We Can't Stop Here, This Is Bat Country - Part 2

Earthworms Noir, Photo: Ben Shepard

I can't lie, it's not easy to summon the will it takes to write what is basically a memoir detailing a 25 year independent music career. Getting the first chapter out was a fun trip down memory lane, but it was also draining. The idea of bringing the story current is heavy and it feels somewhat self-aggrandizing. None of what I'm memorializing could have happened the way it did without the energy of good friends coming together to buck the system and prevail over / run from societal pressures. I'm presenting all of this from my personal perspective, relating a very personal experience. But know that none of it would mean a damn thing if it weren't for the fact that it was manifested with people I care about and who care about me. I'm also leaving out a lot of back story, like how acting in plays gave me the performance bug to begin with. Going deeper into these things will have to wait for the novel I may write eventually.

I only made it to 2004 in the first installment, and now I have 16 years left to write about like wtf. I'm a person who intends to finish what I start though. I have a fresh pot of coffee and a nice bowl of granola cereal will soon be on deck, so without further ado..

Making the choice to be a band guy and to really go after it is about as specific as it gets. In doing so, a person is willfully forgoing any conventional manner of ascension, and frankly making it infinitely more difficult to thrive professionally in a world not built for creatives. Ironically, the beehive workforce completely relies on art forms of all kinds to distract from the doldrums. Admit that your days and weeks would be insurmountably stressful without a good soundtrack to massage your vasoconstrictors, and then ask why it is that artists are usually the very last people to get any kind of real paychecks for what we provide to the world. The percentage of us who can sustain, much less live comfortably, based on the art we devote the better part of our souls to creating is shamefully low. It's almost impossible, especially in the era of streaming everything for free. If Pharrell gets a gazillion streams of that "Happy" piece of shit / super duper mega hit on Spotify and only gets a few grand in royalties from it, we're ALL fucked.

Even if a band is regionally popular and they draw well and sell a fair amount of merch, you better believe they're all working "day jobs" (probably bartending) or playing dinner gigs at restaurants, singing songs that actual famous people wrote. Either that, or they're collecting a mountain of credit card and familial debt. I always give a side-eye when I see a rapper post about how they quit their job to go hard and focus on their craft, because unless they got some kind of hefty advance or signing bonus from a label, or a lucrative enough endorsement deal from a big company (RARE, kids), then they are full of shit and likely living in their mom's basement, using her internet to brag about how they "rap for a living". Don't believe the hype. And honestly, most independent artists aren't motivated to produce the vapid level of nonsense that generally feeds the lowest common denominator and therefore rises to some level of ironic top-ness. Smart people who make smart music are destined for a life of pain. Good thing I'm a masochist. Bring it.

Audio masochism in 2005 - Photo: Ben Shepard

So there I was, driving across the country with money I borrowed from my parents to get home from LA. I powerhoused it through the desert and made it all the way to Tucamcari before I stopped for a few hours, gave my poor cat a bath and took a shitty nap. Fourteen hours later, I was home. Defeated, broke, confused, embarrassed, pissed off and generally shook. I knew I wanted to keep making rap songs and performing, but this would be the first time in many years I'd have to start from scratch - and without my longtime cohorts and life partners at my side. It was an opportunity for artistic and spiritual growth, or it was an opportunity to cash in my chips and focus on a more conventional adult life. I chose the former because the idea of latter bored me to death. Still does, to be honest. I have Peter Pan and the Lost Boys prominently tattooed on my arm for a reason.

I moved back into the same Southside building I'd moved out of the year previous, living in a tiny room above the stairs in my dad's apartment for that first year home. One of the very first things I did - within a day or two of getting home - was head over to the house in Webster where the Core Project boys lived and rehearsed. Core Project was a Midwest heavyweight by this time. They started out opening for Jive Turkey at dive bars and mid size clubs, but by this time they were headlining The Pageant and touring with Nelly. Justin Maginn (Kama) - a long time associate - invited me over to hang in the basement and check out the side project he'd started with Kerry Brennan (Black Patrick) - a b-boy who would dance on stage at Lojic shows and then corner you at the after party so he could spit every rap he'd ever written to you right then and there. This project was in it's infancy, only a thing or two recorded and it was as rough as it gets. But I could immediately hear the potential and feel the kind of exploratory vibes I needed to feel. Kama, like myself, was a seasoned veteran after years in Core Project, and Kerry made up for his lack of emcee experience with the pen of a master wordsmith. The kid could write better than most, still can. That first night, I wrote and recorded two songs with them and we gave the project a name - Earthworms.

