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Kero One Interview

Kero One

Kero One

When it comes to DIY, it doesn’t get much more do-it-yourself than Bay Area born and bred Kero One. When he dropped his first album, Windmills of the Soul in 2005, he made it completely at home, charged up his credit card, released it on a self-made label, Plug, and became a hit when one of his original 50 copies found its way to Japan. Earlier this year, Kero One released his sophomore album, Early Believers, and I sat down to chat with him about his upbringing, musical history and thoughts on the evolution of the music industry.

AC: So you talk on Early Believers about your parents moving to the Bay Area. Where did they move from and was it a big culture shock for them?

KO: Well they came from Korea originally; and then they came here when I was… zero. Probably in 1978 or so. From what I understand, it’s a little bit different, of course, but you know, they adjusted. What I talk about on “Welcome to the Bay,” it’s just some of the experiences that I witnessed when we were in the South Bay growing up. I talked a little bit about that and also, I guess just a little bit about their adjustment in terms of, they’re used to a whole different lifestyle and obviously like different types of food and things like that. But, yeah, I mean, it was different, but of course they adjusted. And then we grew up in the south bay, and you know, I’ve obviously lived there for pretty much all my life.

AC: Whereabouts down there, San Jose?
KO: San Jose, Los Gatos, Santa Clara
AC: So how has your family played a role in the music that you’ve created?

KO: Well I’d say they made me take classical piano when I was really young, so, in the sense of being forced to take piano lessons, that was a pretty big role because, even though I hated it back then, I’m pretty thankful for it because I use it a lot in my music now. And other than that, not that much because really, they didn’t push me to do music; I mean, they’re kinda traditional Asian parents in the sense that they wanted the more, “education thing is a big deal,” and going to a good college and getting what they understand is a good job, whether it’s an engineer or doctor or something like that. So, they were really pushing for that, and, you know, honestly, when I told them I was rapping, I mean you can guess what their reaction was. Which is understandable, I guess, but now they’re fully supportive.

AC: You talked about learning classical piano. That was maybe the first of many instruments you learned; did you go on to learn any others, or was that the only formal training that you had?
KO: Yeah, that’s the only one I had formal training in, and I did that for 10 years almost. Technically it was probably like five years because the other five, I was kind of not really there. I hated classical music, but, when I was in middle school, I was really into punk, and I got into Primus and a little bit of rock like Red Hot Chili Peppers, and we all know, Flea and Les Claypool, ridiculous bassists. That inspired me to pick up the bass, and I started messing with the bass a little bit. So, other than that, it’s just bass, piano and I play a little bit of percussion; so those are my three things right now.

AC: Do you spin?
KO: Yeah, and I DJ as well. I got into scratching quite a bit when I was in college, so I was into the whole turntables thing, try to beat juggle, flares. I DJ out mostly in the city, one off events and sometimes I go out and DJ internationally, but, yeah, right now I’m just trying to focus on the live stuff.

AC: Do you play your instruments live in concerts?
KO: Well, actually for the last show, what we did was I incorporated a little bit of live keyboard and a little bit of live drumming, but something that I’ve always wanted to do was play some instruments and rap at the same time ’cause I’ve never seen anybody really do that. I’ve seen people sing, but not really rap, so that’s what I’m gonna be doing on my new show; just a little bit of that, and incorporate, I got a guitarist, I got a singer, and so we’re definitely bringing in like the live element to the live show, ’cause a lot of the stuff on my album is actually played out, it’s not samples, so it seems pretty natural to have live instruments.

AC: Out of all those instruments that you’re playing, which one are you enjoying playing the most?
KO: I’d say probably the keys. I’m not stellar player in any of the instruments, but when I do play the keys, it’s definitely fun when you can come up with a nice chord progression or some good solos, I’d say the keyboard.

AC: So you were talking about Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers; what are some of your other musical influences and what are you listening to now?
KO: Man, I pretty much am influenced by everything from Mobb Deep in the early 90’s to John Mayer to Daft Punk, I listen to it all. Probably the only thing I don’t really get influenced by is country — I mean everybody says that, right — country or like folk, or something, or obviously classical music. But yeah, I listen to pretty much everything; like I grew up listening to really being into the early 90’s hip hop stuff, classic stuff.

AC: What was the first rap album you really got into?
KO: I’d say probably LL Cool J, Radio — I think that was the one. And then the BDP (Boogie Down Productions) stuff. So, yeah, BDP By All Means Necessary. And then for me, you know, I listened to that era when that came out, and then I went back to study other artists. Then, you know, from there, just expanded to Rare Groove and Soul and other related genres.

AC: So your initial album kind of made its break in Japan.
KO: Yeah.
AC: I’ve followed a number of hip-hop groups from Japan, but what would you say about the scene and the culture over there in the industry in terms of hip-hop?
KO: Well, definitely the culture plays a large roll, in the scene of hip hop over there because their culture, as you probably know, is very intense in terms of studying and breaking things down. I mean, when I was watching TV, and they were talking about, Indian Curry, I mean I was just watching from the hotel room and they were Japanese chefs, climbing barefoot on trees in India with the Indian guys there, to show this is how they do it, this is where they get it from, this is what it looks like and what it smells like, and they’re like breaking it down. I mean, that whole mentality is just kind of standard to me out there. They do that with hip-hop, and out there I learned more about music than I ever have in that short amount of time, ‘cause they know hella information, I mean, all the good music somehow just gets funneled over there and they have it at stores, the people who sell music are super knowledgeable. I basically discovered all these artists from the UK, from Europe, in other parts of Asia, even the States, out in Japan, you know. It’s really weird. I think because of that, they’re able to push the envelope a little bit. It’s definitely on another level out there, I think, in some ways.

AC: Did you pick up any Japanese hip-hop that you really liked while you were back there?
KO: DJ Mitsu is part of a group and I picked up their albums. I picked up a few instrumental albums out there. When I go out there, usually the labels will give me like a stack of CDs, so there are a couple CDs in there that are pretty dope. But yeah, definitely. I’m always getting new music while I’m out there.

AC: What’s been the most enjoyable part of the transition from web design and tech that you were doing to producing your own albums?
KO: Not having to listen to the boring meetings. I used to fall asleep in those meetings, you know. A lot of times I’d be at work, I’d be thinking about labels, music, I’d be stepping out very frequently to do maybe a press interview in the UK or whatever and since it’s international, you can’t miss that call, and so, you know, I gotta get up and go out and people probably started wondering why I was leaving so frequently. I still actually do a lot of web design now for my own stuff, so I haven’t strayed away from that too much. I hope to soon, but I don’t really miss the technical stuff that I need to learn, you know, just for that company; so now I can do whatever I need to do fix the public website or update the Kero One website or things like that.

AC: Have you retained or used anything from the job in actually getting your music heard?

KO: Well for sure in the sense those skills, I can apply to making websites, making them a little more functional, adding a little bit of interaction with it, like for example a mailing list, or something like that, whereas, you know, if I didn’t learn all that stuff, I’d probably be just a blogger or something, which is fine, but, for me, I’ve been able to take advantage of that. For example, I’ve pretty much configured our whole webstore on the website and now people can purchase things online. So, yeah, in that sense, that’s helped me a lot; so I definitely can’t ignore that.

AC: One of the lines I like from the new album is “wearing so many hats that your hair is concave.” So what’s been the hardest part of the scenario and trying to do it all for your label from rapping and producing your own music to being the label head?
KO: It’s definitely prioritizing your time. I had a PDA phone, which really kept me in check, but prioritizing time and figuring out where things need to be is probably the biggest challenge and now I have employees. Being able to stay on top and make sure that they’re being managed and they’re getting tasks done definitely takes up a lot of energy, but I think it’s definitely part of the grind, It’s a learning experience; I’ve learned a lot about the business. I’d say that another challenge is that I don’t want to take the business side to kind of supersede the creative aspects of my life, like the things I’m trying to do musically, I don’t want them to get pushed out of the picture, so lately with employees and things like that, it’s been helping out a lot, but there’s nothing without challenges.

AC: This whole album is full of really jazzy hip-hop, a lot of jazz influence on it; what was the approach that you used to make these songs and was your intent to go that heavy with the jazz? Was that something you wanted to do?

KO: You know, it’s really weird, I always get that comparison out and get told that it’s very jazzy and I guess I’m not ignorant to that fact, but I don’t actually say I’m gonna try to make it like this. I just usually try to go with what I like and just want to make something I enjoy. For some of the tracks, like “Love and Happiness,” which was produced by King Most, I mean, he just played me a bunch of beats, but when he played that one, that jumped out. I was like “Dude, that beat is ridiculous. I’m gonna have to add that.” So, you know, it wasn’t really a conscious thing to make it like that, but the other approach for this album was that, as opposed to Windmills, I wanted to give a little more diversity in terms of the tempos, the arrangements, I’m bringing in different Soul artists and features and just make it a little bit, I guess, less heavy. Because the first album, Windmills, was very personal and there were a lot of things on there that were very sexual. I mean this one, even though I put that in there, I also wanted to balance it out with something that’s a little fun, tracks like “Keep Pushin’” where you could have people dancing to it. I really wanted to keep it diverse.

AC: Your music sounds pretty complete in terms of the concepts that you have behind it, the musical ideas that you’re trying to bring into it. What are your thoughts, then, on the burgeoning remix and mash-up cultures?

