We Can't Stop Here, This is Bat Country - Part 1
Twenty five years. That's how long I have been walking the long, twisty, obstacle laden, dusty and unforgiving yet deliciously gilded path of an independent music maker. No other conquest can compare when it comes to how high the highs are vs how low the lows can feel. The contrast is stunning and the dragon is way too sexy not to chase once you get even the smallest taste of how hot the fire truly is. Once you've leveled up in your particular craft enough to be taken seriously as an entertainment option by music lovers, talent buyers, promoters and most importantly - other, more established bands and artists who will invite you to share stages with them - you open yourself up to actualizing your wildest dreams. There isn't a tried and true blueprint to follow. I've always been a guts and glory kind of guy as opposed to an analytical business mind, preferring to create energy and momentum loud enough to make it nearly impossible to ignore. I inserted myself into the scene and I gave everyone flyers until some people actually started showing up to our parties. Others are able to work behind the scenes until they achieve their goals by using business savvy and internet prowess. When I started out, the internet was in it's infancy as far as how the general public was able to use it, so the only way to get where I wanted to go was through showing the hell up and meeting the people who it seemed were already there. Below is part-one of the story of how I went from playing rowdy basement parties to playing in front of 20,000 people under the Arch and everything in between. I hope you brought popcorn.
My first performance with a band was late 1994 or early 1995. I had become good friends with a couple of guys in a punk outfit called Howzwife. I had a history class with one of them at community college after I was unceremoniously kicked out of Drake University for being a terrible student, far too immature for the unsupervised nature of being away from home and keeping up with my studies. Shawn and I were peas in a pod. Both deeply into punk rock, but also into other types of music. I always appreciate people who don't limit themselves with the art they digest and I've never understood the bewilderingly boring notion of only listening to one style of music. Rappers who only listen to rap music are among the most aggressively uninteresting artists around. The same could be said for punk musicians (or any style, really), which is why I took to the boys in Howzwife so immediately. Matt - the lead singer - loved Morrissey as much as he loved Rancid. He and I also shared a dirty little secret that would cancel our punk credentials swiftly - we both weirdly liked Phish. That's a path I would go down more deeply for a couple of years later on, but first I had a lot of punk rocking to do. **Disclaimer - I haven't listened to a Phish song on purpose in well over 20 years. It stopped making sense to me when I stopped taking hallucinogens.
So anyway, I would often hang out in the Howzwife practice space in West St. Louis County and watch their rehearsals. In addition to being friends with Shawn and Matt, I genuinely liked their music. It was vibey punk rock with a West Coast feel to it, made more textural by allowing those outside musical influences to inform the song writing. During one of these practice sessions, they invited me to sing on a new jam they'd been fucking around with. I gladly and enthusiastically grabbed the microphone and proceeded to embellish in a story about a sexual predator who liked to suck on unsuspecting women's toes, a theme taken straight from local headlines at the time. My performance came off with a Dead Milkmen kind of feel in the verses, followed by a Minor Threat vibe in the hook. The band liked it enough to let me perform it live with them on a few occasions, each time with different, made-up-on-the-spot lyrics tied together by the same hook. The song was aptly titled "Toesucker". So yeah, I started my career with a song called "Toesucker".
The first time we played it live was at a basement party in West County and it was packed. The girl who lived there (with her parents) was known for throwing punk parties and I felt like I'd "arrived" when I was able to perform at one of them. The other two times were at the Alhambra Grotto - a proper punk house in South City that is the stuff of legend at this point. Each performance further solidified the series of life choices I'd make it their wake. I was hooked. My entire adult life and every insane adventure I've been fortunate to have is a direct result of having the opportunity to sing a silly song called "Toesucker" with my homeys in a punk rock band in the mid 90's. Thank you, Howzwife, from the bottom of my dark little heart. Here are links to a song plus an intro I did many years later with DJ Crucial and Dusty Wallets called "Black Boots" - an ode to coming up punk. It appears on my solo record "Devils, Pirates and Rebels" that I put out in 2010. It'll be a while before I get to that album in my story, but I'm including it here because of the subject matter and the intro - That's right - "Toesucker" - recorded live in that West County basement. My first ever performance was caught on tape. The universe provides.
