Although musician Ian Ruhala – better known as Hala – may be young, what he lacks in age he makes up for in experience. The 21-year-old has been playing and recording his own music from his bedroom since high school. His EP Young Alumni was released in 2015 after graduation and full-length Spoonfed soon followed, produced during his first semester of college. This summer, he recruited band members and embarked on a 16-date tour, co-headlining with fellow indie favorites BOYO.
I crossed paths with Hala at their last stop of tour in Cleveland, Ohio. The basement of a bowling alley called Mahall’s Twenty Lanes served perfectly as the venue, complimenting Hala’s vintage vibe. The specific corner of the basement in which they played was dubbed “The Locker Room,” presumably due to the row of old beige lockers placed behind the band.
Sporting a grey Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a shoulder fanny pack, Ruhala took a seat on one of the vintage bowling benches to discuss his sound, tour life, and balancing college with music.
Ruhala said of his music that although he gets lumped into the “bedroom pop” genre, he doesn’t like to restrict himself to just that.
“I don’t really know how I feel about that term [bedroom pop], but I do record in a bedroom,” Ruhala said. “I don’t know if it’s really poppy. It’s just like guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of recording at home, so lo-fi is sometimes attached – but I don’t know, I’m not purposefully trying to sound like shit.”
This tour being his longest and first time headlining in the U.S., Ruhala said that it has resulted in close friendships between the two bands – and surprisingly, a lot of nudity.
“Everybody gets naked, really,” Ruhala said. “We were in the car the other day and my guitarist was just playing his gameboy and then he felt the urge to get naked, so he stripped down.”
Other tour antics have included (sorta) trashing a hotel room.
“We kind of – not really – trashed a hotel room the other night, but we got really drunk and busted one of the beds,” Ruhala said. “It wasn’t like a Van Halen kind of trashing where things were actually destroyed; it was more like ‘sorry about this clean up that you gotta do.’”
However, Ruhala doesn’t always live such a lifestyle – he is also a college student, having graduated near the top of his high school class. A type A student in high school, he said that he has learned to relax in college and as a result, has been able to focus more on music.
“If you really wanna pursue music, in the moments that you have free you’ll find yourself gravitating toward your instrument and just playing it,” Ruhala said. “That could be at 2 a.m. after you study, it could be during the day, it could be playing a show. There’s always time.”
However, Ruhala said that instead of sitting down and trying to write a song, the songs tend to come to him.
“I’ll get a chord progression or I’ll have a sentence that could be a chorus line, and it kind of just happens. Usually it has to do with experiences and the song will find me. And sometimes you gotta do some weird stuff to find it,” Ruhala said. “You can’t write a song about heartbreak and not be heartbroken; you can’t write a song about drugs and alcohol without partaking in it. You don’t want to be a poser. And that’s what I’m big on, I just want to write songs that mean something to me and I don’t wanna write fluff, you know?”
Recording and production also play a large part in Ruhala’s creative process. Spoonfed was recorded entirely in an attic, which Ruhala said played an important role in the final product.
“I’ve done stuff in a studio with other bands, and I can just tell, when you bring an engineer in and pay them, most of the time they’re like ‘this isn’t my own stuff’ so they don’t really care,” Ruhala said. “I want to give [an album] the time that I think it deserves. I’m not too much of a studio wizard but I’m learning every time I do something, and I feel like if I’m happy with it, then that’s really all that matters.”
As the show approached, The Locker Room filled up with around 30 people. BOYO was on first, impressing the crowd with crisp guitar riffs and moody vocals from singer Robert Tilden. As they played, the band members of Hala placed themselves front and center, dancing wildly as a form of encouragement.
A few moments after BOYO’s set ended, Hala took over, and the members of BOYO replaced them in the crowd. Although suffering from a slight cold, Ruhala delivered great vocals and strummed his Epiphone Casino guitar with ease. Hala played six songs in total, contrasting “Problems” from his first EP with recent single “Keep on Loving” and of course, “What Is Love? Tell Me, Is It Easy?”. Midway through the set, Ruhala announced that his parents were in the crowd, having driven from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. This just added to the already present feeling that being at his show was like being welcomed into a tightly knit group of friends. It was just the right amount of laid-back and intimate, and one couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces of almost everyone as they watched Ian Ruhala and his friends play music.
As for what to expect from Hala’s future, there is another album in the works, hopefully to be released next summer. Ruhala said that it will be recorded with all new gear in a different bedroom, and he is looking to change his direction stylistically as well.
“I just want to genre-hop as much as I can. I want it to be the most confusing and incoherent string of songs, but I still want them to blend in some way,” Ruhala said. “I wrote a country song, a sludgy hip-hop song and then I’ve got some poppier songs and some guitar songs. So I just want it to be a mixed bag of pretty much everything because that’s what I’m listening to right now.”
And what exactly is Ruhala listening to right now? Twin Peaks, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, and Mason Ramsey (yep, the yodeling Walmart boy).
“I really appreciate [Mason Ramsey]. I don’t get why they’re recording him like they did on ‘Famous’ because if they were to record him in a way that was old school like he is, it would sound so cool,” Ruhala said. “I think probably when he’s like 20 and having a mental breakdown, he will make a fabulous record. And like, it will sound so sick.”
Well, if Ruhala’s prediction comes true and Ramsey does end up making that great record at 20, then I suppose they will have something in common.
In preparation for their Chicago show tomorrow at Metro, I got the chance to talk to Echosmith about their inspirations, upcoming album and how their music has changed since “Cool Kids.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
ES: As siblings, did you always grow up playing music together? How did the idea of starting
a band come to fruition?
ECHOSMITH: Growing up, we all picked up our instruments fairly early, and at a different times played with at least one of our siblings , but surprisingly, it took us a few years to finally all play together as a band. Our dad got us our first show around 11 years ago. Someone was looking for a young band to play a benefit concert, and our dad volunteered us.
ES: What’s the hardest part of being in a band as siblings? The best part?
ECHOSMITH: The hardest part of being in a band with family is the same as the best part. We know each other SO well, which can obviously cause a whole lot of fun, and sometimes some frustration. Siblings always know just the buttons to push to make you upset, but thankfully that doesn’t happen too much anymore.
ES: Who were your biggest influences starting out? Who are your biggest influences now?
ECHOSMITH: Starting out Coldplay and The Killers were some of our biggest modern influencers. We also grew up on music from artists like The Smiths, Peter Gabriel, the Police, and especially U2.
ES: What is the origin of the name “Echosmith”?
ECHOSMITH: Echosmith was a word we created to mean “shaping sounds”, just as a blacksmith shapes metals. It also helped that the website was available!
ES: You hit it big with “Cool Kids” back in 2013. Do you feel the pressure to live up to that success with your new music? How are you tackling that?
ECHOSMITH: We haven’t necessarily felt the pressure to make something as “big” as cool kids in a negative sense. We’ve mainly just tried to focus on making music that accurately represents who we are, and the way we see the world. Cool Kids communicated our character quite well, so we are always trying to continue in that mode.
ES: How have you changed as a band since your first album?
ECHOSMITH: A big change was our brother and guitar player Jamie leaving the band to be at home with his new kid. We suddenly had to figure out how to make music as a trio. We also have grown quite a bit since we wrote the first record. We were all young teenagers at the time (I think graham the youngest was 13/14), and now it’s been about five years, and we’ve all developed a lot. So we’ve worked hard to try and represent that in our new music.
ES: Now being in the music industry for half a decade, what’s the most important lesson
ECHOSMITH: I would say the most important thing I’ve learned since really working in the music industry is that songs are incredibly important. The messages contained within can mean a whole lot to people, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Just about everyone on the planet loves music, and it’s cool to see it truly act as a universal language, especially with our fans around the world.
