Apollo Brown is one of the most cinematic producers of our generation. Painting pictures on MPC murals, the way he can fluctuate his sound to varying projects while retaining his patented style is one of the greatest accomplishments very few producers achieve these days. From the blue-collar sound and feel of Ugly Heroes, to the gritty slam of Dice Game, to his re-working of Adrian Younge’s Twelve Reasons to Die, every project Apollo embarks on is an individual branch on his overall tree of sound. Like any branch from a tree, there are characteristics that are shared among many of the other branches, but also characteristics unlike any other branch hanging on the tree.
Thirty Eight is his newest project, and as it crackles and spits, clear-cut imagery and cinematic sounds burst from the record’s framework. “All You Know” rattles with Apollo’s coveted hard-hitting boom-bap and intense sound cuts (this time a quick synth one-hitter), but it also twinkles and rattles as if it’s playing along to a Great Gatsby-like car chase. On “Dirt on the Ground,” the production is layered into typical Apollo Brown fashion, with repetitive samples ooh’ing and ahh’ing throughout the track, but there’s also an added background buzzing that makes the song accompany the visuals to something like Road to Perdition. The album’s big surprise, “Felonious,” glides smoothly under a rush of synth pads and a cool and collected guitar melody that shows us what tricks Apollo Brown has hiding for us at every turn.
So yes, with Thirty Eight you’ll hear the quirks and familiarities Apollo Brown is known for. But you’ll also hear new and intriguing sounds that he is unleashing for the first time as an overall ode to 70s Blaxploitation soundtracks. Much like any tree and its branches, Apollo’s discography has all the features you expect to hear and new ones sprouting with each branch.
There is no question that over the years, Apollo Brown has established himself as one of the most consistently bangin’ producers in hip-hop. Whether he is making beats for a group (The Left and Ugly Heroes), an individual MC (Boog Brown, Hassaan Mackey, Guilty Simpson and OC) or an instrumental album, there is a cleanliness to his music that allows him to work in many different situations. While Apollo Brown beats have come to be associated with heavy sampling and hefty drums, he has still been able to create different sounding beats and adapt to the various projects he’s been a part of. There is certainly a formula to the way he does things and its a damn good one. His most recent instrumental project, Thirty Eight, showcases this. The predominant musical characteristics are recognizably Apollo Brown. However, he brings a completely new thematic element to this album that is much scratchier and rough around the edges.
Released in April 2014, Thirty Eight is more soundtrack-like than anything else, the music painting vivid scenes when bumped at the appropriate levels. The description of the record via the Bandcamp Page reads:
“These are suites sounding from long barrels held by lone men lurking in grimy project hallways. Tinged with revenge and regret, shrouded in thick tendrils of hollow-point smoke, the songs have all the makings of an epic gangster tragedy. They’re also great when paired with anything Raymond Chandler.”
With its lack of lyricism, the brilliance of a well-made instrumental album is that it allows the listener to imagine. Brown’s Thirty Eight does this extremely well, creating a vast expanse of musical landscapes and potential stories. With blaring horns and a slow tempo, “The Warning” sounds like the build up to a drive-by shooting in 1940’s Los Angeles. “Lonely and Cold” could accompany a scene in a 1970’s Blaxploitation film set within a murky shipyard stacked with smuggled goods. The twangs of “The Laughter Faded” creates a terribly hollow feeling of despair and the loss of prosperity and good times as the title suggests.
With Thirty Eight, Apollo Brown has created an album that should be a welcome addition to the rotation to those that already support Apollo’s work as well as for those that aren’t as familiar. Using certain elements of his tried and true method of sampling while adding new textures and styles to his sound, Thirty Eight comes across as a much needed soundtrack to the Noir/ Mafioso/ Blaxploitation genres that are colorful and full of drama. The beauty of this record is that it allows the listener to create their own ideas and stories without abandoning Brown’s overall vision of the project. Additionally, Apollo Brown continues to demonstrate why he is one of the most dependable and skilled producers around.
Here at Bonus Cut our mission is to focus on hip-hop culture, current events, community building, independent artists making a difference on all facets, hip-hop education, the four pillars, unity and love. We have stressed time and time again that “new hip-hop music releases” isn’t our goal, and it never will be, but there are still instances where there’s an important hip-hop cut that can’t be ignored.
On that note, we will be sharing some projects that we feel deserve attention. Whether for their cultural impact or musical fluidity, these are songs we’ve stumbled upon at some point in our lives that shouldn’t be passed up.
Every week, Daniel and Gus pick five songs to share called The Starting Five. This week, they’re personally sharing these tracks as a feature.
Awon & Phoniks – “Midas Touch”
MC Awon and Producer Phoniks team up to bring you a jazz influenced, boom bap laced track that is socially conscious lyricism. This song and its album, The Golden Era, has been out since July and it may be one of the most slept on albums in 2013. It is truly worth the listen. Support these dudes.
Uptown XO – “Lime Light”
⅓ of Diamond District, Uptown XO talks about the perils of seeking out fame. What is the cost being in the lime light? What would you do to have that sought after five minutes of fame? Is it really worth it? Over a haunting track, XO makes you think about fame and what people may or may not do to be in it.
