A cruel stroke of irony hit the second night of the Strange Fruit music festival in Milwaukee, which was created “to explore the thoughts and emotions of local musicians, regarding the current climate of racial relations both in Milwaukee and the country as a whole.”
That day Syville K. Smith was gunned down by a police officer in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Hours later frustrated residents lit portions of their neighborhood ablaze, thrusting Milwaukee into the international spotlight.
A renewed sense of determination ran through the final night of Strange Fruit, while Milwaukee musicians across genres responded to the civil unrest.
The next weekend a beloved East Side venue closed its doors and a Riverwest band hung up their instruments. On the plus side, a new band debuted at Cactus Club’s 20th Anniversary, Lorde Fredd33 and Q the Sun dropped a new track, and the Ruby Yacht camp blessed us with a new video. Also, I had an okay time at a “Quiet Clubbing” event.
Klassik in NYC and Strange Fruit
Local hip-hop heavyweight Klassik has evolved over the course of his career. In the beginning he was a promising producer. The single “Boogie” cemented his status as a hitmaker, garnering him a 2012 Radio Milwaukee Award for Artist of the Year and 2013 WAMI for Hip-Hop Artist of the Year. Over the last few years he has emerged as both a powerful solo performer and a strong collaborator (Foreign Goods, Group of the Altos). Klassik’s music has moved into more experimental territory, adding modulation to his voice and using various effects.
On Friday August 12, Klassik played his first show in New York City. It was in support of Minus Pedro’s EP release, a group fronted by Milwaukee-native Bassey Etim. I spoke with Kellen “Klassik” Abston about his experience in NYC and playing the Strange Fruit festival later that weekend amid the unrest that exploded in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
K: The energy was crazy in New York. It was nice to have some Milwaukee homies there, people who had either just recently moved or had been there for a while. It’s cool to have that kind of support system already in place and that spilled over into the rest of the crowd. Everyone was hyper engaged, I wowed some of the right people and made some good connections. So I feel really good about it.
WiG: Did being in NYC amp you up in any way?
K: Oh yeah. The pace of the city is just so vibrant. Everybody is on a mission. Everybody’s doing something. There are millions and millions and millions of people there and they’re all super focused and determined. There’s something going on always. So it’s hard not to be inspired and motivated by that.
WiG: You and I had a similar experience in terms of being out of town when the news broke of the unrest in Sherman Park. I was up at Eaux Claires. What was it like when you started getting word on Saturday night?
K: It was an immediate sadness and a feeling of disconnect. I don’t know why, but the feeling of not being in Milwaukee, it was almost like I got homesick. Which is ironic because it was something terrible that made me want to be home. But I just wanted to be home.
I found out after watching Shakespeare in the Park. This star-studded classic play, sitting in 95 degree heat in Central Park. Then I get out and I’m on the train watching these things unfold back home on my phone.
There was a sense of urgency coupled with the motivation that I already had from being in the city. That could have been a total buzz kill, but no, I’m going to go back and play Strange Fruit. We didn’t know at that point for sure if I was going to be back in time to play with Foreign Goods, but then more than ever I was determined to be at that show on Sunday night at Cactus.
WiG: What was the vibe at Strange Fruit?
K: Everybody just really came with their A-game. The performances were top-notch. I gotta give it up to Chauntee and Jay as far as putting that together. It was such an amazing event. And to see David Ravel there and him being the curator that he is and hearing him say, “Wow, this went really well. It could have went a number of ways. I didn’t know what to expect.” But he was floored. Milo killed it. He headlined that (Sunday) night and had a phenomenal set. You could tell that everybody was there for the betterment of this community in whatever small or large way that they could.
WiG: Would you say there was a prevailing sadness or more of a resurgence of spirit?
K: Definitely the latter. It was just a new resolve, more impassioned. It’s not just our talent and our creative outlet. It goes back to that initial conversation we had at Sista Strings’ house after the shooting in St. Paul. Everybody knows their responsibility and everybody is holding each other accountable and we’re holding ourselves accountable. Everybody was determined not to let their platform go to waste.
Granted, this isn’t the end-all-be-all by any means. But as far as actually taking a step and organizing and coming together and utilizing our talents and putting them toward something that might uplift people and bring people together, that happened. Even in the midst of what was going on in the city. So it was just crazy timing that we had this festival amid the madness that ensued.
WiG: How did the Foreign Goods set go?
K: Excellent. I had a little extra spirit in me.
Foreign Goods (featuring Abby Jeanne) play the Milwaukee Fringe Festival Gazebo Stage this Saturday at 8 p.m. at Pere Marquette Park.