ES: Your new single, “Over My Head,” talks of being in a situation that seems impossible to
fix. What advice would you offer to listeners struggling with such a situation?
ECHOSMITH: I would first suggest taking some time alone to analyze the situation, and to prepare to begin the conversation with your loved one. It’s important to tell the people you care about how you feel, and to also desire for good to come out of it.
ES: Is there a new album in the works? If so, what can we expect from it?
ECHOSMITH: There is! And we are actually in the final stages of it now. I would expect a more progressed version of Echosmith. Many of the songs from our EP we released last year will be on the record, but we also have some new songs that we are really excited about. We tried our best to be honest and true in our lyrics, and make music that is interesting and melodic. So I hope the world enjoys it!
Arlie is an indie-rock band hailing from Nashville, where the members met at Vanderbilt University. Here, we had the chance to talk to Nate, Adam, and Tyler about the band’s image, their music, and their future. Arlie is playing Schubas Tavern in Chicago this Saturday, March 10, where they will be performing their unreleased material. Their singles “Didya Think,” “Big Fat Mouth,” and “blackboard.edu” are currently streaming on Spotify, SoundCloud, and Apple Music.
This transcript has been modified from its original version.
Responses are taken from all 3 band members.
Q: How about we start with how you picked the name “Arlie”?
A: Sam Boyette. He’s a cinematographer, and really good at what he does. He made a short film long, long ago, in Arlieville. It was called “Arlie” and it was terrible, completely awful, it just sucked; so we thought we wanted to make a band that was as bad as that short film, and music that makes you feel for the future of humanity.
Adam and I [Nate] met because we were working on the soundtrack for this short film. When we were trying to think of a band name, we thought of all these names, but they were taken or they had all these other things associated with them…we also wanted to name it something childish, like boyish, and then we realized that that’s how we met, making this movie–why don’t we just call it Arlie? It was just an immediate unanimous agreement.
Q: You currently only have 3 singles out, can you give us a hint as to how the concert tomorrow will play out?
A: There’s gonna be a lot of songs that people haven’t heard. There will be the three that are out on the interwebs, and then we’ll play all the others. It’s just bangers all the way through.
Q: How would you describe your sound for those who aren’t familiar with your band?
A: Fantastic, raw, almond rock. It’s kind of like pistachio. The music is nostalgic for an older time in rock ‘n’ roll when the entire band would sing together, and you would have these fun vocal arrangements that involved everybody in the group. That, I would say, is one of the follies that a lot of people will notice the most when they see us perform–everybody is contributing. The majority of the band sings.
At the same time, there’s a lot more modern elements of various styles of pop and rock. You might catch a little bit of nostalgia sometimes, but you might hear things that are more new and experimental. So it’s a hodgepodge, a quilt of music. We all bring our various influences and backgrounds into the mix.
Q: How has your sound shifted since y’all were at Vanderbilt and transitioned from the local to national scene?
A: I [Nate] feel like I’ve always written music more in response to the national scene than in response to a local scene. I think the national scene has certainly influenced my writing to an extent, just because you meet a lot of people that are really weirdly focused, and I think I’ve definitely picked up from that. I wouldn’t have become such a weird, focused writer if I hadn’t looked at national where that’s what everybody’s really all about. But as far as sonically, I’ve always made a conscious effort to not sound like a national project.
Q: So your Facebook bio. Can you describe the meaning of it and its significance?
A: It is kind of a bio about other band bios…you see a million band bios, and they’re all really annoying and braggy and self important. We did not want to write one of those bios and everyone was telling us we needed to.
In a way, it did feel more truthful, at least as far as the core of what Arlie is about, than trying to put our life events into a constructed narrative that would be, by nature, manipulated and artificial. This way it would stick to the core of what Arlie is about, and hopefully be entertaining.
Q: How does humor play into your music or your brand?
A: I’ve [Nate] spent a lot of time around song writers that were really serious and write serious music, and for a while I was like, “Oh man, I have to do that. My music isn’t serious enough.” I would try really hard to write a lot of serious songs (not that I don’t write serious songs), but when I thought about the music I grew up liking, there was always a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, and this balance of humor versus seriousness.
I think humor keeps you honest, sometimes, as a creative person. You also need to step back and realize that you don’t need to take yourself too seriously all the time, because that gets old. Being able to do music that’s funny and powerful emotionally, that’s the ultimate goal, to be able to do both.
Q: Why do you guys brand yourselves as the #1 doctor-recommended band?
A: It’s one of those things that’s both serious and joking at the same time. The idea that music can be a cure for depression. I feel better when I’m playing music.
That’s one of those gratifying things, when you’re playing music and you get to see that it’s making somebody feel good or feel better about themselves, or they’ve had a shitty day and you get to make all that dust shake off. Music heals, music can do what doctors can do.
Q: What is the plan for the future of the band?
A: World domination. If we are making the best music we can make, we would hope that people would like it enough to come to our shows and allow us to continue to do it. If we got famous, we would want to use any influence that we had to enact good in the world, make the world a better place in some way. We’re gonna tour a lot and we’re gonna play our butts off and we’re gonna just keep making more music. I don’t see myself getting tired of that.
This year marked my first experience at the Electric Forest Music Festival. While day one and two didn’t agree with our campsite, (it was rained out and my tent collapsed), the weather did not overshadow the tremendous impact that E-Forest had. The art instillations, musicians, diversity of stages, and beautiful setting made it feel like fiction. Above all, my interactions with artists made it a worthwhile weekend. Among those, our team was given the chance to interview the kingpin of Dirtybird Records, Claude Vonstroke. While starting in San Francisco, Dirtybird has made large waves within the house scene, through Claude’s distinctly funky sound, the famed Dirtybird BBQs, and the label’s rich roster of talented artists. Claude was as friendly as he was brutally honest, within regards to his relatively unexpected career trajectory, emerging projects, and the struggles associated with becoming a fulltime artist while developing a label. Our discussion is below.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Marc: Cool, well first off man it’s great to meet you. Thanks for speaking with WNUR. I’m originally a Bay Area fan so it’s special for me.
Claude: Cool, thank you.
Marc: So, for our listeners, I’m just going to briefly describe what you do (and your background). You have Dirtybird, which has been very successful, with an exceptional roster of artists from many different countries. From Eats Everything, to Justin Martin, to Nick Monaco for a time, (who is also from SF). You’ve also had the Sirius XM station the Bird House, which I tune into when I drive, and you have the Dirtybird BBQs.
Claude: Right, and now it’s (grown to) a campout festival.
Marc: So setting the stage, you have your fingers in a lot of different areas, as an artist, as a curator.
Claude: And we have the Birdhouse stages.
Marc: Yes, and bringing other artists out using your platform. So I wonder what was it like for you in SF right at the very beginning? Right when you were starting off?
Claude: So I started off in Oakland, and my roommate went to high school with me, and he was kind of a techy guy, nerdy kinda, doing math and stuff. And he taught me how to build PCs. He had taught me over the phone before I moved to Oakland, but then I started really doing it. So I was able to make these really cheap PCs that were really fast. And then we would get all this bootleg software from China and I was able to have a much better rig than I should have. So I made a documentary about how to become a famous… Well not a famous DJ, but how to become a DJ that gets gigs. I interviewed all like the most famous people at that time, so like Paul van Dike, Orbital, Derrick Carter, and Derrick Main.
Marc: I believe Derrick Carter actually used to play at our station. He had a residency.