Tyler, The Creator – “Sandwitches”
If you’ve followed hip-hop at all within the past 3 years, you remember Tyler and his antics with Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All. Tyler and friends blew up in every way possible beginning with the television debut of this track with the help of The Roots on Fallon’s show. Their fame and popularity within the college community was something to behold. I will never forget seeing them in the Midtown part of Detroit, almost getting swallowed up by the crowd as they tore up the stage and having to leave early as bottles were thrown and a brawl seemed iminent. What a night. Golf Wang.
Sango – “Tres Horas”
Having spent time living in Brasil I am always excited to hear new hip-hop that incorporates influences of Brasilian music. In all honesty, some is better than others at capturing the unique culture of this unbelievable South American country . To date, I am not sure if I’ve heard a hip-hop representation of Samba that is more spot on. Sango and what he’s doing with his sound is something special.
Truck North – “Band Of Au”
Is there ever bad hip-hop from Philly? From Truck’s recent EP, Murder By Mourning, “Band Of AU” calls upon Black Thought and STS for this other-worldly cut. I am totally biased but this track is flawless. The bassline is tight and the rhymes even tighter. As Black Thought says, “If there’s rapper that could test me alive/ Nigga, Elvis Presley alive.” Need I say more?
Daniel’s Picks My picks are all releases from the Mello Music Group Mandala Tape releases. You can purchase Mandala Vol. 1 and Mandala Vol. 2 here.
Miz Korona, Quelle Chris, T. Calmese, Nick Speed – “Supreme Codeine” Talk about a posse cut worth blasting. “Supreme Codeine” eats you up, and digests you through its grimy intestines, and when these four artists are done with you, there’s nothing else to do but go through the process all over again. If anything, “Supreme Codeine” is that one song you can play at a social gathering, reminding everyone that hip-hop’s vivid collaboration aesthetic is alive and well.
Blacastan is great at explaining himself in the filthiest of punchlines. Concocting a Raekwon-like rhythm and style, matched with Gensu’s Big L and Gang Starr sampled production, “Stardust” feels like a classic East Coast blast.
Muhsinah – “Up (prod. 14KT)”
“Up” is a track that is mystifying. It also jingles with a certain darkness that makes its characteristics gritty and tough. Muhsinah’s pitch is moving, hopeful, uplifting, sensual and on point. “There’s no worrying up here,” she digs, “and I want you to see it.”
Open Mike Eagle – “A History of Modern Dance (prod. Jeremiah Jae)” Open Mike Eagle has stated numerous times that his music is “art rap.” The way he styles his set-up and flow reinforces this, as he goes off on tangents about random subject matter that bends each and every rule. It works though, and matched with Jeremiah Jae’s shivering production–something that could attend a Hitchcock film–“A History of Modern Dance” just oozes with uniqueness.
Last week I was in New York City visiting a friend and was able to sit down with Michigan native DJ Soko, a current resident of Brooklyn. Soko has been involved in hip-hop for over ten years but his emergence onto the scene as an artist is still relatively recent. That being said, he has been extremely active on the 1’s and 2’s between DJ’ing at parties and for MC’s such as Journalist 103 and Kopelli. In 2010 he teamed up with Journalist 103 and Apollo Brown to form The Left. The trio put out Gas Mask, one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of the past five years. Soko is somebody that is very proud of where he is from and the particular sound and image that is associated with the Detroit hip-hop scene. On top of that, he is an artist that loves what he does and cares deeply for the integrity of his craft. It was a true honor to have the chance to sit down and talk with him about his experiences and passion for hip-hop.
The Left (Apollo Brown, Journalist 103, DJ Soko) Gas Mask
The Left consists of Apollo Brown, Journalist 103 and DJ Soko. I feel compelled to lay this out on the forefront right away, because if these three names aren’t showcased, then Gas Mask and its ability to showcase collaboration will go right over your head. See, without each fundamental piece, Gas Mask fails immensely. On the beats, Apollo Brown throws down robust production that melds haunting samples with industrial backbeats. Journalist 103 compliments the beats by running parallel beside them, and DJ Soko throws in cuts that enhance the track and engage the listener. Beyond this, Gas Mask is a record that throws hip-hop survival in your face. With an ever-changing Detroit, The Left prove that they’re the “status of legends” by sticking with the environment and preaching their experiences at every turn.
“Chokehold” is an immediate example of this. It cruises sonically, with swelling horns and stretched vocal samples, and on top of this, Journalist 103 and Paradime lyrically shape the track to their liking. There’s a definitive difference between their styles, but both of them manage to stay on top of Apollo’s production with ease. The breakdown in “Chokehold” is the most impressive feature however, where the horns march accordingly until the breakbeat kicks in and the MCs grasp the mic. “Only a few can ride beside me,” Journalist 103 slings. “I rep the home of big Proof and Dilla that’s where you’ll find me.”
Apollo Brown’s distinct sampling techniques and percussion production may seem tedious at times, but that’s part of what makes Gas Mask such a cohesive record. “Caged Birds” clatters with open hi-hat smacks; “Battle Axe” expands organ synths and compounds them with drilling bass throbs that intimidate; and “Real Detroit” shows off Brown’s ability to create symphonic masterpieces.