Howzwife + Mathias - "Toesucker Intro"
Mathias - "Black Boots" ft. Dusty Wallets
During that mid 90's era, I managed to start my own band with a few friends from the Webster Groves area, where I grew up. This particular band never really took off, and we never really settled on a name. We also never had a committed bass player, likely because the amount of partying the guitar player Dan Helle and I were doing made it damn near impossible to focus on not sucking at most other things. We had one show booked under the inadvisable name "Pistol Whip" and it got cancelled. The other guitar player, Mike Grill, had a better name for the band that we might have used if we would have kept going - "William Paranoid". We all liked LSD a fair amount, so there's that. Our sound was all over the place. I was still coming from a shaky-at-best punk rock flavored angle, whereas Dan - who had once been a SHARP skinhead (against racial prejudice for those unfamiliar) and leader of a popular ska band, was getting heavy into Frank Zappa, Nine Inch Nails, and anything weird and expansive he could find. Mike Grill and Tim Broughton (drummer) were both more into classic rock and roll. Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, etc. So basically this outfit wasn't built for success. However, it was an extremely important step as it laid the foundation for what was to come next. As the great prophet Hunter S. Thompson once said, "We can't stop here, this is bat country!"
My transition from punk to some kind of not-quite-hippy was in full swing during the Spring of 1995. The vibe I carried was directly tied to the company I kept. I hung out with every kind of weirdo I could find and I didn't care about the rigid confines of any type of "scene". We made our own scene and it was beautiful. Hippies in patchwork pants hanging out with mohawked oi punks and JNCO wearing candy ravers in the same circles, passing joints around and sharing space under the Gazebo in Old Orchard and in nearby parks, often running from the local police. Music was everywhere, all kinds, no limits or boundaries. I was into anything and everything that could tickle my synapses. I was even acting in a ragtag Shakespearean company at the time and writing a lot of lyrical poetry. I squatted at a punk house in South City and I went to a couple of Rainbow Gatherings for weeks at a time.
|Shirtless and blonded at a Rainbow Gathering, 1996|
|Drum circling, probably 1995 or something|
I wanted it all. Being young and adventurous in the 90's was extraordinary. We weren't held down by technology in our pockets and money didn't mean a goddamn thing to most of us. It was ALL about expansion. We didn't judge each other's interests and we fed off of each other's eccentricities. I can't express how fortunate I feel to have lived through that time and space at the ripe young age I was. It was a perfect era that I'll always be a bit nostalgic about. I could spin stories for days that took place during this time, and talk about how I have doubts that today's youth are afforded the same kind of mind expansion opportunities and sense of community that we had - and perhaps I will, but today I'm talking mostly about music.
So Myself, Mike Bach (now in the band Common Jones), Josh Vogeler and Steve Gymer started a band called "Home Baked Goodness". Yes, it was a terrible name. When we started, I had visions of HBG being a ska band - which made the rude boys I knew quietly scoff as if we had no right to play the blue beat music they took so very seriously and who the fuck were we to tread in those waters. One of our first songs, if not THE first, was called "Bobby Was a Rude Boy". Oh the horror! Big shout out to Steve for reminding me of that. We rehearsed in Josh's parent's dining room and we, as far as memory serves, were not entirely terrible. Our sound was never fully developed and our ranging tastes and first-timeyness made it difficult to land on a vibe.
After Mike sold his music equipment one day out of the blue, my friend Dan Helle (from the previous band) stepped in and took his place on guitar. Our friend Matt Range ended up taking Steve's place on bass (for a reason I do not recall) and we changed the name of the band to "Shotgun Lucy" (after Matt's amazing and intuitive dog Lucy). We spent the next two years playing shows (including my first actual club shows at Bernard's Pub on Laclede's Landing) and cultivating a nice little following of mostly Webster and Kirkwood folks.
Our sound was a reflection of the times, our surroundings and our extremely varied interests. It was like the Minutemen meets Sublime meets 311 meets some hippy shit. Somehow cohesive and repeatable. We had a few bops. This is the band I first had the audacity to rap in, though I sang on most of the songs. But this is notable, because I've spent the following two plus decades as a rapper. Shotgun Lucy inadvertently opened that floodgate. I'd always liked hip-hop, but something about my discovery of A Tribe Called Quest and their contemporaries during this era made me want to BE hip-hop.
So that's what I did.
|Ali Shaheed Muhammed + Mathias, 2018 in St. Louis|
|Kool Keith + Mathias, 2011 in St. Louis|
|Mathias + Sonny Cheeba (Camp Lo) + DJ Alejan, 2015 in St. Louis|
|Mathias + Pete Rock, 2015 in St. Louis|
Stardate 1997. I was 21 years young and in full bloom. Reckless, brave and fuuuuuucked up. I spent a lot of time going to rave parties and canoodling with overtly edgy people, many of whom were a damn sight more dangerous than I felt like they were at the time. Lotta drugs, lotta sunrises that felt sharp to my eyes. Numerous terrible decisions were made during this time, but I also made lifelong friends with whom I have collected some of my best stories. Frankly, I'm lucky to have made it out of this era relatively unscathed. Many others were not so lucky. It was during this time I'd start to turn the volume down on my manner of partying and focus on leveling my skills up as a vocalist and writer.