Claude: Cool that’s awesome! Ya, so I got all these people on it, and I edited it, and directed it, did everything on these bootleg rigs, and then I (chuckle…) ran out of money completely. So I had to make all the music, because you need music to play under the interviews, so we just remade songs that sounded like the people who were on the interviews, and I used some songs from other people as well. But then by the end of it, basically, I knew how to make house music. Then I moved to SF. The whole time I was working in SF, at an editing place, video editing. But I was going out all the time too.
Marc: Damn that’s really interesting, I know SF has a music scene with a lot of culture and history, but it’s not the music central area. It’s not LA or New York…
Claude: So it’s not, I have this thing, like it’s a great place to have a clique. It’s like, really cliquey, and awesome, if you’re in one of the cliques. So I really liked Drum and Bass when I first got there… I could not get into that clique. Like forget it. I’m sure some people say the same thing about us.
Marc: What were some of the venues you went to? I’m just curious?
Claude: Cat Club, eventually they had it at a Pizza Place.
Marc: DNA Lounge?
Claude: No I’m talking about the Drum and Bass Party. They had it at a Pizza place upstairs, then they had it at Cat Club. Ya I went to DNA Lounge, I went to the Top every Wednesday. Justin had his thing there.
Marc: And what year was all this? What was the timeframe?
Marc: Word… DNA Lounge is closing. The owner mentioned it had been there since the first .com boom but that they’ve run out of funding.
Claude: It is? It had a good room. Are they selling it to some giant computer company? It’s not a bad room. I’ve had some good nights in there.
Marc: Good to hear, so you’ve kind of jumped into my next Q which is what it was like as an emerging artist in that area. I was wondering if you had any SF influences based on cultures that inspired you, from the Hyphy movement to funk?
Claude: Ya, I mean I was from Detroit, and if I had done straight Detroit music I don’t think it would have been as eclectic. So there was kind of this extra element of, hippie, slash funny weirdo, like hip-hop head, lower height vibe that got snuck in there.
Marc: That’s awesome. Another question I have, a bunch of our listeners as well as quite a few members of our station are students. Many of us are aspiring artists as well. What advice would you give, or impart to someone who is at the beginning of their career as a musician? Also what is it like starting a label?
Claude: It’s two different kinds of advice. It’s like, be realistic, and be unrealistic (more chuckles…). So be unrealistic but don’t be stupid. The only way that I was able, I’d figured out that I really wanted to do it, so I had to make a plan to do it. Not just like, “I’m just gunna DJ everywhere and smoke a bunch of weed, and hope that something happens.” You have to make a really hardcore plan about where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. Even if it seems completely ridiculous just do it anyway. Really like, don’t quit your job from like another six months to a year from when you think you should quit your job. Also get just a tiny stockpile of money, so you can actually survive not getting booked for six months. Do you know what I’m saying?
Claude: Just get a little bit of a nesting before you go full on. That’s good advice. Otherwise you can just burn out, two months. Be like, nahmean, we used to eat mustard sandwiches. Which is just like two pieces of bread with mustard, and sh** like that just to make it. If you get to the mustard sandwiches in the first two months, you’re not gunna be a DJ.
Marc: That’s really useful advice.
Claude: You gotta be able to go a little bit longer than that.
Marc: One thing I wanted to ask as well… I think often using the general umbrella term of House, there’s often not equal representation within both gender and marginalized communities. Which is kind of ironic because House and Techno started from marginalized groups. (Speaking towards gender) I know you have J.Phlip on your roster, and I’m wondering what you think about this issue?
Claude: Ya that’s a very big question. This is something I really also noticed after last year’s Campout. I just looked at the lineup and I was like, “Man, I think we f** up” (laughs around the room…). So now I booked 8 women, and all kinds of people. I just definitely, I’m not gunna have like, this only really (male dominated). I made a concerted effort this year, but I really think, it’s not like you need to try hard. There’s so many good people that it’s pretty easy, you just have to not be an idiot.
Marc: Do you think it’s improving, that there’s more representation now?
Claude: I think that also, a couple people in the higher range of events, like Garry Richards, even though he made a crazy video. He is thinking about it, and booking more women and stuff now. There are a few people that are doing it, and then there are always a few people that don’t give a f**. Just like how life goes forever right?
Marc: So one thing, I saw you at Bonnaroo, and your alter-ego project, which is actually just your name Barclay. So I was wondering if you wanted to talk about how that started?
Claude: That was originally what I wanted to do when I was eleven, was be a rapper. All that stuff was basically from when I was like eleven to fourteen. I had a flap hat, I had a jam box, I wanted to be RUN DMC. It was just like, I was from a different planet. I made up, technically, I said I would never admit that I was actually (from) another planet. But anyway, all that stuff is from my childhood, and I just thought that was what I was gunna do, but I just got really good at making House music… So I just said that I need to go back because that was so fun and interesting, and I just still want to do it.
Marc: So it’s your passion project? That’s really cool. So this is my last Q and then I’ll let you fly, no pun intended. But I was wondering, personally, who illustrates the album covers for Dirtybird because they’re crazy!? The animal morph combinations.
Claude: OK, this is also a passion project of mine. So every year for the last five or six years, we were just doing sh** art, for a long time. Like that little bird that I drew, it was just like, really bad. For someone who likes art I was like, “Uggh why are we doing such bad art”. So I just said why don’t I get all the best people that I can possibly find to do the art. So every year, I hire one person to do all the Dirtybird art, but it’s a different person every year. It’s always low brow pop surrealism, which is my favorite kind of art. It’s always weird as f**. So… this year’s guy his name is Dolk, and he’s from Spain. Last year was Dan May from Michigan, with the fuzzy monsters. The year before that was Rahul Delilo, from the Netherlands, with the combined animals. And then the year before that was Bram Carter, who’s just a really cool illustrator from Brighton, England. So they’re from everywhere.
Marc: Awesome we’ll that was my last question, so to close I just want to say thank you.
Claude: Oh ok perfect (timing).
After his neck-breaking set at Electric Forest, I sat down with dubstep legend Funtcase. The U.K.-born producer and DJ has been in the dubstep scene since it’s underground inception. Funtcase rocks a ghastly graffiti mask and takes his crowd through a psychotic rage with nasty basses and electrifying energy. Learn more about how he got to where he is by reading our conversation below.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Vic: Hey, I’m here with James, a.k.a. Funtcase. So you’re from the U.K. correct?
F: Yeah, South U.K.
Vic: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got your start?
F: I’m from a little town called Bournemouth, it’s not really well-known by anyone, unless you’ve been on holiday there. It’s a nice really tiny beach town. I’ve lived there my whole life, I never moved away.
Vic: Still living there?
F: Yeah, all my friends and family are there, so it’s just home, you know? I could be moving to Chicago or New York or L.A. for my job, but I always felt like if I were to do a big tour, it wouldn’t feel like home. I feel like I’d be on a big holiday.
Home is when I smell the sh***y air in London, and the rain is going on. I get home to Bournemouth and see all the old people, and I’m like “ahhh, yes!”
Vic: So when and where did you start playing gigs?
F: It’s weird, cuz my whole teenage years, when I first discovered that I liked music over anything, my mom bought me my first drum kit when I was 14. I was playing drums for fun, at school, and I was in a band till I was 16. I had long hair and all of that.
Vic: What type of band?
F: Death metal bands, some thrash, and some hardcore bands. I was never into drum and bass or any electronic music. I was always like “Metal for life! I will never like anything else!” I was young.
My mom was a DJ, she DJ’s drum and bass, so I used to always hear it. There was one track I heard where I went “woah, this is actually kinda cool!” I heard that track and I had to find out what it was. Eventually I grew into a love for drum and bass and electronic music.
