Tag Archives: a tribe called quest

David Ravel’s UNCOVERED finds a new home

By Joey Grihalva

Nostalgia is a powerful force, especially as it pertains to music. Tune in to many of our radio stations or check out the latest Summerfest lineup and you’ll notice that Wisconsinites particularly have a penchant for the “oldies.” Not to mention, cover bands. While that identity has suited us just fine for years, there are those pushing for more progressive and more local music.

In 2012, Alverno Presents artistic director David Ravel hatched an idea that married iconic songwriters with contemporary regional talent. The resulting Uncovered series presents reinterpretations of quintessential American music, curated and performed by homegrown artists.

Last year — after 56 years of Alverno Presents — the college shut down its renowned performing arts series in order to allocate more resources to student services. When the news broke, it was also announced that Ravel had formed a partnership with the Pabst Theater Group that would allow Uncovered to live on.

The first performances will be January 20 — Tribe UNCOVERED — and April 14 — Wonder UNCOVERED — at Turner Hall Ballroom.

I recently sat down with Ravel, Tribe curator Kellen “Klassik” Abston, and Wonder curators Dave Wake (De La Buena, Aluar Pearls) and Tarik Moody (88Nine Radio Milwaukee).

The genesis of Uncovered

David Ravel and his wife moved to Milwaukee in 1997 when she was hired as a theater professor at Marquette University. They had been in New York City, where they ran Brooklyn Playworks, producing work by new American playwrights. Ravel got his job with Alverno Presents in 2003.

“When I was hired we assessed what the series was doing and looked around and said, ‘What’s happening in Milwaukee? What’s not happening in Milwaukee? Let’s do the stuff that’s not happening.’ Initially that was world music, jazz, and contemporary dance. Over time that evolved and some things ended up getting more attention than others,” says Ravel.

As the head of Alverno Presents, Ravel brought world-class performers to the Pitman Theatre. During that time he also developed relationships with Milwaukee musicians. Ravel admired how the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker in Minneapolis worked with local artists in their series and he searched for interesting ways to do the same.

One morning, while in his car listening to a re-released demo by the McGarrigle sisters, a line from “The Work Song” sparked an idea. There was a direct reference to Stephen Foster — “the father of American popular music” — whose songs have been recorded by musicians in a variety of arrangements over the years. Ravel enlisted Juniper Tar’s Ryan Schleicher to curate a show that would present reinterpretations of Foster’s songs. It would be the prototype for Uncovered and was titled Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project.

Architect-turned-radio DJ Tarik Moody began his Unlooped series in 2010 as a way to highlight Milwaukee’s electronic music scene through collaborations with popular musicians from other genres. The performances operated in a complementary fashion to what Ravel and Schleicher did with the Stephen Foster show. Ravel and Moody teamed up for a Marvin Gaye show centered on his 1978 album Here, My Dear.

“We placed a lot of different interpretive lenses on that material and the show went really well. After that, the template revealed itself to us and the idea of calling it ‘Uncovered.’ Because we’re not doing covers of this material, we’re reinterpreting it,” says Ravel.

“It’s this question of what is the American songbook? What merits inclusion and why? We started playing around with the idea that we can tell the strength of a song by how many different ways it can be successfully reinterpreted,” he adds.

After Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye, Ravel invited Betty Strigens of Testa Rosa to curate an Uncovered show. She chose the songs of Patti Smith. Next, Jordan “DJ Madhatter” Lee of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee decided to mine the work of legendary producer Quincy Jones. Later that year, Alverno Presents staged arguably the most intriguing Uncovered pairing — dark folk quartet Hello Death unraveling the music of Prince. This revelatory performance stuck with me for months. Upon hearing the news of Prince’s passing I immediately experienced a desire to relive the one night only event. 

The final Uncovered performance at the Pitman did not fall under the official moniker, but had a similar execution.

“The show that (Christopher) Porterfield did was really an Uncovered show, but with a musician no one had ever heard of,” says Ravel. “Charles K. Harris wrote a song that was the first to sell something like 10 million pieces of sheet music, and he wrote that in Milwaukee.”

Harris ended up moving to New York City, where he was one of the founders of Tin Pan Alley and had an active career from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. He wrote a book called How to Write a Popular Song, which Porterfield used as the foundation for his show. Musicians reinterpreted Harris’ songs and followed the book’s instructions to create their own song.

Blame it on the jazz — the roots of ‘Tribe UNCOVERED’

The first time my girlfriend and I visited the Pitman was for the Jones Uncovered show in April 2015. It was a special evening full of surprises and marvelous music. One of the standout moments was hip-hop artist Kellen “Klassik” Abston taking the lead on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”

Considering the popularity of that performance and the fact that Klassik’s biggest single — “Boogie” — samples The Jacksons’ “Blame it on the Boogie,” it seemed logical that he would eventually stage Jackson UNCOVERED. In fact, that was the initial idea when Ravel first sat down with Abston in the summer of 2015 to discuss an Uncovered show.

Kellen “Klassik” Abston

“This was an artist that I grew up with and have a lot of admiration for, but A Tribe Called Quest was always my second thought,” says Abston. “Doing an MJ show eventually started feeling like a cop out. Where is the challenge? What am I saying with this show?”

“With Tribe there are all these parallels between my own upbringing as far as musical growth with jazz and hip-hop. I started as a saxophone player and then was introduced to Tribe and classic ‘90s hip-hop growing up. And there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as hip-hop being a part of the American songbook,” adds Abston.

For Abston, Tribe UNCOVERED allows him to put a spotlight on the art of the sample. The lyrical content was actually the final piece of the puzzle. In effect, Tribe has become a vessel to make a larger point about sampling and where classic hip-hop albums stand among classic albums of all genres.

“Sampling is not just taking somebody else’s idea and copy and pasting it. It’s listening to hundreds of thousands of records and finding those two second snippets from this record and that record and making something completely new and beautiful,” says Abston.

“Tribe is the embodiment of this ever present, constantly progressing lineage of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. It’s my story, it’s their story, it’s hip-hop, it’s jazz,” adds Abston.

With Tribe member Phife Dawg’s passing last March and a new Tribe album released in November — their first in 18 years — Abston saw these as reassuring signs. While hip-hop had been used in Uncovered shows as an interpretive lens for existing material, Ravel originally had trouble wrapping his head around the idea of using hip-hop as the foundation.

“All the curators who are involved in the Uncovered shows have pushed me and my understanding of the American songbook into far deeper considerations than I would’ve had by myself. I think Kellen and the artists that he’s assembled are making a very compelling case for how that material gets reinterpreted and it’s place in the American songbook,” says Ravel.

‘The elusive perfect album’ — the roots of ‘Wonder UNCOVERED’

As the bandleader of Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz outfit De La Buena, Dave Wake first became involved with Alverno Presents by providing the marching band for a Trisha Brown contemporary dance piece. Later, Jordan Lee enlisted Wake to be the musical director for Jones Uncovered. After the show, Wake’s sister came up to him and exclaimed, “You know the next one needs to be Stevie Wonder, right?”

Dave Wake (at ‘Jones Uncovered’)

“Emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is just an album that reminds me of my youth,” says Wake. “It was on at our house almost constantly when I was growing up. And I think the night of the Jones show it came up in conversation between Tarik and I. Plus, I like that he’s into doing full albums.”

“It’s what I call the elusive perfect album,” says Moody. “Stevie was way ahead of his time on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s hard to repeat that kind of stuff. He had good albums, but I think that was his pinnacle.”

Wonder UNCOVERED is still a work-in-progress, but Moody and Wake have found a similar sensibility with artistic choices and arrangements.

“We’ve been thinking about the elements of the songs, stripping them down to the essential parts and then building up a total reinterpretation around that. We approach it like, ‘But what if we knock that out completely? What if we take this one thing and build the song up from a fringe element?’” says Wake.

Residual effects

Tribe UNCOVERED will be the fourth time Abston is involved in an Uncovered show. The first time he ever sang in front of an audience was at Unlooped vs. Marvin Gaye. Abston describes each show as a unique and transformative experience.

“I’ve witnessed myself and the artists involved in these shows grow exponentially as far as artistic maturity, being able to listen better, taking on different skill sets and challenging ourselves in new ways. They’ve opened up a whole world of possibilities and broadened my perspective of what I listen to and what I demand of myself as an artist and as a producer,” says Abston.