KO: I’m really down with it, actually. As a DJ, I love finding music to remix or mash-up anything because I like to play songs that, even though they may be popular, ’cause they get people dancing, and they get people into the groove, it’s always nice to throw a curve ball at them, you know. I’m all about remixing stuff. I’ve done a few myself; I did a remix of Common’s “The Light.” DJ King Most, whom I worked with, we released some of his remixes for the DJs, and so it’s something that I’m definitely into playing. I don’t do that many in terms of, you know, taking well-known a cappellas and remixing them, but I do like projects here and there that are commissioned, I did a Talib Kweli remix and I’m working on a few Asian artists right now that I’m remixing, this group called Epik High.

AC: What do you think of making your stems available?
KO: Oh, for other people to remix.
Well, I have had a few a cappellas out there for people to remix, and I’ve gotten a few back. As far as stems, as in actual parts, not really, I’m not too into that. I feel like a remix should be like a regenerated or a totally new look at the beat and the project and the vocals. Otherwise, there’s no point to me.
AC: Between the record labels, the MP3s, the file sharing, where do you see music now, and where do you see there being a nice meeting place between consumer happiness and artist revenue?
KO: It always makes me a little, um…I don’t know, it’s like a mix between a chuckle and frustration when I hear people saying, on the blogs or whatnot, that “artists need the exposure and that’s why we’re gonna file share.” I mean, come on, that’s like complete BS. Honestly, for me, I’ll admit, I have downloaded illegally and when I have done that in the past, it’s just ‘cause you want the music, you know, it’s not any of the other stuff. I mean, it’s something that’s gonna be free and it’s gonna be in front of your face and most of the time, people will just take it. So, I don’t think it’s the people’s fault out here who want music; it’s the fault of the government and the regulations that aren’t being pushed appropriately on the internet.
For example, when we released Dream Talk, The Tones album, that released and it was at the top 50 of iTunes downloading, and then, a couple days later, all these blogs started showing up with the illegal download links for the albums and, in the dashboard you could see that the sales just plummeted. Right on that day, they just plummeted. And these kids, they’re hungry, and they’ve got mouths to feed, they’re trying to do music full time, so it really makes it tough. Of course we’ve got a team working on it on the security side, but it would definitely help, if and when these government regulations come into place that it kinda polices the activity out there, because, contrary to popular belief, artists do really get hurt by that. Maybe not a Kanye West, for example, but independent artists definitely don’t get to see that kind of return.
I think in that sense, I guess I could see the other side of the argument that, yeah, people have discovered a lot of great music through that as well. When I went to tour in Poland, I had people come up to me, and was like, “yeah, I’m sorry, we all downloaded your music illegally, but there’s no other way we can get it, we’re poor,” and all this stuff. Whether it’s true or not, they were there at the show and I see both sides. So, I think, back when albums were being sold for 10 dollars at Warehouse or whatever and there was nowhere else you could find that, I think a lot of people found out about those albums. I mean, when Nas or whatever came out in the 90’s to Berkeley, that show was packed, and it’s not because people got free music necessarily, it was just ‘cause they heard it on the radio and then they went and supported it and they got real’ into it, ‘cause really there was no real file sharing then. So, I think even with clamping down on illegal file sharing, things can still be really good, but we’ll have to see. We’ll have to see what happens; I really can’t predict it.
AC: Have you seen more of your revenues and artists from iTunes sales or from hardcopy CDs and shows
KO: I would say, probably from iTunes sales. CD sales have just dropped, like, pretty crazy. Though we still get a lot, you know, but it’s a lot slower.
AC: Have you started working on new songs already?
KO: No, I haven’t. I mean, I’ve been working on some remix projects, like I said, with the Korean group Epik High. I’m also mustering up some ideas on another project, but I haven’t actually started working on anything. I always like to release something and kinda reset and kinda figure out what I wanna do.
AC: So what’s up next for the Plug Label?
KO: Well obviously this album we’re gonna promote. We’re still promoting the Dream Talk album. I got a project comin’ up with this guy Green Tea, he does kinda like hip hop, kinda house beats. And then we got DJ King Most, who’s releasing a hip hop album with a bunch of guests. We’re gonna try to keep busy and really take it to that level of being an established label.
AC: How’d you connect with The Tones?
KO: Well The Tones, I actually heard about them on Myspace a while ago. I forget exactly how it happened, but we started chatting and then they had a couple tracks together, but not a full album. I liked what I heard; I mean, I knew that they had something special in terms of their sound, and so after a few chats, I signed ‘em and they basically simply got a full album together and then we went from there. And then we released that album in December!
AC: Yeah, that album’s good. It’s really good.
KO: Thanks. Yeah, I’m sure they’ll appreciate that. It’s interesting because I knew that, it’s definitely a good sound, I just didn’t know how impactful it would be in the hip hop community, ‘cause I guess a lot of people in the hip hop community really wanted to hear something like that. So, yeah, it’s pretty cool that they’ve been received that way.
AC: I think as pop hip hop goes further south in terms of quality, I think there’s gonna be even more of a backlash going the other way to find quality hip hop. Do you want Plug Label to be your side thing, and you’re doing music? Or do you envision Plug Label getting to a place where it’s up there with Stones Throw or Rhymesayers, or do you want to keep it small?
KO: I’d say I want to keep it small in the sense that everything that we put out is still hand-picked and not just to throw it out there, you know, to have a full release schedule. If we have to wait six months for a good album, then we’ll wait six months before we release it. I just feel like the more and more that we add to a catalogue and the more and more I compromise the vision of it musically, I feel like that’s where I’m gonna start losing interest in the label, and others will probably start losing interest because really, the problem I see right now is there’s too much information out there, you know, too much music, and I really wanna be able to kinda like consolidate that to people. That’s my vision, you know. So we’ll see what happens.

SanFran MusicTech Summit 4: Singalongs, Video Interviews, and Twitter Gossip

What started out as a seemingly humble local gathering of music and tech geeks has – thanks to its visionary founder, Brian Zisk, gained momentum and recognition and is now the premier event of its kind. For more on speakers/panels from the last three SanFran MusicTech summits, click here. To read my review of any of those three, see below:

SanFran MusicTech Summit 1: Rockstars, Lawyers, Nerds and Me
SanFran MusicTech Summit 2: Guestlist Wish, Artist Activism, and Label Survival
SanFran MusicTech Summit 3: Albums Die, Social Media Kicks Ass, and Songs Find a Home

Now, on to summit #4.

In the second review above, I put in a request for some sort of attendee list (using the Web 2.0 Expo’s use of crowdvine as an example), thinking that this would facilitate more effective networking. Let’s be honest, tech people aren’t always the best networkers. Well thank you Brian for listening to the suggestion! This event saw the introduction of SFMT’s very own crowdvine page! I’m curious to know whether people found it useful?

Speaking of suggestions, musician Chris Stroffolino (also featured in the video below) thinks there is room for a panel on the “fostering of connections between the already established live music scenes in the Bay Area, and the major labels and web-distribution networks.” Perhaps we’ll see this topic discussed further in the future.

Like a nice red wine, this conference is clearly getting better with age. With its shiny new reputation and rapt audience, SFMT attracts a pleasing blend of big names in the music industry, Silicon Valley thought leaders, social media celebrities, and starving musicians. Although, as attendee Kwan Booth points out, the conference overall was noticeably “light skinned and testosterone heavy.” I’m not sure how the demographic breakdown compared to past SFMTs, but it is certainly a good point.

Let’s make a collective effort to change that, shall we? All you minority and female music tech geeks out there: get on it! Next time we want to see you there.

Early in the day, the tone was set when musician Matt Morris, the first artist off of Justin Timberlake’s label, Tennman Records, asked the audience to stop twittering, put down their iPhones and close their laptops. And then proceeded to lead an audience singalong, which he promised to record and post on YouTube. Ah, music 2.0… Here it is:

That whole episode got me thinking about how busy we all are engaging with each other through technology all the time. So much so that we forget to engage with each other in real life. There we were, a room full of music fanatics watching a powerful new voice perform, and some of us were so busy writing witty tweets about the performance or sharing interesting facts about the performer, that we had to be reminded by the performer himself to pay attention!

Matt Morris also got some good face time in the NBC coverage of the event.

Whereas last time I focused on capturing the look and feel of the event through pictures, this time I went with video. All of the following footage was captured using one of those ghetto-fabulous flip minos and edited in iMovie.

Intead of reviewing topics covered, panelist cat fights, and the like, I want to provide a more haphazard organic insight into the experience. Here are a handful of tweets (search #sfmusictech on Twitter Search for more) that tell the story.

donald: Just posted my favorite takeaways from #sfmusictech http://is.gd/BxPF 8:41 PM May 19th

MattMorris: My SanFran trip: met some cool techies (#sfmusictech), ate some good chowder, & had a Twitter name-change (@MattMorrisFeed to @MattMorris). 7:44 AM May 20th

SoulMajestic: Attended #sfmusictech conference in San Francisco. Digital is ruling. Must dig our music into the social networks. 10:46 AM May 20th

hansveld: If you’re in a band or in artist management you really need to check out bandize.com and bandmetrics.com. Very useful services. #sfmusictech 10:24 PM May 18th

KISSmyBLAKarts: Is this why Spears signed to Pepsi @Boothism tip:coke does background checks on every member of every band before they license. #sfmusictech 5:45 PM May 18th

denverdan4life: The gloves are coming out. I hope we see a fist fight over the fact that labels slept at the wheel for almost 10 yrs. #sfmusictech 5:16 PM May 18th

Boothism: true story: preparation H wanted to license “Ring of Fire” for commercial. Fail. #sfmusictech 5:11 PM May 18th

SocialSound1982: “The music industry is the world’s biggest law firm” – Jim Griffin #sfmusictech 4:59 PM May 18th

Thanks to Brian and Shoshana for another great event and I look forward to seeing you all at the next one!