Here is one of those first two songs we recorded in the basement. Kama made the beat. This recording made it onto the first Earthworms album.

Earthworms - "Que Sera" (original basement recording, 2004)

Core Project circa 2003

But not so fast there, sailor. As I said, Kama was still in Core Project at the time and they were absolutely killing it. You couldn't pass a stop sign or enter a bathroom stall in the entire city of St. Louis without seeing a once ubiquitous Core Project sticker in signature Hiestbone XXL script. The lineup at the time was Kama and Steve Wik on vocals, Todd Miller on bass, Chris Taggart on guitar, Dave Grelle on keys (Nate Hershey was the OG keyboard player), Tony Barbata on drums and DJ Hiest on the turntables. Total all star team. Interestingly, when the group first started, Steve played stand-up bass and rapped at the same time. I thought that was unique and rad, but somewhere along the line - Steve decided he didn't want to be weighed down on stage with an enormous bass (although it really was dope - He'd done it that way in his previous group 5 Block Shot) and the band brought in Todd Miller (formerly of Groovaholics) to handle the low end. Todd was a more than capable bass player and he ended up taking on a lot of leadership responsibilities, so the decision paid off.

However, directly after I moved home and started writing Earthworms songs, Steve suddenly quit the band and moved to Chicago. Like, real quick. They had two albums out (both of which I guest appeared on) and were being courted by legit labels and booking agents at the time, so it was definitely a surprise - at least to me. You never know the inside consternation that exists within a creative circle unless you're in it. I was definitely a part of the outer circle, often guesting with the band at shows - even hopping into the tour van on occasion - including the week I got home when we traveled down to Springfield Mo and opened for Nappy Roots at Shrine Auditorium. There was talk of the band breaking up, as Steve was a founding member, but through conversations with Kama and Tony, and then the rest of the band, it was decided that I'd slide right in and take Steve's place. We began writing new material immediately, and I used a lot of lyrics I'd written in LA over their already existing catalog so we didn't have to skip any beats. They were already family so it felt completely natural.
Photo: Riverfront Times, 2004

A highlight of my time with Core Project, and there were quite a few in that short time, was the experience we had opening for Twista at St. Joseph Arena in St. Joseph, Mo. We got set up on the ample stage and hooked up to the arena sized sound system, then retreated to the very comfortable backstage area to take an interview and relax before the set. When we reappeared on stage, we were greeted by thousands of people who came there to see a RAP SHOW. So wtf was this whole band with these white guy rappers doing on stage right now and I'm gonna hate every second of this fucking boooooooooooooo. Or something to that effect. Despite the downright hostile attitude we were getting from an alarming percentage of the crowd, we played the hell out of half a set until we got to a cover we'd thrown in. Not a regular occurrence, but we'd worked up a really good cover of "Today Was a Good Day" by Ice Cube. That song may have saved our lives that particular night, because everyone in the crowd was rapping along with us and loved the shit out of it. It changed the whole vibe and the rest of the set was nothing but good energy all around. I became a believer in the power of a well placed cover song that night to be sure.

Below is a song I did with CP and Katt Davis, featuring Grills on bass and Ish on keys:

Core Project - "The Verbal Assault" ft. Mathias and Katt Davis

Kama & Steve Wik, 2005, Mississippi Nights,
Photo: Ben Shepard
Unfortunately, the sense that this was a band who was losing interest in playing music with each other returned some months after I entered the fray. We were writing some really promising material and had a couple of industry leads who were interested in hearing if we could conjure a hit-worthy song. In the short time (year and a half) I was a member of Core Project, the band won it's only two RFT awards - best "Groove" and best Hip-Hop. The timing was interesting though, because as one major label A&R said to us - we could kill it on the college circuit (already were, guy), but they were looking for the next Avril Levine (which we decidedly were not). At one point, Todd Miller quit the band to move into a profession that didn't jive with our schedule or intentions, and we eventually replaced him with Josiah Werner - formerly of Disturbing The Peace / Adair. Also in that time period, Dave Grelle left the group to focus on his new project "The Feed", so we were left without a keyboard player for the remainder of our time together. Turns out, the keys really tied the room together, and Dave is an extraordinary player. An embarrassment of funk lives in those fingers.