Vic: I actually see a lot of common ground between hardcore, metal, all the heavy genres of “rock”, and heavy electronic music, like dubstep, drum and bass, grime. That style is very similar in my mind, because it’s just about letting the rage out. Do you want to comment on that?
F: Yeah I agree. I mean, head-banging is kind of a new thing, but it definitely coincides with the mosh pit, which has been around for a few years now. It definitely has the same “vibe,” head-banging, fast-speed, all of that.
Vic: So I wanted to know what plugins are in your production arsenal. What helps give you your sound.
F: My main go-to plugins, cuz I use Cubase, are FabFilter for compression and EQing, and Waves for reverbs and delays. If someone says “put a delay on that”, boom! I go straight to Waves. I also use either Massive or Serum (synths) for my basses. I don’t use Serum as much as everyone else.
Vic: Really? I would think your basses were made in Serum.
F: No, mostly Massive. Any of my new sounds are a combination of the two. I’ve always just been comfortable in Massive, because I know what I’m doing. Serum, I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet. And that’s why a lot of my sounds are quite similar, they’re not the same. The same vibe, but not exactly the same, cuz I know what I want, and I have a general sound that I want people to recognize.
That’s the thing, everyone gets so shocked when I say that I use Massive. Everyone thinks that all the sounds in Massive have been done. I go “No, I use Massive.”
Vic: So can you tell me a little about your aesthetic on stage? How did your act evolve, and how did it get to how your show is presented now?
F: It’s weird, I was thinking about this the other day. When I started I was just doing head-nodding, making sure I’d do perfect mixes and double drops. Then it became a less about the mixing, and more about the entertainment. And that was just a natural evolution, that wasn’t me trying to keep up with EDM. That was me just actually doing that.
I realized that no one cared about the double drops anymore, they just care about a good drop in general. People don’t care, they just wanna go to a show and have a good time, and enjoy the music, rather than go “ooh that double drop was perfect!” The culture is less about the DJ and more about the entertainment now. So I naturally just followed that, I never ever tried to aim for that, but it always just happened.
I remember I used to just head nod when I was on stage, and trying to do those perfect mixes. But then for some reason, I just got more and more crazy over the years. I started jumping, and then I was doing this gun-finger sh*t, and then the claws happened. That wasn’t even from the beginning, it just happened mid-way through.
Vic: Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I got, I see Funtcase as having very “psycho” vibes.
F: F: It’s more “punked-up.” I mean there’s a certain psycho element to it. For pictures and whatnot, I try to be this mysterious, dark character.
Vic: What I see when I see you on stage is like a villain from a monster movie, you know? Like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger.
F: Yeah, you could associate the way I act, cuz I beat my chest on stage, say all this sh*t like “AWW F*CKIN’ HELL!” I treat that stage like I’m the f*cking god! And that really inspired the whole act. It’s almost like I’m summoning lightning.
Vic: I definitely love seeing you act out the bass with your hand movements and expressions.
F: Yeah, it’s weird, cuz I don’t know where that came from. I just did it. It’s almost like I’m orchestrating. You get conductors doing these movements [to the band], and I’m doing the same thing.
Vic: So let’s talk about the mask. How’d that come to be? Did you always wear it?
F: Nah, I was doing drum and bass for like 7 years before Funtcase, and I never had a mask. And then I got booked for my first Funtcase show in the second room of a club in my own hometown. I played to 5 of my friends and one random person, in the tiniest room on a table with the worst sound system. I was a bit nervous, cuz it was my first dubstep set.
A day before that show, I was booked for a festival to do graffiti (I was a graffiti artist as well), and it was a dress-up thing. So I was in a full costume, with the same mask I use now. [The next day] I thought I took everything out, but I left my mask in the bag. So when I pulled out my CD case, my friend saw the mask and said “ohhh! Wear that!” So I put it on and played, and it became a thing. It was such a sh*tty, low-budget suit, I don’t think people even knew what it was. But yeah, it was my friend’s fault.
Vic: Well I gotta say, I love the aesthetic. It really fits the music, and it portrays everything you’re doing on stage.
F: I’m glad I’ve got a mask! You always see perfect-looking artists, which appeals to people. I don’t have a face of music. Like, Calvin Harris is a good-looking muscly dude, Diplo is a good-looking muscly dude. Then you’ve got Valentino Khan, who’s got this redneck, handlebars mustache. You’ve got Borgore with this good-looking, but aggressive vibe. Everyone has their look, and then there’s me. I’m just some young, grey-head dude, haha! I don’t look like what my music portrays, so I’m thankful I have the mask. If I didn’t, what the f*ck would I look like? I’d have to put a hood up and die on stage!
Vic: So talk a little about how you got to the point where you can do this for a living.
F: I came in when dubstep was still completely unknown, but was starting to turn heads a bit. July 2009 was my first release called Gorilla Flex, and that was really off-key dubstep, but it did really well in the dubstep scene. Dubstep was so underground at that point.
It was when my good friend Chrissy Chris, who had a station on BBC Radio One, was playing a festival with an MC. And he started his set with my tune as the intro, and the crowd went f*cking apesh*t, they went nuts! It got two rewinds.
Vic: Rewinds? They played it back?
F: Yeah, we do rewinds in England; it’s our culture. It’s huge in England. If a drop is that good, and the crowd goes crazy, we rewind it and play it again, and the crowd loves it. You can’t do it in America, though! People are like “what the f*ck are you doing?! Why are you stopping the music?”
But yeah, from that point on, people were like “Yo! What is this music?” It was very energetic dubstep, which was really new in that scene. All the dubstep at that time was either really minimal, or it didn’t have that energy. The energy we have in dubstep now is so upbeat, and it was not always like that. It was slower, it was 140 [BPM] and everything was more about a powerful sub. At the beginning, it was all about sub, even the drums. And that’s the thing, it was about the power of the sub, rather than the energy of the tune.
That’s when I came in and brought my DnB sound into dubstep, and that’s what turned peoples’ heads. It was the moment when us energetic guys came into the scene. Dubstep was just the new thing in England, and I was lucky enough to be in the perfect moment in the scene to come up in the U.K.
Vic: So did this happen in London, somewhere else in the U.K.?
F: Dude, this was all over the place. My schedule in 2010 was beyond crazy! I think I did seven shows in one week. One show Thursday, two shows Friday, two shows Saturday, another show Sunday and another show Monday.
Vic: Wow! How’d you even pull that off?
F: Well this was in the U.K. It’s not like the States. You can get anywhere in 2-3 hours.
Vic: I mean in terms of energy, I wouldn’t even be able to hit play haha!
F: I wasn’t doing what I do now. I was head-nodding and just DJing, it wasn’t so crazy. If I do that now, I would be dead after two shows.
Vic: How do you compare the U.K. scene to the American scene today?
F: It’s hard to describe the U.K. The best way to think of it is they take it for granted. It’s like they don’t care about the superstar lifestyle, they don’t go crazy for DJs. They don’t ask for pictures that much. Compared to here [the States], it’s completely different. In the U.K. everyone is very chill, they go enjoy the music, and then they go home. No one head bangs, they just dance to themselves, and just enjoy it. They don’t cheer when a drop is good. And then they go home. It’s good, it’s all about the music and vibe. There’s no like “YO! Can I get a picture?? You’re the greatest!!”
In America, everyone considers DJs like these gods. People dedicate their lives to DJs.
Vic: You mentioned earlier that you kind of like that though. Becoming a god.