Moody and Wake have enlisted Thane and Q the Sun — two of Milwaukee’s top producers — to help brainstorm Wonder UNCOVERED.

A key component of the series is to gather together a group of musicians who would not normally work together. This was inherent in Moody’s Unlooped series and carried over into Uncovered. In the months after the Jones Uncovered, I noticed many of the same players from the house band hanging out and jamming with musicians both young and old at saxophonist Jay Anderson’s Riverwest home. Also, Prince Uncovered served as the introduction of Abston to Chris Rosenau, who will be playing guitar at Tribe UNCOVERED.

“When I was living in Minneapolis I was surrounded by collaboration,” says Moody. “It’s ridiculous how many musicians crossed genres naturally in that scene. If you want a strong and supportive scene, collaboration is very important. People tell me, ‘Oh Minneapolis just has more talent.’ No. Milwaukee probably has more talent. It’s just Minneapolis intermingles more.”

“The coolest thing for me from the Marvin Gaye show was that Porterfield and Barry Paul Clark met, Clark joined Field Report, and they started an improv group together. So I think what Uncovered is doing for the scene is really beautiful and I hope it inspires people,” adds Moody.

Purchase tickets for Tribe UNCOVERED and Wonder UNCOVERED here: http://pabsttheater.org/show/tribeuncovered2017

 

[ FULL-INTERVIEW ]

WiG
Tell me about the genesis of the Uncovered series?

RAVEL
It started in the parking lot of the Colectivo in the 5th Ward. I was in my car listening to the re-released demos of the first two McGarrigle sisters albums. So there was no production, just guitar, voice and piano. I knew both of those albums very well and loved them very much. As is often the case with something that you get to hear a second time in a stripped-down way, in a fresh way, I was really taken with “The Work Song.” It has the line, “Back before the blues were blues, when the good old songs were new, songs that may no longer please us, about the darkies about Jesus.”

It’s a very direct reference to Stephen Foster and parlor music. Also, it’s a reference to their family and how they shared music with each other. This got me thinking about how the American popular song developed. I started obsessing about this and talking about it with a lot of different people including Ryan Schleicher, who’s an old friend. Eventually I decided I wanted to do a show about Stephen Foster where his material gets reinterpreted.

WiG
Had you seen shows like that where the music is being reinterpreted? Did you ever experience that template?

RAVEL
No. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but I wasn’t familiar with it.

WiG
About what time was this?

RAVEL
This was 2012. The Stephen Foster show went really well. And as that show was about to happen it was very clear that Alverno Presents needed to follow up on this idea. Tarik and I started talking. I wanted to do something about Marvin Gaye and I really wanted to do something about Here, My Dear, because it’s my favorite album. But Milan (Zori) said, “Don’t limit somebody like that, it’s such a great catalogue. Why do you want to limit them to one album?”  

Tarik and I started talking about Marvin Gaye and listening to a lot of it and then Tarik said, “You know what my favorite Marvin Gaye album is? Here, My Dear.” And I said “Yes.” So we focused on that and we did the whole album, placing a lot of different interpretive lenses on that material and that show went really well.  After that the template revealed itself to us and the idea of calling it “Uncovered.” Because we’re not doing covers of this material, we’re reinterpreting it. It’s this question of what is the American songbook? What merits inclusion and why? We started playing around with the idea that we can tell the strength of a song by how many different ways it can be successfully reinterpreted. And we went on from there.

WiG
How long had you been working with Alverno Presents prior to that?

RAVEL
I started there in 2003, so this was like 9 years later.

WiG
What was Alverno Presents known for at that point?

RAVEL
Well, over its 56 year history it was known for a lot of different things. When I was hired we assessed what the series was doing and looked around and said, “What’s happening in Milwaukee? What’s not happening in Milwaukee? Let’s do the stuff that’s not happening.” Initially that was world music, jazz, and contemporary dance. Over time that evolved and some things ended up getting more attention than others.

WiG
What were you doing previous to being hired by Alverno Presents?

RAVEL
I worked for Theater X for two years and prior to that my wife and I lived in New York for 14 years.

WiG
What precipitated the move to Milwaukee?

RAVEL
My wife got a job. She was chair of the Theater Department at Marquette University, so we came for that job and I did what I could.

WiG
So Tarik, tell me how you wrapped your head around the Marvin Gaye show?

TARIK
Well, Here, My Dear is a concept record. It’s basically a divorce settlement for his ex-wife. At first he didn’t really take it seriously, he was just going to do some BS. But then he thought back and decided to put all of his emotions in it. The album covers a range of emotions. So I approached first from the lyrics and then the music. Each song is almost a different genre. I wanted to have different ensembles for each song. To approach the song from a completely different way.

One of our favorites was Martha Cannon from Lady Cannon. She took the song “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” and turned it into a country song. My secondary goal besides putting on a good show was to connect different artists together that I like. It’s my selfish reason for doing these shows. It’s kind of what I did with the Unlooped series. I love Chris Porterfield and I like Kiings, so I want to put them together. A lot of people who worked on Unlooped had never met each other. That was the fun part of the show. That was kind of my ulterior motive to get different artists I appreciate and respect and see what happens when they come together.

WiG
Can you explain the Unlooped series?

TARIK
It started back in 2010. It was basically to highlight the electronic scene. Because since I felt that people in the city didn’t really appreciate electronic music. So the idea was basically to highlight electronic musicians and I felt the only way to do that was through collaborations with other musicians that people like. That’s how it started. Then I took a hiatus and I brought it back in the form of reinterpretation. So the first one was Dilla and the second one was Justin Vernon and the third one was the Marvin Gaye show.

WiG
So Dave, was the Jones Uncovered show the first one you became involved with?

DAVE
I had done…I don’t remember when we first met…

RAVEL
We had done that Trisha Brown thing. That was so wonderful.

WiG
What was that?

RAVEL
Trisha Brown is the foremost postmodern choreographer. She has a piece that involves a marching band happening around the building so you can hear the marching band not in the theater but around the theater. So we got De La Buena to be the marching band. The dance company was thrilled because they normally get high school marching bands. And so they had first of all somebody with a very good sense of rhythm, which the dancers really appreciated  and we marched them around the theater and through the orchestra pit. It was a lot of fun.

DAVE
We brought a bunch of percussion to it. David emailed me when they were asking for a marching band asking if we could do something. We started dialoguing via email and I said, “What about a Samba band type thing with a bunch of second line horns?”

RAVEL
Which is not the idea of their piece but they were open to it.

DAVE
So we got like New Orleans second line horns with a Samba group, just like sight unseen. There’s no part of the show where we’re seen. It’s just a point of reference where the sound was coming from and it ended up being amazing and then we played either at the break…

RAVEL
That piece was the end of the first set and when the audience went out of the theater De La Buena with outside playing. That was how many years ago?

DAVE
That was maybe 2013/2012. I remember we were backstage at the show and you said, “There’s this Marvin Gaye record, Here, My Dear.” So that was a really great experience working with David and then for the Jones show, Jordan Lee just called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to be the musical director for the show?” It was a little different in that Tarik is sort of into this…you know David was saying about not being limited to one album? But I do like the concept of taking one album and really dissecting it. So Jordan and I took on Quincy Jones. I mean his catalogue is insane. My wife was in India with Painted Caves and we sat at my kitchen table for like three or four hours listening to the Quincy Jones songbook. I think we narrowed it down to like 83 songs.

RAVEL
He has 50 years worth of work.

DAVE
We were like, “Okay, let’s just narrow it down a little,” and our list was like four pages long. Then we brought that down to like 13-14 songs at the end of it. It was really daunting, but it was an incredible experience. We took a little different approach with it because we did feature performers with a house band. And then we brought in Painted Caves to do some really different stuff.

RAVEL
Like the Lady Cannon piece where they took a Marvin Gaye song and turned it into a country song, Painted Caves took Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” which is kind of classic early ‘60s white girl pop, and turned it into something with a really intense Middle Eastern vibe. I don’t know the name of the male vocalist…

DAVE
Ali.

RAVEL
Ali took the lead vocal, which is the persona of the young girl. Ali took it and just cracked it open. And Holly was able to sort of jump into that sweet spot. It’s one of my most satisfying moments of the Uncovered shows.