The guests on Gas Mask are more than just respectable MCs made to fill a record; they’re imperative to its success. From Guilty Simpson to Frank West, the “extras” on this record enhance its sound and improve it beyond normal means. On “Statistics,” a song that poignantly thrashes the “stat game” of America, guest MC Invincible lays down one of the most impressive verses on the whole record. “So free your mind up, this is a reminder / The United States incarcerates more than they do in China / We only 5 percent of all the world’s pop but / It’s 25 percent of all the world’s locked up / So I wonder how to break the cycle will it ever stop? / If we see people as numbers than we make them check a box.”
If Gas Mask is the best hip-hop record Detroit’s made in the last five years, then I really wouldn’t mind. At times, this record seems stressed, but when looking at the bigger picture, that’s exactly what The Left had intended. Gas Mask is the fight, the struggle, the liveliness and the celebration of Detroit, and very rarely does ANY record accomplish such a feat regarding its given city.
Released by Mello Music Group in 2010, Gas Mask, by The Left is made up of Apollo Brown, Journalist 103 and DJ Soko. This recordbegins with the classic hip-hop intro track. There is the sound of static and it sounds as if a radio dial is being shifted from station to station. From there we are thrown right into the fire on the first full-length cut, “Gas Mask,” where Journalist 103 describes the state of mainstream hip-hop. Over a flawlessly crafted Apollo Brown track complete with horns and trademark kick drum and snare, Journalist 103 is off:
“I had a vision when I started spittin’ / To be a part of the hip-hop conglomerate amongst the illest / But right now it’s a real sickness, an epidemic of gimmicks is being spread through your sound system / Not everybody gotta dance, sing along with it / Just lean, snap and pop back and you’ll get it.”
As the album progresses, the realness of The Left continues to take shape. By the start of the third full-length song, “Binoculars,” Gas Mask emerges as an example of how the collaboration of artists can be used to create engaging content without sacrificing the message they wish to convey. In this case, The Left uses music to describe the city of Detroit, the status quo of popular music, profiling based on race and gender and how they process that experience.
From a production standpoint, Journalist 103 and a myriad of guest appearances from the likes of Guilty Simpson, Invincible, Marvwon and Hasaan Mackey flawlessly compliment the gritty, soulful style of Apollo Brown’s beats. For instance, without the forceful, slightly irregular hi-hats, steady kick drum and splattering snare hits, the song “Statistics” would not be as impactful. With the beat, Journalist 103 and Invincible are able to go to work and tell the story of a man and a woman fighting to survive while facing the disastrous effects of stereotypes based on race, gender and socio-economic status. As it is stated at the end of 103’s verse, “Either the grave or the cell’s what I’m headed for / Cause based off of the statistics I’m prepared for it.” With Invincible’s verse, she tells the story of a woman reaching out for help”
“Every life has got about as much a chance of surviving the circumstances as guessin’ Joker’s coin flip / Made an appointment and she met up with the welfare / Office tried to get a bit of medaciad and healthcare / But they had jumpin through the hula hoops / To get some help is hard as tryin’ to pull a tooth / Her heart, it wasn’t bullet proof.”
These lyrics would be powerful regardless of the beat. However, their meaning is amplified by Apollo Brown’s ability to craft strong beats that accentuate the story the MC is trying to tell.
This is true of the entire album, making it an engaging and educational listen. The best part of this record is that it never gets boring. For me there is always something new that I didn’t catch the first time around. Besides that, the subject matter within the album is important to think about and attempt to change in our everyday lives. If you’re looking to hear some fire, think about something from a different perspective and suffer from whiplash from nodding to the beat that Gas Mask is for you.
Chris Orrick (aka Red Pill) of BLAT! Pack is a rapper from Detroit, Michigan who is emerging as a positive voice in hip-hop. Pill’s delivery is both sophisticated and to-the-point as it treads on parallels to the likes of Blu and Atmosphere. Red Pill’s releases Please Tip Your Driver and The Kick (with Hir-O) helped formulate a monstrous repertoire, and his recent project with Apollo Brown and Verbal Kent called Ugly Heroeshas further backed his immaculate career in hip-hop. In a day and age where people are still struggling to find consistent artists in an ever-expanding culture, Red Pill brings content that hip-hop truly needs.
Red Pill recently sat down with Bonus Cut to discuss issues within hip-hop, the art of writing, his influences, South by Southwest (SXSW), the status of hip-hop today and his Ugly Heroes project.
(Excerpts taken from an interview with Chris Orrick on June 3rd, 2013…)
Bonus Cut (BC): How do you view MCing? What does it take to be an MC?
Red Pill (RP): For me it’s just being yourself. The cover is so big now. You got every different kind of person in the world writing or trying to be a rapper and it’s being reflected in who’s actually making it. So you have Mac Miller’s and Schoolboy Q’s and they’re hanging out together. I don’t really listen to Mac Miller, but there’s a place for it because everyone comes from different places and hip-hop is so wide-reaching. I don’t know what it means to be an MC or rapper anymore, in fact I think that idea (has been) sort of overdone for a long time. In my stalling last night of the show somebody was like “freestyle” and I don’t freestyle. My writing all started as this loser kid in his bedroom writing. I wasn’t banging on tables in the lunchroom and hanging out and rapping; none of my friends rapped. I was the only one that rapped, so I wasn’t doing all that shit. So I don’t freestyle. And there are probably some older people and some younger people too that would say, “if you can’t freestyle then you’re not an MC.” To me I don’t understand, you put definitions on something like that and it doesn’t matter. To me I’m more interested in songwriting. I love when rappers are sweet at the skill of rapping. I try to do that sometimes and I pride myself at attempting to do that and hopefully be good at that. At the same time, if you say shit that doesn’t relate to me, then I don’t care. Some people just like hearing rappers be sweet at rapping. For me I’m going to put on something that feels real to me, that connects with my life, something personal and that doesn’t even have to be deep and heartfelt, it can be anything relating to your life. Writing can be anything.
