rapper Open Mike Eagle. Dark Comedy, his fourth album, was released this past June to much critical acclaim. Due to this, his already loyal fan-base has grown and continues to do so. Having signed a multi-album deal with Mello Music Group, we can expect even more from Mike as we transition into 2015. Whether you listen to Dark Comedy, an earlier project such as Unapologetic Art Rap (2010) or are familiar with his work with HellFyre Club and Project Blowed, Mike’s music has a way of blending melancholy with moments of hilarity and reality that are political, funny and downright intelligent. His Podcast, Secret Skin, combines these elements, giving the listener unique insight into the business side of hip-hop that is expertly mixed with priceless tour stories and other humorous anecdotes.

Speaking from the grisly depths of the Mac’s Bar basement in Lansing, Michigan, I expected him to have an energetic personality because, as he explains in the interview, I had bought into the aesthetic he created as an artist. Mike was very upfront about some of the occupational realities of being an independent MC. For example, you need to know the lay of the land when it comes to booking a show and setting up a tour. Additionally, making music comes with familial and financial responsibilities, something that didn’t exist in the same way when he was a young twenty-something. He spoke candidly about these realities, and how they serve as motivation. As we transitioned to more important topics, popular culture, tour stories and his natural comedic self instantly came to life. What I learned from Mike is that rapping and being on the road is still fun for him, but there’s more to it now. Additionally, I reaffirmed the thought that at some point, I’d like to go on tour, or a long road trip, in order to compile hilarious stories about places that no one has ever heard of. As a fan of Open Mike Eagle, it was an honor to have the chance to pick his brain and hear what he had to say.

Bonus Cut (BC):  You got started on the road, kind of paving your own way, right?

Open Mike Eagle (OME):  It wasn’t that I was making my own way. It was that I was pledging allegiance to the cause and operationally learning how things work. On my first tour, I literally followed Busdriver and Abstract Rude in my own vehicle, not getting paid anything for the shows and just trying to make money off merch. That was the start of my career more than anything else. Showing them, the promoters and audiences, that I was dedicated enough to do that opened up everything. Or began to open up everything.

BC:  Just showin’ up?

OME:  Yes. Showin’ up, executing, not complaining and learning the machinery.

BC:  What’s the machinery?

OME:  In that sense, the machinery was having lines into promoters and knowing where and how to book your tour. It was me learning how artists work with agents and how artists without agents work with promoters. Some of those same promoters brought me back when I started to get out on my own. Understanding how you had to be prepared promotionally as an artist. I have to have my own imaging, a flyer design. I have to know if I’m booking a show, who’s the best local talent to have on the bill that will bring more people and make the show make sense. It’s all of those different things. The other side of it is that maybe you get a major deal right off the top and let other people figure it out. Or, you get super good on the Internet, go the Youtube route, build a following that way and let other people figure it out. For an independent musician, on the DIY tip, you have to learn how all these different moving parts work together or how that attempts to equal success.

BC:  So it’s showin’ up, building relationships and not complaining?

OME:  Not complaining and executing. Trying to take the lessons onto the next run. Trying to build fan bases in different markets…

BC:  Does that change at all now that you’re a headliner?

OME:  Right now my strength is more in putting out more product at the platform level I have so I can attract more ears. I have management now. I have booking now. Now that those things are in place, I can really focus on making the strongest product possible and bring more people to the table.

BC:  Do you pay booking and management out of pocket?

OME:  That’s the thing. Most of the components of the music business, at least in my experience, is that everybody kind of pays for themselves. If a booker feels like they won’t make any money with you then they won’t book you. If a manager feels like they won’t make any money working with you, then they won’t work with you. Everybody kind of brings opportunity to the table so that we can all eat.

BC:  Is being a rapper lucrative for you?

OME:  I’m not making as much money as my last job that used my degree. But I’m making a decent amount of money. There are rappers that make a lot of money. Not even all the mainstream artists. There’s a lot of rappers that people don’t even really know about, but their business is set up right. There’s still a lot of money to be made in selling music. Digitial, physical and otherwise. There’s licensing and a lot of different revenue streams. It’s never going to be like it was when people were buying lot’s of CDs, but it’s still a billion dollar industry and believe, it trickles down in all kinds of ways.

BC:  Are you trying to license your music?

OME:  Always. Every independent artist should be trying to do that. There’s a lot of movies, television and people who want music, but don’t want to pay for what mainstream music costs. People should consider that as a revenue stream for sure.

BC:  Do you miss home when you’re on tour and vice versa?

