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Friday, October 11, 2013

Q&A with The Engin33r and LoDo of Ash to Jazzy Music

It was a joy to do this Q&A with Lauren Donnelly Surratt ("LoDo") and her husband, Tristan Surratt ("The Engin33r"), not only because Lauren is my second cousin but because she and Tristan are not only life partners but partners in Ash to Jazzy Productions, a fresh, new indy hip hop label (http://www.ashytojazzy.com/). In conducting this interview, I got to understand hip hop in a new and more analytic way. It gave me hope about the genre's future as our dynamic duo discussed that music in a progressive and thoughtful manner, explaining their aesthetic and the evolution of 21st Century hip hop as a possible entertainment vehicle for peace, love and understanding.


Dj Buddy Beaverhausen: Your production company/label, Ashy to Jazzy, is described as "a production crew consisting of two husband and wife teams, with the ultimate goal of having the greatest positive impact on society as we can." You're one of the teams. Tell us something about the other half of your company.
The Engin33r: My brother Adrian (aka Dree) and his wife Jessica are two really good people. Dree has been creating beats and writing music since he was in middle school. He and Jessica met in high school, and got married at the age of 20. Both of them are hard workers and kind souls, a rare breed. We'd be hard pressed to pick out better people to help bear the load of running this business.  

DBB: What motivated you to go into the crazy music business and start this venture?
LoDo: The Workin Class, Dree and Unknown were wrapping up their first project (EP "Clocking In"), and Sonar Eclipse, The Engin33r and Dree had started their first project (EP "Level One"). We were weighing out options for platforms and methods to release The Workin Class and contacting labels, talking about indie versus major label. But we realized that we had all the elements we needed to build our own platform. And we had something that many artists lacked: a team. The strength in numbers approach. 
TE: It's also a matter of doing what you love. Confucius says, 'Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life." 

DBB: You say you want to have "the greatest positive impact on society" you can. In what way?  
LD: I was raised to be aware of how my actions may impact others. Art and music, especially in this digital age, has become a very opportunistic culture. I see a lot of online communities or labels that are exploiting a culture and art form for the sake of making a name for themselves or making some cash money. I see a lot of hip hop blogs and writers that spend a majority of their focus on gossip and negative stories. So for me, I want my work to have a positive impact. I have no interest in filling our reader's/listener's/fan's subconscious with brain-rotting content. I want our content to make our fans think more and feel better about themselves. We know our content isn't for everyone and that's okay. I'd rather keep my conscience than sell poison to the masses.

TE: We aim to inspire people to be the best versions of themselves. If everyone did this, we'd have the ultimate society... we're just trying to do our part. 

DBB: You both have written very eloquently on my companion blog, Leave It to Beaverhausen. Tristan, you wrote about hip hop and the LGBT community (http://djbuddybeaverhausen.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-engineer33r-my-first-guest-blogger.html) and Lauren, your essays on  about women & hip hop were posted there (http://djbuddybeaverhausen.blogspot.com/2013/07/women-hip-hop-by-lauren-lodo-surratt-to.html?showComment=1373916884956#c731446136394762539). Could you expand on the social issues or concerns you see within today's hip hop music and culture?  
LD: Hip hop has always been a platform for social issues, it's a culture founded out of oppression. Unfortunately in the past decade, the mainstream hip hop world, which is controlled by "the suits" of major record labels, has presented a very "watered-down" version. For me, a big concern is that the mainstream platform is very heavy on the "party and bullshit"... you know, the "party" where you "pop a bottle, pop a molly", all the women are B's and H's, and it's acceptable to use homophobic slurs casually. Unfortunately, that's a smaller percentage of hip hop but it receives the most focus. Kids are drawn to hip hop, and many of them are only exposed to the mainstream/radio content. So we have a bunch of "adults" talking about "life" as a party...I just wonder what these kids are taking away. Don't get me wrong, I like to party too, but I also like scholarly conversations, love, meditating....without a balance in life we tend to have problems, and I'm concerned about the problems these kids growing up on this content are going to have. But there are lot of artists making real efforts to change that.
TE: I'm glad you thought it eloquent! Lauren said it best, there is a resurgence of social consciousness coming into society's collective awareness. This has been reflected in hip hop as well. Major labels have industrialized it (hip hop), manufactured it, and distilled it down to what they consider to be the key elements (Money, Cars, B's). Real hip hop challenges the status quo and encourages you to think critically.  

DBB: What attracted you both to hip hop music to begin with?  
LDBoth my big brothers were into hip hop so they introduced me to all different artists. I think early on it was the sampling, I would hear a track that was chopped up with a sample from "my parent's music." So it was familiar but different. But it was the female mc's like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, Ladybug Mecca that really drew me in. I was a "tomboy," which I hate that word but people understand it. I never really wore "girly" clothes and didn't really fit in with most girls so to see strong women who said what they wanted to say, wore the clothes they wanted to wear, to me that was like "wow, this is totally me!" The idea of making something out of nothing and accepting people as they are struck a chord with me. 

TE: Much like LoDo, I was introduced to hip hop by my older brother.  We'd only be able to listen to it while my parents weren't around or while wearing headphones (Bone Thungs and Biggie anyway), but I loved it the moment I first heard it. I've been in performance arts all my life (Piano, Drums, Theatre, Chorus), and I just loved how hip hop was kind of a mash up of three of my favorite things... poetry, percussion, and music. I was always astonished how some MC's could blend their voice into the beat, almost as if it was another piece of percussion, all while sliding in thought-provoking lyrics and complex similes.   