I was not born with an inherent talent for singing, rapping, anything musical. I grew up with young parents who would often take me to concerts and parties, who always had something good on the record player, and who always encouraged me to follow my whimsy. I took lessons for violin, trombone, trumpet and guitar, and nothing stuck. I was good with words and rhythm patterns, and when I decided I wanted to be the front man in a band, I had to learn on the job. To this day, I struggle with singing in key. But I'll be damned if I didn't learn how to rap my ass off.
|Jive Turkey, Live at the Hi-Pointe, 2000|
What an era this was. If I could bottle that time period so I could take drinks of it and feel how amazing and new everything felt, I would. I'd come out of a dark patch and into this beautiful light, surrounded by beautiful people who mostly cared about what they put into their bodies. I became a vegetarian around this time and hung onto that lifestyle for a decade before my body told me it desperately wanted animal protein. I was not a good vegetarian. I preferred the ease of preparation over the actual health benefits of what I was consuming.
ANYWAY, back to the band. It was an interesting dynamic. Rob was going to school, and therefore living in Carbondale, Illinois - about an hour and a half from St. Louis. Brian was living in Washington, Missouri - about an hour the other direction. We rehearsed once or twice a week, either in Carbondale or in Washington. This is not something I'd do again, but I'm glad we did it then. Our first show as Old Otis was at a house party in Carbondale, then in St. Louis at The Red Sea. Our sound was more focused than any previous projects I'd been in, but still hard to pigeon hole. We were a soulful jazz influenced funk band with rapping and singing. It wasn't far into this journey that we parted ways with Rob, replaced Brian with Chris Clutter on drums, took on a sax player named Terry Grohman and changed the name to Jive Turkey. We rolled without a guitar player for quite some time, but eventually we landed on Rob Berger (after giving it a go with a couple of others first). We also had a trombone player named Zach Ellerbrook, another one named Lamar Harris, and a percussionist - Chris Hansen. Matt Range (from Shotgun Lucy) would also spend time on percussion. It was a bit of a revolving door, but the core remained in tact. That is, until the universe led us to parting with Ryan in an unfortunate turn of events.
But in the years we were all together, we managed to make some real noise. We won a couple of Riverfront Times Music Awards back when that was a really big deal (I have seven total under my belt), and we opened for The Urge a few times - including down in Carbondale - which was definitely a circle coming complete. We also shared stages with STL's very best bands and hip-hop artists (including a show on a terrible sound system with a then unknown group called The St. Lunatics), as well as numerous national touring acts. Jive Turkey did a bit of regional touring as well. This was the first time I had tasted any real kind of marginal success and it was the first time I'd done anything the press cared to write about.
Jive Turkey - "Cubicle of Wisdom", live at Mississippi Nights, 1999
Our first bit of actual press that went beyond a casual mention came in 2000. Inexplicably, Jive Turkey had not been invited to play the RFT Music Awards Showcase that year, despite the fact we'd won two RFT awards (called "Slammies" back then) and regularly packed venues across town - especially Hi-Pointe and The Creepy Crawl - a downtown punk rock dive that hated us, but liked the money we brought in. Randall Roberts, now a music writer/editor for the LA Times, was the music editor for the RFT and was covering the 2000 showcase. I had recently moved next door to him in the Benton Park neighborhood, and he did me a solid by swinging by the spite show we had booked at The Galaxy the day of the showcase we weren't invited to.
"The most interesting reflection on St. Louis music 2000 wasn't even anything Slammies-related, though. It happened on Friday night, when at two clubs bands who weren't nominated for awards ripped through sets: Jive Turkey at the Galaxy, Colony at the Duck Room. Jive Turkey turned in one of the tightest, funkiest sets of real-deal, true-blue hip-hop we've ever seen, local or otherwise: six members -- bass, percussion, trombone, Fender Rhodes, guitar and two phenomenal emcees (Scatterbrain and Ryan C.) conjuring the spirit of all things rhythmic. Across town, Colony spat out their engaging Midwestern Brit-pop, replete with a light show worthy of Kiel Center. The two acts served as both slap in the face and reassurance -- a slap because, despite the occasional know-it-all 'tude we exude, we obviously don't know jack; reassurance because, hell, 50 great and good bands converged on one Sunday, and the music overflowed so much that we were equally, if not a bit more so, transfixed by two that didn't participate." - Randall Roberts
After we parted with Ryan, it was never the same. For live shows, our good friend Jason Bass stepped in and performed admirably (he was an amazing singer and a magnetic live performer), but he never recorded with us. Ryan C was a part of the core and a huge part of the energy that made us an attractive band to see live. We released our long awaited album "Post Modern Ambition" to a sold out crowd at the Hi-Pointe but had to finish the record without him. I won't get into the why's and how's, but fortunately he is on most of the album and we were able to properly capture the band's true vibe.
