On the Come Up in Music City: Rising Rap and Soul in Nashville

Rising Rap and Soul in Nashville

Jota Ese, Saaneah, & Kyshona Armstrong. Illustrations by Brandon Celi.

Though it’s historically well-known for its country music scene, Nashville, Tennessee isn’t just the town of honky-tonks and the Grand Ole Opry. With indie labels like Infinity Cat and Nervous Nelly Records providing a showcase for punk and rock, and with Americana and folk lining the rosters of Jack White’s Third Man Records and Dualtone, Nashville these days is truly Music City, writ large. Pop aficionados can also find a place here, as well as anyone interested in hip-hop and R&B. It’s those last two genres that have seen the biggest growth lately, as former residents of LA and NYC flock to the city, and established locals can finally find both collaborators and an audience to help support their craft.

Growing up with gospel music in the church, DeRobert Adams, of the G.E.D. Soul Records band DeRobert & The Half-Truths, moved to Nashville’s sister city Murfreesboro in 2000, home of MTSU, where he joined his first band. He’s been making music ever since. G.E.D. Soul has been one of the hardest-working labels in Nashville for the last decade, producing, recording, and distributing funk, soul, and R&B tracks, mostly via the label’s Poor Man Studios in north Nashville. Boasting what the label calls an “analog aesthetic,” the records feel like lost gems dug out of a dusty stack of retired jukebox 45s. Label owner Nicholas DeVan says “Country is still the main attraction, but there’s always been an enormous amount of non-country music being recorded and performed here. I would say that we are seeing a different type of person being in the music scene here, lots of LA folks and musicians from other cities. I feel like Nashville has always been a destination for musicians that need a more low key city than LA or New York; people come here to lose the big city vibe.”

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Sango Mixes Baile Funk and R&B For a Fresh New Sound

Sango

As Sango spun through his set at U Street Music Hall in Northwest D.C., his relatively calm stage demeanor was a sharp contrast to the energy of the crowd that was watching him. The venue was dim, but the stage lights caught silhouettes on the 1,200-square-foot dance floor dancing joyfully to the mix. From “Infinidade” through “Na Hora,” the room roared ecstatically at the appearance of every new song.

At first listen, Sango’s music sounds like it’s plucked directly from a favela in Rio de Janeiro; many of his compositions contain heavy traces of baile funk. But dig a little deeper, and a vast array of influences start working their way to the surface—heavy bass kicks, quick snares, and cleverly-assembled samples of classic R&B tracks. It’s territory that was mostly uncharted before Sango started exploring it on Da Rochina. That cross-genre splicing is now a key characteristic of his work.

After seven years of critically-acclaimed projects—including North and Da Rochina 2, as well as work with artists like Bryson Tiller, Tinashe, Kaytranada, and Goldlink—Sango has become one of the most prolific artists of the digital age. His song “SNS” was featured on the Golden Globe-winning show Atlanta. More importantly, he’s a staple of the Soulection sound, a musical movement that has captured a massive audience over the last six years by embracing a deep exploration of soul, jazz, and hip-hop, and fusing those genres with a new wave of future beats and electronic dance music. His fresh take on baile funk has inspired other producers to develop their own iterations of his sound. This includes Gravez’ flip of “Calabria 2007″ to make “Where We From,” Lehvi’s use of baile funk to make Pineapple Pool Party (Sango Taught Me), and K-Wash’s love for the Seattle producer’s catalogue to create an EP comprised of remixes. 

The UHall show was one of Sango’s last performances before ending his #ITCO Tour. Before his DJ set in D.C., Sango sat down with us to discuss the tour, his new vocal and instrumental albums, and how he balances work and family.

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A Harrowing, Near-Death Experience Led to Braveyoung’s Beautiful New Album

braveyoung-600

Having recently sold his old Volvo, Braveyoung multi-instrumentalist Isaac Jones started riding a motorized dirt bike to his job at Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. Since he started work at 5:30 a.m., the streets were usually empty, and the drive was uneventful. Then, on September 22, 2015, as the musician cruised down a narrow street, a van ran a stop sign and Jones plowed into the side of the vehicle.

“I flew off the bike and went through the driver’s side window,” says Jones. “My motorcycle was completely bent into the shape of a ‘V.’ I had an old helmet on, but I hit really hard on the right front side of my head. But I was unconscious. I don’t remember a thing.”