DAVE
Yeah that show I think was like…it’s something we’ve been dialoguing about, those moments of having a clean house band and then bringing something totally out of left field. The counterpoint of that worked really well in that show. That’s one thing that in hindsight I would have liked to have done more with Jordan on that show. More of having these really nice tight arrangements with great singers, letting them do their thing and then all of a sudden something out of left field just comes in and knocks your socks off. That’s sort of been something for the Stevie Wonder show that we’re discussing. Using the device of sharp contrast and counterpoints.

WiG
So Kellen, I know you were involved in that show and Prince Uncovered. Were you involved in any others?

KELLEN
I was in the Marvin Gaye show.

WiG
So what was your experience like performing in all these shows?

KELLEN
My experiences with Uncovered up until the present day have all been very unique and transformative experiences. I’ve witnessed myself and the artists involved in these shows grow exponentially as far as artistic maturity, being able to listen better, taking on different skill sets and challenging ourselves in new ways. To take something that’s recognized on its own right and then turn it on its head is something special.

I’ve learned a lot about where I want to go as an artist, finding my strong suits. Find the things that are super new, that I’m not as sure of and tackling those kinds of things head on. Like the Marvin Gaye show, I had never sung in front of people before I did Marvin Gaye show. It’s still something that I’m coming to terms with. These shows, they’ve opened up a whole world of possibilities and broadened my perspective of what I listen to and what I demand of myself as an artist and as a producer.

WiG
So I’m familiar with the Jones Uncovered show, the Prince Uncovered, the Marvin Gaye show, what other Uncovered have there been in the series?

RAVEL
Stephen Foster, Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, Quincy Jones, Prince, and the show that Porterfield did was really an Uncovered show, but with a musician that no one had ever heard of. So if we were to call it Charles K. Harris Uncovered people would have probably been scratching their heads. But it was in effect an Uncovered show. There were people reinterpreting Charles K. Harris and he wrote a song that was the first to sell something like 10 million pieces of sheet music, “After the Ball,”  and he wrote that in Milwaukee. Then he left Milwaukee and became in essence one of the founders of Tin Pan Alley in New York and had a very active career from the late 1880s to the early 1930s. And he wrote a book, a very strange book, called How to Write a Popular Song. What Chris did was invite a bunch of musicians to reinterpret Charles K. Harris’ songs and then follow Charles K. Harris’ instructions to write a popular song. So it was an Uncovered show, we just didn’t call it that.

WiG
Did you know that Alverno Presents was going to end before it was announced?

RAVEL
Yes, they gave me a heads up. One of the things that I wanted to do was that I had a number of projects in development that I wanted to find homes for including these two upcoming Uncovered shows. So I went to talk with Gary and Matt [at the Pabst Group] and they had a lot of enthusiasm for the Uncovered shows. So it was a very natural home for these things to go to. And I am told that we have a commitment to doing two Uncovered shows a year for the next three years. So this will go on.

WiG
So it’s not just a trial run?

RAVEL
I thought it was a trial run until I read in the Journal Sentinel that we’re doing two a year for the next three years. I suppose this could change, but for now this is my information.

WiG
Looking at the first one that’s coming up, how did A Tribe Called Quest get selected?

(Ravel and Kellen both laugh.)

RAVEL
Let me start with saying every curator I’ve ever worked with we started on one idea…

TARIK
Hey, I kept mine.

RAVEL
Okay, you kept yours.

DAVE
My sister walked up to me on stage after the Jones Uncovered show because my dad played Stevie Wonder growing up and she said, “You know the next one needs to be Stevie Wonder, right?” And it’s so funny because that same night the next conversation I had was with you (looking at Tarik) and you were like, “Stevie Wonder.”

RAVEL
Yeah, but Tarik was also saying after the Jones show that it would be a long time before he did another one of these things, which is another thing every curator has said. “It was great. I had a good time, but I need a break.” It’s a lot of work. But pretty much every curator changed their mind midstream. We started with one idea and went to another one. I’ve always gone with it because the work that the curator has to do it so intense. I mean, they’re living with this for like a year and a half, in some cases two years. It has to be something that you can live with for that amount of time. So Kellen was going to do a Michael Jackson show.

WiG
I had heard that…

KELLEN
This had to be summer 2015 I feel like when we first sat down and talked about this. My immediate thought was MJ. Of course, I’m gonna do a Michael Jackson show. Duh.

WiG
I feel like people were saying that after the Jones show…

KELLEN
I think that was kind of the inspiration. And there was this growth and that’d be like a challenge because we did this one song and what if I just really dug into his catalogue? Obviously, this is an artist I grew up with and have a lot of admiration for, but A Tribe Called Quest was always my second thought. It was, “MJ, but then I could also do Tribue…but I’m gonna do MJ.” And for sure like with Phife passing, it was right before then that I was really moving strongly towards changing it. Because MJ was just like equally…

RAVEL
I think we made that choice before Phife passed.

KELLEN
Yeah, but I think his passing was a sign…there were some things that happened since the change that were reassuring. It was like, “Alright, MJ is equally as difficult and easy. This could go one of two ways.” Doing an MJ show eventually started feeling like a cop out. I probably could do a really good MJ show, but where is the challenge? What am I saying with this show? What am I arguing besides the obvious?

With Tribe there are all these parallels between my own upbringing as far as musical growth with jazz and hip-hop. I started as a saxophone player and then was introduced to Tribe and classic ‘90s hip-hop growing up. The story kind of just unfolded and unveiled itself once we made that decision and immediately it was like, “Yeah, there’s a lot more to say with this, there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as hip-hop being a part of the American songbook. And there’s a lot that hasn’t been said as far as the art of the sample and what that takes and the type of ear.”

Sampling is not just taking somebody else’s idea and copy and pasting it. It’s listening to hundreds of thousands of records and finding those two second snippets from this record and that record and making something completely new and beautiful. So that’s what this show became.

RAVEL
All the curators who are involved in the Uncovered shows have pushed me and my understanding of the American songbook into far deeper considerations than I would’ve had by myself. Jordan’s idea of working with a producer rather than a songwriter, I didn’t understand it when he suggested the idea. But he made a really compelling case for it. And while past Uncovered shows have used hip-hop as an interpretive lens for existing material, we’ve never looked at hip-hop before. And the first question I had was, “How does this get reinterpreted?” I didn’t understand that. Then Kellen explained it to me. And I think Kellen and the artists that he’s assembled are making a very compelling case for how that material gets reinterpreted and it’s place in the American songbook.

WiG (to Kellen)
I think you kind of already answered this question, but what has Tribe meant to you?

KELLEN
Tribe is the embodiment of this ever present, constantly progressing lineage of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. When I started rapping it was because in high school and a little bit of college, I was making beats as a side thing, as a hobby. But my main thing was going to music class for five hours a day. I was a 50-year-old jazz guy who was actually 16. That was my life. Practicing every single day. The art of improvisation, as I started getting more into hip-hop, I saw very early on that jazz improv and freestyle rap are literally the exact same thing.

With jazz improv you learn certain licks and runs and then you learn them in every single key and eventually you build up this vocabulary. It’s a language in a very literal sense. You can better convey and more efficiently share ideas and emotions and thoughts if you have the vocabulary. You’re not thinking about it. Even speaking to you right now, I’m not thinking about every single word that’s coming out of my mouth per say. I’m thinking about the larger thought, and the rest just happens. So the greatest jazz improvisational players are the ones who sat in their rooms for like 12 hours a day and practiced the same pattern over and over and over again, until eventually they’re not thinking about it and they’re just “talking to you.”

Freestyle rap is even more literal than that because now I am talking to you with words, but I’m making them rhyme, and I’m keeping it in time. And I’m having complete thoughts with this level of self-awareness that there are patterns and phrases that if you know, they’re couplets and certain rhyme schemes that you can go in and out of. You get to a point where you’re so comfortable you’re not thinking about it, you’re just talking in a different way. If you’ve got a saxophone and you’re doing a solo, you’re not thinking about it, you’re just talking to the audience. If the DJ throws a beat on, I’m not sitting there in a corner thinking about what I want to say. No, it moves you to speak. And so what Tribe represents for me is the embodiment of that parallel. The marriage of jazz and hip-hop. The records that they sampled and the reasons that they sampled them and why they worked together. It’s my story, it’s their story, it’s hip-hop, it’s jazz.

WiG
And did the new Tribe album have any impact on the direction and vision of the show?

KELLEN
Actually no. All of this was in motion well before they announced the album. It was just another one of those reassurances. It was another sign. Didn’t really effect the show that I’ve constructed.