BC: Who are some of those artists that you find relatable?
RP: In terms of hip-hop, the rappers that I’ve found the most relatable to me have been Blu. I mean, I grew up watching Atmosphere and Rhymesayers and what they did. Kendrick to me is another guy that came up. If I had to pick my favorites: Blu, older Atmosphere, Kendrick, Ab-Soul. Outside of hip-hop I’m into this band right now called Andrew Jackson Jihad, they’re like a folk-punk band from the Southwest. Dude’s writing is some of the best Americana folk writing I’ve ever heard. It speaks to this generation. It’s something that to me, I’m trying to steal whatever I can from him and put that into my music. He’s a genius for how he’s writing, and it goes back to this: are you saying something that I can feel? I don’t care what it is. I mean, he has songs that talk about what people get off on, and I think the chorus is “whatever gets your dick hard” or something like that, and it’s funny and it relates to me, because there are a lot of people like that. So it’s funny, it’s relatable, and shit like that is important to me, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my newer writing. The seriousness of my writing has always been what I’ve done, but I want to put a new feel on it. I want to have something that more describes who I am. Cause it’s not like I’m this guy in this dark cellar angry, writing, drinking and dying. Sometimes it’s like that. But for the most part I have a different side of my personality that I don’t let into my music and I don’t know why, but it has to come out and for the next full-length solo shit I do I’ll try to find a way to be more relatable by showing off me as a whole verses just me as a serious therapeutic writer.
BC: What about names. Bonus Cut was recently at Philthy’s show where he officially transitioned from Philthy to James. So what’s in a name?
RP: As far as me, if I had a cooler name, if my actual name was cooler, maybe I would go by my real name, but it’s Chris Orrick, it’s like Scottish and it’s just not a cool name. To me there’s nothing in a name I don’t think. I mean you can have people that have cool names and make up these cool names and I thought about dropping Red Pill, but it’s already done, it’s there, that’s what I’m going to be now and it’s fine. I don’t think there’s much in a name. I picked my name, which is from TheMatrix obviously, because I was making sure I wasn’t just falling into the system and that’s a lot of what I do with music. I don’t want to be this human zombie that does the same thing with the rest of his life, and that’s fine I mean a lot of people are content with that, and that’s awesome, some people are happy with that pretty standard life, and there’s a part of me that wants part of that too, but I can’t imagine doing a 9 to 5 forever. That’s like the worst thought in the world to me. So I wanted my name to represent staying out of The Matrix, getting out of this whole thing it’s created. Looking back on it, it doesn’t even matter and that’s what I’m saying, there’s nothing in a name. I was probably 18 when I named that name. So I don’t care now, I mean I do and I have this name and I’m going to have to stay with it forever now, but it’s nothing. What I will say about a lot of rappers in general now is a lot of people are going back to just using their name and I think that’s telling of, especially in hip-hop, just being you and completely saying, in Philthy’s case, “I’m James Gardin” and J Young “I’m Jahshua Smith” and stripping that whole stage show mentality. You can’t do that anymore. You have twitter. You have facebook. There’s no allure about artists anymore. We know where they are all the time. You can’t sit and think I wonder what Jay-Z’s doing right now because he just tweeted it, so you know where people are, you know what they’re like and it’s not this big grand stage anymore of entertainers, it’s these people that are real life people that we can see and find any information about them at any point and so I think that might be something to do with it.
BC: How does Blat! PACK work exactly?
RP: It started as just a collective of artists in Lansing (Michigan). Initially it was only Lansing. Jahshua and James basically started it with Will Ketchum and everything about it was just to strengthen resources. You have this, I have this, let’s work together now we both have those things. It’s worked out. I think that part of what our success and what we’ve been able to do is based entirely on the fact that we’ve worked as a team for a long time. It goes through phases like any group of friends. Sometimes it’s stronger, sometimes you’re not even thinking about it to be honest. Some people have had ideas of it being a label in the future, and to me it’s just like: if we just help each other, I love all those guys they’re all my friends, we’ve expanded and included some people from Detroit, some people have moved away, so it’s like any group of friends and we just have a name. We wanted to work together and make sure that we looked out for each other and we could approach people with a title and it seemed like it was better and it puts the Blat! PACK logo on shit. It makes it just seem a little more professional. At this point it’s not heavily functioning as an entity that’s working together, we just tweet each other stuff and hang out. I was right in the middle of getting into it. I love all those guys, I’ve been friends with them for five years which is actually crazy to say. It’s helped us. We’ve been able to travel to South by Southwest (SXSW) three years in a row and do shows because of that, strictly because we’re able to all pull our resources together and say, “okay let’s rent a van.” There’s 12 of us we can pile into this van, it’s a horrible trip, it’s like the worst thing ever, but we can all get down there. We can go all-in on hotel rooms and when you pull resources even in that sense it helps. When you can split gas to drive to Chicago or Milwaukee and do a show that’s a huge help.
