We Can't Stop Here, This is Bat Country - Part 4
|Pirates at The Gramophone|
Photo: Ed Aller
"Midnight at the Capricorn" would be our strongest release to date. Production from DJ Crucial, Splitface, J-Toth and more was sprinkled in with our main source of sound farming for this record - Ben Bounce. Ben's production is lush, melodic, textured and memorable. We chose a collection of ear worms that hold up to this day. Each of us took a solo track for this album as well, setting it apart in this way from the first two records. "Midnight" shaped up to be an inspired and flex-worthy collection of vibes that we anticipated would catapult us to the next level - which would have been financial sustainability and deeper international notoriety.
|Logo: Jim Mahfood|
|Earthworms and Fresh Heir, back in the states|
|Video shoot, or just a regular Sunday?|
|Kama and I at Hi-Pointe, early days|
Anyone who's ever made a full length album before - especially a group effort - will know how it felt to be told such a thing after the tremendous effort that went into everything we did. We were beside ourselves. Hindsight says we definitely should have swallowed our egos and recreated those song parts with live instruments, and Mahf should have re-done his scratches that used obvious samples. The process would have taken a few months but it would have been worth it. Instead, however, we told the label president to get fucked (I’m paraphrasing, I think it was more like “no thanks”). We were positive that the momentum we carried would take us right into the sun, regardless of the vessel we chose to bring us there.
We chose to ride with Indyground for this record instead of going back into the lab for the laborious task of cleansing the flagrant samples from our third baby. Indyground is the brainchild of Steddy P, originally formed in Columbia, Mo during his college years (now based in Kansas City) - and continues to be the platform for his and his friends' releases today. We were no strangers to being a scrappy indie outfit, so we felt comfortable with this decision after a lot of deliberation. Mahf was already in cahoots with Steddy - as much his DJ as ours at that point - and we'd done a great deal of touring together over the course of a couple years, so we were confident this would be a fruitful endeavor. We could have stayed with F5 and kept our nice distro deal in tact, we could have worked hard to get our record in the shape the big guys wanted it in, but we chose to go with our guts. Indyground was on the rise due to Steddy's work ethic and the gusto in which he approaches the game. This was attractive to us so we moved forward.
|Artwork: Jim Mahfood|
The St. Louis release party for "Midnight at the Capricorn" is legend at this point. We booked The Library in the Soulard neighborhood - the historic Carnegie Library transformed into a beautiful music venue - and we sold it out. It was by far the most successful day that venue ever saw, including Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest. But this would be the where the climax happened, as STL and the hip-hop world in general would collectively move on to other sonic interests in the coming year.
It was through no fault of Indyground that "Midnight" did not do well. Steddy and his team admirably hustled our record as hard as they could, but a couple of things became immediately apparent. The lack of an international distribution deal stopped our momentum dead in it's tracks. Combine that with the enormous generational shift that was occurring in real time and the differing musical tastes that came with it - and there was no way our record was going to be successful without a larger engine behind it. We'd outgrown the indie world as it was, and the indie world that became moved swiftly past us. The fans who used to pack venues to see us perform were in their 30's with kids and careers, probably listening to the Avett Brothers. Younger hip-hop fans were into more moody, less sampadelic vibes - and because young hip-hop fans aren't brought into the world with any sort of reverence for what came before - they were barely aware of our presence or impact. We were at a crossroads.
|Artwork: Ed Aller|
|On stage at The Pageant with Midwest Avengers|
|Rolling solo at Slumfest|
|Mahf, Steddy and I at Amoeba Music,|
Sunset Blvd, Hollywood
Side note - I was just wearing an Indyground shirt yesterday and have nothing but love and respect for that whole team. Earthworms and Steddy P have shared a stage in recent months and it was a joyous occasion. There are no bad vibes. We're all grown and a damn sight more humble in our advanced ages. We just caught each other in a precarious time back in the day, nothing more complicated to say about it. Peace to Steddy P - I celebrate your longevity and your hustle my friend.
|With Miss Sharon Jones, Blueberry Hill|
Photo: Alexis Tucci
|Solo set with Mahf at 2720 Cherokee, 2010|
|Image: Ed Aller|
|Logo: Ed Aller|
|Photo: Chris Renteria|
DJ LB (also from Royal Illite / Grea Tones) hopped on board to round out the initial line-up. We would add permanent live instrument players in coming years, but we kept it simple and straightforward to begin the journey. Dace and I got down to business quickly and furiously. We were churning out at least one new song every week, sometimes more. Inspiration was at an all time high. Both of us were carving out a new path like the human heart creates new arteries when old ones are blocked. We had production from the likes of Damon Davis, Charlie Beans (from Detroit), Ben Bounce and Matt Sawicki, and we recorded most of the record with Tony Esterly at Shock City Studios - where he added some key production of his own, as well as live instrumentation to the other beats we were using that really tied all the varying sounds together to make it cohesive. A few songs were recorded with Mr. Sawicki at Suburban Pro Studios as well, but the entire project was mixed and mastered at Shock City. Tony would eventually move to Nashville and Suburban Pro would become our permanent home for recording, but not until after "Life of the Buzzard" was ready to set sail.