Devil Met Contention and the “Fire”
The first time I saw Devil Met Contention was at an art gallery opening at Hot Pop in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. They are an unmistakeable band to see live, as they perform in matching suits straight from the set of Mad Men.
“I think it helps everyone in the group feel like it’s showtime. I like the idea of showmanship and doing it for the audience,” frontman Ehson Rad said during the band’s “414 Live” performance at the 88Nine Radio Milwaukee studios.
Devil Met Contention released their first full-length in June, Fuel the Lights, a wonderful 9-track record that delves deep into the dust-laden realm of alt-country, fusing elements of folk and blues.
The band’s name comes from a three-word summary of the book Paradise Lost. Their penchant for literature comes across in the lyrics on the new record, which have an emphasis on storytelling.
The material on Fuel the Lights is darker than previous releases, including a song about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of a young black man at the hands of the police in the summer of 2014.
Tragically, at this point Devil Met Contention could record multiple albums worth of songs about slain black Americans. But when civil discontent over another police shooting exploded in their hometown they were compelled to revisit this subject matter.
The day after the Sherman Park turmoil they recorded a song called “Fire,” what they describe as “a reflection on the American struggle for peace and equality in Milwaukee, WI.”
Devil Met Contention will hit the road for their first tour starting August 24 at the Elbow Room in Chicago.
Reggie Bonds, Queen Tut respond to Sherman Park unrest
As Wisconsin hip-hop fans patiently wait for the release of Reggie Bond’s debut album From the Norf$ide w/ Love, the ferocious emcee has dropped a few singles and a new video. Recently, Bonds recorded the track “#PrayForMilwaukee” following the unrest in Sherman Park. The song features the voice of an affected youth at the beginning and end of the song, while in between Bonds paints a grim but honest picture of the inner-city.
Recent WiG feature artist Queen Tut recorded her own meditation on the turmoil in Milwaukee and across the nation, entitled “To: Black Man From: Moon.” Listen to the song here.
MAM After Dark’s Quiet Clubbing 2.0
Quiet clubbing (or “silent disco”) is an idea I’ve been intrigued by for some time, but haven’t had the opportunity to experience until last Friday at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s “MAM After Dark” series. It involves wearing wireless headphones that have dance music piped into them. This way, if someone were to stumble upon the scene they would see a bunch of people dancing in silence.
When I went to Montreal’s Osheaga Arts and Music Festival in 2014 there was a quiet clubbing tent, but by the time I went inside they had ditched the headphones. At the Eaux Claires festival in The Banks tent we were given headphones, but you could still hear the music without them.
MAM After Dark Quiet Clubbing 2.0 was a sold-out affair and we had to wait in line for about 15 minutes before receiving our headphones. There were two DJs spinning in the dance area, Bizzon and WhyB. We had the option to toggle between them, which had the effect of a DJ battle.
Bizzon is the co-host of 91.7 WMSE’s long-running Tuesday night hip-hop show “Those Hip-Hop Guys.” He stayed in his lane for the most part, playing old and new hip-hop tracks. WhyB was all over the board, relying on Top 40 songs and tapping into my generation’s nostalgia for pop hits of the early 2000s like Chumbawamba “Tubthumping.”
My girlfriend wasn’t a fan of the two DJ quiet clubbing format, or the headphones in general. She considered it to be isolating rather than unifying. I would have to agree. I’m not sure if I would attend another quiet clubbing event, but it was interesting to be sure. We actually had more fun going outside on the patio where 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s Marcus Doucette was spinning ‘80s hits and world music.
Lex Allen and the closing of Hotel Foster
Back in late May it was announced that Yield Bar on Milwaukee’s East Side would abruptly close. The owner cited a rise in rent and rumors started circulating that he was looking to move into the Hotel Foster’s space nearby, which was still open for business at the time. Hotel Foster denied the claims, but trouble seemed afoot, as their business had slowed down over the past six months or so, while rent seems to be rising on the East Side.
On August 10, the Hotel Foster announced that it would be closing and Saturday August 13 would be their last day. However, owner Doug Williams reopened last on Thursday for a previously scheduled event, Lex Allen’s “The Beaut Ball: Prom Edition.” The event featured performances from Chakara Blu, Sista Strings, and Allen’s New Age Narcissism collective. Attendees were encouraged to wear prom attire. I spotted an assortment of gorgeous dresses and at least one tuxedo t-shirt.