RAVEL
We won’t be looking at any material from the new album?

KELLEN
There may or may not be one song from it towards the end. But…without giving away too much…

WiG
It can be off the record.

KELLEN
No, it’s not super secret. But yeah overall the new album didn’t alter the course of the show.

WiG
It sounds like with the Stevie Wonder show, the roots of it go back a few years.

DAVE
Emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is just an album that reminds me of my youth. Again, my sister came up after the Quincy Jones show and said “Stevie Wonder!” It was on at our house almost constantly when I was growing up. And I think the night of the Jones show it came up in conversation between with Tarik and I. Plus I like that he’s into doing full albums. But I do think it’s a daunting task that we’re taking on the entire Songs in the Key of Life

TARIK
Which is a double album.

RAVEL
We’re investigating the idea of a dinner break.

TARIK
It’s what I call the elusive perfect album. I mean it’s everything you want in an album. It’s beautiful. When I first heard it, it was like…I’m more of a music guy, sonics and sounds, and I feel like Stevie was way ahead of his time on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s hard to repeat that kind of stuff. He had good albums, but I think that was his pinnacle.

DAVE
It takes you on such an emotional journey too, it’s such a story. Each song in it’s own stands alone and as a work of art it’s such an incredible journey. It’s such an incredible work.

WiG
So was that a pretty easy consensus?

DAVE
I think so. I think we sort of came to it a little bit individually as well and so when we started talking about it we were kind of already on the same page. It’s been really interesting with us combining our artistic sensibilities, because we’re coming from two different worlds. It’s been really cool. It’s just like feeling it out and starting to put the thread together in how we approach something like that and where we’re coming from as artists and musical minds. It’s really starting to develop nicely and again, we’ve had a couple great moments where we’ve individually come to a couple of conclusions then we’ve checked in with each other and been like, “This song would be great as that,” or “This person would be really great on this song.”

I think both of us have had individual revelations like that and when we check in we’re like, “Wow, I was thinking that too.” Some of the other collaborators we’re bringing in are really really bright and have great perspective. Like Thane, who put out a really great record this year and is young, he brought some really great, fresh ideas. He’s really thinking about it. And Kiran as well. Those are the two people we brought in really early to help brainstorm with us. And it just feels like there’s a really cool collaborative vision going on, which is important.

TARIK
And plus the album was released forty years ago.

WiG
This question can go to either of you guys. How do you start putting together a show like this?

TARIK
There’s bourbon first.

(Everybody laughs.)

DAVE
Yeah.

KELLEN
Why was I going to say the same thing? Buy a bottle of bourbon…

DAVE
Lubrication of some sort, in this case bourbon.

TARIK
For me, I go through the songs first. You just start listening to records. Have a drink. And hopefully ideas will spark. Like “Oh, I’d love to have that singer,” or “That drummer would kill on this song.” You start brainstorming while you listen to records. I listen to them over and over again. Try to think of other ways, what would be interesting. That’s how I approached Marvin Gaye and this next one.

DAVE
And in the spirit of the re-interpretative nature of it and personally, I consider myself first and foremost an arranger.We’ve been thinking about the elements of the songs, stripping them down to the essential parts and then building up a total reinterpretation around that. We approach it like, “But what if we knock that out completely? What if we take this one thing and build the song up from a fringe element?

We’re looking at different angles of arrangement and how a different pairing of artists might look at it. Getting people together that wouldn’t normally work together and seeing how they are going to interpret it. You give them the artistic freedom to do their thing and interpret it in their own way and sort of hold a place for them. Cuz I’m also thinking as an arranger, how does the show tie together? What are the common elements where you can get a thread throughout the show? Something that really makes it a complete show. So it’s like, “What are the things you can keep in place to keep it feeling like a real show that has a thread that flows with tons of room for interpretation between it?”

KELLEN
Same. Also, this is something that I’m like actively combating now, the beauty and the controversy of what I’m doing. Meaning I’ve had old heads, like die hard hip-hop fans, in public forums just basically question my credibility. Like, “Where is your knowledge of this?”

DAVE
Your authority.

KELLEN
“You were two years old when this happened, why are you doing this?” Well, first of all…

RAVEL
I’m a musician. Second of all, I have ears.

DAVE
And third, you’re bitter.

KELLEN
Right. And then the thing that I was able to eventually get across is that none of these are supposed to be cover shows. And this for sure, the way that we approached this, from de-constructing the samples themselves and replaying them, and recording those, and then re-sampling that. There’s so many layers. The lyrics are almost, ironically enough for this, gasp, all the hip-hop heads are going to hate this, but the lyrics are the last thing that are even a part of this Tribe show. Tribe has become more of a vessel for a larger point that I’m trying to get across about the art of the sample and the parallel of jazz and hip-hop. They just happened to be the fucking best to do it.

It’s not specifically about your favorite lines. It’s definitely more of a musical exploration as far as expectation, as far as records that were used and how that laid the foundation for a new iconic piece of work on top of that. And so taking that whole process and putting it on the stage for everyone to see, like, hear the original sample played by a live band and then watch this guy sample this record on stage. At least that’s what it’s going to look like to people. It’s really putting front and center the art of creating a classic hip-hop record and where classic hip-hop records stand amongst classic records of all genres.

(We then discuss the Tribe/Pharcyde mash-up album Bizarre Tribe and Dave recalls a Hieroglyphics show at Stonefly Brewing, which is now Company Brewing.)

WiG
I guess my last question, well I guess it’s more of a comment than a question, and I think we touched on it before, but one of the residual effects of these Uncovered shows is a community building effect in the Milwaukee music scene. Bringing together people who’ve never worked together to collaborate on something larger than themselves. I felt like being at the Jones Uncovered show and then seeing some of the house jams at Jay Anderson’s place with some of the same musicians coming in and mingling, a mix of older heads and younger players. You know, hats off for that aspect.

RAVEL
One of the things I was thinking about for a long time when I was at Alverno Presents was I always admired how the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker in Minneapolis worked with Chicago and Minneapolis based artists in their series. And I wanted to do that. And it took me a long time to figure out a meaningful way to do that.

It never made sense to me to book somebody who’s going to do their Cactus Club set at Alverno, because we can see that at Cactus Club. Why is this special? As this idea with Foster started to develop I realized this is how I’ll get to work with the artists in Milwaukee I want to work with and give them an opportunity to do something they haven’t done before and give audiences an opportunity to see them in a different light. That part has been especially meaningful and I’m glad it’s worked out.

TARIK
I mean with Unlooped that was basically the whole reason I wanted to do that. Because living in Minneapolis I was surrounded by collaboration. It’s ridiculous how many musicians cross genres naturally in that scene. There was this cross-pollination and I guess the idea sparked when the group Gayngs, which was started by a bunch of Minneapolis people as a joke, 26 people based on one funny concept, it was kind of a loose tribute to yacht rock and 10cc and they got all these different artists together, plus a couple people from North Carolina, and they put this album together and had this prom in Minneapolis at First Avenue. Prince was backstage.

I mean you see that kind of collaboration and local support in Minneapolis. A lot of local artists sell shows out at First Avenue and I wanted to see that here in Milwaukee. And I knew the only way I could get that done is that artists had to get out of their comfort zone and intermingle. If you want to have a strong scene and a scene that is supportive, collaboration is very important. Just seeing that and watching that and knowing those people when I was living there and watching them grow, now that I’m on the outside it’s just amazing. And the thing is people tell me, “Oh Minneapolis just has more talent.” No. Milwaukee probably has more talent. It’s just Minneapolis intermingles more.

DAVE
Amazingly insular talent, Milwaukee has.

WiG
And I would say Minneapolis has stronger leaders like Prince, Rhymesayers…

TARIK
Yeah, Prince was very supportive. And Rhymesayers helped out Doomtree and P.O.S. so much. They kind of brought each other up. Now Doomtree’s helping other people out. When you go to Eaux Claires you see all the Minneapolis people just hanging out and stuff in the back. That intermingling seems like such a natural thing. I don’t know why it happened, maybe because of the legacy of Prince, the legacy of The Replacements, the legacy of all those bands might have something to do with it. It’s a beautiful thing.