BC: So how was SXSW? How has it been?
RP: First year it was awesome. It was really good. The show that I did was not that great but it was cool because at that point it was the quality of the crowd. At that point Jake Pain (at the time the editor-in-chief of HipHopDX) who Will Ketchum knew came out to that show, and that’s how I was able to secure my HipHopDX Next feature which helped generate some good buzz for me. I got to meet him, I got to put a CD in his hand, we talked so I got to make an impression on him, and then I started getting my shit posted on that site, and it’s one of the biggest hip-hop sites in the world and it’s cool. The second year was a better show and I think it’s where Apollo Brown really backed me and solidified me doing the Ugly Heroes project. And then this year, a couple of months ago, was terrible. I had one show and no one was there, it got cut-off at the end, and all sorts of dumb shit happened. I rented a car and Hir-O just like smashed it into two cars in an alley. The worst part about what happened is that SXSW is this long party, there are plenty of shows you can go to, there’s free alcohol, there’s free food, and it’s awesome, but it’s not this independent artist thing anymore. Corporations have jumped on it really heavily. There was a Doritos stage this year. To me I’m not going back unless I have something major happening. From a fans perspective, if you can get the tickets, they’re expensive, it’s a great great time. I can’t justify spending money to go down there and not be able to get anything done. Everything’s very exclusive now. If you don’t pay the three or four hundred dollars for a damn ticket to be able to go to the shows and get a wristband it’s hard to get into things now. I was really turned off by the whole thing. The worst part for me really was that we’d get up early, try to get a whole bunch of work done, and then by 8 o’clock at night I’m dead tired, I’ve just worn myself out, so now I can’t even go party, I’m like too tired to go party and this is the worst thing ever. I felt like an old man getting to bed at like 10 o’clock in Austin, Texas.
BC: So where’s hip-hop right now?
RP: I think hip-hop is at a great place right now. There’s a ton of good shit out. I don’t stay on top of it enough honestly. I think you’ve got plenty of people doing good music. There’s an overall vibe that I’m feeling that is a changing tide to more personable and relatable and smart actual lyrics again. And not that I’m saying that this has been bad or that hip-hop sucked, I don’t believe in any of that either, I just think it’s good right now. For fans and artists that like smart hip-hop that’s saying something, I think that’s becoming trendy again. I think people want that again. It always has been what it is. It has its moments and music changes, music is always going to change, it’ll start to sound different again, it’ll continue to sound different and evolve and do different things, and you’re going to like certain eras better than others. That’s the same thing with rock, with anything. Hip-hop is old enough now that there’s the 80s, there’s the 90s, there’s the onslaught, so you can kind of pick what these things all sounded like and what you like more about every different part of it. And looking back on it you can kind of pick and choose who were the best acts of that time in hip-hop or what was special about that era. I think most people point to the 90s as the really big birth but to me that’s like talking about the classic rock era and the 60s, late 60s early 70s, where people look back to rock, and that doesn’t mean that rock just sucks or that there’s nothing good out in rock, it just means that maybe was a really interesting and innovative time in rock. And I think people are really going to look back on this era of hip-hop that people have been hating on the last five or six years as a very innovative era of underground hip-hop. I really think people are going to look back on this as a really interesting time in hip-hop where so many different influences were coming in. It wasn’t just a soul sample anymore, it wasn’t even just electronic shit, it was blending all that shit together and throwing influences in from indie rock, from punk, from everything. People are just experimenting like crazy with hip-hop right now and it’s awesome.
Chris Orrick (aka Red Pill) of BLAT! Pack is a rapper from Detroit, Michigan who is emerging as a positive voice in hip-hop. Pill’s delivery is both sophisticated and to-the-point as it treads on parallels to the likes of Blu and Atmosphere. Red Pill’s releases Please Tip Your Driver and The Kick (with Hir-O) helped formulate a monstrous repertoire, and his recent project with Apollo Brown and Verbal Kent called Ugly Heroes has further backed his immaculate career in hip-hop. In a day and age where people are still struggling to find consistent artists in an ever-expanding culture, Red Pill brings content that hip-hop truly needs.
Red Pill recently sat down with Bonus Cut to discuss issues within hip-hop, the art of writing, his influences, South by Southwest (SXSW), the status of hip-hop today and his Ugly Heroes project.
(Excerpts taken from an interview with Chris Orrick on June 3rd, 2013…)
Bonus Cut (BC): Do you have an agent?
