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R-Tist, an emcee with the Birmingham-based hip-hop group The Green Seed, has been a firm believer in taking the time to harvest the best of a band’s abilities. Their recent release of Drapetomania marks the group’s first full LP and is a product of patience. Anxious to continue performing songs off of Drapetomania, including their CMJ performance this month, R-Tist took the time to speak with us about the production of the album and the collective’s Alabama roots.
How has the Alabama influenced you along the way?▼ Article continues below ▼
Oh, God! Well, there’s some people in Seattle at KEXP and one of our local DJs, Lee Shook, who are comparing the Birmingham music scene to a cultural renaissance. Birmingham hasn’t always been like this, but I heard an interview with Lee Bains III from The Glory Fires and he said something that I’ve been thinking. Until the venue The Bottle Tree Cafe solidified itself as a great place for touring bands to come through here, it was really kind of a dead music scene. Rappers, emcees, rockers, and country [acts] were all pretty split. Now what we’re seeing is everybody coming together, playing shows in the same field. It’s not uncommon to see a hip-hop group with a metal group and maybe a jam band. Ten or fifteen years ago, you didn’t see that.
This is something we always strived to do. We’ve always hated playing shows with only hip-hop groups. The scene here is incredible now, especially because we can do this. There are people from Nashville who have moved back to Birmingham because there is a viable resource for musicians now.
Did you originally feature brass or did it work itself into your music over time?
Oh no, it was something that we always wanted to do, but because the spotlight wasn’t really on us, we wanted to hold it and save it until there was a right moment. This isn’t a knock on musicians or anything, but sometimes people see what you’re doing and if you don’t have a spotlight on you yet, they can take it and incorporate it before you have a chance to fine tune it and they can make it more popular before it’s your time.
It’s definitely something we were holding onto right before this record [Drapetomania] came out. We’ve been working and planning on it, but we just wanted to make sure that we had that unique look of ‘We’ve got two DJs and two rappers and one of the rappers plays guitar and trumpet, while the other plays trombone. They have the beat machine, they’ve got keyboards, etc.’ We just wanted to spring it on people at the last minute where it would be more exciting.
How was the production of Drapetomania different than anything else?
Before this record came out, we were always using our stuff out pretty slim. I’m extremely cheap and I was always trying to keep us financially in a place where we could operate and not have it feel like a burden. We’ve seen these groups go out and order all these CDs and spend all this money on t-shirts and they pay for all of this bullshit studio time. After that, it becomes a burden and I have always been very mindful of that and always want to do everything on the cheap. Our album before was a very lo-fi hip-hop record. All we wanted was to have an outlet for people to be able to hear our music.
It was time! We got to work with Jeffrey Cain [former guitarist of Remy Zero] and other people that actually know the business, who took us into Jeffrey’s studio to make sure everything was mixed. We knew that we had to put all of our eggs in one basket when it came to songwriting and the song structure, so organizationally and the recording process itself, was very different. Then, of course there was the waiting. If there is one thing that our band has learned is that sometimes your record is done and you just have to be patient, you have to wait for that moment, and now we feel like that perfect moment is here.
Didn’t you write most of the album on the road?
We were at SXSW three years ago when we were writing the exoskeleton structural set up, figuring out how we where we wanted the bass to be and how we wanted the cadence. Then, I have a job where I have to be out on the road in these remote locations and if I knew I had a 45-minute drive, I organized all of my thoughts and listened to the structure that we had already put together. I would come up with ways to connect the verse to the chorus or connect where we wanted to place a DJ, so the writing for this entire record was all written on the interstate systems and the county roads of Alabama.
When you perform songs from Drapetomania, who are you thinking about?
I’m generally thinking about the audience; I want to connect with the audience in a way where they can look in my face and they can see the passion and the fervor in my delivery, so that maybe they can connect to exactly what I’m talking about. A lot of rappers like to get into interacting with their partner on stage and looking at girls or whatever, but I want to connect with each and every person. I try to get eye contact. At this point, it’s much easier because the crowds are much smaller, but I try to get to a place where I can look at each of them in their faces. Hopefully, if they’ve listened to the record, they already have some connection to the music, and they are just connecting to it more with the live experience. I can honestly say, I’m just thinking about who’s in front of me when I’m out there performing.
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photo by Cary Norton