DAVE
Austin’s got that vibe too. I think they set it up with Austin City Limits and that festival is set up as such where the artists village is like, they specifically build it so that artists are hanging out and exchanging ideas. They have a bunch of different backstages but everyone goes in one area to eat. They’re basically like, “Here, all you artists eat together. You’re standing in line waiting for your food, start talking.” Not to knock Summerfest, so I won’t, but it’s a very different experience where you’re being shipped in a van and it’s like, “Don’t look at the other artists! Turn your head away.” But with Austin City Limits they’re like pushing you together. Which can really foster some cool ideas and bands forming out of it.

WiG
You see that at Eaux Claires, which is new but…

DAVE
Yeah, I haven’t been to that one yet, but I’ve heard that it’s really…

TARIK
Justin Vernon is basically inspired by Minneapolis.

WiG
I’m pretty sure he has an apartment there.

TARIK
He might be a Wisconsinite, but he takes a lot of cues from Minneapolis. And he sees that collaboration and he brought it to Eaux Claires. Jay’s doing his house parties. That’s a great start and I hope it continues. I’d like to see more local artists on each other’s albums. Maybe Klassik gets Tenement on his album. Or De La Buena gets Reyna on their album. That needs to start happening as well, not just performing live together, but starting to feature each other on albums. I think what Uncovered is doing is really beautiful and I hope it inspires people. The coolest thing for me from the Marvin Gaye show was that Porterfield and Barry Paul Clark met, Clark joined Field Report, and they started an improv group together. They had never met each other. That was the coolest thing ever.

The many strides of AUTOMatic

By Joey Grihalva

The late 1980s and early 1990s is considered the golden era of hip-hop, when jazz and soul laid a sonic foundation for boom bap beats and clever wordsmiths. In the last decade hip-hop has drawn influence from electronic music, veering into abstract melodic territory.

Of all the Wisconsin artists doing an updated version of golden era hip-hop, no one does it quite as well as AUTOMatic. Made up of emcee A.P.R.I.M.E. (Darius Windom) and producer Trellmatic (Montrell Sallis), AUTOMatic has a new album — Marathon — that cements its status as one of Milwaukee’s finest hip-hop acts.

I sat down with Windom — whose rap alias stands for “Armond’s Phenomenal Rhymes Incite Mind Elevation” — at Vanguard in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood and a week later I went to the Marathon release show at Cactus Club.

BLANKING OUT

If young Windom had found friends who could sing, he may never have started a rap career. He might instead be in a “baby New Edition” R&B group.

“My mom really wanted me to like New Edition,” recalls Windom. “We went to every last New Edition tour that came through town, all the way up to when they came in 2012. I used to sing in the choir, I used to sing all the time. Honestly, I used to have a dope voice.”

A.P.R.I.M.E.
A.P.R.I.M.E.

Windom’s older sister and cousin exposed him to hip-hop. He remembers being taken to his first rap show in 1988, at the age of 6. The lineup included Public Enemy, Ice-T, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and was headlined by Eric B. & Rakim. Windom can still picture the rapper-producer duo walking out on the Mecca (now the Panther Arena) stage to a laser-light show.

“I really loved the DJs — K LA Boss who was EPMD’s DJ and Public Enemy’s DJ Terminator X. It wasn’t until A Tribe Called Quest that I really started digging it. But when Gang Starr put out ‘DWYCK’ is when I absolutely had to be a part of it,” says Windom.

His reverence for DJ Premier led Windom to model his sound after the Gang Starr producer when he started making his own music. But long before that, Windom found his rap calling. It came one night in his grandmother’s basement while hanging out with his sister and cousin.

“My cousin kicked it off and I went after him. I kind of went blank. I don’t know what I was saying, I couldn’t hear anything. I could only see their faces. Whatever I was saying was creating this astonishment on their faces. Then my sister ran upstairs and told my mom I could rap.”

GETTING IN THE GAME

Following years of writing verse upon verse and rapping for fun, Windom got up the nerve to start making his own music after dropping out of college. He found a producer that was asking $600 per beat. Startled by the price, he opted instead to buy an MPC 2000 drum machine, went half on mixers and mics with a friend, and recorded a demo on the friend’s computer.

In 2003, Windom saw Black Elephant, one of the hottest Milwaukee groups in the early 2000s underground hip-hop scene. He bought their CD and found their manager’s contact information in the liner notes.

The manager — Geraud Blanks, currently a programmer with the Milwaukee Film Festival’s Black Lens program — ended up booking Windom for a show at what is now Riverwest Public House. A new fan asked Windom when he would be releasing an album. He told the fan, “Probably the next show,” thinking it would be months away.

“But it turned out to about two weeks later, so I just went hard. My boy Jonathan Frost had a recording setup at his crib so I linked up with him and wrote and recorded the album in two weeks,” says Windom. The result was 2004 Writer’s Block, his only true solo project.

ROAD TO ‘AUTOMATIC’

For a time, there was a venue called bSide in Walker’s Point. In 2004, DJs Kid Cut Up and Why B started No Request Fridays there, which became a gathering place for Milwaukee’s hip-hop community. Windom met Seoul K at bSide and they formed the short lived group Class:Sick.

At bSide Windom also met Milwaukee rapper Dana Coppa, one of the original members of the Rusty Pelicans, the godfathers of Milwaukee hip-hop. Coppa suggested Windom meet Montrell Sallis (Trellmatic), who was making beats similar to his. Windom’s girlfriend at the time also ran into Sallis at a party and felt the two should meet.

“At the time I wasn’t really interested in working with someone that made music similar to me. Why would I do that when I could just do it myself?” Windom wondered at the time.

A.P.R.I.M.E. & Trellmatic
A.P.R.I.M.E. & Trellmatic

After meeting Sallis at bSide one night Windom got over his hesitancy, the two hit it off, and they formed AUTOMatic in 2007. They became a part of the collective House of M, which also included Dana Coppa, Professor Ecks, Haz Solo, and others. During their first performances Windom was a nervous wreck and performed with a mask.

“I have stage fright. Back then it was pretty crippling,” says Windom. “I’m an introvert. I don’t like the spotlight. So I’m kind of a walking contradiction in that way.”

Since teaming up AUTOMatic has released four albums, a mixtape and an EP. Windom has continued to work on solo material and earlier this year he released his first EP under the 3099 alias, which was a collaboration with DJ/producer JDL Rockwell and delves into more electro-R&B-rap territory. Local soul pop singer Lex Allen is featured on two of the songs off the 3099 EP.

“I wrote everything,” says Windom. “I honestly just want to be a writer-producer. If I was put in a situation where AUTOMatic was offered a record deal, but then I was offered a publishing deal to write, I would take the publishing deal.”

MENTORED BY A STAR

While the pool of talented Milwaukee-born emcees has grown over the last decade, it was a short list in the 1990s and 2000s. Atop that list was Todd “Speech” Thomas, who moved to Atlanta for college and formed the progressive hip-hop group Arrested Development in 1988.

A few years back Thomas — a two-time Grammy winner — was listening to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and heard a song by AUTOMatic. He recognized a lyrical and stylistic kinship and called the radio station. Jordan Lee passed along AUTOMatic’s contact but Windom lost the email. Two years later he took a shot in the dark and reached out to Thomas.

A.P.R.I.M.E. & JC Poppe at Mile of Music's first hip-hop showcase.
A.P.R.I.M.E. & JC Poppe at Mile of Music’s first hip-hop showcase.

“He emailed me back the next morning and was like, ‘Yeah dude, it’s been long enough. It’s been two years!’ I said sorry and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything happens in God’s time.’ Then we started emailing each other back and forth.”

“Speech has become like a mentor of sorts,” says Windom. “Anytime that I have feelings of doubt, he lifts me up. Honestly, before [JC] Poppe came back to manage us in December of last year I was ready to be done. I told Speech that and he was like, ‘Nope. I’m not hearing it. You are too good. Don’t quit because you’re frustrated. Quit when you’re wack.’”

Not only has Speech helped to motivate Windom on his artistic journey, he also contributed a verse on the track “Rising Sun” off of AUTOMatic’s 2015 EP ARISING.

A BREAK AND A BREAKTHROUGH

One reason there was four-year break between full-length albums is Windom lost trust with a former collaborator.

“My music is everything to me. I don’t have any children, so that’s how deep I feel about this. If you flub something with my music that’s ultimately like dropping my baby,” says Windom.

When Marathon was conceived it was originally meant to be another EP. But during the writing process Windom hit a stride and before he knew it he had 17 songs. Luckily, Windom’s friend and fellow Milwaukee musician Colin Plant (No No Yeah Okay) offered his home studio.