OME:  Yeah I do but being on the road is such an important part of my job. You kind of have to turn down the natural, human emotions about missing home. If I stay home, I’m not working as hard or making as much money as I could be and things like that. On tour I’m getting paid to perform, selling my music to people and reaching new audiences in that way. There’s a real benefit to pounding the pavement if it’s set up right.

BC:  Do you have to practice your raps?

OME:  If I haven’t done a song in awhile I have to go over it. When I first started constructing the set that I have now-as much as it pained me to do it at first-I realized it was a good idea to practice my performance at home. Just turn it on, not look at it and just do all the songs. It’s just a muscle memory thing. I don’t have to, but it helps me to stay sharp.

BC:  Does that mean you go back and listen to your music?

OME:  I listen to my music a lot when I’m making it. Before I share anything that I’ve made with anyone, my management, the producer I made it with, anybody, I’ve heard it 50 times at least. By the time something is an album of mine, those songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. Usually by the time it’s out, I’ve stopped listening to it. I like to distance myself from it emotionally.

 

BC:  At this point, rapping isn’t just a hobby for you. This is a job.

OME:  Yep, this is it.

BC:  With that, how do you balance hip-hop being something that you love but that it’s also a job?

OME:  I mean I get paid more the better I do at it. Even just in terms of it being something that satisfies me. The more pure of a vision I can have, it’s better all the way around. I’m not in a position where it would suit me to try and do what other people are doing. Except in the licensing world, that helps. In terms of my appeal, my music selling and people coming out to shows, the closer I can get to what I’ve built as my own aesthetic, the more successful the projects and the songs are. To me, I don’t have to balance anything. I just have to go even harder.

BC:  Given that, where do you see yourself in five years?

OME:  Ummmm…on television.

BC:  Speaking of T.V., are you a fan of the show Community?

OME:  The first two seasons, definitely. I didn’t watch too much after that, I don’t know if it got any worse. I stopped watching NBC’s Thursday nights when The Office went away. I love Parks & Rec, but The Office was the thing that anchored me to that night. I wasn’t able to keep up.

BC:  I had to ask about Community because my friend loves the “Inspector Spacetime” line in your song, “Middling.”

OME:  No doubt! The first two seasons, I was all about it, man!

BC:  What are some of the shows you’re watching right now that you think have the best writing?

OME:  I really enjoy Veep. I think Veep is an incredible television show. I really enjoyed Fargo this year. True Detective was great. Breaking Bad was amazing.

BC:  It’s weird thinking about how Breaking Bad only just ended this year. It’s been a long year.

OME:  Starting with Lost, I’ve kind of always had a television show to come back to. Now I kinda don’t [that Breaking Bad is over]…Ohhhh! I’m trippin.’ I forgot about House of Cards and Orange is the New Black! Personally, I love both of those shows. Binge watchin’ all day.

BC:  Yes! I can’t get over Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

OME:  Oh yeah, he’s amazing!

BC:  Do you have a memorable tour story you don’t tell often?

OME:  I performed in a barn once. That was a crazy story. There’s this town outside of Fresno where for some reason there’s this weird, strange pocket of underground hip-hop fans and they booked this tour I was on. I wasn’t in a position to get much information on where we were playing and when we showed up, it was literally a three walled barn in the middle of a field. It was nighttime and we did our show at a barn, with a generator and it was very fucking frightening. There were no bathrooms or anything. I remember at one point, I had to go piss. I was walking out to the field to piss and I heard some animal. It sounded like a howl or bark, and I just walked back to the barn. I didn’t even pee. I didn’t know what to do. You know, you just end up at a barn sometimes.

BC:  Show up, it’s just what you do!

OME:  That’s right, and you don’t complain when you’re drinkin’ beers out of a station wagon, know what I mean? Just do it, just try not to do it again.

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Bonus Cut Presents: An Interview With Lansing Hip-Hop Artist and Educator Ess Be

EssBe pic 3

By: Gus Navarro

The first time I met Ess Be, I thought he was a rapper. This was at the ULITT Conference at Michigan State University back in March and he was participating in a cypher workshop led by the incomparable Toni Blackman. His rhymes were on point and to be quite honest, I didn’t know any better. As it turns out, he is in fact a producer and member of the Lansing-based hip-hop collective, All Of The Above (AOTA), and a recent signee to illect Recordings. Although he has been making beats for over ten years, you probably haven’t heard of Ess Be unless you’re aware of what’s going down hip-hop wise in the Lansing area. This is because he just recently released Bag Fries, his first official instrumental project. Spanning only seven tracks, Bag Fries is a project that demonstrates his varying production styles and abilities.