F: Oh yeah! I am so unbelievable grateful for America. The scene died so much in the U.K. and Europe. If there was no America, I’d probably be out of a job right now. There would be no Funtcase. If America did not exist, dubstep would’ve died in Europe, I would probably stop doing dubstep.
Vic: What scene do you think is dominating England right now?
F: House has been a thing lately, but I think dubstep is coming back. I played my first show in London, at a commercial club, it was 500 people, me and Doctor P. And the club was f*cking grand! Absolutely packed, and it was great. It was underground as f*ck, the ceiling was low, it was hot as f*ck, there was steam everywhere, people going mad. So dubstep is coming back, thank god!
Vic: I’m sure some weird sh*t goes down at your shows.
F: **Chuckles** Yeah!
Vic: Give me a story that pops into your head. Weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in the crowd.
F: I mean this is not really weird. I saw a guy in Holland in a wheelchair, and people were lifting him up; he was crowd-surfing in his wheelchair! The weirdest thing that’s happened to me was actually when I was 19 in a band. A girl threw ramen noodles at my head, and it turns out she won a competition and got a life-time supply of these noodles. I had said on Myspace (I think it was in those days) that I love Ramen noodles, so she threw some at me. So I was like, thanks!
Vic: Well that was a great conversation, any last words you have for WNUR or our listeners?
F: Just want to say thank you to everyone, I love everyone so much. Thank you for keeping me in this job!
This past weekend I got to meet the up and coming talent known as Big Wild after his booming set at Electric Forest. We chatted and conversed over his craft, how he creates the signature Big Wild sound, and what it means for him to play on stage. Big Wild is a part of Odesza’s Foreign Family Collective, and has shared the stage with the likes of Odesza and future-funk legend Griz. Jackson is currently working on new material that he hopes to have out soon. Be on the lookout! Read on for a full transcript of our conversation.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Vic: I’m here with Jackson, a.k.a. Big Wild. So tell me a little bit about where you’re from, how you got your base and your start.
BW: I’m from Massachusetts, and I started producing when I was about 13. I’m 26 now, so half my life has been about making music.
Vic: All electronic music?
BW: I actually started making hip-hop. I wanted to copy what I was hearing on the radio. I used to sell instrumentals throughout high school, that was my first little business. It was when I got into college when I started to pivot more towards electronic music, it was what was inspiring me at the time.
Vic: Where’d you go to college?
BW: I went to school in Boston, Northeastern.
Vic: Very cool! Lots of people making music around there. So did you play a lot of gigs in college, around Northeastern?
BW: I actually didn’t. I never played any shows growing up. I was always the kid behind the computer, making music, and that’s what I love to do. It wasn’t until I started meeting with an agent, who heard my music through Odesza, and getting shows that way. That’s when I realized that I needed to start improving this part of my career.
Vic: So you produced first, then started playing live.
BW: Totally, for like a while too. That’s how I first discovered and learned everything about music, through producing on the computer.
Vic: So I know you use keys and drums while playing on stage. I’m guessing you started playing instruments before you made electronic music.
BW: Well the only instrument I played before I made beats was trumpet. I played that for like 6 or 7 years.
Vic: Ok, jazz band?
BW: Yes, jazz band at school. I enjoyed trumpet, but I think one of the main reasons I ended up producing was because I felt like trumpet was kind of limiting. I had this one instrument and I could play one note at a time; and here I have this computer software where I can literally make an entire song, environment, or whatever just out of my head. It was so interesting to me, and it was kind of along the way that I started to learn keys as I produced. It wasn’t really until I started playing live that I picked up the drums. I was late in the game, I’m not a trained drummer or keyboardist, it’s just something I learned along the way.
Vic: Well you definitely have rhythm!
BW: I always wanted a drum set when I was a kid, but my parents said it was too loud. I feel like I have a natural sense of rhythm, and that definitely helps me with learning drums.
Vic: So this goes along with playing live. Some artists are known to play the same set at every show. What do you do to keep your sets fresh, new and exciting?
BW: I tap into whatever is inspiring me at the moment, and figure out how to put that in my sets. I ask “how can I draw more emotion out of this part? How can make this part feel more like a moment? How can I make this build a little more intense?” People sometime really want that drop to hit. A set, how I view it at least, is just tension and release, and there’s a million ways to do that. But as long as you have that formula in mind, you just have to play around with it, have fun.
It also helps to go around these festivals and hear what everyone else is doing. A large part of what I do, making it individually to me, is noting what I like and what I don’t from others, just listening. So it’s keeping it true to myself, not trying to hop on a trend. I just put myself into the show, by playing instruments, and make it feel like my music. It’s really just me.
Vic: So I actually found out about you through your remix of Griz’s For the Love. I actually play that on my radio show all the time, great track! How do you feel about taking a song and gaining exposure through a remix?
BW: I think it’s really cool, and I’ve done a couple remixes where I’ve ended up on tour with the artists I’ve remixed. That happened with Odesza and Griz. It was a really cool gateway into getting to know their fans, and what they’re into. It’s a test for me too, where it’s my own sound, but it’s also something their fanbase would like too.
Vic: Well you definitely flip the songs on their heads.
BW: Yeah! I flip it a lot. That’s what I find fun. It’s all about a challenge, I like a challenge.
I haven’t been doing as many remixes lately, because I’ve been focusing on my own music. But there’s something awesome about remixing and adding your own flavor to something that’s already out there.
Vic: So switching gears a little, what are your most used production plugins? What’s something every Big Wild song uses.
BW: Hmm, I like to use Arturia synths, they remodel a lot of vintage synthesizers, like Moogs, Prophet, and Jupiter. I like to use a lot of models of old synths from the 70’s and 80’s. I just love the sound, and integrating them with more modern sounds. I’m really big on bridging old and new, because I think they both have something really cool to offer. I really like Soundtoys as well.
Vic: I love those plugins too! What is the vocal manipulator called?
BW: Little AlterBoy! Yeah! I use this trick with AlterBoy where I put it on a piano track, and set the plugin to hard tuner, and it acts like an auto-tuner. It adds this chorusing effect, and makes your piano sound super distorted and old. It’s nice to throw a plugin used for vocals on a piano and see what happens, you know? Don’t look at a plugin as only being used for that one thing, because a lot of awesome sounds are made by breaking out of the box.
Vic: So if you weren’t making a living off of your music, what do you think you would be doing with your time?
BW: It’s tough to say, because I’ve been wanting to do music for so long, but I think I’d want to be doing something along the lines of environmental protection. Working to protect national parks from becoming privatized. I’d want to do something to help climate change, that’s something I really care about.
Vic: Did you study music in college?
BW: I studied music business, but I did a lot of music classes. I quickly found out that music business didn’t really interest me that much. I did a lot more traditional music classes, like training your ear. I tried to learn jazz piano and I was just experimenting with things.
I knew music on a very technical level, and I wanted to learn how people had been making music for hundreds of years.
Vic: So what’s the weirdest (or coolest) thing you’ve seen in one of your crowds?
BW: One time when I was on stage at Okechobee Music Fest, it was the first year they did it. I was on the beach stage, and it was the very first day. I don’t think the festival expected as many people to come as did, so my crowd was HUGE. So far back for a tiny little stage. There was no security at all, and people were climbing on stage, dancing, doing whatever they wanted. It got really rowdy.
So I was doing something on the drums, and I turn around to trigger something on my controller and I see this person out of the corner of my eye just standing very close to me. I was immediately like, “woah!” I had no idea he was there. You could tell he was on something, but he had a big smile on his face and put his arms out. So I hugged him and we had a little moment on stage, and then he peacefully walked off the stage.