“That was very freeing. It allowed me to sing and do some things I really wanted to do, that I might not have done not if I was in front of people,” says Windom.

Because of their work schedules, Sallis and Windom were barely able to be in the studio at the same time, but sent each other material and feedback for Marathon. The result is their best project yet.

This time around Windom is doing less battle rapping and being open and honest about subjects that some other rappers might not touch. What stands out is Windom’s sharp rhyme and storytelling skills. He even flexes his singing voice on a few of the tracks.

'Marathon' release show at Cactus Club.
‘Marathon’ release show at Cactus Club.

“We’re trying to make good music that anybody can relate to. It doesn’t matter if you have a bunch of money or a certain kind of car. I try to relate the human experience above all,” says Windom.

At the recent release show, Windom closed the night with a heartfelt message about the need for unity and love in these times of tense political division, before playing the feel-good single “Talkin’ Bout Love.”

Coincidentally, Marathon was released the same day as the final album from A Tribe Called Quest, their first in 18 years. AUTOMatic paid homage to ATCQ near the end of their set. As Windom rapped and the crowd responded, I could feel the spirit of Phife Dawg — ATCQ member who passed earlier this year — in the building.  

marathon

 

FULL-INTERVIEW

What follows is a transcript of my full-interview with Darius Windom (A.P.R.I.M.E. 3099) at Vanguard in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood a few weeks ago. I enjoyed a delicious buffalo chicken poutine while we talked.

AP
I just read the article you did on Enrique. I thought that was pretty dope.

WiG
Cool, cool. Do you know those dudes?

AP
We’re Facebook friends but I don’t know them personally. I like what they’re doing. IshDARR is definitely one of the pieces of hope here.

WiG
It seems like the Milwaukee hip-hop scene is better than ever.

AP
Definitely there is a lot more of what seems to be…unity. I graced the scene in 2004. That’s when I put out my first album, but that was more on the Northside. I was an opener for this group that was pretty big then called Black Elephant.

WiG
Yeah I remember Black Elephant.

AP
I used to do shows with them all the time. Through them I ended up meeting the Rusty Ps and Def Harmonic and I ended up just kind of coming on what we called “the East Side scene.” I started doing a bunch of shows between there and the South Side. I was in a group called Class:Sick with my friend Seoul K. We were doing that and we did about two projects together and then the same year that we disbanded is when I ended up meeting Trell and we formed AUTOMatic.

WiG
Did you grow up on the North Side?

AP
I’m from Brown Deer.

WiG
Did you go to Brown Deer High School?

AP
Nah. I went to Hamilton and North Division. I ended up hanging with this one guy that was a friend of my girlfriend at the time. He invited me to this show that was at a spot that’s not there anymore. Black Elephant was on the bill and I ended up buying their CD. I’m one of those people that go through the liner notes. I ended up seeing that they had a manager so at the time I had a little demo. I wasn’t really doing many shows or anything like that.

WiG
Were you in high school at this time?

AP
No I was out of high school. I started doing music probably a year or two after I left college. I only went to college for like a year.

WiG
What year did you graduate high school?

AP
2000. So this was probably like 2003/2004 that I ended up calling their manager.

WiG
Do you remember what that venue was called where you first saw Black Elephant?

AP
Damn, nah I don’t remember.

WiG
What part of town?

AP
It was on the North Side. It was on like 76th Street right off Good Hope…

WiG
I can picture that part of town, but I don’t know of any venues that were there. Was it a bar?

AP
Yeah it was. They didn’t have a stage. The performance was in this room right next to some pool tables and everybody was gathered around and they had strobe lights. But yeah, so Black Elephant performed and I was like, “Dude, they kinda nice.” So you know, they were selling the CD so I bought it, looked in the liner notes, saw they had a manager, peeped his contact information, and I hit him up and told him I was looking for representation.

He and I ended up meeting up at the Jalisco on North and I gave him my demo and started talking to him about some stuff and he was like, “Well, you know, we’ll see. I got my hands full with Black Elephant so I don’t know, we’ll see.” He ended up hitting me up the next day and was like, “Hey, we got a show at Riverwest Commons…”

WiG
Which is now Public House.

AP
Right. So I ended up meeting him there and he introduced me to Black Elephant. One of the co-managers from Black Elephant at the time, when he introduced him to me he was like, “Oh this is the dude that you were talking about?!” And so it’s funny because the way that Geraud is, he’s not the type that will give you props straight up. It’s almost like a backhanded compliment. He’d be like, “Yeah alright, it’s cool. I guess you got potential.” But then when I met the other guy he was like, “Dude said you are dope!” And I’m like, “Really? Because he tried to downplay it.” So that was kind of like the rapport that me and Geraud had. It wasn’t until fairly recently that he actually started straight up giving me props.

WiG
What has he been up to lately?

AP
Nothing music related. He’s been working with the film festival. He hasn’t done music stuff in a while.

WiG
Oh yeah, I know who he is. Tarik introduced me to him this summer at Chic one night. He heads up the Black Lens program?

AUTOMatic
AUTOMatic

AP
Yep. He’s pretty cool. So yeah, me and Trell formed AUTOMatic in 2007.

WiG
How’d you meet Trell?

AP
bSide. It was actually something in the making…

WiG
What was bSide?

AP
bSide was one of the hottest hip-hop spots. They used to do a Friday night there. Kid Cut Up, Why B, Steve Marks, the No Request cats, they used to have a Fright night. It was on 2nd and Virginia I believe. It was like upstairs from this restaurant. It was set up kind of like loft style. But yeah man, that place was crackin. It was people going through there all the time.

WiG
Mid 2000s?

AP
Yeah, yeah. It was pretty live. That’s actually where I met Seoul K and Trell. I used to frequent bSide and they would have performances here and there. I came across Dana Coppa there one night. It was a night I was performing and he liked my beats. I was producing at the time. And he was like, “Dude, I know a guy who makes beats similar to yours and he’s pretty dope.” He kept telling me that he wanted to make the intro but it didn’t happen for a while.

So then this girl that I was seeing at the time, she must have ran into him at a random party or something like that, because she came back and was telling me that I should meet this dude Trellmatic. And I was like, “Yeeeeah, I don’t know about that.” Especially because Dana already told me that he makes beats similar to mine. At that time I wasn’t really interested in working with someone who made music similar to me. Why would I work with someone doing something similar to me when I could just do it myself?

WiG
Were you doing more production at the time or more rapping?

AP
It was pretty even. The way that I ended up making beats in the first place was that there was this one guy that I met who had two pretty cool beats, but he was trying to charge like $600 a beat. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” So then I just kind of went online and did some research and told him, “So you expect me to pay thousands of dollars so you can produce an EP for me?”

At that time the MPC 2000 was just like a grand, so I figured I’ll just get the equipment myself. One of my best friends was singing at the time and he kind of wanted to get into it too…

WiG
Who was that?

AP
His name is Dino. He doesn’t really sing much anymore, but he ended up buying a computer, I bought the MPC, we went half on some mixers and mics and just got the equipment. I was going over to his house like every single night making three or four beats a night. But I had to make about 50 beats before I got something I was comfortable rapping to. Then I just continued with that pace making several beats a night. It came around to it where it was like I would meet producers and they would give me tips. Then I set aside the ones that I really liked and then before I knew it I had about twenty beats that I really dug and started recording a demo.

After Geraud liked to my demo I ended up doing a few shows with Black Elephant. And there was this one guy who was asking me where my album was and I told him it wasn’t out yet. And he was like, “When’s it coming out?” and I said, “Probably the next show.” Because I was thinking it would be a long time before Geraud called me for a show again.

But it turned out to be two or three weeks later, so I just went hard. My boy Jonathan Frost had a recording setup at the crib so I ended up linking up with him and I wrote an album and recorded the album in two weeks. And it was actually not that bad for the two weeks.

WiG
What was the name of that project?

AP
It was called Writer’s Block. It’s like my only true solo project.

WiG
What year did come out?

AP
That was 2004. But I do cringe a little bit listening to it. I’ve improved so much since then.

WiG
And you did all of the production?

AP
Yeah except for one that was produced by Jonathan Frost.

WiG
Let’s take it back a second. Growing up, what did you hear in the house? What were your parents listening to?

AP
Okay so I was born in Milwaukee, raised Brown Deer. I lived with my aunt who is like my second mom. My parents were in the army. I remember Saturday morning was the day to clean up the house so they would play all kinds of stuff, a lot of Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, there was a lot of Frankie Beverly, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder.

