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
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|
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|
|Earthworms debut album cover, Art: Jim Mahfood|
|The first ever Earthworms show at Hi-Pointe, St. Louis, 2005|
Photo: Ben Shepard
|Mathias and Capo|
|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
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|
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"