Yesod Williams Interview (Pepper)

pepperbig

In case you hadn’t noticed, Evolving Music has been a little smitten with the band Pepper lately. We brought you their remix contest (if you haven’t made a remix yet, do yourself a favor and have a go at it) and a previously unreleased live recording of their song “Too Much” during the Tra.kz Artist Spotlight. Still can’t get enough of these guys? Good. How about a little insider information straight from the horse’s mouth? I had a chance to catch up with Yesod Williams, the drummer. Here’s what he had to say:

Sandra Possing: Tell us about Pepper. Who is in the band? Where did you guys meet?

Yesod Williams: I play drums. Kaleo [Wassman] sings and plays guitar and then Brett [Bollinger] also sings and plays guitar. They kind of switch off the lead vocal role. We are from Kona, Hawaii originally, the big island of Hawaii. We all went to school together. It’s a super small town, so everyone knows everyone. We’ve pretty much known each other our whole lives and they’d been playing music all through high school. I started playing drums when I was really young and got burned out and pretty much quit altogether through high school and then right after me and Brett graduated, which was in ’97, we were at a party hanging out and me and Kaleo started talking and just thought it’d be cool to see if we could get something going and see if we vibed off of each other and that’s when we started the band in like June of 1997 and then moved to Southern California in May of ’99.

SP: Did you have any idea it was gonna become a serious thing or were you just messing around?

YW: We were just messing around at first, but I came to California on vacation after I graduated high school and I kind of got an inkling – I saw some bands over here – and I was like “Man, it might be something serious, if we actually take it seriously and make the jump over the Pacific and try and do something with it.” At first we were just playing parties and just playing around, but we always had faith and had the vision that we could do something with it. It’s so funny, cause I mean I listen to our first CD we ever recorded and in retrospect I’m like “Wow, we thought we were actually gonna go somewhere with that CD? We were crazy.”

SP: What do you do when you’re not playing music?

YW: Um, pretty much just golf and surf for me personally and try to live a “normal life” cause it’s such a different life being on the road all the time and not being at home, so we just kinda do the every day normal life thing. We do a lot of business too because we own our own record label, LAW Records. So we’re pretty much always working. We’ve always got our mind on music and what not.

SP: Do you hang out with a lot of musicians? Hawaiian or Californian in particular?

YW: There’s a band called Iration that lives up in Santa Barbara. They’re always coming down here to play and what not so we hang out with them. We also have a bunch of friends that moved over here from Hawaii so we still have a close knit group of friends that we grew up with.

SP: Have you ever surfed with Jack Johnson?

YW: No, I haven’t. We’ve actually never even played with him. Funny story… We had a chance to play with him a long time ago, back when we still had our 1976 Dodge Sportsman van [probably looked something like this] that we bought when we first moved over here and we were on our way up – this is in 2001 – we were on our way up to play with him and the transmission fully gave out and the van would only go in reverse. That was our one time that we were gonna play with him and needless to say it didn’t work out.

SP: So you didn’t drive backwards all the way up?

YW: No. No, we thought about it, but driving backwards just to get home was hard enough.

SP: Tell us about your music. What’s it about? Who are your influences? How do you describe your style?

YW: We grew up listening to so many different kinds of music and Hawaii is such a melting pot of pretty much everything. Music, culture and everything. I think that’s kind of what shines through. We dabble in many different genres, so really you can say it’s a bunch of different stuff put together, but in a nutshell I always just say we’re just a rock band with a reggae influence, pretty much.

SP: What kind of connection do you have with your fans? It’s very different when you’re playing live and when you’re not, but how do you keep that vibe and relationship going when you’re not performing?

YW: The main way to keep connected with your fans is touring, like you’re saying, but that’s why we’re doing this remix contest and everything. When you’re not touring you still gotta show your appreciation and keep them interested. You gotta give back. It’s the only reason any of this is possible, is cause of the fans. So, any way that we can get them involved – this being one of them – we’re super excited about… Kind of get them involved in the creative process and have them put their own flavor on our music and what not.

SP: So, the internet plays a pretty big role in that process for you guys?

YS: Ya, it’s so cool because it just gives you that much more connection with your fans, whereas back in the day it was like “Ok, buy the CD and then once a year you’ll get to see the band.”

SP: What first got you interested in having fans remix your music?

YS: I’d heard about someone doing it before and it just seemed like such a cool idea, you know? It seemed like something I wanted to do to my favorite band. Like, Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance, is one of our favorite bands for the whole band as a whole. Given that opportunity and opening that door for music fans like ourselves – it’s just the most amazing thing ever. And why not? Art is the ultimate communicator. Anyway you can connect, bands should take complete advantage of it.

SP: Not everyone is open to the idea of people messing with their music – some of them are like “I wrote it, it’s my stuff, don’t touch it”, but that’s becoming so much less common and people are really embracing this whole remix movement. Do you think this movement is going to keep growing?

YW: I think it absolutely will. Like you said, it’s just a win-win situation for everyone. I mean, I do understand when people feel like their songs are their babies. You don’t want someone intruding on them and what not. But, at the end of the day, you’ve already released your songs on an album how you want them and this is icing on the cake and I don’t think it’s going to hurt anyone. I don’t think it’s going to ruin anyone’s band or ruin anyone’s music. It’s just gonna get people more excited and more passionate about the band.

SP: It allows fans to have a more emotional connection with each song if they can actually get involved.

YW: Absolutely.

SP: What’s the story with the song you’re using in the remix contest? What’s it about? When was it recorded? Why did you pick this one?

YW: It’s a song called “Freeze” and it’s the first song on our last album, which was Pink Crustaceans and Good Vibrations. It’s basically all about being at a show and, in a sense, claiming your sound. Not in a cocky way, just in a confident way… Just that you know what you are doing and you can blow people away. It’s not in an arrogant way at all. The song was recorded in Redondo Beach at a studio called Total Access and it was produced by Paul Leary from the Butthole Surfers – the original guitar player.

SP: What do you expect to happen with this experiment?

YW: I don’t know. There’s no telling, you know! We could get a version that’s even better than the one that’s on our CD, you know what I mean?

SP: Does that scare you?

YW: No, not even. I think the possibilities are endless and I’m really excited to see what the fans come up with. It’s super cool too cause we’re gonna… whoever wins the contest we’re gonna release their version on our label in some format, whether it be a single or on a compilation or something like that. On the other end of it, you know, some 16 year old kid could do this, could learn how to do mixing through the contest and then, you never know, he goes to school for music, ends up working in the industry… It could plant seeds for people. That would be super gratifying in my eyes.

SP: That’s quite a prize – certainly good motivation to participate. What do you see happening in the music industry in the next 5 to 10 years? What with the industry crumbling, the internet etc?

YW: I see the independent world becoming really the main epicenter for music and people releasing their own records. Getting the fans more involved too. One of the things we want to do with our next record is we want to record maybe 16-40 songs, and put rough versions of them up on the internet and basically have the fans pick which songs they want on the CD and then release the CD the way they want it. I think the DIY and the independent world is really gonna boom and take the front seat to the industry and the major record labels are going to take the back seat.

SP: When you guys make a song, how does it work? Does one person write the lyrics and everyone else figures out there part, or what?

YW: The majority of the ideas come from Brett and Kaleo and then we get together. I’ll have a couple ideas here and there, whether it be a chorus, a verse, or a whole song or just the guitar part or something. That’s how it kind of works between the three of us and then we get together. Then that’s when it becomes a Pepper song is when we all get together and we put our twist on it and we come to a common ground and then we go from there.

SP: Does that take a long time usually?

YW: Not really, especially Brett and Kaleo. Those guys are like vaults of music. They’re constantly writing and they have so many great ideas. It’s usually a pretty quick process. The thing we don’t want to do is kinda over think it. Some things get lost in translation and you lose some of the essence if you sit there and over think and rethink and rethink it. You’ve kinda gotta go with your first instinct.

SP: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?

YW: We’d all be waiters at a restaurant, cause that’s what we were doing before we started the band. It’s not that bad of a gig in Hawaii. You work in a nice restaurant, make $100-200/night in tips and you just gotta work at night and you can surf in the daytime. It’s pretty gravy.

SP: But, you’re pretty happy with what you’re doing now?

YW: Ya, I still pinch myself sometimes. We’re actually getting paid to do something we’d do anyway and that’s the way we’re living the dream. I want to enjoy it to the fullest for as long as I can.

SP: Have you had any crazy fan interactions, people throwing underwear on the stage, psycho stalkers etc?

YW: There have been a lot of underwear and bras thrown up on stage and people jumping on stage. That kind of stuff happens all the time… it comes with the territory. No real crazy stalker stories or anything… It’s more just, you know, when a show is sold out there is always a ton of people waiting outside the bus and trying to get tickets to the show. We try to help them out as much as we can and hook everyone up but, you know, there’s only so much you can do.