|Jiive Turkey - "Post Modern Ambition" album cover|
Our musical interests began to change, side projects began to emerge and JT disbanded in 2002. Here is a hilarious and NSFW video from our last show ever, featuring Jason Bass and Steve Wik (from Core Project) helping me out on vocals:
Jive Turkey - "Todos Los Dias" - live at Cicero's in STL for the 2002 RFT Music Awards
Still with me? I'm amazed. Ok, so by 2002 I was a seasoned rapper and I'd collected respect locally from the best rappers the city had to offer. St. Louis is a tough fucking town, make no mistake about it, so to be a white kid from Webster (who resided in and claimed the hell out of South City by this time) and to be accepted by the city's biggest ball breakers was a really good look. Names like Midwest Avengers, Fat Trash, Fat Monkey, In Limbo, BNP, Altered States. Two people were instrumental in getting me to understand the art of emceeing, neither of which are still with us today. But I must acknowledge MC Toast and Katt Davis for getting me to slow down my delivery and de-Nick-Hexum-ize my entire vocal approach. Toast was originally a DJ for the legendary Midwest Avengers crew, and had since become the front man for a jazz/ hip-hop band called Sky Bop Fly. Katt, along with his brother Jia and DJ K-Nine, made up the hip-hop powerhouse Bits n Pieces. In separate circumstances, Toast and Katt recognized my strong pen and knew that my delivery could be more soulful. They took the time to work me through it and I am very thankful for that. May they both rest in power and may their memories never fade. I still have a framed picture of Katt on my wall to this day. He was the best emcee I've ever known, no contest.
The primary side project that came out of Jive Turkey was a gritty, lo-fi, underground hip-hop group called "Art Thugs". Grills, Ish and I spearheaded it in 2001, and we regularly worked with others who had been coming to our jam sessions on Cherokee Street (before it had artisan sausage shops, burlesque studios and white people in general). The jam sessions were a function of the collective we'd started called Telic Vibe Alliance which consisted of us, Core Project, Bits n Pieces, Perfect Strangers and a collection of oddballs and rare souls who we vibed with. A lot of great songs were birthed in that room on Cherokee, and the entirety of the first Art Thugs album ("Surviving and Building") was recorded there as well. Katt and Jia Davis, Lynus and myself did the heaviest lifting on vocals (with various other collaborators), while Grills and Ish handled production. It was a collaborative effort, but that was difficult to pull off in a live setting, so we had to find a way to play shows without it being a giant pain in the ass. The answer was narrowing the focus. I was the primary front man, Grills and Ish played the beats - adding live bass and keys, while the honorable DJ K-Nine backed us up on turntables.. Eventually we would be joined by Ny-Quill (Alpha Crew / Royal Illete) as permanent co-vocalist and Shelby Carter (Pirates / Boomtown United) on trumpet and we really took off.
Art Thugs - 2003 on Cherokee Street
At one point, when Art Thugs started making a little noise, The "Litterthugz" crew - made up of mostly DJ's and a rapper or two - picked a battle with us on the F5 Records message board (this was before social media, kids). They thought we were little nothings and that they had lordship over the use of "thugs". Also, they were smart, talented guys and they were correct to take exception to our hubris. But Art Thugs rhymed with spark plugs, so what were we to do? That was our name and we were sticking to it. So Litterthugz posted a battle track on the F5 message board, which the entire hip-hop community actively read. Within less than 24 hours, we posted our retort (which was honestly much harder) and the scene took notice. KDHX started doing the play by play on the weekly hip-hop show "The Science" and we had the edge. Litterthugz came back with a response that basically said "hey we were kidding, let's just co-exist and make jokes, etc" and we didn't respond. But I do think this got us a little respect on our name. Litterthugz already had that respect. They were the resident weirdos and that was the category we kind of landed in as well. Regrettably, I do not have links to these songs. Wish I did.