|Artwork: Damon Davis|
|Photo: Doug Tull (I think)|
|First Pirates show w/ DJ Mahf,|
Old Rock House, STL, 2012
It was 2012, and by this time we'd entered into a partnership with Farfetched - a label and collective spearheaded by the great Damon Davis - one that I (and we) are still with to this day. This was an attractive landing spot for us due to the musically daring, current and extremely varied nature of the artists involved. Farfetched is not just a hip-hop imprint and Pirates are not just a hip-hop group. Nothing about the trappings of being pigeon-holed into an easily identifiable bag of Rap Snacks was appealing to us. We wanted something to match our boundary-free vibe and we found it.
|Opening for The Urge at The Pageant, STL|
|On stage with The Urge at Voodoo Lounge, Kansas City, Mo|
|On stage with The Urge at The Pageant, STL, 2016|
Photo: Don Schroeder
|Artwork: Damon Davis|
The world changed in the summer of 2014, specifically August 9th when Michael Brown Jr. was - and let me say this clearly - murdered in cold blood by Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department. It was unfortunately not a unique occurrence for a young, unarmed black kid to be gunned down by the police, but the way it happened and the manner in which it was handled in the very immediate aftermath sparked the modern civil rights movement. Priorities changed. It no longer felt appropriate to create art that didn't speak directly to the movement.
|Performing "The Panic Button" at Lo-Fi Cherokee, 2018|
Photo courtesy of Bill Streeter and crew
Pirates had five songs in the can for the Cavemen Barnacles EP and it didn't feel complete. We needed some sauce to put on top of the pie. We also felt a responsibility to use our platform to stand in solidarity with the burgeoning civil rights movement, and to add our collective voice and our bodies to those who were putting themselves, their freedoms and their livelihoods on the line to directly confront generational inequity, institutional racism and injustice. We set out to write a protest song.
Dace and I hammered out a verse each and we arrived to Suburban Pro Studios without a hook having been written. I stepped into the vocal booth and the universe just kind of pushed it right out of me.
"When the walls come crumbling down (repeated three times), that's exactly when you stand up and never press the panic button".
This was not planned, it came out organically and on the spot. Typing it out right here is actually the first time it's ever been committed to text. We didn't know at the time that this song would resonate like it did, or that Time Magazine would mention it in an article about the music coming out of the Ferguson protests, or that we'd have the opportunity to yell "hands up, don't shoot" in front of thousands of people on some of the most prestigious stages in St. Louis and beyond. But that's what happened. The ripple effect Ferguson had on the world absolutely extended to music and art, increasing notoriety and visibility for many of us - though this was not the intention.
|Photo: Eric Nemens|
|Photo: Ed Aller|
"Caveman Barnacles" was very well received and had cameos from Aceyalone (long one of my favorite rappers) and Family Affair. Sonically, it stood in contrast to "Buzzard" due to the sample free approach we used in the production, and the use of live instrumentation on every song in some fashion. It became more and more apparent that our live sets sounded better when we had live instruments on stage with us. For numerous shows, mostly the well paying and/or high profile ones, we've employed a full band. But the core of the group expanded to include three more permanent members - Andrew Gibson on drums, Shelby Carter on trumpet and Terry Grohman on sax. DJ LB stepped away from the band in 2017, so for a while we had a very busy DJ VThom on the decks with DJ Whiz filling in when VThom couldn't make it. Evetually, Quasar Camp joined the crew as our full time DJ and Darren McClelland became the permanent master of the low end and that's where it stands today.
VThom's first show with the Pirates was one for the record books. After a few years of lobbying, we were finally booked to play the biggest music festival in St. Louis history - Loufest. We opened the festival on one of the main stages - the same stage Run the Jewels, Huey Lewis and the News, Cage the Elephant, Robert Randolph and more would grace over that weekend. Lizzo, Noname, Weezer, Spoon, Snoop Dogg and a host of others were also on the bill. After our victorious set that included the biggest band we'd employed to date, our keyboard player Dave Grelle went straight into Huey Lewis's trailer directly behind our stage and taught Huey how to play Chuck Berry songs for the tribute set in his honor. I watched many of the sets standing on stage behind the amplifiers. I autographed Chuck Berry's guitars alongside legends and hobnobbed with heroes all weekend. Mathias and the Pirates were in everyone's ears and on everyone's tongues.
|Pirates on stage at Loufest, Forest Park, 2018|
|Backstage at Loufest with 18andCounting|
|With Darian Wigfall of Farfetched at Loufest|
|With Mr. Huey Lewis, backstage at Loufest|
|On stage at Peabody Opera House, STL|
|Performing with Dave Grelle's Playadors at the |
Ferring Jazz Bistro, STL
Photo: Nate Burrell
As if to prove our versatility, we thought it would be fun to make a sample based record as an ode to the music we came up with in the arena of hip-hop. I hadn't worked with Crucial in quite a few years at this point, so it felt like a homecoming when I was sitting in his house and deciding which SP-made beats to use on the new EP. Keeping with the Piratey theme, and paying homage to the strong female presence in our band - we decided to name the record after a female river pirate from the Gangs of New York era - "Sadie the Goat" (after Sadie Farrell - who may or may not have actually existed). A different, more modern version of Sadie is depicted in the de-facto title track - "Sadie and Doug" - a story about troubled star crossed lovers in deeeep South City and one of my favorite songs I've ever written. The EP begins with a guest appearance from LA legend Abstract Rude, and ends with a remix of another song we did with Ab, along with fellow LA legend and Freestyle Fellowship alum Myka 9.