SP: Any last words of wisdom for our Evolving Music readers?

YW: Ya, definitely. I think the biggest advice for anyone that wants to be in a band or start a band is you gotta realize how much hard work it is and touring is the key to everything. You gotta get out there and you gotta go see the people that are supporting you and shake their hand and really show that appreciation and never take those people for granted.

Part 2: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio and Tajai of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics

Opio and Tajai (right) of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics

For Part 1 of this interview, click here. In Part 2 of my interview with Opio and Tajai, we discussed Bay Area Hip-hop, fan remixes, greatest albums of all time and the life lessons taught by their genre.

ACtual: I think that the Bay Area has some of the best Hip-Hop. There’s always people coming out from the Bay, the Hiero crew, E-40, Nickatina, Zion-I, lot of good groups. What do you think it is about this area that you think produces such good Hip-Hop?

Tajai: We’ve got diverse backgrounds, the port, especially Oakland and San Francisco, we’re the coast. If you look at the array of blue vs. red states, you’ll see that the coasts, where they have more than one type of person, or more than two types of people are places that embrace new and fresh ideas. Beyond that, there’s nothing to do out here. This is the worst place to try to start your career once you’ve made your move, so people are just bored so they make stuff. I could see in LA or New York, you can dress like a rapper, and look like one and hit the clubs and get that whole like, “I’m in the scene” thing. There’s no scene here, so you have to really be who you say you with regards to music. You have to do things yourself to achieve it rather than just looking the part. In other places you could look the part and try to get over like, “you know me…” and try to get in the clubs free, there aren’t any clubs out here. Because the scene is so wack, people are more creative and because we have a diverse background. This isn’t just the place where hella dope Hip-Hop is from. This is the place where the Panthers are from, where the hippies are from, where you look at San Francisco and gay rights, we’re on some other shit out here, we’re on some next level shit.

Opio: We’re trying to have equality out here. So in other places, in order to distinguish yourself and make yourself be something special to make people respect you like, “You’re doing something good, cool!” We ain’t really about that out here. It’s more about everyone is on the same level, so when in the Bay Area people lift you up and say, “Your shit is dope” that’s saying something because they have to see you and hear you and see it for themselves and know it’s true. Cause if not, you’re not going to get it. You might get it if you’re coming from somewhere else because it takes a lot to get on the scene and get heard. But if you come up from the grass roots out here, people are always like, “You’re never gonna do it.” Not that people are negative in general, but we ain’t really starstruck out here. You don’t see a lot of Bentleys and Lamborghinis and all that, and I don’t think it’s cause people can’t have it.

T: There’s a lot of money here. Per capita we’re probably one of the more wealthy cities in America.

O: That’s just not our stilo out here. You’re gonna stand out and make people get mad at you like, “What are you doing all that for? What do you need a Bentley and Lamborghini and all that for?” There’s something wrong with that out here, almost inherently so. People like to see you shine but they want you to be humble, you have to be a real person out here in order to maintain. So I feel blessed that we’re able to get respected out here, in this city in particular, especially being from here in all the years that we’ve been here, it’s a good feeling when we go to the Art and Soul festival or something like that. It’s a community gathering and there’s people from everywhere, but we still get love just like people paid to come see us at a show.

AC: A lot of groups are letting fans remix their work, putting stems up on the internet, doing remix work. Can you see getting into that and letting your fans work with your music like that?

T: We’ve got a whole album of fan remixes out. It’s called Over Time. So we’ve been doing that. So we might do it on this next record where we might put our ProTools files up and let people who are really serious about pushing the envelope and taking our music to the next level, do it. Because why not? We put our take on it, let them put their take on it. It’s not going to make less of what we have done. Once you’ve created something, like a record, it stands the test of time. All of our singles, we put up a capella so people can remix it, that’s the whole point. We sell a capella, we put it up on the internet so people can remix it.

O: We let people remix a single from my album Stop the Press, put that out there. We like that sort of stuff. The whole inspiration for us being independent was the show aspect, the whole interactive style, even if it’s over the internet or whatever. We want to maintain that where people can interact with our music and do whatever they want to do with it, manipulate it, that’s cool to me. Because I think eventually something really dope could come out of that. I’ve heard some shit that’s pretty tight, but I mean like if someone is out there just looking for an opportunity to do something with it and they just need the right sound or whatever and we could be a part of that, that would be dope.

AC: What are the current projects you guys are working on?

T: We’ve got Vulture’s Wisdom Vol. 2, probably going to start off the next year. We’ve got a new album by Souls of Mischief, we haven’t figured out the title but it’s done, produced by Prince Paul. New Casual album, Pep Love’s album called The Reconstruction, Del’s coming out with the LED EP, I’ve got an EP called THC 7. Opio came up with this idea, we’re gonna smash fools. Every week in 2009 we’re going to come out with a new song. Not a new freestyle, not a new rap over somebody else’s beat, a new song every week. So we’ll have 52 new Hiero songs plus about 5 or 6 new albums in 2009.

AC: Are you going to put all of those on iTunes?

T: Yea, they’ll all be out digital.

AC: A song every week?

T: We’ve got so much music, why not put it out? There’s no point in hoarding it because what good is music doing in the vault? Music is made to play, it’s not like money.

O: One thing is that it’s for our fans. For the people that supported us, they’re always looking for us, like, “What’s up with you guys? You guys ain’t coming out with this that and the other,” and they always want to hear something new. We have music done, but we’ll think we have to save it or whatever. But at this point in time, the way things are, people just want to hear it, they can’t stand it anymore, we just feel like now’s the time to let people get an inside look at whatever we’re doing, right then and there. We’ve never been the type of cats to just record a song and slap it on the internet or put it out. Everything we ever did came out 2-3 years after it was done, literally, I’m not even joking. Anything you ever heard was a long time ago by the time it came out. So as artists it’s something we’ve always struggled with because we’re always like, “We got some shit that’s hot, we want it out right now,” and we just never really had that vehicle. I kinda feel like now’s the time. The internet is such a community where people come together. I go there myself to listen to new music, do my YouTube thing, peep out all the underground shit that you can’t hear on the radio or you don’t see on television or whatever. There’s a large community of people out there where if we could let people that love Hieroglyphics know that you come to this one place and listen to all of our music, it’s hear for you, I think it would do a lot to re-energize our fans that have been supporting us. We got it for them.

T: We’ve got fans that are so loyal that they’ve stuck with us for the past 15, really 17, 18 years. Del’s first record came out in ’91, so some people have literally been waiting a lifetime for a lot of this shit and it never comes out. Most records when they come out, they’re finished two years or a year before they hit the mainstream, and we’re independent, we can’t do that.

O: We want to give people that, like we said, try and keep it interactive. We want people to have the experience and share it with us, like, “This is a hot song, listen!” I love that, I’m excited as an artist. I mean, we’re all owners of the label and we always have to make smart business decisions in terms of how we release our music because that’s our thing, we gotta make sure it’s right, everything’s gotta be cool. That’s still the Hieroglyphics thing, we always want quality product, that’s why we ain’t just throwing a bunch of shit out there. This is real music that we’re giving to people. For me, I want to thank the people out there that have basically been sticking with us for all these years. I can really say, with all honesty that they’ve been waiting on certain things that they just haven’t been able to get. The music is there, they just aren’t able to be exposed to it, so we’re kinda changing our philosophy about that a little. We want to expose people to our music and give them an opportunity to come in. There’s so much of it that it’s almost a crime to not let people just hear it.

AC: What are you guys looking at in terms of target release dates for the Hiero album and the Souls album?

T: Souls, at the earliest April, the Hiero by the end of the year. Because downloading has basically destroyed the concept of the album, everything on your album can be a single now, there’s no album cut. So let’s drop a song every week so people can buy that single and pick up a Hiero song if they want a Hiero song, an Opio or Tajai song, Souls song whatever. The records will then come out for people who liked what they heard in the single format.

O: We always have albums available for people at our shows, and those albums obviously have bonus materials that you’re only able to get when you buy that specific thing. Just the way that it is right now, I don’t know if people really sit down and listen to an album in the same manner, actually I know they don’t. I’m just different in my philosophy of how I listen to records, and I look for certain things, but that’s not how it’s going forward at this particular moment. People ain’t necessarily throwing on a CD, sitting down and listening to the whole thing. They’re skipping through a bunch of songs, whatever whatever, oh that was kinda cool, and that’s about it. So this way you can sit back and enjoy these songs for a week or whatever, then get a new one.

AC: Favorite conversation in Hip-Hop: Greatest album of all time. Where do you two stand? A couple that stand out?

O: It Takes a Nation of Millions comes to mind, right off the top. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube.

T: And even that is great because of It Takes a Nation

O: Low End Theory is almost perfection, The Chronic, 3 Feet High and Rising. 3 Feet High and Rising is different because there’s so much material on there, it’s like a carnival, I love that album, that album is crazy. Then there’s other albums for us, Funky Technician, Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop.

T: The Main Source first record.

O: CMW, Music to Driveby.

T: I’d say Nation of Millions.

O: There’s so many albums but the gold standard of all of that I would have to say is It Takes a Nation of Millions, cause that album –

T: Had everything.