Not only is Ess Be a good producer, he is a great person that is passionate about music and developing his craft. In this interview he speaks about playing pots and pans as a young one and the moment when he first picked up a pair of drumsticks. From there we learn about the beginnings of his hip-hop production, something that he would come to work on obsessively, locked away in his room for hours on end. Bag Fries is the result of the work he’s put in over time and is something that he can bring back to the students he teaches at AOTA. It was a pleasure to sit down and talk about Bag Fries, hip-hop culture and Fruity Loops. With more music on the way in 2015, stay tuned to what Ess Be has in coming down the pipeline.

Podcast

Listen to Bag Fries here

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A Bonus Cut Feature: An Interview With Ozay Moore

 

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By: Gus Navarro 

On May 26th, Ozay Moore dropped Taking L’s, his first record in more than five years. Released via Mello Orange Music and produced entirely by 14KT, L’s has that classic hip-hop feel but also achieves a whole new level of depth and honesty. The record is driven by the idea that not every “L” or loss you take in life is negative. As Ozay explains, “Not every L is a bad L to take. For instance, you might take a loss and come to find out that it ended up being the best thing for your situation at the time.” As that concept propels the album forward, the genius of Ozay is in the way he combines the hard-hitting elements of hip-hop with reflections on his life and how the world has changed since he first became a rapper.

There is the B-boy joint, “Bang,” that hits hard with the assistance of KT’s thumping kick drums and on point hand claps. “The Fix” is about substance abuse and the twisted web that a dependence on drugs can create. The seventh track, “Pillow Thoughts,” finds Ozay at a level of reflection and vulnerability that can be rare for the often braggadocious mentality of hip-hop. The power of “Pillow Thoughts” is the feeling that Ozay and KT are able to create. In one well soft-spoken and insightful verse, Ozay talks about his family, being there for his kids and the grind of working a 9-5 job. “Record Store Day” pays homage to physically purchasing music from a store after a solid day of crate digging and touches on how the digital age has impacted music consumption and the changing business of independently owned record stores. As he lays it down, “Am I the last in the world without an Ipod?/ I guess I gotta get with it but the times change quicker than the pace I’m used to keepin’/ Man, I still enjoy diggin’/ Sparkin’ conversations at the mom and pop shops about releases.”

What becomes clear is that Taking L’s is a reflection on the complexities of life. There are times of elation and warmth that have to be balanced with the inevitable moments of pain and sorrow. Ozay reminds us of the power of vulnerability and that when one door closes, another opens somewhere else. With all of the self-absorbed music being made these days, Taking L’s removes the glitz and glam that is often exaggerated in popular music. Instead he shares insights and tells stories about love, family, supporting local music and the how society has changed in a way that is as relatable as it is insightful. There is no doubt that Taking L’s is a welcome and long-awaited addition to the musical archives of hip-hop culture.

 

Taking L's Pic

“Taking L’s” cover art

 

 

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A Bonus Cut Feature: An Interview With Nique Love Rhodes

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By: Gus Navarro

About three weeks ago, Dan and I attended the ULITT hip-hop conference at Michigan State University. In its third year, the ULITT conference presents a unique opportunity to learn, collaborate and network with artists, educators and community activists that incorporate hip-hop in their work. We met Nique Love Rhodes after a session hosted by Sacramento Knoxx. She came right up to us, introduced herself and handed us each CD’s of Against All Odds, her album from 2012.

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Bonus Cut Films Presents: An Interview With James Gardin (Part One)

via blatpack.com

via blatpack.com

If you’re at all familiar with Michigan hip-hop and Michigan music in general, then the name James Gardin (fka P.H.I.L.T.H.Y.) is commonplace. As one of Lansing’s premier music icons for the last decade, James has shown how to get down, how to dance, how to properly enjoy a live show, how to fight for a cause and how to live in general. More than that though, James has fueled the hip-hop community beneficially in other ways. Working with Michigan State’s MRULE and various other youth programs to donate art workshops, not to mention spending time in South Africa teaching kids with HIV/AIDS music and uniting them through it, James has never stopped being an influential and important figure in his community.

Musically, James has opened for the likes of Talib Kweli, The Cool Kids, Grieves and The Pack. He was also recently named one of Rapzilla’s Freshman of 2014.

Today we’re excited to unveil part one of our interview with the man himself! Check out the video below, and don’t forget to check out James’ pages and music!

For more on James Gardin:
James Gardin on Soundcloud
James Gardin on BandCamp
@JamesGardin on Twitter

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