Gnawledge Records (stream available for Rhyme And Beats)
Although I’m lacking the exclusive angle here (Tree Beats has already commented on the album over at his spot), I was privileged enough to be able to have the opportunity to chat to Gnotes, an up and coming MC from Boston, about his new album Rhymes & Beats over the phone this week. Although some of the album isn’t exactly to my taste, an overall sense of quality and detail coupled with standouts such as ‘Check Dos’ and ‘Dodgey Bullets’ mean that you’d be a fool not to check it out. The above link will take you to the Gnawledge Records website where you can stream the album in its entirety and if you’re convinced then it’s available on Amazon.
From Da Bricks: Congratulations on the album man, I hope it all turns out well for you.
Gnotes: Thank you very much man, I put in a lot of work on that album and it seems like people are starting to give a good response back, you know what I mean?
FDB: I know you’re from Boston and you obviously have quite eclectic taste in music. What were your early experiences of music?
G: I started playing the guitar when I was ten years old. I was listening to a lot of different music before I started listening to hip hop, so when I was young I was playing punk, garage type stuff and grunge. I really got into hip hop when the west coast thing started blowin’ up, so it was really Dre and Snoop that turned me onto the whole artform. From there, a lot of my influences are from the older cats on the east coast, Pete Rock and people like that. Once I got into it there was no turning back!
FDB: I noticed as well that you have had several releases out before now, but I haven’t ever caught wind of them. Can you talk me through some of those earlier releases?
G: This is the fourth release that Canyon [Gnawledge Records founder] and I put out, but it’s really the second strictly hip hop album. The first album was entitled Broken Spoke, that was a hip hop album cut from the same form with a lot of world influences, but it was kind of just a stepping stone. We put that out in 2004. From then we did a spoken word album that was kind of just a collection of poets who were all competing in slams and stuff, and we had some musicians on it as well. I did quite a lot of guitar on that album. That was primarily Canyon’s brainchild. The third album, Inthrumental, was essentially a hip hop album but it was basically dusty breakbeats with a lot of live instrumentation. There’s no words on the album, it’s strictly musical, some sample based material, lots of live trumpets and I play a lot of guitar and do the MPC drums and so on. So the album before this was essentially a blank canvas, almost lounge music.
FDB: So how did you hook up with Canyon and Gnawledge in the first place?
G: Canyon used to be a journalist and he was reviewing a poetry slam that I was doing, and my Broken SpokeLP was essentially recorded by then. I was looking for a way to put it out and trying to start my own little independent label. Canyon was coming from the other end of the spectrum. He was looking to start his own record company but didn’t really have an artist to work with. The two of us got together and it just worked out really well: we had a lot of the same goals, ambitions and influences. Shortly after we met one another we put out Broken Spoke and travelled to Cuba for the tenth annual hip hop festival, and really just the type of work ethic that he has and the way that I like to work… we just vibe really well together.
FDB: You’ve already mentioned about some of your different production roles, for the new album can you break down the production? Is it lots of live instruments, MPC based, and do you still use samples?
G: It’s a little bit of everything. There’s four outsourced beats on the album out of fourteen. Personally, as a musician as well as an MC, I take a lot of pride in making the music. I think you lose a sense of soul when you have producers and rappers who haven’t even met each other paying for music, ya know? There’s a lot of sample based stuff, although I try to chop it and make it as obscure as I can. I have a lot of Latin records, a lot of old Brazilian music, so for example ‘Samba Tryst’ is based around one of those old Brazilian songs. From there, I put it in my MPC, cut it up and put the drums over it, and then almost every track I put live bass and guitar on it as well and as much as I can I get Afro DZ Ak to come and play trumpet on the track ‘cos I feel it adds a lot of life to it. Any track you listen to the skeleton is probably from a sample and then layer it up from there. The sample used on ‘Throw Ya Nickels Up’ is a cello and then I added live bass, drums from the MPC and live guitar. There’s a mix in each of the tracks.
FDB: Obviously you do rhymes as well, so when you’re thinking of the concept for a track is that the rhymes that come first and then the beats or the other way around?
G: It kind of varies with the projects. With this album I really focussed on the music. Primarily what I’m doing now is making a beat and then from the emotion of the music I go from there for the topic of the rhymes. Sometimes the sample I use may give me a framework to go with. For example, ‘Missing You’ was a Charlie Pride sample that says ‘missing you’, so that kind of speaks for itself in terms of direction. I primarily work on the music first, then the rhymes and then go back and rework everything.
FDB: So do you still see them as on a level playing field for you personally? Are you still involved in spoken word at all?
G: The spoken word scene got pretty tired for me pretty quickly to be honest. Being lyrically taut is a huge requirement for me, it’s just that being an instrumentalist means that I want the framework I rap over to have some musical substantiation. That’s the key focus for me. It’s not that I focus less on the rhymes, but I think it’s more important to get the music correct. You know, once I’ve done a song I rework it 15 or 20 times until we get it right, and that’s the role that Canyon plays. He’ll listen to a song and say whether the snares are too loud, maybe I’m emphasising the wrong word or he might question what I mean in a particular verse and then we’ll go back and re-record it. I probably recorded each song on the album at least 7 or 8 times.
FDB: Can you tell me a little bit about ‘Throw Ya Nickels Up’, the first single from the album?
