Providence, Rhode Island’s Strange Famous Records has managed to not only weather the indie hip-hop label genocide, but continue to put out new artists. Founded by Sage Francis just over a decade ago as a means to release his own material, it’s since put out projects from indie-rap royalty like Buck 65, 2Mex and Doomtree’s Cecil Otter as well as introduced the world to the likes of B. Dolan and, most recently, Minneapolis trio No Bird Sing.
Consisting of MC Joe Horton, drummer/producer Graham O’Brien and guitarist/producer Robert Mulrennan, they recently signed to Strange Famous to release their third album The Definition Sickness. We’re happy to premiere the album’s first video “And War,” and spoke with Joe Horton about how the group landed on Strange Famous as well as his relationship with late underground rap icon Eyedea.
Your album’s coming out on Sage Francis’ Strange Famous Records, how did you first link up?
I’d heard about him throughout the scene. I was a big fan, and a lot of people who I knew, knew him, most prominently Eyedea, who was a good friend of his, was a good friend of mine. When he passed away, Sage came up for one of the memorial bench dedication ceremonies and we played together. We happened to connect that night, one thing lead to another and he said to please send him music.
While we’re on the subject, since the third anniversary of Eyedea’s death was last week, do you recall your first interaction with him?
I listened to his music a lot and I had a big notion of who he was, as larger than life in my mind. The first time we met, I didn’t even recognize him. The last time I saw him live was probably in my really early 20s, he was clean shaven in baggy clothes. When I met him he was in a cardigan and tight pants with long hair. We talked for about an hour about how to make your own spaghetti sauce, and as I walked away from him, a friend of mine was like “do you know who that was? That was Eyedea.” I started freaking out a little bit and immediately wanted to rap with him. He was always patient with me, and we became good friends pretty quickly after we started hanging out.
What did you and Eyedea have to talk about regarding spaghetti sauce?
We were talking about how if you buy tomatoes, crush them up and put onions and butter in a pan, you get something that’s way doper than any Prego or Ragu that you can buy on the shelves. I was in the period of awakening myself that the life that had been presented to me up until that point wasn’t the one I necessarily had to do, and he was way into that, so spaghetti sauce was one manifestation of it.
Has it been challenging, being a Minneapolis based group to put out a release on an East Coast label.
It’s kind of nice, actually, to have a little bit of a distance between us and the business hub of what’s going on. We have a collective that we’re a part of called FIX, so we have a lot of the business taken care of on that end. And then to have another entity that’s a little bit more removed, and those guys are so clockwork with what they’re doing, they know how to market a record and contact press. It’s kind of nice to have a little bit of space. Honestly, it’s been pretty easy once the singles started to come out and we’ve been kind of on autopilot a little bit.
Being that you’re three artists who all have very different aspects you bring to the group, considering how celebrated your live show is, is there ever a challenge deciding what to perform?
Sometimes it is. The last record we did we recorded in a barn. It was a rockish-heavy spin on the live genre. We were all proud of that, but we wanted to get away from it, so it was a direct consensus to move toward this more produced sound. But now, when we’re playing live, we have three records of material to choose from. Some songs we want to take and adapt in a new form, take a few rock tunes and bring them into this new produced realm.
How did the “And War” video come about?
There’s a director name Andre Durand, we’ve known each other and wanted to get together for a minute. We met on the Eyedea and Abilities “Smile” video shoot. He’s now partners with Maria Juranic who directed that video and he was one of the camera man. Those guys are all so talented and part of the video pocket in the Twin Cities that’s super creative and vibrant. That was one of the things that Strange Famous allowed us to do, getting a little more financial wiggle room. We tried to figure out a way to translate the song. I’m not a big fan of music videos that feel like music videos, pseudo performances of the tunes. It’s been a point not to have us prominently featured in the videos, and Andre got excited by that. It comes across as more of a mini-movie than a traditional music video.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that the title “The Definition Sickness” is in reference to how, as you put it, “We live in a world that’s dominated by conception. By definition. Language, in a lot of ways, has divorced us from reality. It’s almost like we’re looking at reality through the surface of the water, and as a result can’t seem to grab what we’re reaching for. Reality can be experienced with more presence of mind than we currently pay it.” Being you’re a lyricist, how do you find you best serve the concepts and subjects of your songs?
That was really tricky for me. Words prevent you from having to understand something. If you know what it’s called, that passes for understanding something in our society. Our science is based on chopping something up into its constituent parts. If you want to understand what a frog is, for example, find its spleen and you name that, you pick apart every part and you name is [in order to have] understood it. That’s not really reflective of reality, and you don’t necessarily have a better understanding of reality if you chop some things up and name it. But essentially that’s language’s main function and that’s what lyricists do, they name things for other people.
So, my main conceptual concern right now is talking about this mental illness that we have as a society that’s just so pervasive it’s hard to get. One of the symptoms of it is language, and how do you use one of the symptoms to point out the disease? I think where I landed with it is I didn’t want to be didactic or tell people how to live their lives, and that’s not really reflective of my beliefs. I don’t believe in “good” and “evil,” I think those are constructs that have been used throughout time to explain behavior. They were useful in their time, but they’ve just run amok on society. You can kill someone and we can say “that’s bad, it’s murder,” but a person can kill ten-thousand people and we can say “that’s good, that’s protection.” That really is problematic.
Beyond that, there’s a spectrum of lucidity. You could drive home from work, get home and realize “Man, I wasn’t really present when driving home.” I feel the function of art is to provide a higher sense of lucidity in people and draw them more into reality and in order to do that, they have to drop their conceptions. You can’t have all of those different labels getting in the way of what that frog actually is. Otherwise, you walk by it like “oh, that’s a frog. I don’t need to understand how that exists.” This record was based around putting my finger on it and getting people to see that a little bit more about our society.