WiG
How about your aunt? What did she listen to?

AP
My aunt was more into R&B. She liked Freddie Jackson, The Whispers, René and Angela, that type of thing. My aunt was definitely more into modern stuff at the time. I used to do this trick actually, once I started becoming an avid listener of music. Because initially hip-hop wasn’t for me. My mom really wanted me to like New Edition. She chose New Edition to be my group. They were like my Temptations. We went to every last New Edition tour that came through town, all the way up to when they came in 2012.  We went to every single New Edition show, she made sure that.

I used to sing back in the day. Honestly, I used to have a dope voice. I used to sing in the choir, I used to sing all the time. I probably would have been a singer if things had worked out. But I didn’t have any friends that could actually sing, so I couldn’t really set up the baby New Edition. My cousin used to rap and used to be super into hip-hop. He wanted me to love hip-hop. So he used to take me to concerts, stuff that I couldn’t really appreciate at the time.  I remember him bringing home 45’ singles. Eric B. & Rakim were one of his favorite groups. I remember he brought home the “Follow the Leader” single. On the B-side of that single there was the instrumental and the acapella. The acapella still had the hook with the cuts and everything, so that was super dope.

I really loved the DJs. DJs were kind of the way that I ended up liking hip-hop. During that time it was pretty much standard to have cuts. K LA Boss who was EPMD’s DJ, Terminator X was Public Enemy’s DJ. The DJs are the way that I got into it. It wasn’t until A Tribe Called Quest came out that I really started digging it. When I heard “Bonita Applebum” there was just something about it that made me get into it.

But when Gang Starr put out “DWYCK” is when I absolutely had to be a part of it. DJ Premier was it for me. Back when I started making beats that was my goal. I needed to learn how to make beats like DJ Premier. So the first thing I learned was how to chop samples. I would listen to his stuff and chop up a sample exactly like that. That was my whole thing. I didn’t care if someone called me a biter. I was going to make beats that sounded like DJ Premier. There’s a few on Writer’s Block that are indicative of that.

WiG
Before you were saying that you had this trick with your aunt…

AP
Oh yeah. She would ask me about certain songs when we were driving in the car and they came on the radio. She’d be like, “Oh who is this?” And I would say, “That’s such and such, and definitely you’ll like the whole album. The whole album is good.” Then she’d buy the album. I don’t even know if she would listen to it, but I would just keep it.

It got to the point where I would suggest so much good music to her that she just ended up blindly trusting me. It would just be like a bunch of stuff that I would sneak in. I would be like, “Oh the New Edition album is out. The new 112 album is out, but also I know you’re going to like this Jay-Z.” That would be my whole thing. She had so much music so I figured she wouldn’t know that the Jay-Z album wasn’t there.

WiG
Did you have any siblings growing up?

AP
Yeah I have three sisters. My older sister is a hip-hop head straight up. A lot of the things that she listened to had a great influence on me.

WiG
Who were some of her favorites?

AP
She listened to some of everything. She would be into the Geto Boys, N.W.A., and then turn around and flip it and be into Kwamé, Nice & Smooth, Tribe, De La, Souls of Mischief, Del the Funky Homosapien, and a lot of different stuff. My cousin did as well. He introduced me to the super lyricists, Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane. He put me up on some of the West Coast artists like DJ Quik, C-Bo, Pac definitely, and Dogg Pound.

WiG
You said he was taking you to shows. Are there any shows that stand out in your mind?

AP
I used to fall asleep during the opening acts for like every single show. Even the New Edition joints. I would like fall asleep and then my mom would wake me up. But I remember he took me to this one show, I want to say Public Enemy was there, Ice-T, I feel like Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince were there. I just know that Eric B. & Rakim were headlining and that was awesome. I don’t know how I remember this so much but the way that they came out was to “Eric B. Never Scared,” and they had some kind of laser light show. There was like a laser animation of Eric B. and then he came out and then the same thing for Rakim.

WiG
Do you remember where that was?

AUTOMatic
AUTOMatic

AP
I think I was like 6. It had to be at the Mecca.

WiG
You were six years old?

AP
Yeah.

WiG
Damn. Do you remember if Eric B. or Rakim had to leave the show with a medical emergency?

AP
No.

WiG
Do you know Mikal Floyd-Pruitt? MC Mikal?

AP
Yeah.

WiG
So Mikal’s dad is one of the top Black doctors in the city. There was an Eric B. & Rakim show in town, I don’t know where or what year, but one of them had a medical emergency and was rushed to Mikal’s parents house. Mikal was a little kid so he didn’t go to the show, but he remembers waking up and going downstairs and seeing this famous hip-hop star being treated in his house.

AP
Oh word. That is crazy. Not to my recollection, I don’t think either of them had an emergency.

WiG
I’m sure they played Milwaukee a few times.

AP
But yeah I was like 6, so that had to be ‘88. That was like a milestone year for hip-hop.

WiG
Blueprint made a whole album about it.

AP
Yep. So it was a lot of that type of stuff. Once I got into hip-hop there was no turning back. But I still wanted to be a DJ. Rapping wasn’t the thing for me at first. I actually started rapping in a real strange way. We were at my grandmother’s house. We would always hang out in my grandmother’s basement. It was my big sister, my cousin, and we basically would just be chilling. He used to always throw on instrumentals and he would start rapping. I used to memorize different rapper’s lines, so I was really into the Death Row stuff, I was really into EPMD, Redman, Gang Starr, stuff like that.

My cousin was like, “I want you to rap with me.” He kicked it off and I went after him. This is where the story gets interesting. I just kind of went blank. I don’t know what I was saying, I couldn’t really hear anything. I could only see their faces. Whatever I was saying was creating this astonishment on their faces. When I was done they were like, “Whoooooa.” Then my sister ran upstairs and told my mom that I could rap.

The feeling of that situation just kind of made me want to continue to do it. So that’s when I actually sat down and started to write raps. I would just write verses upon versus. I didn’t know anything about counting bars. To be frank with you, I don’t count bars now. Whenever I feel like the verse should end, that’s when I end it. Sometimes if a producer gives me a beat with set verses then I just kind of go with that, but a lot of times it’s just me ending it whenever I feel like I’m done saying whatever I want to say.

WiG
So in terms of performance, I read that you performed with a mask at one point?

AP
I did. I really have stage fright. Back then it was pretty crippling. I was in a collective called House of M. It was a bunch of us…

WiG
Dana Coppa was in that?

AP
Yes. We used to do shows together. The way that it was set up it was like a round-robin type thing. Dana would do a couple solo songs and then we’ll switch to the next group and then AUTOMatic would do a couple, then Haz [Solo] will do a few. But whenever it was AUTOMatic’s turn to do it, oh my goodness, sometimes I would be rapping and I would literally forget a line because I would just be shaking in my boots.

So I’m kind of a walking contradiction in that way. Because I’m an introvert. I really do not like to be made a fuss of. I don’t really like birthday parties. I don’t like the spotlight on me at all. So for me to be utilizing my talent in this manner is kind of crazy. But at the same time my end game is not to be in front of the mic. I honestly just want to be like a writer-producer. If I was put in a situation where AUTOMatic was offered a record deal, but then I was offered a publishing deal to write, I would take the publishing deal. I don’t really like a lot of attention.

WiG
I know that you write hooks and other song elements. Like on the 3099 project that came out this year, Lex Allen sings on two tracks. Did you write those?

AP
I wrote everything.

WiG
Speaking of 3099, tell me about the short story that inspired that name.

AP
Well, without giving too much away, because I’m planning on tweaking it and utilizing it for the basis for the 3099 album. The story is basically about a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend.  They have tons of mutual friends and everybody knows them as a couple. He tries to go to spots and they’re always asking where she is. And if he says that they’re not together, people just keep asking him about it. He never really got a chance to get over the breakup.  

3099He used to take walks to clear his mind and one time he comes across this campus and they have a flyer up for some kind of government testing that is going on. He volunteers for the testing and 3099 is the subject number that they gave him. I really liked the way that “3099” sounds. It feels real random. I just started adding that to my name. One of my aliases was Prime 3099. When I decided to veer off and do some experimental stuff I figured I would really give 3099 an identity, a personality if you will. I have tons of random aliases and I plan on giving all of them a personality. I’m really like George Clinton in that way.