Paramedics medevaced Jones to the hospital, and doctors diagnosed him with a hemorrhaging frontal lobe brain injury. Jones’ twin brother and bandmate Zac was in New York and couldn’t be reached, and neither could his parents. So doctors reached out to Jones’ partner to make a critical life and death decision.

“They said, ‘We have to take out the right hemisphere of his skull to mitigate a subdermal hematoma and we have to do it right now or he will die,” says Jones. “But we need permission from someone who knows him.”

Consent was given, and Jones went into surgery for 11 hours. To equalize the pressure in his brain, doctors removed the right half of his skull and placed it in a freezer, where it remained for five weeks. Two days after the surgery, Jones woke up surrounded by his parents and his older brother.

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Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin Are Committed to Expanding The Mister Saturday Night Dancefloor

Justin Carter

Justin Carter. Photo by Rob Malmberg.

“If dance music is about anything, it’s about creating safe places for the types of people whose existence is under threat right now.”—Eamon Harkin

Justin Carter, from North Carolina, and Eamon Harkin, from Northern Ireland, have deejayed separately in New York since 2004. They’ve thrown parties together since 2009, and founded their own record label, Mister Saturday Night, in 2012. The label’s output is based on a study of dance music history, especially that of New York’s tradition from David Mancuso’s Loft parties: spaces that are radically inclusive, that build communities, and that privilege the best music and self-expression over cheap thrills and fashionability.

Just look at the Boiler Room clips of the Mister Saturday Night gatherings: on the simplest level, you see happy people who love to dance, but the more you look, you see the variety of people involved, and the ease with which they interact. It’s a perfect microcosm of New York at its very best: internationalist, multi-racial, proud of its LGBT+ history and culture, all without blurring difference to a beige homogeneity.

Now, the Mister Saturday Night label provides the perfect soundtrack to this: Rooted in classicist deep house, their releases look back to disco, and forward to new experimental innovations. These experiments have taken a more concrete form with Carter’s first solo album—a beautiful, contemplative acoustic-electronic singer-songwriter record with hints of Nick Drake, Arthur Russell, artists not usually associated with dance music.

When we spoke with Carter and Harkin on a Skype call, it became clearer than ever how multidimensional the Mister Saturday Night project really is. As you’ll see, the pair’s conversation is as extraordinary as their DJ sets: Carter is considered and steady, often pausing to find just the right phrase; Harkin is prone to opening a torrent of ideas in epic sentences. Both speak in perfectly constructed paragraphs, bringing complex threads into clear conclusions—but never preaching any particular gospel. Both seem to interrogate one another, and it’s obvious that part of the success of Mister Saturday Night is that it’s not based on any set idea, but is evolving right before our eyes.

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Album of the Day: Snowball ii, “Flashes of Quincy”

First things first: “Snowball” is a strange name for a band that writes music this warm (their moniker is, of course, a Simpsons reference). Throughout their third album, Flashes of Quincy, the Los Angeles outfit—primarily the vehicle of Jackson Wargo—serves up one sparkling power-pop gem after another, all of them powered by immaculate, high-stacked vocal harmonies and sterling silver guitars. Think of it as a long-delayed sequel to Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque: big, ringing songs that mask wry, observational lyrics.

Album opener “Anais & Me” is the ideal exhibit A: in each verse, Wargo speculates about the life of an invisible protagonist, filling each line with tiny, specific details (“I’ll bet you’re blowing off your curfew/puffing smokes in mists of perfume/ I’ll bet your daddy’s a fascist/ and that you piss him off in Spanish”) before gliding into the song’s gleaming-gold chorus. In “Sear ‘Em!” Wargo’s heartsick tenor floats over crashing drums and slashing guitars, a push-pull dynamic that defines much of Quincy. The guitars stay serrated and cutting, but Wargo gingerly stacks vocal harmonies 10-stories high on top of them, like a man engaged in some perilous game of musical Jenga. The chords that drive “Resident of the United States” claw and punch, but Wargo’s voice struts up the center, spit-shined and unscathed. Mostly, Quincy feels like a field guide to writing perfect pop songs—which is, in itself, an accomplishment. Other artists who attempt such straightforward hitmaking end up with music that’s either cloying or boring. Snowball ii prove that there’s still life in familiar formats—you just have to be driven enough to look for it.

J. Edward Keyes