With the closing of Yield Bar and the Hotel Foster the East Side has lost two of its most vital live music venues. In its five year run, the Hotel Foster, lovingly referred to as “HoFo,” played an important role in Milwaukee’s musical renaissance.
The music series during the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival at HoFo featured a stellar array of the city’s best acts. Personally, HoFo holds a special place in my heart, as my girlfriend and I had our first conversation there after meeting on the red carpet walking out of the 2014 MKE Film Festival opening night party.
HoFo occasionally booked touring bands like Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band (“Pizza Underground”) and Milwaukee-native turned cult rapper Juiceboxxx. It was also one of the venues that New Age Narcissism regularly played during their rise to prominence.
“Hotel Foster was one of the first venues I played that I felt was a good fit for me as an artist,” says Allen. “It has a persona and an intimate vibe. It is always fun and a little classy. Plus it is four blocks from my house.”
“But this is not the first or last event of its kind. Tonight was about people being themselves and shedding whatever script was put on them when they were born. Most of the artists tonight were from the LGBT community and I always want to put an emphasize on that in Milwaukee. There’s so much positivity going on in our city, despite what’s been in the news lately.”
Caley Conway and the Lucy Cukes release/farewell show
Another bittersweet event took place last Saturday night at Company Brewing as Caley Conway and the Lucy Cukes played an album release/farewell show. It’s a shame the breakup comes on the heels of their best work yet, a heartfelt, funny, touching 10-track bluegrass/folk record called Silk for Life.
We arrived at Company just in time to catch the beginning of Conway’s set. Despite an overly chatty crowd and some sound troubles, Conway and the band delivered a wonderful performance. Conway was actually one of the first people I met in the Milwaukee music scene, when I bought soup from her at the Milwaukee Public Market back in early 2014. She has one of the most heavenly voices in town and though she may be done with the Lucy Cukes, I’m sure we’ll hear more from Conway in the future.
New band debuts at Cactus Club’s 20th Anniversary
Amid the news of a beloved venue closing and a band breaking up, last Saturday night also saw the debut of a new group, Bad Grades, at Cactus Club’s 20th Anniversary party. Bad Grades is a side project led by Shane Hochstetler (Howl Street Recordings, Call Me Lightning) and Nathan Lilley (Call Me Lightning), which also includes Mike Gamm (Population Control), Nick Elert (Northless), and Chris Ortiz (Speed Freaks, Volcanos).
The band is rooted in hard punk, with elements of metal mixed in. The crowd anxiously anticipated their set and it didn’t take long for a mosh pit to form, albeit a three-person mosh. A perfectly good beer was sprayed on people nearby as the trio whipped around the room.
Though they weren’t throwing their bodies around, the rest of the crowd responded enthusiastically to Bad Grades. There was little evidence that it was the band’s first show. Given the success of this inaugural outing I suspect they’ll be booked on more upcoming shows, but so far their next gig will be the Rushmor Records Stage at Bay View Bash on September 17.
New track from Lorde Fredd33 + Q the Sun
Milwaukee’s Lorde Fredd33 and Q the Sun of the New Age Narcissism collective are responsible for my top Wisconsin album of the year, Dead Man’s View. Four months after releasing their debut full-length, the rapper/producer duo is back to bless us with a new track, “Danica Patrick.” In the opening of the song Fredd33 mocks the sing-song rapping dominating the airwaves and SoundCloud pages of today before launching into a banger, which they describe as “An Ode to strong women who do what they want. An ode to the guys that support it.”
Listen to the song here.
New video from Scallops Hotel
Speaking of top records, Rory Ferreira found himself on many national year-end best of 2015 lists for his stellar effort so the flies don’t come. That record was released under the Milo moniker, but he also put out the excellent Scallops Hotel record Plain Speaking earlier in 2015.
The Milwaukee-based rapsmith, beat maker, and Ruby Yacht label head has kept himself busy in 2016; touring the continent, supporting LA rapper and Hellfyre Club affiliate Busdriver in Europe, getting married, headlining the aforementioned Strange Fruit festival, supporting Soul Low at their record release show, and putting out last month’s too much of life is mood.
This non-traditional Scallops Hotel project was meant to be a cassette only release. It plays digitally as one 41-minute track of beautiful beats, samples, voice clips, modulated Henry Dumas poetry, and a healthy sprinkling of rap. Last week Ruby Yacht released a video from the project, which features Ferreira, his wife, and RY artists S.al and Randal Bravery.
Milo headlines the Milwaukee Fringe Festival Gazebo Stage this Sunday at 9 p.m. at Pere Marquette Park.