Vic: Haha! That could have turned out a lot worst than it did.
BW: It could have, but it was a cool moment because there are plenty of instances where people get knocked out by security, and it was cool to see something happen where that wasn’t needed. It was just like “alright, you wanna hug me? Let’s hug. We’re cool!” It was a very peaceful way to do it.
Vic: So I didn’t see you have a computer or CDJs on stage, so I was really curious as to how you control your music on stage.
BW: I use Ableton, but I try and keep the computer out of sight. It’s on the side of my riser, just on a table. I have it there in case something goes wrong, but I don’t really look at it. I have an Ableton Push controller, and that’s what I trigger all my clips from.
Vic: That’s honestly a great way to do it. I was convinced you were playing without a laptop. I was trying to figure out how you were triggering everything, and I knew you had a controller, but it still made me wonder how you were pulling it off. It’s very cool since you don’t have a screen in front of you.
BW: That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do, I don’t like things to be between me and the crowd. A computer just really feels like a barrier for me. So try to put everything to the side, and I try and make my setup really open. There’s no table, it’s just me and my instruments.
Vic: Anything else you want to say?
BW: I’m working on new music. I’m singing a lot, and writing lyrics. I don’t know if it’s an album yet, but I’m making a bunch of demos and seeing where it goes.
Vic: What type of style should we expect?
BW: It’s similar in style to what I already do, but at the same time a bit of an evolution of my sound. I’m creating music that integrates vocals and makes you dance too. It’s not just instrumental. I’m really excited about it and it’s what is really inspiring me right now.
At Bonnaroo Music Festival 2017, we had the opportunity to speak with Spoken Word musician, activist, and teacher Malcolm London. Malcolm, a Chicago native, pushes to improve the education system and combat social divides that exist within the city. By the age of 20 he already participated in a TED talk, and he continues to raise awareness about the many issues that exist within the overarching educational and social system, as well as work to eradicate these problems. On a personal note, my interaction with Malcolm was one of the most insightful artists interviews I’ve been fortunate to take part in. His passion, demeanor, and the goals he makes, which extend far beyond himself, motivate others to take part in his efforts. Our interview is below:
Marc: So starting off, I was wondering if you could speak up about where you’re from, and how that’s influenced you as both an activist and an artist. Coming from the Chicago area.
Malcolm: Ya man, I’m from Chicago, the west side of it, and born and raised in the Austin neighborhood. I grew up there, and I often say I got my education on the bus from there. You know in a city like Chicago it’s uniquely segregated, to put it in a nice way. So, ya man I think most young people in the city, folks I’ve grown up with, if you live in a city like Chicago you either become defeated by how it exists, or you become extremely fortified in trying to overcome.
Marc: So proactive? I guess speaking from that I was thinking about the fact that it seems like a city of neighborhoods.
Malcolm: Ya, which is its beauty and its fault.
Marc: I was wondering, what tensions do you think within the education system at large are especially problematic?
Malcolm: At large, I think where we get our education, even beyond the complexities of race and gender and class. Even the idea that a classroom still looks the same way that it’s looked since the early 1900s, and it’s 2017. We have a computer in our pockets. So you don’t learn in school how to define yourself, or to love yourself, or even taxes for that matter. I feel like we get it wrong with education and the biggest thing is, what does it mean? Does it mean that we’re coming to this space to be better human beings, or are we coming to this space to be obedient taxpayers? Or obedient in whatever sense of the word. I think at large that’s the first mistake, that we have folks who control the educational system, and the curriculum, and the classrooms who don’t give a sh** about the people inside them.
Marc: And it just compounds. So I’d read that you had given a TED talk, when you were 20, which is very impressive. I’m 22 so I’m like, oh man, setting the bar [some good laughs], and it was spoken word. Can you talk a little bit about the motivation behind it and how that happened, as well as what you discussed?
Malcolm: Ya, I talked about generally what we are talking about. The education journey, in a four minute Snapchat, a snapshot poem. It was kind of crazy how that happened. I had written the poem, called high school training grounds, interrogating what really is education, particularly in Chicago. Where there is segregation, there is class, and by happenstance it was invited to be a TED talk. Since then I think, my motivation behind that poem is really just telling my own narrative. and I think as an artist and as a poet, especially in Chicago, which is home of Louder Than A Bomb a poetry festival that happens every year. The need and necessary work of telling stories is important, especially in the city of Chicago, where silos exist. So it’s like, how do we come together and show each other, each other, and also interrogate each other with love and critique each other with love? If you can’t have honest conversations you can’t start the dialogue. I think poetry does that, hopefully, and also music.
Marc: Speaking of poetry, I know you were the winner of 2011 Louder Than A Bomb, and now you do a lot with the poetry community at large. Can you talk about how you went from working within [the competition] to teaching within it?
Malcolm: So that’s a big shoutout to Kevin Coval, who runs that space. It was kind of seamless, and now at 24 I still consult and visit classrooms, and talk to young people at juvenile detention centers, etcetera. It’s a beautiful space.
Marc: That’s awesome. So this question has a little bit of a different context, but how do you think your failures have changed your perspective. Would you be comfortable discussing them and how they’ve helped you grow, and how you’ve worked through the trials and tribulations of growing up in that system, as well as being an artist and spoken word author?
Malcolm: Ya, I think failure is the best thing that we can learn from. Tangibly, statistically, I graduated with a 1.9 GPA, I graduated with two arrests under my belt before I became an activist. I think, that particular lens is indicative of, like, I always say living in a city like Chicago, there’s a me in every jail cell and every graveyard. This just means that every young person is f**ing amazing, but because of the existing statistics that exists, they won’t make it or be alive. But I think, by failure we learn from our mistakes, and how to not do the same sh**. So I think, for me, the biggest thing is being able to have a community of people who can also hold you accountable to the things you want to do, and hold you accountable to your potential. I think that’s also what we should do, for politicians and people in power, is hold them accountable for what they say, and be hopeful I guess.
Marc: Absolutely, and I was wondering if part of that was the result of being frustrated by your education, because you saw this system at large. Was it like “why do I even try”?
Malcolm: Ya ya, absolutely, any kid or student feels like that. Like what is the purpose of this? You know, I can tell you every person feels that way. Go to most American high schools right now, and you tell me a young person loves his environment? Unless they go to [private or independent] school or something. It’s hard to find that space. I think that’s less on the young person and more on the system in place. Teachers have it hard, there is a bureaucracy of leadership, and all of that effects.
Marc: What do you think would be a key factor, for anyone across racial lines anywhere in Chicago, to create some impactful change or help become a positive force within the system, and support what you advocate for?
Malcolm: I’m a proponent of, [chuckle] maybe I’m a cynic and a pessimist, but there are so many problems. So many complex, very, very, hard problems that I do not have all the answers to. But I will say that, if you hear anybody who figures out a way to solve a problem, a solution, by all means tell more people. I think that, you make a mistake by believing there needs to be new ideas. We put people on the moon, we can figure out how to solve racism and sexism, we just need more people involved to do it. It’s not necessarily more ideas, so get more involved. We live in a mass information age, so follow up. Love yourself, figure out what that looks like. There are so many different solutions, which is a beautiful part of humanity.
Marc: And with exactly what you were talking about, your message, it sounded like you started with Spoken Word. What’s it been like, while similar, transitioning to being a musician? How do you utilize your previous artistry and bring it into this new context. Do you think that has really helped to project your message to a lot of people?
Malcolm: I think it’s just a different platform. The fun part is as a creative person, figuring out how to make music and learning about bars and measures, which I wish I had in school. But it’s fun, honestly it’s fun, and that’s the direction I want to go right now. It’s honestly just, I’m the same person just doing a different thing. So, you know, all of my experiences influence that, and it’ll make for a unique listening experience. Just having fun with it.