O: Has all the elements, it was saying something as well. It was educating me on a lot of stuff as a young kid.

T: A lot of these records, that’s the one thing they’re probably missing is that educational content that damn near every album we mentioned did have, Main Source, The Funky Technician. I think a lot of rappers are OK just being rap.

O: It was about their mind power. All of those albums that we mentioned, it was all about what they brought to the table. They were mental giants. Now, that doesn’t even matter, you can be a straight mental molecule and as long as you have enough money and material –

T: Swagger.

O: It’s not even about swagger, because I give credit to swagger. Swagger everybody doesn’t have and everybody can’t get. Money is nothing, anyone can get that, it’s material things, you didn’t do anything by your own, there’s nothing that you created there. People will give a lot of credit, I’ve heard people say, “He’s wack, he sucks, but he’s got a lot of money and I respect that about that dude that he got his paper.” Who doesn’t want it? We all watch the TV shows, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and we all want that, but to me, that’s not where Hip-Hop needs to be, Hip-Hop needs to be back to Takes a Nation of Millions level.

T: And it wasn’t like they were just un-positive. They were talking about all the shit that was hot in the streets, they had banging beats, they had scratches on their songs, it was connected in a way that you had to listen to from beginning to end, there aren’t any records like that any more. Fools don’t even take the time to craft albums anymore, they’re trying to craft songs.

AC: What has Hip-Hop taught you about life and what has life taught you to make you better at Hip-Hop?

O: The life experience of growing up here in the Bay Area, the diversity of thought that exists here, all the things we were exposed to, there’s so many levels that you have to understand and juggle at once. You have to be real perceptive out here to be good in your descriptions with words, but then you have to humble so when we went out, even though we had a lot of confidence in our skill and were ready to battle cats, we always paid respect and homage to all the cats who came before us. How Hip-Hop helped my life, artists like KRS-One, songs like “Why Is That?” that really helped me get a grasp on world history and these are large concepts that were coming from rap artists. Ways to live, knowledge of self, know your history, these kinds of things. There was a lot of misinformation that was going on and Hip-Hop was helping bring that to light. There is a lost past that doesn’t get talked about and this is something we need to be educated about, and that definitely influenced me in my life, through Hip-Hop, that was a vessel that helped me learn and get on the path to taking on those types of concepts. Also questioning the mainstream, like whatever I see on Fox News I’m not just going to take at face value and part of the reason I’m not going to do that and not be bamboozled or manipulated is because of Hip-Hop.

T: For me, Hip-Hop taught me about life that you have to complete what you started. Making songs, if you don’t think about it from beginning to end, it’s not going to be complete, so that’s probably the biggest lesson. That goes for business or whatever endeavor, you have to do it from beginning to end and if you don’t see it through to the end somebody else will. As far as what life taught me about Hip-Hop, it’s probably that it ain’t everything. I love Hip-Hop, it’s my favorite thing in the world, but it ain’t more important than my kid or taking a shit or something. You see what I’m saying? There are mundane things and other more important things that are more important than Hip-Hop, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. I love this, and I’ve given my life to this, but it’s not the only thing to live for.

Part 1: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Opio of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Tajai of Souls of Mischief

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California based Hip-Hop collective Hieroglyphics has taken on many shapes and sounds, from the lyrically complex and dense solo stylings of Del tha Funkee Homosapien to the rapid-fire and diverse delivery of Hieroglyphics to the smooth and masterful underground sound of Souls of Mischief. Spanning nearly two decades, Hiero and Souls of Mischief have brought new sounds and ideas to the industry while also providing a backbone of creativity that has helped influence the entire Bay Area music scene.

In November I had the opportunity to sit down with Tajai and Opio of Hiero and SOM, two members responsible for an incredible amount of solo and collaborative work for the HieroImperium. In part 1, we discussed their musical backgrounds, the formation of Hiero and the difficulty of staying relevant in a music industry that places an emphasis on the “next big thing.”

ACtual: Starting off early, what were both of your initial musical influences and inspirations, and when did you decide that rapping is what you wanted to do?

Opio: I used to be hella into Reggae, really. Yellowman is one of my favorites, obviously Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they had the swagger that got me on rap. My parents were really into music, so through them I heard Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, stuff like that. When I first really started to hear rap, I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” stuff like that, Grandmaster Flash. They used to play Rock and Roll stations out here, mixing, like college radio. Really the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” I was just hooked to the way he was spittin’, it was cool, and it just evolved from there. All the older cats in my neighborhood were listening to them, breakdancing, graffiti and all of that was a part of it too. At the same time cats were breaking, graffiti artists, so it was that whole Hip-Hop culture, it wasn’t only just the rapping, I was breakdancing, all of that.

Tajai: Funk, I would say Funk was my biggest influence. Parliament, Bootsy, George Clinton, and then Too Short is probably the main reason I rap just because all the other rappers, I saw other people doing it, but I didn’t think that people from here could do it. As a kid, it was just my perception of it was something that other people did until I saw Too Short rapping and then I was like, “He’s from here and he raps.” That’s when I really started seriously rapping.

AC: You two as well as the Souls of Mischief crew met early on. Talk about how all of you met, came together and the creation of both Souls and Hieroglyphics.

T: We grew up in the same area, so I’ve known Casual and A-Plus since like Kindergarten, 1st grade. Del was at the same school as us, we just sort of all had a mutual interest in Hip-Hop, so once Del got on in ’91 he sort of brought us into the industry, but we had been rapping together for a long time before that. Casual went to junior high with Op.

O: The first time I went into the studio ever, me and Casual rented a studio in the 8th grade. Our man Terai came with us, he was in the 7th grade. I wasn’t even rapping then, I was a DJ, so I was DJing, scratching during that time. This is in the 7th/8th grade, me and Casual went to junior high and he already knew them. I would listen to their music when I was in junior high but I hadn’t really started to kick it with Tajai and A-Plus, but he would have tapes and be like, “listen to my partners.” I’d see them up the block and be like, “there goes Tajai right there.” We really started hanging out in high school, but the whole time we lived right around the same area. We all lived around the same block as each other but we weren’t really in communication until high school, and that’s when we really became a lot more serious about the rapping.

AC: You were released on Jive Records in 1993. Talk about the process of creating that album and what working for a major label was like. You were what, 17, 18 when that album came out?

O: Yea. That album to me was something, that, I would listen to songs that they had done when I was in junior high and me and Casual went into the studio, we were kinda serious about the whole rap thing. Tajai and A-Plus were working with Sir Jinks and they had a professional sound that inspired us to get on our business a little more. This is early on, so we had been working on our craft until we came out. We were probably 13, 14 really serious going to the studio.

That album, even though we recorded it in 2 weeks, it was something that was formulating for a lot of years. I really think it was highly influenced also by the whole crew aspect, not just the fact that we were Souls of Mischief, because we’re competitive by nature within Souls of Mischief, but then there was also Del and Casual, Pep Love, we had these other fierce MCs. Even during the time before ’93 til Infinity came out, everybody heard the demos, so we had something to live up to. People would hear the demos and be like, “the album will be wack, whatever,” and they heard other cats around us that were really shining, so it was a long time coming to me, that album getting done, even though it seemed like it popped out of nowhere, we had been working for some years.

AC: When Hiero formed, what was your original vision for the group and how did you go about making Third Eye Vision?

T: We’ve been together as a crew since before Del’s first record. Our vision then was let’s just all be the best we can be, get signed and be super stars. That’s different than how things progressed just dealing with major label politics, and the fact that, for someone to walk into Hip-Hop today, they have no idea that even when we came out it was still like a sub-culture. So being a super-star and blowing up meant selling a couple of thousand records, maybe going gold, but not platinum. The only people going platinum were guys like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer.

So once we got off the majors, it was like let’s not stop making music just because we don’t have a label, let’s keep making music and then Domino was like, “Shoot, we might as well put this record out instead of trying to shop it, and from there we started Hiero Imperium and we’ve been rolling since then because it’s been, I’m not going to say easier logistically, but easier in regard to being able to be agile and creative. And now, almost 10, 11 years later, we’re really reaping the rewards of having laid that groundwork of being independent so long. Third Eye was something we recorded out of the need to make music, and then from there it built up to this independent label.

AC: With HieroImperium, you guys have been putting out albums and podcasts for a while now. What do you find to be the hardest part of being in this industry for as long as you guys have?

T: We’re not new, that’s the problem. To people who have never heard of us, which is not that many people, it’s like, “Wow these guys are fantastic!” But to people who have, it’s like, we come with something we feel is our best work and it’s like, “Ok, that’s dope.” There’s so much garbage out here that gets attention because it’s new, and that’s the frustrating part about it. If you’re consistent in music, that’s not good enough a lot of times, you have to have controversy or you have to fall real low to bring yourself back up, but we’ve been consistent and there’s so many of us, that that’s the biggest problem I see, we’re not new.

O: Also, over the years of doing it, touring, consistently going out and being on the road, not just only recording the albums, but the whole rap life in and of itself can take its toll. Sometimes people get jaded, but I think that luckily because there’s a lot of us, we’re able to keep ourselves focused and sharp. Without other people pushing you, and you’re hearing people recording songs and maintaining that creative energy and you don’t have it, your brother can lift you up a little bit and you hear some new shit, “oh man that’s dope,” it kinda gets your juices flowing. Maybe you’re at the house just bored, you wrote so many raps you’re through with it for a hot second, so it’s always a good thing to have other cats around you working and doing stuff. Casual, he’s always busy, Del is always in the lab working, A-Plus just consistent with the beats, so you can always go to those guys and be like, “What’s new?” just to get a little spark.