Red Pill (RP): I have a couple guys that work as my management. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Will Ketchum? He went to (Michigan) State too for music journalism. He’s interviewed tons and tons of people in hip-hop. We all work with BLAT! Pack and Will is the manager of p.h.i.l.t.h.y. (AKA James Gardin), Jahshua, Jasmine, myself and Hir-O. The reason that I was interested in doing that was because of all his connections. Through journalism, he’s made all sorts of connections through the blogs and all that stuff. Anything that I’ve been able to do before Ugly Heroes—getting on websites and stuff—has all been based on connections that Will had and just pushing us to these people that he knew, which has been awesome. That’s part of why I’ve been able to generate a little buzz and get my name out there. That’s that “who you know kind of thing.” That’s really what it all amounts to in a lot of cases. You have to have talent to back it up but it’s really about who you know. So, I do have him (Will) and he works for me, does some stuff for me. But I’m trying to figure out what to even do. I need booking, that’s my biggest concern; how to get on the road, how to get on tour. I was actually just talking to Open Mic Eagle that I opened for last night. I was just talking to him about how he got started because that’s my big thing, you gotta get on the road and he’s just grinding it out. I know they didn’t make much money last night, it was a decent show but there wasn’t a whole bunch of people there. They probably got a hundred to a hundred-fifty bucks and they just gotta keep going. He said he started by asking touring rappers if he could do their merch and follow them to shows and if they had 15 minutes, let him get on stage. And I was just like, “that’s crazy.” It’s cool and its something I never thought of, and something I might have to do.
BC: Do you know how long he was doing that for?
RP: I think it was a little over a year or so that he was doing that, and then finally was offered to actually be an opening act. But at the same time he was still required to get himself to every show. He was not getting paid but he was following these guys around. He did a tour from L.A. to Chicago in his own car, his own gas money just trying to sell merch at shows. I think that’s like a “rights of passage” kind of thing with touring and to really understand it you have to do that, cause this Ugly Heroes shit put me on tour in Europe, which is awesome, but it’s not going to be the same because Apollo Brown has just got such a good following out there. I mean, he can make good money touring out there so it’s just set up, its there. You know, it’s like being a fucking rock star out there. He goes to St. Petersburg, Russia and sells out a 2,000 capacity venue. Which is crazy and that’s amazing if we get to do that in the fall, which it looks like we’re probably going to, but I want to be able to tour the U.S. Apollo Brown, his fan base is so international, he has a lot of fans here in the States, but a lot of it is international. I want to be able to make sure that with me that I can sell out a show in Detroit that I can sell out a show in Chicago. Even just the small clubs and venues, doing that and going on a tour here is really important.
BC: Is that because you’re from here?
RP: Yeah, I think at least being able to sell out in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids or wherever in this area is important to me because the home crowd is supporting you. To me that’s important. I want that. It’s amazing to be able to go over to Europe or wherever and tour and do that, but I want it here. I want to be someone that’s important in the scene here, someone that can affect change in the scene here and really be someone that is really a known figure. I’m not mad or bitter at them, but a lot of my predecessors in this scene—you don’t see a lot of them out at shows, you don’t normally see them. You know, they help certain people here and there and that’s fine. But I don’t think you’re going to go to a show right now and see Danny Brown or Black Milk pop up randomly on some supporting local talent. It depends, maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve never been to a show where I’ve seen that.
BC: Does Apollo Brown?
RP: You know, I’ve seen him at some stuff. I’ve seen him, but it all depends. Really, the only place I’ve seen him is in Grand Rapids because that’s where he’s originally from. I saw him at a show; I’ve seen him at a couple of the shows I’ve been to.
BC: Going on tour in Europe would be sweet, but it makes sense wanting to be here. It’s the home team kind of thing, this is where you’re from, this is what your music is about and this is what you rap about.Ugly Heroes is about here, about home. It’s interesting and cool to have Europeans that dig the music. There’s obviously some relationship with the music and they understand oppression and shit like that. But they’re not from here.
RP: Yeah like I said, I talk to friends that say the European tour will be amazing. I tell them that I won’t be content unless I can tour the U.S. and do well out here too. They look at me like I’m crazy or like I’m whining or something. It’s not that I’m bitching; it’s an incredible opportunity and if it happens it will be insane. But for my own value and for what I want to do with my music, I’m not going to be happy unless I tour the U.S. and especially Michigan.
BC: That’s a lot of what hip-hop is about. It’s about home and identity.
RP: Right, and that’s huge. Like you said, hip-hop and identity is one of the fundamental parts. I think that applies to everybody though. You are defined in a lot of cases by where you’re from and that definitely shines through in my music I think.
BC: How would you say that you first really got into hip-hop and music in general?