Marc: Ya definitely. Alright I have a couple more questions. So I was wondering, you have this album that just came out?
Malcolm: Ya Opia, it came out in October of 2016. Ya, we’re here at Bonnaroo.
Marc: It’s about to go down, and I was wondering there were quite a few people that helped out on the album. You’ve got Donnie Trumpet, Niko, started off with Kids These Days. Then you had Vic, Chance.
Malcolm: Ya Chance definitely heard the tape but he’s not on it. But he’s here at the festival, so we’re about to link up.
Marc: Ya so it seems like there’s a big Chicago movement to try and generate this positivity.
Malcolm: No absolutely, I mean we all come from the same space. I continually try to respect and love Chance for keeping that energy. He’s the most famous guy in the country right now, and still we have that open mike. So I appreciate that. But ya Opia came out, and we’re here at Bonnaroo. I went on tour not too long ago, and the tour was great. Ya man, wherever whenever, this is great.
Marc: Hell ya, and what does the album name mean for you?
Malcolm: Ya so Opia, I’m a word nerd I found it. It’s like a lost word, but it means the intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel both invasive and vulnerable. So I was like, you know, I don’t want to make the best rap bravado tape, I just want to make something honest. So when people listen to my project, they feel like they’re looking me in the eyes. That’s what I hope to accomplish.
Marc: So you’re bringing something to light that may be uncomfortable and invasive for others.
Malcolm: Ya, you gotta open your eyes.
Marc: So my last question, is there anything that you would like to project to both our listeners and our readers for our editorial? For University students who have the potential to really push and be activists.
Malcolm: Absolutely, especially those that are newer to Chicago. I love Northwestern, I love its campus, and I love the students. Ya man, I think, go to Chicago is the first, literally to those students. There are so many things and misconceptions about Chicago, and about its people, and if you take that lesson with you everywhere in the world, and you’ll begin to learn things. Look out for how the city is growing, and hopefully be apart of that, is my personal advice. Other then that I mean ya man, my name’s Malcolm London, try to remember that. Hit me up. I love talking to people, I love building with folks!
This past memorial day weekend, the WNUR Media Team scurried over to Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, IL. The festival itself was Neverland; a tent city of over 20,000, buried in the forest and along park grounds. Stages featured music across genres, including jam bands, techno, and powwow. Over the course of three days, festival goers developed a rich informal economy and community dynamic. The weekend was filled with craftspeople, many of whom sold, traded, or bartered their wares. Beyond these informal creatives, the stage acts were equally captivating.
Our team had the privilege of interviewing the lead singer, Bassel, of Bassel and the Supernaturals. Bassel, a first generation Syrian American, engages and raises awareness for the Syrian refugee crisis. As an activist, spokesperson, and artist, Bassel plays an important role in creating a dialogue about the problems facing Syrians, both within and outside of the states. This interview provides a lens for his message, which is also highlighted in the band’s 2017 album, Elements. The group gave an outstanding performance at SCAMP, and successfully conveyed their mission. The ensemble directly contributes to The Karam Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing a better future for Syria. Donations are accepted here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Marc: Alright great! So first can you tell us a little about yourself and your band. Where are you guys from?
Bassel: Yes, we’re Bassel and the Supernaturals. I’m Bassel Almadani, and we’re based in Chicago. We’re a 7 piece neo-soul funk ensemble. I’m first generation Syrian American, and we are all some really funky dudes, and we’re at Summer Camp today.
Marc: Thats awesome. How did you meet the members of your band, and are they also Syrian American?
Bassel: They are not Syrian American, but a lot of them are connected to this issue in some way or another. We met through the music scene. I went to Chicago 7 years ago as a songwriter, and been in Chicago performing, getting out there, touring, meeting artists pretty consistently… and met my drummer through Loyola music scene. I met my guitarist through the DePaul scene, and that sort of expanded and I met a lot of musicians between both those schools and my whole funk network just kind of rapidly expanded from there.
Marc: That’s great, so the collegiate scene had a pretty large impact in meeting different artists, and getting out there, at least in Chicago?
Bassel: From the get go, from the get go forsure. And then as I started playing out more often, I really became apart of the soul funk family in Chicago, which is very closely knit. Whether it’s band mates that play in other soul and funk projects, or we all work with each other and sort of become a big collaborative network.
Marc: That’s awesome, and you mentioned there’s a full length album that was recently released in 2017 called Elements? Can you describe your process and some of the trials and tribulations of creating the album, the nature of it, how has it been?
Bassel: We released the album in February, so earlier this year, and it’s full length is Elements, and it was over 2 years in the making. It started tracking in february of 2015. There’s a lot of layers to it, there’s a lot of musicians involved, well beyond our rhythm section, we had a full piece horn section, auxillary percussion, backup vocals, strings, and woodwinds. We really went in and added a lot of textures on to this album. Then earlier this, I guess last year, a little over a year ago, our bassist on the album passed away, like really unexpectedly. He was from the DePaul music scene and was an unbelievably funky dude. And that just kinda put a pause on things as we recalibrated, and we really dug in, and made sure this album sounded as good as it could possibly be, to do diligence to his amazing talent. So we finally released the album in february, and did a pre-order campaign behind the album; donated 3,000 dollars to the Karam Foundation for humanitarian aid in Syria. So ya we had this whole crowd funding campaign going on in December, and we did the donation and then essentially released the album in february, and then hit the road in march. We did a handful of tour dates, we went to South By Southwest, and it’s just been really picking up speed since then.
Marc: So it sounds like the album has been very politically impactful, actually receiving help from donations for the Syrian refugee crisis, and sonically it sounds very interesting. What do you think the message of the album has really been about in general? Contextually what do you talk about within it, motivations of it?
Bassel: Ya well the concept of Elements, there’s a literal component to it, where there’s references to Water and Fire and Earth and the all connect to stories that also relate to these elements. But what brings it all together is that natural order of the world and being above and beyond something that is within our control. Which I believe is a fundamental learning, as it relates to Syria. There are some things that we cannot control related to this, but we have to adapt, and we can’t ignore this crisis that is happening in our backyard, that has been affecting my family members. Even though it does seem beyond anything that one person can have a huge impact on, we have to adapt and we have to stay noisey around this issue and stay connected to this, in a deep way. So ya it definitely relates to Syria in that way, but it also above and beyond that, the circumstance with our Bassist, or just all the obstacles that we’ve experienced in the making of this record.
Marc: You said NOISEY, and actually, I heard you were premiered on NOISEY as well as VICE, and a number of other news outlets. So I’m wondering what is the role that the news and media, and Universities as well, from what it sounds like, what roles have they played in the dissemination of your message?
Bassel: Well last year in particular it played a much bigger role. One thing I didn’t mention after the album was released and we went to South by Southwest, the showcase that we were involved with at South by Southwest was called Contraband, and it featured artists from the countries targeted by the immigration ban. So we represented Syria as part of that showcase. So that led to a lot of national press. We had writers following us for a few days, Al Jazeera… they were coming out of the woodwork, which was really beautiful to see. I’ve been out there talking about Syria for over 6 years because I’m very personally connected to this issue, and I think a lot of people were nervous to get near it, or didn’t want to get political. Even though all these innocent people are dragged into the middle of this issue, and the way that their lives have all been affected, it felt like this political issue that people didn’t want to get near. So it took a lot of connecting with people, getting to know people, and creating collaborations from a trusting place. Not coming in with some message of how people should think. So I think once the election came, and that issue came home, and we had the refugee ban that came to place, I think people felt a need, an urgency, to become connected to this issue, and to make a positive impact. So I think at that point is when something like this showcase at South by Southwest opened up for us as this opportunity, to have this voice on a national platform, and to know that people are hearing and caring about it. So that was, that was really beautiful, and I feel like, particularly since the election, finding people who are more connected to this issue, more student organizations that are seeking us out for performances or speakers, or Q and A engagements, cultural centers and churches, a lot of people that feel like they’ve been sitting around too long and need to act now.