AC: In terms of approaching the writing, how would you say that your styles differ when you’re trying to come up with stuff for an individual album vs. working on a Souls project or working on a Hieroglyphics project, how do you approach each of those differently?

T: You’re competing against yourself when you’re making a solo record, so you get to look at things more holistically, you look at the entire project as a whole and where things fit in. Whereas when you’re in a group, you’re looking at how you fit into that particular song. With your own records I think it’s harder because you have to push yourself a little bit harder to be better than yourself, verse by verse and song by song. With a group album I think it’s easier because there’s so many other people you’re competing against that you have to come with your best work, that’s the main difference for me.

O: To me, I just feel more comfortable in the group element whether it’s Souls of Mischief or Hieroglyphics, I like the collaboration aspect of things and working with other cats, so to me that’s always been fun. I saw the challenge more so than doing music with others, trying to do something by myself like it’s a Herculean task cause you have so much more that you have to do. At the same time, once the process gets going, you kinda relax in your environment and it’s a good place to be because you can advance your style a little more. You get to go longer.

Especially in Souls of Mischief, we try to keep that quick jab approach so for me it’s kinda fun to just run my mouth for a little while. I’ve always been trying to explore more avant-garde styles whenever we’re doing songs with Souls of Mischief, so you can see the different elements that we bring to the table when you see our solo projects. You can see the different parts working. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what it’s like when you’re listening to the group all together then you get to hear the solo and be like, “So that’s how Souls of Mischief comes together,” at least for me because I’m a fan of Souls of Mischief too, even though I’m in the group, when I’m with other cats I love to hear the music and I like to hear the solo albums as well to see them even go further with it.

AC: Going off what you were saying earlier about the hardest thing is having been here for so long because new stuff always gets more attention. You hear a lot of mainstream writers, media people that say Hip-Hop is dead, and rappers will sometimes say that too. But there’s a lot of really good Hip-Hop out there if you know where to find it, so what do you listen to and what other artists in the genre inspire you?

T: Percy P, Guilty Simpson, Madlib, Black Milk. There’s a lot of groups that you probably won’t hear anywhere but satellite radio. I like Lil Wayne because he’s pushing the boundaries of mainstream but he’s doing something wild and crazy to something that just listened to dance rap so that’s good because maybe their minds will open a little more to people who dwell completely outside of that, but ain’t really much on TV that I like, not because it’s on TV, but because Rap music is really Pop music now. Hip-Hop can’t ever be dead. It may not inspire you the way that it used to, but that’s probably because you’re just not into it anymore. But as far as Hip-Hop, when we do shows and there’s thousands of kids there, it’s like, what are they talking about?

O: The way that Hip-Hop has been brought to the table and how it’s shown, it’s really not the true artform of it. It doesn’t represent. It’s more for trying to sell products, clothes, alcohol, stuff like that. It’s like a big commercial. But when there’s true artists trying to explore the creative process and what it takes to make a great song or a great lyric, a guy like J Electronica for instance is really dope. There’s people out there that’s doing it, but when you watch Rap City, you don’t get to see those guys that often.

I just feel like the vehicle that people are going to start getting Hip-Hop with is going to open the doors for more creative styles, people that are pushing the envelope stylistically and creatively which for me is the essence of Hip-Hop. How it was when De La Soul was coming out and A Tribe Called Quest was coming out, new flavors. I feel like that old form of commercialized, over-commercialized Hip-Hop, that is dead. It’s old hat, you can only use that so much before people get numb to it and it becomes a hard sell, pouring champagne everywhere, throwing money everywhere, people have seen that so much it doesn’t sell shoes how it used to, so now they’re going to start looking to the underground to do that.

AC: We were talking earlier about your latest project, Vulture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1. Talk about your vision for the trilogy, when the other albums are going to come out and what the idea behind these solo albums is.

O: I was just working with my man Architect, I’ve always been a fan of his music and his beats for a long time. He’s always been a cat that was out there, the style of his music is something that I always had a good time and enjoyed listening to. He worked next to us at High Street studios, he had a spot next to me so we had more of a chance to kick it and hang out and we were talking about doing a record, but it never really came together. Eventually I saw him in traffic one time and he was like, “I’ve got some beats, I’ve been thinking about you, we should do an album together.” When he hit me some of the beats and the style he was working with, it was perfect, we were right on the same page at the same exact time, so from there we just started collaborating and made a lot of music. Then we decided that we should not really stop at just one thing but hit cats with at least three projects, so that’s how the whole idea for the trilogy came up. The concept behind the title, like we were talking about earlier how everyone says Hip-Hop is dead, there’s nothing there, it’s over with whatever, we were like, “Nah, we can eat here, it’s still a viable option for us,” so that’s how the Vulture’s Wisdom title came into play.

We just are really trying to kill the backstory in terms of that being the forefront, we want to make the music the forefront, the style, the beats, the rhymes, the lyrics, not really like this guy did this, that, and the other. There’s always the story and sometimes it’s more interesting than the music and then you hear the music and you’re like, “this is what all the hoopla is about?” We want to bring it back to where the music is what people care about more so than the imagery. I feel like the 90s are something that people are trying to reach for right now, like that’s the golden ear, which for me is ’88, but other cats are more caught up in that ’93 era right now, always reaching back to the 90s and trying to bring it forward to here. Whereas I’ve always been a part of that connected to the whole essence of real Hip-Hop, so that’s where I come from, that’s my pedigree, whereas other cats might be trying to bring that back, I’m just trying to stay in that vein that I’ve always been in, that true essence of Hip-Hop, so it’s not a stretch for me to come and do something that people might call “real Hip-Hop,” that’s what we do, that’s Hieroglyphics, some of that good shit.

AC: Tajai – Stanford Anthropology grad, is that right?

T: Yea.

AC: How do you feel that education, that degree has helped your music? Have you incorporated that in your career at all?

T: It’s helped me with research, but that’s about it. School is school, it’s different from music, it just helped me research topics. Aside from that, it maybe helped me be organized in terms of my business, just going to school in general, but that’s about it.

AC: How important is it to you guys that you’re not major label? Do you think that you would have gotten anywhere near what you have accomplished if you were working for a major?

T: You’re just at the mercy of the market. There’s artists like J*Davey, Bilal, artists that you’ll never see their record. They’ve been in the industry now for almost a decade but because it doesn’t fit the labels idea of what records are supposed to be, it never comes out, so in that respect we probably would never have been able to bust the moves we could. It’s still different, it’s not like you’re doing it for a more noble purpose when you’re independent or you’re major. The way it is now, we’re like a major independent, us, DefJux, Rhymesayers, probably Stones Throw are labels where people want to get on the label, so it’s like they’re treating our independent record label like we would treat a major as a signed artist. We have more control, but really the market determines a lot of it and it’s harder right now to not be seen as generic in this marketplace because there’s so much. I mean, I think there’s more musicians than fans almost, especially rappers. So it’s hard to distinguish yourself as far as “into the marketplace,” so in that respect, it might even be better to be on a major label where they have the money to market you, where you have a shoe and a commercial and an appearance on Entourage and all these different things that are going to give you more exposure. Like when we put out a record, when we put out Vulture’s Wisdom, it has 8 videos, and how many of those are going to be on TV? We send them to TV, but do they end up on TV? No. So it’s really like we’re relegated to YouTube and MySpace and satellite radio and internet radio, and that’s the downside of being independent. It’s more a matter of exposure and it’s a double-edged sword. They’ll spend the money to expose you, but if they don’t like what they hear, they’re not going to expose you at all and you might never see the light of day.

O: If you’re doing it in terms of a business endeavor, you have to take advantage of what’s out there. I feel like for Souls of Mischief at the time, how the market was, us going major label was the best way for us to go at the time. To try to go independent would have been a bad look. It gave us a really good opportunity to get our music out there. We made what we really wanted and it got out to the people. For a time, the labels were all about trying to make super Pop Hip-Hop and I don’t know if they were going towards super avant-garde now, but definitely the tide has changed in terms of which artists are selling records. Lupe Fiasco is outselling artists, he’s like top-tier in terms of who the guy is. Kanye West outselling 50 Cent, so there’s a changing of the guard where if you are really more on the creative side of things, you might be able to get in and bust some moves, if you’ve got what it takes. Some people don’t necessarily have that appeal so it might be bad for them to go the independent route, you gotta really weigh your options. Cause the main thing, what you want to do is get your music out there for people to see you and listen to you and at the end of the day, to me that’s the most important thing. Then you can do whatever you gotta do with your hustle.

Check back with Evolving Music on Friday for part 2 where we discuss the future plans of the group, their thoughts on the remix culture and their favorite Hip-Hop albums of all time.