In the meantime, Kama, Kerry and I had been really hammering out Earthworms songs. We could see the writing on the wall, everyone could - and instead of getting to a place where friendships would be tested, we decided it was time to lay CP to rest so we could all follow our noses to different pastures. Core Project played a final, lively and well attended show at Mississippi Nights, featuring the returns of Todd, Dave and Steve, and we called it a day.

Core Project takes a bow, 2005, Mississippi Nights, STL

Thus begins the era of the Nightcrawlers.

J-Toth, post Jedi training
I forget how or why it happened, but the universe saw to it that Earthworms would find a comfortable home with Jonathan Toth From Hoth and the Frozen Food Section. Toth is an enigmatic weirdo and total outlaw in the truest sense, and his home studio became our permanent science lab. He raps, he sings, makes beats and can mix and master with much more sonic pizzazz than his studio set-up would suggest. When we started working with him, he'd released one solo record and had another one in progress, and was still very much learning how to mix. The sound that resulted was kind of intentional/unintentional lo-fi. Tucker Booth, Serengeti and Huggie Brown were regular collaborators and we loved the idea of making hip-hop without any boundaries whatsoever. It was a good match. We'd collaborate on many projects over the years, but it's notable that Earthworms recorded all three of our albums during this era with Toth, plus solo albums from myself and Kama. Those come later in the story.

The first Earthworms album - "No Arms, No Legs, Just a Head and a Body" - is as weird as it sounds, but in a very good way. Experimental, soulful, hooky, youthful, dark-meets-light kind of energy. The majority of production used on the record was courtesy of Engleburt and Capo. Burt's instrumentals came from a collection Toth was sitting on, and Capo's came from my long standing relationship with him. The two styles offset each other perfectly, with Burt bringing a whimsical, orchestral vibe and Capo bringing that boom-bap. After we had a handful of songs recorded vocally, and after the demise of Core Project was complete, we started talking about how we would perform and who was going to be our DJ. Kama and I had already devised a clandestine plot to steal a young kid with a ton of raw talent from another band Core Project had played with once or twice. The band was Essence of Logic and the DJ we wanted to heartlessly take from them was DJ Mahf.
DJ Mahf, 2006, Photo: Ben Shepard

I'll say this right here and now. I'm aware that things change over time within every art form and it's probably better to embrace most changes, even those that don't feel right at first. Art is limitless. Nothing sounds more antiquated than a rock and roll elder saying something like rap isn't real music because there aren't any instruments, or that a DJ is not a real musician. Anyone who bases their very important cultural opinions on the inclusion or the omission of a guitar player may as well just hang it up now and go fuck off somewhere, because that's archaic and narrow minded as it can possibly get.
That said, I have never been a fan of rappers performing without either a DJ, some semblance of a band, or a drum machine (and someone to operate it - even if it's themselves) on stage with them. I'm usually not awed by a hip-hop set without at least one of these components, but I'm also aware not everyone has access to a homey who DJ's or to the equipment I mentioned. I'd rather split my take-home money with a DJ than take all of the cake and perform with a laptop soullessly playing the beats without any human touch. And I'd rather skip a rapper's performance in favor hanging with the smokers on the patio, if said rapper plans on performing without someone backing him or her.

Earthworms, 2005, Photo:Ben Shepard
So it goes without saying that Earthworms was never going to be complete without a full time, dedicated DJ in our squad. I knew Mahf's older brother Jim through a different circle, and I had met Mahf (his name is Dan Mahfood) a cpl of times before we approached him about joining the group (his answer was an enthusiastic yes). The thought of stealing him from EOL was in jest, and more about did he have time to also be in our band. And indeed Mahf stayed with EOL for at least a year while he was also going full bore with us. So now the circle was complete and we had a new, extremely fun and very, very different album to unleash. After Core Project failed to put anything out while I was involved, it had been a few years since my last release. Mahf came into the fold and put scratch samples all over the record, and we started rehearsing in his basement. We agreed that we didn't want to play more than a show or two before the album came out, so we played once at the Hi-Point as kind of a warm up, and then we released the debut Earthworms album on New Years Eve, going into 2006 at Blueberry Hill, St. Louis. Shit got wild after this.