Marc: Yes, that actually leads me perfectly to my last question. Obviously we are a student, University, and community funded radio station. What is the best way for listeners, and people just generalized, to move forward and make an impact on this problem, this crisis? What do you think is the most direct way?
Bassel: I think more than anything, finding a way to stay connected, through experiences like this. I don’t know if, have you guys met a Syrian person before? I always like to ask that…
(Our Media Team shook our heads no)
Bassel: Yes, so I think a lot of times people that I’ve talked to haven’t met a Syrian person, so it feels like an issue that’s super far away. Now when you hear about things in the news, or you hear about a charity organization, you can make a personal connection to that, and it’s a very significant impact. So I think just staying connected to it, and you know being able to personalize that, is a really important step. Engage and go to festivals, you know whatever it is. But above and beyond that there are some amazing organizations in the US that are doing fantastic work, and some right in our backyard. There’s one close to Chicago, in Evanston, called Karam foundation. That’s where we’ve donated a lot of the proceeds from our pre-order and we’re working to consistently donate proceeds from our merchandise, it goes to Karam foundation. Their whole mission centers around building a better future for Syria by empowering children and families, getting them back into schools, providing them with care, transportation to get them to these schools, helping them get back on their feet so they can steer their own futures.
Marc: So it’s a very direct, tangible way to impact.
Bassel: Yes, and there are others, there’s a few other organizations right here in the US. There’s the Syrian American Medical Society, Syrian American Council, and then there’s a lot of others that are doing amazing work, whether it’s for refugees in the states, for refugees right on the border between Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, or refugees inside of syria, that are doing policy work and advocacy. I think just identifying the way that you want to help and seeking out the organizations that are doing that work to really compound the effectiveness of the work they’re doing.
Marc: Ya, we’re all excited to one, see your show at 4 PM, and two, hopefully help spread your message.
Bassel: Thank you brotha, hope it doesn’t stay too muddy!
Earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of the NU administrative team and Weinberg Senior Andrew Kaplowitz, Cuban rap duo Obsesíon was able to make it to Northwestern’s campus on a travel visa. The group discussed the nature of their work at a WNUR Streetbeat weekly meeting.
The student DJs learned firsthand about the impact that the group’s socially conscious hip-hop has had in their native country, as well as the trials and tribulations of their endeavors. Alexey, one half of the urban duo, sat after the presentation and indulged us with a personal interview.
Alexey: My name is Alexey or “el tipo este” [that guy over there]. I am a part of the hip hop group Obsesión. My partner is Magia. We are from Cuba, “cubanisimo” [we are very Cuban]. In June, we will complete our twenty-first year as a group – something that makes us very proud. More so than the videos or special productions, just being together for so long is what’s most important.
Our group was created as a result of the hip hop from the late-80s and 90s. At the same time, we have learned a lot from underground libraries, from books where we could read about things that weren’t necessarily taught in school. Also, from the people – those that are in the know or who were there.
Our biggest influences, are the rapper, from Puerto Rico, Vico C who broke the “taboo” that if you do salsa, you had to sing in Spanish and if you do rap, it had to be in English. He started to break out and many people in Cuba started to realized – “I am going to do this because this guy did it.”
And there are the classics: RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy.
Marc: Can you speak a little more about these underground libraries?
Alexey: Yeah sure, it’s simple… It’s strange, it’s strange. I started to become interested in the history of my country starting from a book like, for example, the autobiography of Malcolm X.
People say “Why do you have to read an American book to understand Cuba?” And it’s because I felt similarities with my history, and similarities that don’t exist in our schooling system, it’s a good system, but there are many information gaps. You have to search for that outside information.
I feel the black children in Cuba grow up with low self esteem or feel marginalized because there aren’t, the history they learn, the patterns to follow or people to look up to – there aren’t many. And the media doesn’t help any either. There, they offer information like in the telenovelas — the soap operas in Cuba are what people see the most, they’re classic — black people don’t have roles or if they do they’re playing infamous roles or slaves — which is part of the history, yes, but look, we have done so much otherwise.
I have a daughter, she’s three years old, and we say there needs to be an equilibrium between what she learns in school and this. I have a responsibility for her self esteem and to support her situation.
There are many people, academics and intellectuals that have demonstrated an interest in hip hop. But you see, academic discourses exist at a very high, conceptual level, that in Cuba is very far away from what is happening in reality. So the hip hop movement does a lot to bring together those ideas and we learn from their point of view as well. This type of interaction has benefited us both.
Marc: what is the difference between an artist in Cuba vs, for example, if you were in a capitalist country…?
Alexey: Well, I think I can speak more of the similarities than the differences. In the sense that, if you lose passion, you’re out. You have to have a mindset of sacrifice – if you think that ‘tomorrow I am going to triumph’, then you have to put in the effort to do so. It’s a career that requires more constant effort than any other.
I think that you have to have a greater purpose. Say someone does it with the dream of being successful, in other careers, you can do that, but with this, you have to have it in your head that hip hop is not a genre if you want to be in magazines, or be mentioned a lot, this level of success is in other sectors.
In both places, sacrifice is sacrifice. You have to be focused in what you want to be and make it happen. This is why I can talk more about the similarities. The differences are contextual, but in the end, passion applies no matter what.
Marc: What has been the most impactful thing you feel you’ve done through your music?
Alexey: Show the people, we are beautiful the way we are. That we have a very beautiful history. We have a marvelous culture. That you don’t have to fit into any model the standards teach us. That is you want to express yourself a certain way or shout then that is good because that is who we are. We have to be proud for how we are.
We have a song called “Los Pelos” [the hairs]. It talks about how our hair is pretty the way it is. Cuban women would straighten their hair or change it to be pretty. And this song came out, and many people, many women started wearing their hair natural, “super afro” and this made me very proud.
Marc: Do you have a message you’d like to bring to the States and to your listeners here?
Alexey: Be careful with the media. It’s horrible. Including, be careful with things that called themselves modernization or civilization, and new technology – because that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in being human.
I’ve heard the words here a lot, acceptance and tolerance, I think, what is more valuable is respect. I don’t hope that you accept me for entering this place, “I can tolerate you”, I think that it is more valuable to respect me, you have to respect me, in the same way I have to respect you.
Respect implies many things, a level of thought that allows you to see diversity as a goal. In this way, I will be a person, when I have your respect.
I’m glad you’ve asked me these questions, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Normally people ask me things like “What is rap to you” but not as many questions that make me look within and ask myself serious questions.
Marc: Do you want to give a shout out to other Cuban artists, with a positive message like yourselves?
Alexey: Ooh, with positive messages…. La Reina y La Real, El Padrino, [old school artists]. It’s great because there are many artists taking off that are great. El Lagarto, he’s very good. El Mesiga – lots of good people. There you have it.
Maxime Usdin and Marc Chicoine of WNUR Streetbeat had the pleasure of chatting with Ben Swardlick and Eric Luttrell, the San Francisco duo behind The M Machine! They discussed their beginnings, joining the label OWSLA, and the release of the new album GLARE. Check the interview out here!