Girl Talk Interview

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Over here at Evolving Music we love musicians who are willing to shun convention and adopt bold new paradigms when it comes to music creation, production, or distribution. Or those who simply take risks with their music. Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) is one such musician. Known for his masterful musical mashery, Girl Talk “has turned the cut-and-paste process into a jams-packed jigsaw puzzle.” (Wired)

With the release of his fourth album, Feed the Animals (available through Illegal Art), Girl Talk continues his remix magic, in this case combining over 300 samples. Curious what songs were used? Click here. As if his peculiar art form wasn’t unique enough, Gillis went ahead and endorsed the Radiohead model, by selling his album online with a name-your-price system. The young fellow has been rather busy lately what with his new role as the unassuming rockstar. Check out his tour schedule on MySpace to catch him live. Greg was kind enough to let us pick his brain for you for a few minutes.

Sandra Possing: For the sake of any readers who might not be familiar with your music, let’s start with the basics. Girl Talk. Where did you get the name? Does it have a special meaning?

Greg Gillis: When I started doing laptop music, there was a theme in Pittsburgh, and even internationally, of people doing live electronic music at the time and I thought that some elements of it were stiff, stoic, very borderline academic… I was cool with that stuff, but I kind of wanted to challenge it a bit. I knew I was gonna do a project based around the idea of appropriating pop music and culture, so I wanted to pick a name that was sort of glossy and over the top that would challenge the stiff underground of electronic music.

SP: So there’s not one specific meaning to the name?

GG: It’s so many different things… Boardgames, books, previous bands. It just sounds like some Disney band name and that’s the kind of vibe I wanted in the early days.

SP: You used to be a biomedical engineer. You kind of did the double life thing for a while – nerd by day, badass DJ by night. What was that like?

GG: It was pretty crazy. I never told my coworkers about what I did. I’d never considered myself a DJ in the traditional sense and it would’ve been hard to explain the performance, just cause it was such an underground thing. They were an older group and they were cool but I didn’t want to go in there and be like ”Look, I have a band called Girl Talk, where I play computer and rip my shirt off, and remix pop music on the fly and jump on top of people. It would have been too much to push on them.

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And in the early days of the job, it was like I’d always done Girl Talk since 2000 but it was something that was never intended to bring in money or be a career or anything like that so when I used to work there there was just really no point in telling them. It was just something where I’d make records in my free time and play a show once a month or something like that. So once it got very big and started taking off, it was at the point where it was too late to explain to them. You know what I mean? I would have loved to have told to them at that point, cause it turned in to me playing shows every single Friday and Saturday. You know, jumping on a plane and coming back and doing work Monday through Friday.

But, it was like 3 years into the time that I was working that job so I didn’t want to be like ”Look, btw, I forgot to tell you, I have this thing called Girl Talk and I happen to be selling out shows now”. It just would have seemed too weird. So ya, I didn’t tell them. So it was like a steady year of that where I basically had like a hidden personality. It was nuts. I’d sit in a cubicle all day on Friday then run to the airport, fly out, and then be signing autographs for playing the computer 4 hours later. It was very bizarre.

SP: How did they react once you told them?

GG: Um, I never told them. When I left the job, I basically… I didn’t lie to them… But again, I planned on eventually doing engineering work again – that was my first job after college. So I wanted to not break the ties with them, I didn’t want to be a weirdo. So, I told them that I felt that if I stayed with the job then I might be there until I’m like 50 with kids. And I was worried about taking advantage of my youth and I wanted to travel the world. Which, you know, was kind of the truth, but I didn’t really explain the music thing to them. But since then, I’ve had a lot of coworkers hit me up on Facebook and see like a thousand photos of me shirtless sweating on people. But they were cool with it. I knew they would be. It’s just kind of an awkward thing to tell people.

Sp: Do you miss it? You day job – sitting in a cubicle?

GG: Uh… no, not at all. I mean, with the music thing now, I really feel like I don’t have a job. I just, you know, do what I would be doing anyway and somehow I’m living off it.

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SP: Would you say that your engineering experience has influenced your music.

GG: Ya, I mean I think… I think it’s the nature of going to school for 4 years to study something like that and then getting a job. I have no traditional musical training, and I’ve always been obsessed with and passionate about music and it’s kind of been my main thing forever. But, basically, in approaching this project with the computer, I had to come up with an alternative solution for making music. I knew I wanted to remix pop music and things like that. I had no idea how that would go down. You know just the nature of this project, where its very meticulous, and you’re working on small elements – somedays I’ll work for 10 hours on like a 30 second segment and then that goes on to influence a much bigger picture – I think that definitely relates to the world of engineering.

SP: So you’re using analytical, detail-oriented part of your mind.

GG: Ya, just kind of getting down and working on the small chunks and focusing on the small little bits that will piece together to solve a bigger problem. Not that there’s necessarily a problem but, you know, in the case of music, like a goal.

SP: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing with music or if you weren’t doing engineering like you have in the past, what else could you see yourself doing?

GG: Oh man, I don’t know. I mean, I did ok in high school, studied, did well in every subject. I kind of picked engineering randomly, so… I think I’ve always been good in math and sciences, so I think anything related to that like just straight up biologist or something like that which is kind of related. But, outside of that world, I have NO idea what I would do. Maybe… professional basketball player?

SP: Are you good at basketball?

GG: Ya, I used to hoop a lot. Not anymore. I don’t get enough time. My game is kind of sad to me. I was thinking about this… It’s probably the first time in my life where myself 10 years ago would totally kill myself now, and that’s always just a sad thing.

SP: You obviously have a lot of music or have access to a lot of music, given your style. How do you obtain your music? Do you still buy albums, download stuff off of iTunes…?

GG: I primarily buy CDs. At any point in time I usually have about 50 mp3s on my computer, so I don’t have a digital music collection. I usually download songs to hear them or if I have an idea for something I want to try out I’ll download it and hear that song then I’ll usually delete it after I’m done with it. So ya, it depends what I’m buying. I keep up with a lot of underground releases and independent releases. In that case I’ll go to the local indie retailer. Then I also buy a lot of just mainstream music released on majors and I love going to Best Buy and just dropping a ridiculous amount of money, and coming home and opening up the packages and sitting around listening to CDs. So, ya I primarily buy CDs. I still buy some cassettes and vinyl and things like that when I can. But I’ve been an active CD buyer for the last 15 years now.

SP: Do you ever poke around the internet to find music? Do you listen to Pandora, or use any social music sites?

GG: Um… I’m excited about that stuff. But I’ve never done that. My friends are telling me about Pandora – that seems cool. I don’t really read music blogs or anything like that. I’m pretty low key when it comes to exploring stuff on the internet.

SP: Where do you see the music industry going in the next couple years? It’s obviously changing.

GG: I don’t know. I mean, I think the obvious answer is that CDs are going to be dying out at some point. I think there’s a chance that vinyl will still live on just cause the format’s a lot different whereas the digital audio quality on a CD vs a wav file or a nicely compressed MP3 is very similar. So, um…I don’t really know, but I think it’ll be interesting. I still feel like my friends and I go to the record store and buy albums because we have, you know, this moral code ingrained into our minds to support the music industry. It’s also like a nostalgic thing that I will never drop just cause that’s how I grew up listening to music.

But, you know, 10 or 15 years from now when there’s a bunch of kids who grew up just used to downloading music for free, it’s gonna be a whole different world. I can’t imagine them ever being excited about buying CDs, which is fine. I’m gonna stick to my ways. I’m gonna buy CDs until they stop being made. I’m pumped about CDs, but simultaneously I’m excited for that to die off and ultimately it’s just gonna change the reason people start bands, change people’s positions at records labels, change all that in ways that I could never even articulate.

Just the way we understand being in a band 10 years ago vs. 20 years from now will be a lot different. You know what I mean? I grew up seeing, like, Nirvana or even like Guns’n’Roses or something like that. Rock music – even as a kid you just knew it as this huge industry. You pour in all this money to these guys who are millionaires and then they produce a bunch of millions for you. And that might change, you know what I mean? I don’t know if that’ll be the case anymore. I think right now is a great era for touring musicians. It’s so easy to get exposure via the internet. Granted, there’s so much stuff out there, it’s hard to get noticed because right now there are probably more bands than ever, more projects, but simultaneously you can do something weird in 2008 and be noticed on the internet if people take to it.

It’s in the people’s hands rather than the mainstream media. So that’s exciting how you can continually grow like that to the point where… I don’t know what major labels will do or how they’re gonna hang on twenty years from now, but I’m sure they’ll come up with something.

SP: So, on that same note, obviously the way that artists are distributing music and the way the fans are consuming the music, that’s all changing very quickly. Is that why you decided to release your new album online with a set-your-own-price model, the Radiohead model.

GG: Ya, I mean, the label that puts out my stuff, Illegal Art, threw the idea out there. I thought it was great, you know. If we had released that album just as a CD it would have been a major delay, which is frustrating because it’s something I work on for two years. It’s exciting to just see it, to piece this thing together and to finish on a Tuesday and put it online on a Friday. And outside that, I just want to acknowledge that if we did release this on a CD, then some kid’s gonna buy it, rip it, put it online and immediately everyone on a file sharing network can get it for free. That’s just the reality of music now and I think that’s a great thing. I’m excited for the music to be spread through the internet. So it seemed like, why play dumb about it when you could just be upfront about it and acknowledge that reality and say to people ”Look I know you can get it for free, go ahead and take it for free if you really want to, or if you wanna pay us that’s cool too. I think pay-what-you-want model was novel enough that a lot of people were excited to be a part of it. A lot of people were hitting me up and telling me ”Greg, I paid $15 for the album!”