RP: As a kid, I remember always being drawn to music. It was something that I always really enjoyed. I wasn’t huge into sports or really anything else. It wasn’t like at seven or eight I was thinking in terms of I want to be a rapper. But I loved music and I wanted to be involved with music. I think when I was in second or third grade I played saxophone in band. I was in choir in elementary school and then money, my family money, kind of limited that. I used to live right across the street from my elementary school in Redford, but they moved our practices over to the high school and I couldn’t get there in the morning so I had to stop doing it. I do remember as a young kid just really being drawn to music of any kind. At that point, it didn’t matter. We’re young enough where I don’t remember this specific moment where I was like, “Oh, I’ve just now been introduced to hip-hop.” It just was. It was on the radio; it was just what people listened to. It already controlled the mainstream by the mid 90’s. I don’t recall being like, “Oh, I love hip-hop now.” But, I do think that it really strongly took over my taste at a young age. I liked everything and I still like everything. But with hip-hop, something about it was speaking to me more than other things and I don’t know if it was growing up without a lot of money. It’s not like I could put on Get Rich or Die Tryin and relate with what 50 Cent was saying but there were bits and pieces where you could kinda bridge those gaps. The rags to riches story or something where you don’t have much and you don’t like that about your life and you see this guy—just to keep running with that example—where he rose out of that and was able to do something positive with his life and make a lot of money off of it. That’s what I related to most about anything like that. That was early, listening to like just pop radio. You know, pop hip-hop. Early on, I was probably listening to Ja-Rule, Ludacris and just shit that was on the radio. Dr. Dre, when The Chronic: 2001 came out, like that stuff. Whatever was on the radio. It was the shit that me and my friends were listening to and we would talk about it. I remember going to school and watching MTV before school and talking about it right when we got into school. In elementary school, we would talk about what video just came out. Eminem was a huge influence on me, for a number of reasons. I related to him when he came out. He was from Detroit and whether I admitted it or not, the white thing, he looked like me so it was easier to relate. When I really got into writing though, I was like twelve or thirteen. I can’t remember exactly but I moved form Redford to Howell with my family. My grandfather owned the house that we lived in and my dad couldn’t pay. He was having trouble with money, he had lost his job and was trying to start his own cell phone business and that was really bad. Money was just terrible and so my grandfather evicted us. He gave us a time frame; he had to get his money and shit or whatever. I haven’t seen him since then. We ended up moving to Howell in this apartment and I just felt—I didn’t like it—I didn’t like Howell at all. It didn’t feel the same to me; I grew up in Redford. It’s not like it was a bad neighborhood or anything but it felt like the city to me, I could ride my bike to Seven-Eleven. All my friends lived within a certain couple of blocks of me and shit. In Howell, everything was spread out and it wasn’t diverse. I’m sure you know a little about Howell’s history where there’s old KKK shit out there. It’s a different world and I was very opposed to it and felt like I didn’t belong there. I ended up meeting a lot of good people, my girlfriend now, but at the time I was young and I guess the move impacted me enough that I was like, “I don’t care, I’m not going to school, fuck it, I’m not doing any of this shit. I’m just going to write and just be rapper.” And I didn’t tell anyone about it, like no one, I wasn’t embarrassed but it was something I did personally and come up with this idea in my mind to do this. I just started writing, like all the time. That was probably the most I’ve ever written, ever. I don’t write nearly as much as I did when I was thirteen, fourteen.
BC: When you’re talking about writing, what is the process? Are you literally talking about writing rhymes as your fourteen or you talking about writing stories? What is writing to you, what does that mean?
RP: It’s everything. For the most part now I’ve really just gotten to writing raps. I write very small amounts of poetry, I don’t share that. It’s in my notebooks, its there. For me, it was writing raps for the most part. It was stuff like that or ideas or writing about how I felt. That was the biggest thing for me. I was able to use writing, as cliché as it is, for therapy or whatever. That’s what I was doing. I didn’t have people to talk to; I didn’t have any friends in Howell. I was too young to drive, so I couldn’t go visit my friends all the time. I was just alone. I didn’t want to make friends first of all, even if people tried I was like, “I don’t like these kids, they’re not my friends. I have friends.” So, I would sit in my room and listen to beats. I think for most people you start out emulating. Whether it was trying to write like Xzibit or whoever else. It was all about writing songs.
BC: How were your first raps?
RP: I’ve looked back on some of the stuff and I can see where I started to understand how to actually write a rap song. It would just be like free-flow. It made no sense, it was just writing, it would rhyme in weird spots and it made no sense at all. Eventually, I started figuring it out. I don’t know how it happened but somehow I taught myself that this free-flow of nonsense wasn’t actually a song.
BC: Do you go back sometimes and use ideas that you might’ve had back when you were fourteen to influence you?
RP: Not recently. I used to a lot more. It’ll be like a period of time where it’ll be like four or five months that I might go back and revisit lines. If I had an idea for a song, I’ll write it down. I guess in a sense I still have ideas for songs that I had from back when I was fifteen that I just haven’t done yet. I still want to do them but I don’t know if I’m good enough yet or would even approach it. I pick from other things. At work now, at the plant, we have these sheets that we’re supposed to be filling out and doing inspections on. I have stacks of these papers that are just folded up and greasy, just covered in dirt and shit that just have raps on them. It’s actually terrifying to think about because I know there’s a lot of good shit in there but a lot of my writing’s actually happening now at the plant. I don’t know why, I think it’s like the repetitiveness and the horrible boringness of standing at these machines all day that’s generating what I’m thinking about or getting me creative. There are just stacks of that shit and I gotta go through those and figure out what’s good and make sense of what’s in there. We’re supposed to just be working so I’m like scribbling these as fast as I can and shoving it back in my pocket. Notebooks, for a while I was in between like five or six notebooks. In general I’m scatter-brained and not organized. It sucks; it’s fucked me up in school. So with my writing I’m trying to fix that. I stick to one notebook now, but now have these stacks of greasy plant pages that are just piling up now and I don’t know what to do with them.
BC: How do you deal with writer’s block?