Earthworms debut album cover, Art: Jim Mahfood

The first ever Earthworms show at Hi-Pointe, St. Louis, 2005
Photo: Ben Shepard
 "No Arms" was at sonic odds with literally anything else to ever come out of St. Louis, Mo. St. Lou is known for it's deep, deep musical heritage and I have always flown that flag with a lot of pride. I celebrate my hometown and what we've contributed to the arts on an international level wherever I go. The significance STL's offspring has had on music history cannot be understated. Our legacy cannot be fucked with. Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Ike and Tina, Scott Joplin, Nelly, Uncle Tupelo, The Urge, Fontella Bass, Josephine Baker, Michael McDonald - all the way up to DJ Trackstar (Run the Jewels), Pokey LaFarge, Tef Poe, and Tonina. Inventors, trailblazers, adventurers, game changers. I am in no way saying that Earthworms fits into that category, but I will say that we brought something entirely new to the table that hadn't previously been heard. The two Earthworms albums that followed "No Arms" were more mainstream-ish for the time, but that first one was bananas and people started to take notice.

Mathias and Capo
We would spend the following year building up our credentials, playing a ton of shows locally and regionally, getting a fair amount of press for our exploits and creating the kind of momentum that so many artists chase like it's the best drug in the world (it is). We quickly began collecting production for the follow-up album, much of it from Capo, DJ Helias (RIP), and from another STL heavyweight - DJ Crucial. I'd toured the country with Crucial and we had a good report, so that relationship paved the way for us to get the kind of production we coveted. Crucial is a master with sampling. To this day, he uses an SP 1200 to make beats like he's some kind of golden era genie in a bottle. His textured, extremely vibey signature sound was ubiquitous in the early and mid 2000's, and his record label - F5 Records - had an international cult following and a nice distribution deal. We wanted in. Capo is no slouch with the sampling, himself. He's been at it for the better part of 20 years too, and his style is textured and melodic, while always finding new ways to paint a picture with an MPC. Helias was as inventive of a producer as anyone who's ever done it. He was not a person who lived by the rules, and his art was a direct reflection of that ethos. In addition, we even had a track produced by the boys in Art Thugs - marking the first time we'd collaborate since parting ways four years previous.

Cover Art: Jim Mahfood

Deep into the recording of the second Earthworms album "Bottle Full of Bourbon", we knew we had something special. There would be nothing that could hold us back because we were making a masterpiece and we fucking knew it. The day we signed to F5, I met the label president Roo Yawitz (you might remember him from the Art Thugs tour in the last entry) at a coffee shop, where he outlined the contractual specifics and the deal they had in place with The Orchard, that would facilitate the widespread physical and digital distribution of our record. This was a banner moment for a person and a group that never had intentions of playing the game the way it was designed. We made music we wanted to hear and we didn't bend to any current trends. We became the trend. That's a good feeling, typically fleeting, even on the grandest of scales. Trends change like the wind.

At this point, I was living in a Downtown STL loft on Washington Ave. There was a clothing boutique directly across the street from my building and I'd become acquainted with the owner - Marcia Masulla. She was a mover/shaker in the local fashion scene and she was also keenly interested in music management. Her and her partners had begun working with a band called Jumbling Towers, and though hip-hop was not in her wheelhouse, I was interested in exploring a business relationship with her for Earthworms. She had the kind of go-getter energy that transcended any sort of invisible genre lines and I could see the value in forming a professional relationship. Conversely, I've never seen the value in "staying in my lane" as far as music goes.

Angelo Moore (Fishbone), Mathias, Kevin Griffin
(Boomtown United), Blueberry Hill
Photo: Donald Williams
Since the very beginning, I've made it a point to not pigeon hole any of my artistic endeavors by limiting their reach. So many hip-hop artists stay in their comfort zone and only associate with other hip-hop artists. Bands in other genres do this too, but not at the frustrating level that hip-hop artists do. This behavior makes it very difficult for people who don't often find themselves at genre specific events to discover your music. ALL of my hip-hop based projects have been very intentionally put on stages with a staggering array of different sounds in different scenes, while always having a foot firmly planted in the hip-hop scene as well. In a mid-sized, rough and tumble city like St. Louis, the economic and racial disparity makes for all kinds of segregation when it comes to many things  - and the music scene is no exception. It has always been natural for me to cross genres, as I've never engaged in just one style of music, and I do understand that being a person with melanin deficiency opens doors for me with a toothy smile and a piece of apple pie, but all one has to do is go out to events that aren't in your typical spectrum and meet people. Not only does it disrupt lazy habits and open your mind to other ways for music to hit your ears, but it will increase your fan base ten fold. You simply cannot expect people in the general public who mostly go to rock shows and maybe like some hip-hop, but never go out of their way to find it - to just find you on the internet and become a fan. You have to insert yourself into their comfort zone before they'll leave it on your behalf.