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SP: Fans are much less patient than they used to be. They want their music how they want it and when they want it. They’re not willing to wait so you might as well cater to that.

GG: Sure, ya. I mean, I’ve only been really living off music for the past year and a half and I don’t want people to lose their jobs at labels and I like the idea of musicians being able to live off that. But, that’s also very foreign to anything I knew to being involved with music. All of my friends’ bands and my bands, Girl Talk when it first started… it was never like ”Man, I hope I can live off this”, it was just ”Let’s create music and get it out there to as many people as possible.” And when you take money out of that equation it’s like… right now is a beautiful time. You can get your music exposed to so many people.

SP: And that way it’s more genuine too.

GG: Ya. And even financially too. I see a lot of indie labels thriving, via merch etc. I always think about the project I’m doing now in terms of the bands I was into when I was in high school and going to someone like Kid 606, or going to see Pavement, or The Jesus Lizard, or anything like that. Just thinking about the size of shows that they played versus the size of shows that I play or any of my contemporaries play… the audience for underground music is enormous right now comparatively. That’s a very cool thing.

SP: Let’s talk about the artists that you sample. Obviously, what you do is a little controversial. What’s the typical response? Do they not reach out, do they reach out and say ”Hey awesome, this is positive promotion for us” or has anyone gotten upset yet?

GG: I’ve had no issues. It’s a rare case when people reach out but it’s definitely gone down a few times. A lot of people at labels have reached out and been cool with it and I think that a lot of people in the industry kind of understand my work is almost a tool of viral marketing and they see it as transformative, as something that’s not negatively impacting the potential sales of their product, so they’re into it. On the artist end I’ve had a few. One of the ladies from Yo Majesty sent me an email recently, the manager of Sophie B. Hawkins reached out cause she wanted to collaborate. I heard from a songwriter for Donnie Iris. I met Thurston Moore one time… He was not familiar with my material but we played a show together and I was explaining to him that I put out samples of his stuff on my CDs and he was (without hearing it) theoretically cool with it. I’ve had Big Boi from Outkast come out to a show of mine in Atlanta and chat it up and he was cool with it. So… If you pay attention to music right now, you know your song is blowing up when there’s a bunch of remixes of it. That helps put fuel on the fire. I think anyone who looks at the internet on a daily basis is probably aware of that phenomenon.

SP: Do you feel like this whole mashup, remix culture is exploding right now? Do you find that other artists are emulating you specifically? A lot of people do remixes, but we don’t see many people remixing that many songs into one track.

GG: I see it on the internet, people on my Myspace hit me up all the time telling me to check out their stuff and I check out what I can and I see a lot of people kind of mocking the style, which is great. When I started I was heavily biting the style of Kid 606 and I think it went on to evolve into something else. To me, that’s how you make music. You start off jamming to Nirvana covers in your basement and all of a sudden you’re making original music. Every idea is influenced by something, whether it’s physically or just an idea. I think it’s crazy and I definitely think the whole idea of remixes is blowing up culturally right now. That’s what the internet has brought to the table. People are allowed to be interactive with the media that they consume. If you go on youtube, there are a million fan videos for random songs, movie clips spliced together, people taking images from the public and splicing them together in photoshop. It’s like everyone is becoming so used to being interactive with the media that’s around them, which is way different than even 10 years ago. The tools are available now. It’s exciting.

I remember when I started doing Girl Talk, people were definitely remixing pop music but it’s like if a new Destiny’s Child song comes out and I do an unsolicited weird remix and put em on the internet, I could be pretty sure that maybe a couple others would be out there, whereas now it’s like the new Beyonce single comes out and they release the a cappella and instrumental on the internet and within 48 hours there are 1,000 new remixes and there are a bunch of Yubetube videos and there’s a chipmonks version set to a cartoon. It’s just like we’re living in an era of appropriation right now based on what the internet’s provided for us.

SP: Have people remixed your music?

GG: Ya I’ve seen it. There’s a brand of southern stuff – hip hop – called Chopped and Screwed, where things are slowed down and kind of chopped up a bit. I saw a Chopped and Screwed version of my album. Some other people have done some kind of experimental takes on my stuff. So I’ve seen it a good bit and I’m happy to be a part of that dialogue. It gets me pumped when I see people actually appropriating stuff that I’ve done and making something new with it.

SP: So, last question. It seems like you’ve been putting out an album about every 2 years – ’02, ’04, ’06, ’08. Should we expect your next album in 2010?

GG: I’m not sure. The last two albums were kind of like cousin albums for me. Both of those I worked on as one cohesive whole so it’s not like I work on individual songs. I work on one 15 minute piece of music until I feel like I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish meaning that I don’t know if I’d be able to replicate that again. I’d like to mix it up again at some point. Kind of break out of that mold. It’s intense to dedicate two years to one … and then be stressful and you know you’re kind of putting all of your eggs in one basket. I’d like to fool around even , maybe put out an EP or put out some individual songs on the internet, just kind of break the tradition of what’s been going on. I work on music every day and I have no idea what it’s gonna go toward. When an idea comes out it just exists and right now I have really no view of the future beyond this month.

SP: One more last question. What do you enjoy more, doing live shows or working in the studio?

GG: It’s two different things. The live show is instant gratification. It’s fun. It’s in your face. It’s like the payoff. And working in the studio is more like a long term relationship where it can be really miserable and grueling and tough but at the end of the day it’s very satisfying.

SP: So if making an album is like having a long term relationship, is a live show like a great one night stand?

GG: Absolutely.

Musical Musings

With 2008 and all the music that came with it steadily speeding away in our rear view, I got to thinking a lot about what we did and didn’t see last year in the musical world, and what’s coming. When it comes down to it, 2008 was largely defined by some of the musical trends we saw, the continuing struggle over DRM and the ever growing attempts to market, brand and distribute music in ways that utilize multiple media and social platforms.

Musically, there was a greater push towards mash-ups (AmpLive Interview) and punk fueled Indie rock. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Bloc Party among many others kept driving guitars, sometimes melancholy lyrics and music that’s in your face in terms of pace at the forefront of the radio mainstream. Hip-Hop continued its usual pond-like trend: scum on the surface, beautiful water underneath with “artists” like T.I., T-Pain and Flo-rida topping the charts while rappers like Akrobatik, eLZhi and Black Milk continued struggling to boost their word of mouth. The line between Hip-Hop and Pop was continually blurred as radio Rap brought in more Rock and World music sounds into their songs.

We saw Kanye West rebound from a personally disastrous year to re-vamp his sound with 808s and Heartbreak, and we saw Guns ‘N Roses dig themselves out of a nearly 20 year grave to release the much anticipated Chinese Democracy album, something that many fans thought they’d never hear. Of course, most fans expected to hear either a new Eminem album (Relapse) or the long awaited and highly anticipated Detox album from Dr. Dre, and they got neither.

The DRM battle raged on in 2008, and in even just the beginning weeks of ’09 we’ve seen a nice movement in the area. For most of 2008, the IFPI (2) and the RIAA battled downloaders, both large and small, in court. Looking for lost compensation, they took to trial serial filesharers and spent massive amounts of time and money scaring college kids into settling out of court for fear of an expensive and punitive sentence against them. In the end, these efforts were largely useless, and in my mind, a joke, as they claimed to be fighting for the artists, while we all pretty much know how little the labels show the artists from individual song downloads.

The record industry spent months wringing their hands over lost profits and ways to control music that they long ago lost almost all control over. You have to wonder if, looking back now, they aren’t thinking of all their recent efforts as merely shutting the barn door after all the animals already escaped. And the change in tune has been brisk… Now, just two weeks into ’09, Apple has announced one of the broadest and most accessible withdrawals of DRM and price restructuring of MP3s in years. The four major labels have helped produce this movement, and it shows the increasing power of the consumers in the music marketplace. Once tied to hard copy formats like CDs with an average price table, consumers this year found diverse and creative ways to obtain their music, forcing the hand of the labels to recognize that DRM is not what the people want. How this lack of DRM will effect iPod sales or iTunes downloads remains to be seen. The launch of the App Store on iTunes also took music mobile with an incredible number of music related apps (and a few apps that are just plain incredible) designed for the iPhone.

The idea of Take Away shows and having artists perform live in unconventional venues took off. Nine Inch Nails picked up on Radiohead’s experiment with a free download format of an album, but they’ve taken it a step further now by offering over 400 GB of HD video footage from their concert tours up on torrent streams for fans to remix and create DVDs. This fan interaction has become tantamount to bands in the last year with MySpace including music, and a large number of acts going from conventional websites to social networking platforms.

And while these social networking sites and the bands that use them were beginning to become increasingly entwined, musicians were getting in the mix as well, literally. Late in 2008, MixMatchMusic officially opened its doors to musicians from all over the world to create, upload, collaborate and work with stems to broaden the ways people approach making music. With the DemoGod award at Demo ’08, a write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle and the ever-popular RemixSarahPalin.com, this vision of worldwide musical collaboration and the power of mixing and matching steps closer to being a full-fledged reality. (MixMatchMusic)

So what’s next? With the DRM barriers falling, the new foundations of band and fan interaction being laid and Web 2.0 casting a wider net over the ‘net, music in 2009 could be anyone’s game. Personally, I’m just waiting for The Detox… And now a moment for the outstanding musicians we lost this year, Bo Diddley and LeRoi Moore, among others.


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