RP: I just don’t anymore. I don’t try to fight it if it’s not happening. I constantly feel lazy, which is weird. I don’t know, my girlfriend tells me I work too hard and so maybe it’s like a complex of this constant feeling that I’m not working hard enough. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but it makes me feel like shit everyday. Then I think, I had The Kick come out and then Ugly Heroes. I have another project I’m about to record next week and I’m still working on new shit with Hir-O again. So in reality I look at what I’m doing and I can see it, but it still doesn’t feel like I’m doing enough. It never feels like I’m doing enough. I get out of work and I never feel comfortable just sitting, even if I’m just not doing anything. I’m always trying to be productive, at least attempting or giving myself the illusion that I’m being productive, even if I’m not. That’s something that I realized recently. So the writer’s block for me—writing just comes and goes for me. I’m not the guy that’s on a writing regimen; I think there are writers that will go and force themselves everyday to do this and try to do it everyday. Sometimes it works for me but for the most part I’ve stopped trying to fight and if its not happening, it’s not happening. I’m not being productive by writing shit that isn’t good. If it’s not good, it’s not good. I’m not going to use it anyways. I’ve gone through bouts of like nine months where I don’t write, that hasn’t happened in a long time, it’s usually about a couple weeks. I’ll go a couple weeks where I don’t do anything and then all of a sudden I’ll write three songs in two days. It makes up for it. It’s a when it rains it pours kind of thing.
BC: So you have your raps that are words on a page. What is like when you try to transition those words into having the beats and production in the studio? Are you hearing a beat in your head when you write? How does it all come together?
RP: For the most part I write to a beat. I don’t do a lot of the whole free verse. Sometimes I do, and sometimes it works out really well but for the most part I’m writing to a beat. I need the music, the actual music itself, to inspire what I want to write about.
BC: So will Apollo Brown, for example, give you a beat and then you write your lyrics?
RP: Yeah, that’s exactly how that works. With the Apollo Brown project, Ugly Heroes, he’d send me and Verbal Kent four to six beats in batches and we’d just get to work on them. He just sent them to us, put them in a drop box for us, and we just went with it. So we’d get the beats and probably a couple hours later we’d have a conversation about the beats that we liked. There would be times where both of us would really like a beat and we’d go with it. It’s the same thing with Hir-O. I wait on him to send me a beat and then I work with it. The inspiration that I get from the sound is how I work best. I can write stuff, and I do write stuff all the time, but my writing is so dependent on the actual flow and rhythm of the beat. The patterns that I come up with are based on what’s happening with the beat and I’m trying to find my space within that. Even as far as tone and if there’s any type of melody to what I’m saying is all because of the beat. I need that to tell me how to write.
BC: When you’re working on a project, do you spend a lot of time in the studio?
RP: Apollo Brown has this formula and it works which is a huge reason why I think he’s there. It’s a very rigid formula so I didn’t spend a lot of time with he and Verbal Kent. I had never met Verbal Kent before this project; I had only heard his name like one time. I had never heard his music, nothing. But, we ended up connecting and becoming really good friends throughout the course of the project; he’s a really cool guy. We probably met like twice before we actually got in the studio and we didn’t really work on any writing together. We did a little bit, but it was just rapping verses to each other and trying to figure out choruses for songs. With Apollo Brown and his music, I really think he believes in simplicity and the good that can come out of it and I really like that about what he does. Now, Hir-O is the opposite and I see both sides and I like both. I think we did three recording sessions in Royal Oak, Verbal Kent came up from Chicago, and we spent fourteen or fifteen hours total in the studio and we just knocked it out. With Apollo’s music I wasn’t trying to be flashy. The music was there, the sound was there and the style called for just rapping. I didn’t need to get crazy or try anything weird. For me, I felt like we’re here to tell a story over these beats, I’m not going to get flashy. I think the last track, “Push,” is where if I was doing any sort of different patterns and shit, that was probably the only time I really did anything like that on the whole album. It’s simple, it’s Apollo’s formula and it’s what sounds good. It’s what his fans like because to me hip-hop is it’s own thing. There’s rock, there’s punk-rock, country and all these things fall into one category. For me, hip-hop does the same thing now. You don’t have all these names. Sometimes you do. You have “Swag Rap” or “Gangsta Rap” so they have different names for it but for what Apollo is doing it’s a classic sound. So for me it’s like Jack White saying he’s going to write a Country album or something. He’s going to go do it and he’s going to do it in the style that would be expected of that genre. You’re going to know it’s Jack White and it’s going to sound like him. It’s the same with me, you know it’s my music and it’s something I’m doing but it’s for that sound, it’s for that crowd. I try to cater to that with my writing and make sure I like what I was doing with that writing.
BC: So how did the concept of Ugly Heroes come to be?
RP: Ugly Heroes was all Apollo Brown’s idea. He approached me about it. He had the concept; he knew he wanted to do a group album with two MCs and a producer in the vain of Little Brother with 9th Wonder, Phonte and Big Pooh. He approached me with the idea and I liked it. It’s supposed to represent the everyday person. It was the same thing with Verbal Kent. We got approached by him [Apollo Brown] and got brought into his idea and what he was doing. So it already made sense to me, it was already something that I could easily speak about. That’s my life. I come from the working class like most of us so I didn’t have to change who I was or anything. Stylistically, it’s what I was doing, just straightforward hip-hop. That was the purpose of this album. Just simple, clean raps, easy hooks and that’s it. I didn’t have to think too hard about it, which is good. I could just write.
Stay tuned next week for part two of this interview!