WiG
Speaking of breakups, when your manager wrote me about the new album, which I’m a big fan of by the way, he sent it to me last night…

AP
You listened to it already?

WiG
Yeah, I been bumping it all day. But he said a lot happened in between your last album that came out in 2012 and the new album. He said there were some stories behind why it took four years. Breakups, friendships going bad, stuff like that…

AP
We used to record with one of the guys that I was in the [House of] M with. I’d rather not say his name. We used to do stuff together all the time and there was a situation where we were working on Art Imitates Life and there was a song that needed to be mixed. He was our primary engineer at the time. We signed a contract with someone in New York and that person was supposed to be like our liaison with the labels, helping us put out good products. We had this one song that was a banger. My man mixed it, 88Nine wanted to play it, and some other radio stations wanted to play it.

So then we send it to 88Nine and they tell me that the mix sounds rudimentary. I was like, “Wow dude, seriously?” And I sent it to our guy in New York and he said, “Yeah, you need to get this re-mixed. You should let me have one of my guys do it out here. This mix sucks.” And I’m like, “Really?” So I ended up talking to my man about it and was like, “It’s the funniest thing, I was talking to these people about it and they were saying that the mix is wack. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”  

Honestly, I didn’t know what they were talking about, the mix sounded fine to me. So I told him about it and he was just like, “Yeah, it’s not good.” And I was like, “What do you mean it’s not good?” He was like, “It’s not a good mix.” And I was like, “What do you mean, you gave me a bad mix?” And he was like, “Well, I’m just saying it’s not good.” And I was like, “Word.” So that just made me stop trusting him. I’m the type of person that you can talk about my mom or you can take a swing at me and we can still go back to being what it is. But once you start messing with my music…music is everything to me.

My music is everything to me. I don’t have any children, so that’s how deep I feel about this. If you flub something with my music that’s ultimately like dropping my baby. So I really can’t trust him in the same manner. We just kind’ve parted ways creatively. We were still friends, but I couldn’t trust him with my music. So me and our DJ at the time, JDL Rockwell, we ended up pooling our equipment together and recording. He just recently moved away.

WiG
JDL moved away?

AP
Yeah. I mean he still comes back into town, but he lives up in Shawano outside of Green Bay. He left right when we were discussing doing a new album, so that left us without a recording home.  We tried to link up with different people to get the album done and it just didn’t link up. Thank God my man Colin Plant has some equipment at the crib and he was like, “Come record with me.” I had some experience recording with my former guy and I ended up just going ahead and recording it myself for the whole project.

That was very freeing. It allowed me to do some of the things that I really wanted to do. Like I said before, I’m pretty introverted, so that gave me an opportunity to do some things like sing a little bit more. Things that I probably wouldn’t have done if I was in front of people. So it kind of worked out in that way.

WiG
You mentioned 88Nine. I read that they connected you with Speech from Arrested Development, is that right?

AP
Yeah. They played one of our songs and Speech called in to talk to one of the DJs there. It was Jordan [Lee] and they asked if he knew us or how to get in contact with us. And he was like, “Yeah.”  So he definitely hit up [Jonathan] Poppe. Poppe ended up sending me Speech’s email and somehow I missed it. Two years later we were just talking one night and Speech came up and I was like, “Dude, I thought we were supposed to be doing something with him?”

Poppe reminded me he had sent me his email so I went through my emails and ended up coming across the email. Then I took a shot in the dark and emailed Speech. I was just like, “Hey, I’m from AUTOMatic and I heard you were a fan of our music. I know it’s been awhile but I just wanted to know if that’s still true.” He emailed me the next morning and was like, “Yeah dude, it’s been long enough. It’s been two years!” I said sorry and he said, “Don’t worry about it, everything happens in God’s time.” Then we started emailing each other back and forth.

Basically it was months of doing that and then finally I got up the courage to send him a song that was merely just to listen to and give me feedback on. But he sent me his feedback with a verse. He said he was inspired by the song and if I liked the verse I could use it, but if not, no harm. And definitely it was dope.

arisingWiG
That was on the EP right?

AP
Yeah, “Rising Sun” is the song.

WiG
Okay. I’m one of the organizers of Arte Para Todos…

AP
Oh word, okay.

WiG
…and actually I’m the main one that put together the compilation. That was the track you gave us for the compilation. It was definitely one of my favorite tracks.

AP
Word up. I appreciate that.

WiG
I feel like having Speech on there elevated the compilation project.

AP
Speech has been like a mentor of sorts. Anytime that I have feelings of doubt, he lifts me up. I won’t talk to him for weeks and then he’ll hit me up a month after we last talked and be like, “Yo, I was doing this, that and the other, and I was just thinking about this,” and he’ll basically tell me what I need to hear at that time to keep going.

Honestly, before Poppe came back to manage us in December of last year I was ready to be done. I was just thinking I was going to be a regular dude. But yeah I told Speech that and he was like, “Nope. I’m not hearing it. You are too good. And this coming from me. I’m inspired when I hear you rap. Don’t quit because you’re frustrated. Quit when you’re wack.” And he was also like, “You improve immensely every time I hear something from you. Don’t quit.”

WiG
At the time when you were thinking about quitting did you have Marathon recorded or in the works?

AP
No. Marathon was exclusively recorded two months ago. Just finished literally two weeks ago. Initially it wasn’t going to be an album at all, it was supposed to be an EP. And we were supposed to do another 3099 EP. But then I was just like, “Wait, I don’t want to do another EP, I want to do a full album.” I wrote enough material for an EP and then I just kept going. I had set a deadline for myself and when I hit it I kept writing. Once I hit my stride of about five or six songs before I knew it I had 17 joints. At that point we had to do an album.

WiG
How does the process work with an AUTOMatic album?

AP
img_8014
We started this project towards the tail end of the 3099 sessions. JDL was playing me a couple beats he had in mind for 3099. So there was this original joint that he had but he flipped it on top of something else. He unfiltered this sample from a song called “The Blessing” by Michael Smith.  It became a song I would listen to all the time. I used to listen to it to clean up the crib, clear my mind, that type of thing. I ended up giving that song to Trell and he chopped it up and I told him the drums I wanted to use for it and he chopped those up and put them in there and ultimately that became the instrumental for “Talking About Love.”  

“Talking About Love” was the first song that  was written for it, followed by “Speak To Me.” I had been performing both of those during my 3099 performances. He would give me beats, I would send him samples, and we would just go back and forth. It was collabing in that sense. But we weren’t really in the studio together much. Just because we had different schedules. I was working third shift. I have like three different jobs, so it was difficult to get in the studio at the same time.

WiG
So what’s the plan now? You got the new project finished, you got the release show coming up. Is Poppe moving to Eau Claire? I saw a Facebook status about that…

AP
Yeah he is. Our movement doesn’t stop. Poppe has always been the invisible hand. As long as he has WiFi he can get the job done. He does a lot from there. And it’s always been like that.  When he first started managing us we hadn’t even met. We didn’t meet until two or three months into the relationship. At that time he was living out in Trempealeau. He started managing us near the end of 2009 until the fall of 2012. He left to go back to school shortly after Art Imitates Life, so there was that hiatus for about three years.

WiG
Cool. Anything else you wanna add?

AP
The album is dope.

WiG
Are you excited for the new Tribe album that was just announced?

AP
I am. I’m not excited for the date though. I wish it would have came out this Friday instead of the same day as our album. We’re always in Tribe’s shadow, so that’s kind of crazy. But as a fan I love it. Other than that, we put our heart and soul into this album and you can probably hear it. I’m doing less battle rapping on it. I’m being open and honest about things, touching on subjects that some other rappers would not touch.

We’re trying to make good music that anybody can relate to. You don’t have to have “racks on racks on racks” to be able to listen to it. Someone told me that’s the reason they love AUTOMatic’s music, because they can listen to it and feel good. Whereas every other rapper is talking about “I got this much money, you broke,” or “I drive this kind of car, you drive that kind of car.” “I’m going to take your girl” type stuff. That’s never the case when it comes to us. It doesn’t matter if you have a bunch of money or a certain kind of car. I’d rather pick topics that anybody can relate to so it doesn’t matter if you have millions or you don’t have two nickels to rub together. I try to relate the human experience above all.

WiG
I appreciate it.

AP
Thank you.

AUTOMatic performs at Chill on the Hill in Bay View.
AUTOMatic performs at Chill on the Hill in Bay View.