G: That’s a more political track. I try to walk the line between mentioning socially relevant topics and being too overbearing. Music is a celebration and the last thing you want to do is put out a song that’s just a downer [laughs]. You want something that challenges people’s intelligence and avoids just stating the obvious. ‘Throw Ya Nickels Up’ is a politically driven song, I think instrumentally it kind of pointed in that direction. The drums are huge and then once I put the guitar in the hook it just seemed like a motivation for a ‘power to the people’ type of song. There are 4 or 5 tracks on the album that are very politically driven but it also walks the line between mentioning what I do as well.
FDB: You have a lot of collaborations on the album. How did those relationships come about?
G: Afro DZ Ak plays trumpet and he rhymes on one of the tracks. He played 7 tracks on Inthrumental, the two of us met and just instantly clicked. He’s on kind of the same vibe as me, he’s an MC but also an instrumentalist, so he plays piano and trumpet and I do guitar, bass and drums so the two of us have actually worked together a lot and I’m producing part of his album right now. Kabir, who features on ‘Tower Of Babylon’ is an MC from the Boston area who I met through music and is a great friend, very talented guy who has been around forever and put out a number of records. They’re all kind of driving from the peace poem, revolutionary segment of my peers. I have friends who are just straight rappers, a little bit more hood style, but the people I was looking for with this album were socially relevant and intelligent. Noni Kai, she sings on ‘We Can Roll’ is a singer from a band in Boston called The Eclectic Collective and she was actually just at my apartment working with another musician and I was writing ‘We Can Roll’ at the time and I just stole her for a minute and got her to sing and it worked out beautifully in just one take. The final collaboration is Elemental Zazen, another very talented cat from Boston who has a new album coming out soon. He’s actually the MC in another band that I play for, so when I’m doing a live show I’ll do a set with my DJ and then I do a set playing guitar for Elemental Zazen as well.
FDB: You’ve toured with some big hitters recently like Devin The Dude and CunninLynguists. What was that experience like?
G: It was great man. Devin The Dude is one of my favourite MCs so the opportunity to do anything with him is great. Obviously he’s a much bigger blip on my radar than I am on his. I saw him a couple of days ago in Boston and he’s an unbelievable cat, a great person to work with, just a really talented guy. It was just a pleasure. As far as touring and playing shows goes that’s my love, so being able to rock a show with the CunninLynguists who I’ve been listening to since I was 16 is a big step forward for me to be able to get my name in the same ring as people who I listen to.
FDB: Is there any potential for collaboration there do you think?
G: Yea, I mean Elemental Zazen has already worked with Kno from CunninLynguists as he produced like three songs on Elemental’s album that’s coming out. Much like anything else, a lot of this business has to do with networking and I really do hope to have Kno make some tracks for my next album. The more people I meet in the game who are further ahead than me and more established than I am the better. They all seem to treat me with respect because they know I’m coming from a pure place with the music. As long as I continue to put out quality work there’s no reason why I couldn’t get some bigger names on my next release.
FDB: In a more general sense, what do you make of hip hop at the moment? Do you still have a lot of time for people making music now?
G: I think if you talk to any MC who is cut from the same cloth as me the first thing they’ll say is ‘fuck the industry’ and stuff but I think if you look at any music whether it be punk, rap, rock, folk or whatever the stuff we are spoon fed through MTV and the radio is garbage, so ultimately it’s up to the listener. If you love the music then you find other artists who aren’t being shoved in your face with huge cars and half naked women on it: you can find beautiful music. The thing with hip hop for me is that the way it is marketed is really destructive socially. Essentially what you have is a black artform, and I realise I’m saying this from the perspective of a white MC that is now characterised by really strong stereotypes and destructive messages being sent out about the urban community that is being consumed by wealthy, middle and upper class white kids who kind of see it as their dose of reality. Unfortunately when you look at the music the labels are putting out it really just perpetuates a lot of stereotypes and a lot of negative things: that’s my biggest problem with it. But you know if I’m in a club out dancing and I hear a commercial song it can sound good, there still needs to be a niche for that, but it’s shame that it strangles everything else with stereotypical rap bullshit. I don’t hate it, it’s there and it exists in all genres. It’s a testament to how powerful hip hop can be that it’s on loads of commercials and I still have a lot of hope and I think the listenership are getting tired of all that bullshit too and seem to be leaning towards more emotive, constructive and positive music.
FDB: Obviously your main point of focus at the moment must be Rhymes & Beats, but have you got other projects lined up?
G: Canyon is out in Spain at the moment on a Fulbright scholarship and his project is to record a multi-lingual, international hip hop album kind of tracing the roots of human migration through Spain and how that affected its music. So I’m actually going out there to record an album with a bunch of MCs from Spain, France, Morocco and really all over Europe and we’re starting that in January. Beyond that I’m doing other production work and playing with my band so I’ve still got a lot going on.
FDB: I wish you the best with it man.
G: Thanks man, peace.
Not only has it been a pleasure talking to artists of late, I also think that the increasing interview activity in the blog scene in wider terms is an interesting indication of the ever-growing profile of online hip hop spots. It’s good to see artists taking the time to engage with the internet heads… long may it continue. I’ve hopefully got a few more in the pipeline in the near future, so stay locked.
Make the most of the remainder of your Sunday: beer, TV and a comfy sofa is the order of the day round my way. That’s what Sundays were made for, isn’t it?