Turns out this opened the door to future collabs, as I am now actively working with Doug Surreal of the Litterthugz crew and we've cultivated a soulful friendship and working relationship. He's a beast on production. You'll be stoked to hear this music. Here's one that we recorded in 2002, the first time I worked with Doug. This would also be the first time I met and worked with Daemon (who then went by Wafeek) and one of the last times I'd record with Katt Davis before his untimely departure.
"One Man's Trash" - Katt Davis, Daemon, Jia Davis, Mathias - prod by Doug Surreal - 2002
At one point, Sam and I had taken travel jobs with a promo company, and the second Art Thugs album ("Fantastic - The Mixtape") was conceived almost entirely on the road, much of it recorded in New York City hotel rooms. We came back from six months of the road warrior life and immediately finished the record with Ny-Quill's addition and the late DJ Helias tying it together. We booked a coast to coast tour with Serengeti, Roo Yawitz and DJ Crucial (The 2003 F5 Records Spring/Summer Tour), and set sail on a grand hip-hop adventure. Our tour vehicle was a brand new tinted out Suburban with leather interior and a Playstation hooked up to the TV in the back seat. 'Twas a comfortable way to embark on our first tour of that magnitude. We played shows accross Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, Los Angeles, Illinois, the Carolinas, and New York. We did radio shows, opened for Mr. Lif in Fort Collins, played with our friends Drunken Immortals in AZ and blessed the stage at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan, as well as The Five Spot in Brooklyn. What a time it was. This was Serengeti's first ever tour, and he's gone on to accomplish quite a lot since then. Things that were tour inside jokes became songs and albums. We sold a ton of merch and we felt as if the world was ready to catapult all of us straight to the stars.
|Art Thugs - live at The Five Spot, Brooklyn, NY - 2003|
|Art Thugs, Serengeti, Yawitz Brothers - Sedona, AZ, 2003|
|Art Thugs & Serengeti live at Quixote's, Denver, Co - 2003|
It was only a few months after we returned from tour that Art Thugs - as a unit - picked up and moved to Los Angeles. Our initial plan was San Diego, as we'd had some good times there and we liked the beach towns. But after an exploratory trip out there to look for places to live, Los Angeles threw all the vibes at us and we couldn't ignore them.
Our landing pad was a spacious house in a fairly sketch part of North Hollywood (more like Van Nuys), deep in the San Fernando Valley. Walking distance from where the North Hollywood Massacre had occurred only a few years prior. The street was a cul-de-sac and it was quiet, and we had a privacy fence that wrapped around a goddamn pool, as if we were fancy and famous already. We felt like it was truly only a matter of time, so it all fit. I recently drove up to this house for the first time in 15 years, and boy oh boy does it look different now. Much, much nicer, though the neighborhood itself hasn't changed from what I could see. That house is, by far, the jewel of the block. I didn't even recognize it at first, had to text Sam and Matt to get the address so I could make sure I wasn't losing my damn mind.
|Art Thugs farewell show flyer|
When we moved in, we immediately acquired a huge mixing console, lots of studio bells and/or whistles and got to work writing and recording. When I wasn't writing lyrics and learning to record them without assistance, I was mostly drinking Two-Buck Chuck by the case, reading books, swimming, smoking a fuck ton of Cali weed and going out as much as my shitty budget could swing. Priorities among the individuals in the group began to change fairly rapidly, with one faction wanting to focus more on being a production unit, and the other faction wanting to continue on as a proper band. I, admittedly, was out of sorts and not the best roommate. I wasn't contributing financially due to the difficulty I had finding a full time gig and my lack of a car to be autonomous with. I felt defeated, and when I feel that way it permeates my entire vibe and I exude an energy that nobody wants to be around. This is something I am more mindful of nowadays, but back then I wasn't even aware I was doing it. Survival mode never took hold.
I was basically kicked out of the group, marking the first and only time I've been kicked out of a band. Looking back, I can say that I deserved it, but I couldn't see that then of course. I was broke, car-less, only had a crappy part time catering job and out of options. So with my tail between my legs, I packed what I could fit into a rental Ford Escort and drove myself and my cat back to St. Louis.
This, most unexpectedly, is where my music career really leveled up. I think I needed the kick in the ass. I needed to be humbled. Part two of this chronicle will be on the next blog post. Below is the link where you can listen to both Art Thugs albums on Bandcamp. Enjoy, and thank you for reading.
Art Thugs - "Surviving and Building" and "Fantastic - The Mixtape"
|Jia Davis, Grills, Mathias, Ish, K-Nine- 2002|
|Hi-Pointe jam - 2002-ish|