Marcia and I had developed a mutual interest in a business arrangement with her new company - Loudmouth. She was green as far as management chops went, but also effective and extremely motivated to assert her influence in the overall scene. We agreed to work together on a trial basis, with the first order of business being the promotion and execution of the "Bottle Full of Bourbon" record release party. Long story slightly less long - her and her team killed it. Couldn't have gone better. With our powers combined, we had the old Lucas Schoolhouse in Soulard packed to capacity with city wide media coverage and enough buzz to intoxicate anyone in our vicinity. Earthworms was backed by a cracking live band full of all-stars for the first time and the show WENT OFF. We even threw in a cover of "B-Boy Document" by Mos Def and DJ Mahf took a verse. It was a magic night and we were just getting started. The new album was about to take us on the kind of adventures you tell your grand kids about.

During the same time period, Mahf and I had taken up residence as full time program directors at a start-up internet radio station / social platform called Riverfront Radio. Initially, we only hosted a weekly three hour hip-hop show called "The Balls" - every Thursday night preceding the local hip-hop showcase at Just Bill's (later at Atomic Cowboy) called The Basement. Mahf and I saw the insane potential this radio platform had, recognized the financial backing it also had, and talked the owner of the station into hiring us both to run the music and programming side of things. This would be my full time job for two years, with an additional year continuing to host the weekly show with Mahf. Riverfront Radio was well put together. The website had a strong visual component and burgeoning social platform to pair with the radio schedule and music library that Mahf and I carefully curated. The building was on South Hampton and the infrastructure had been augmented to present a visitor with a full-on radio station experience. It was really fun going into work every day with my good friend, knowing we were shaping the entire vibe of something special.

What a time this was. Not only was I in what was arguably the most popular band in town at the time, I was working full time in the music business. During our tenure at RFR, Mahf and I cultivated a diverse live radio schedule, held down our own show that featured interviews with every touring hip-hop artist coming through St. Louis, as well as a constant and heavy focus on the local scenery. The St. Lunatics were regular guests and collaborators at the station. Lojic was officially sponsored by the station at the height of their popularity, and DJ Z-Trip and DMC were among the A-List artists to grace our airwaves in person and on the phone. Mahf and I orchestrated a regional tour, where we'd broadcast live at various hip-hop nights across the Midwest and perform a set of my solo material while Calc2 did live art. The cross pollination was real, and it was extremely effective. For once, the wheels of progress were spinning at a race car rate and we loved every second of it.

Earthworms at Busch Stadium

Video Shoot on the Sunset Strip
Meanwhile, Earthworms was blowing up. We got booked at every significant venue, festival, fashion show and worthwhile event in town and throughout the Midwest, and we were getting a lot of very good press. Our distribution deal with F5 saw to it that our album was on shelves nationwide, in Europe, Japan, who knows where else. Every show we played during this whirlwind was packed to the gills. STL put us on it's back and we gladly accepted the lift. The momentum took us to SXSW in Austin, Busch Stadium and the Scottrade Center in STL, garnered us awards from the Riverfront Times and St. Louis Magazine, high profile opening slots for Bel Biv Devoe, Talib Kweli, Ozomatli, Dead Prez, and many more, and got us booked at The House of Blues on the Sunset Strip with our friends Steddy P and Nato Caliph - a trip that included a video shoot in Hollywood. It was during that trip that I went into Amoeba Music on Sunset to see if they'd buy a few Earthworms CD's to put in stock. I'll never forget the moment the store manager told me they already had it in stock, and it was actually selling fairly well. Whoa.

CDbaby.com wrote a feature about us and our new album that was featured on their front page, seen by hundreds of thousands of people - including, as it turns out, the US Defense Department.

Soundcheck before opening for Bell Biv Devoe in front of 20,000 people

Worms at the RFT Music Awards Showcase Main Stage

It was 2008 and Earthworms was riding quite a wave. This one would take us over the Atlantic Ocean. Part three of this manifesto will begin here.

Thank you for reading, as always. Stay safe, don't let boredom get the better of you, and love yourself. See you again soon. Links below for lots of music from this era: Take some time and check it out.

Core Project - "Fluid Forward Motion" - 2nd album

Earthworms - "No Arms, No Legs, Just a Head and a Body"

Earthworms - "Bottle Full of Bourbon"

Frozen Food Section - "Nancy"


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