"Sadie the Goat" dropped in early 2018 to a packed house at The Ready Room in St. Louis. For this show, we partnered with our friend Stan Chisolm (aka 18andCounting) and billed it as a double release party with the very talented super group Broke Poets (Jonezy, Capo, Che Sanchez, Que Houston, etc) opening things up.
|Artwork: Damon Davis|
Also during this time, Dace and I had joined forced with versatile Flamenco guitarist Lliam Christy for a project we called "Barbary Saints". To date, we've released one song under that name - a very textured, Cuban flavored version of "Summer Breeze" by Seals and Crofts - featuring the legendary Lazaro Galaraga on percussion and aux vocals. Lliam would join Pirates on stage a number of times, notably while opening for Femi Kuti (son of Fela) and for a few acoustic performances.
|Acoustic Pirates w/ Lliam Christy, Off Broadway, STL|
|Photo: Eric Nemens|
|Photo: KB the Selfie King, Blueberry Hill|
|Ghetto Soundwave, The Ready Room, STL|
|Photo: Eric Nemens|
|Artwork: Jim Mahfood|
|Photo: Ed Aller|
We had a lot of damn fun playing these two shows. The energy was infectious and the people in attendance were JAZZED to hear us rock those old familiar songs for the first time in nearly a decade. It was so fun in fact, that the three of us decided to continue on together and make some new music. The fourth Earthworm - Kama - had moved to LA and hung up his rapper pants many years previous. We got his blessing to continue with the old name in tact, and so we did. It was not known at the time that I would soon be joining Kama under the California sunshine, albeit in quarantine, but life is a series of curveballs and here we are. Earthworms played a few more times over the course of the following months, most recently at The Monocle in late December. We have linked up with Doug Surreal in Portland, OR (ex-Litterthugz) on production and we have a handful of songs recorded and in the mixing process. Once we can all go to studios again, there will be more to come.
|Earthworms V 2.0, on stage at The Monocle|
Photo: Justin Jones
I am thankful for technology. Thankful that I can keep making music with my friends after moving thousands of miles away from them. Life has brought me back to Los Angeles for a second go of things out here (with extremely precarious timing), but the internet makes it easy to collaborate. Personally, I finally reached the point where I no longer wanted to play a million shows a year to scant crowds in St. Louis, with the occasional payoff of a big, juicy crowd thrown in for good measure. At this point, if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense. I'm too old for "exposure" gigs to be appealing, and I'm very much over the process of pushing hard on a million things for a modest payoff. I'm over 40 and you have to start thinking about how many fucks people give about what a rapper my age has to say. I'm not sitting here announcing my retirement or anything, but being more strategic with my approach is a step I absolutely had to take, and it truly doesn't matter where I live if I'm going to dramatically scale back on the amount of shows I play in a year anyway. I can hop on a plane after a half-work day and get to STL in time for soundcheck.
Earthworms will release new music with Doug Surreal in 2020. You can write that down. Mathias and the Pirates will ride again as well, we're too dope to be done. One of these days the FLYOVR project I started with Capo and Matt Sawicki will come back to life. I've also begun making beats, and when they start sounding less amateur - I'll let them find some sunshine. I'm doing this long-form writing thing and I've taken a leadership role with Farfetched. Many irons, many fires, as is my nature. If there is ever a time when I am a little too quiet, you might want to check my pulse. Being a creative is what makes my entire heart beat and my soul come to life.
Thank you very much for riding with me on this long journey. I'll get back to writing about other things in the coming weeks, but I really wanted to get all of this out so it's documented somewhere. I appreciate anyone who made it this far, you're the real heroes here. Much love, stay safe, wear a damn mask and be kind. Deuces.
|A painting by Mark Dethrow, featuring yours truly and a bunch of STL legends,|
on the wall at the Shaved Duck, STL
|Artwork: Jim Mahfood|
|Shelby Carter, Will Betts, Matt Range, Matt Risch, Kerry, Kama, Me|
|Earthworms in 2019|
|Earthworms and Serge with Shane Presley of Rock Paper Podcast|
|4 Hands Lupulin Festival, Photo: Ed Aller|
|Pirates at The Pageant|
|Pirates and 18AC at Gaslight|
Photo: Doug Tull
|On stage in Downtown STL with The Urge|
|With our original drummer, Grover Stewart|
|On stage at The Pageant|
|With Lincoln Nelson during the "Go With Me" video shoot|
|Photo: Ed Aller|