DBB: I have something of a confession to make to our readers. Lauren's dad is my cousin, Walter, and I know the kind of music he and I listened to growing up and into our adult years. I know we were no strangers to rap and embraced the music of the Sugar Hill Gang in the late '70s-early '80s. I was wondering what music you both grow up with? What music influenced you in your respective homes?  
LD: Wow, what didn't they play in our house is the real question! Music was always playing in our house, we never had cable until maybe when I was in high school. Our house was like a jukebox, everything from classic rock to r&b to jazz to classical to pop, didn't really listen to any Country though. Sade, Enya, Pink Floyd, Jimmy Buffet, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Bruce Springstein, Whitney Houston. I remember my older brother's friends used to play a game where they'd turn the radio to any random station to see if they could stump him, but about 98% of the time he'd be able to sing along and know the artist and song title. I remember being so surprised because I thought it was normal to listen to so many different genres. Even til this day my (and my siblings') friends talk about how my parents were always playing music and how much they loved it. 
TE: Before 7th grade, I lived in Nebraska in a place that could only be categorized as a farm town off of the interstate. As you could imagine, we didn't get much top 40 or hip hop stations out there. It wasn't till I moved to Florida that I got introduced to pop culture and anything other than classic rock and country music. My dad listened to a lot of Elvis, Pink Floyd, Queen.... When we moved to Florida, we listened to more Top 40 music around the house (and hip hop more privately).

DBB: Ch-check it out: At last week's awesome Blondie concert at Roseland, the band did an amazing rendition of "Rapture" and segued into Beastie Boy's "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." And, again thinking about the Sugar Hill Gang, it seems to me as if, at the outset of rap/hip-hop/punk rap/rapcore, it was not about macho posturing, sexism, homophobia and violence. At what point do you think things changed? And do you see things culturally evolving or changing in that genre of music again?  
LD: I think a big turning point was when major record labels started representing artists and we started to hear more hip hop on the radio, so about the early 2000's. The purpose of a major label is "we're going to loan you money, so we're going to control you". It's tough to control the content of an educated/intelligent artist that is part of the "fight the power" and "peace love" movement, but I think another part is that the labels were giving people what they thought they wanted to hear and what they thought would sell the most. Hip hop started in mostly black neighborhoods, with a majority of mc's being black males, so when it came time to "sell" it to mostly white neighborhoods, I think it was easier to sell the "image" that they thought the average white consumer might be familiar with (and let's face it, the "black man as an activist" is not something that media portrays on a large scale). But I believe that the internet and the independent music movement is going to and is in the process of changing this, people are getting sick of being force-fed the garbage we see in mainstream media outlets (like the news and radio) and are turning to alternative means via the Internet. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ("Same Love") is a perfect example of the power and control you have as an independent artist. 
TE: The evolution of the music industry has already started, as LoDo pointed out. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are an example of exactly why we started Ashy to Jazzy in the first place... to be free from corporate influence and produce music we can feel good about.  Any of the real hip hop heads know what I'm talking about, the story has been told again and again; a young up-and-comer puts out a bunch of independent music and the people love it..  then artist gets signed... all of the sudden they are talking about BS, carving up their bodies with plastic surgery and encouraging consumerism, sexism and bigotry.  Very few escape this paradigm and continue to put out good music, but they are met with heavy resistance (See Lupe Fiasco).  With all of our new technology and social media, there is no longer a need for the major label.  A decent USB mic, a few hundred dollars in software, and the willingness to learn is all you need to get yourself heard in a way that has never been seen before. Things are certainly evolving (and for the better if you ask me).  

DBB: How did you two meet? And what made you decide to tie the knot?  
LD: Well it was "chemistry." We met in college, FGCU! Go Eagles! We were lab partners in our college chemistry. I started taking chemistry my freshman year but was not doing so hot so withdrew and decided to take it the next year. Best class I've ever failed the first time around!
TE: I'm actually in the process of writing a song called "Chemistry", which will be on the new EP coming soon. It's about how we met. We dated for four years and eventually I couldn't put it off any more. Neither of us were the "get married" type, but we figured we might as well, considering we had no plans of breaking up and wanted some tax benefits. We're relatively non-traditional... we organized a flashmob dance to interrupt our first dance. (You can find the video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_kHV1ZtT6o)

DBB: Tell us more about Ash to Jazzy's music, specifically The Workin Class and Sonar Eclipse and their recorded releases.  
LD: The Workin Class, for those not familiar, are mc/lyricist Unknown and producer/super-beat-maker Dree. They've been working together for a few years and dropped their first EP last year called "Clocking In." They just released their second EP titled "Daydream" in July which is a prelude to their upcoming album. We're really excited about their upcoming project, it's a concept double-album and will be titled "American Dream/American Nightmare (ADAN)." First single from the album will be coming soon. Release date for the album isn't set yet but we can tell you that you are in for quite a treat. We've seen them grow just between Clocking In and Daydream, they definitely exceeded our expectations with Daydream so we're preparing ourselves to be blown away by ADAN. 
TE: Sonar Eclipse is a group comprised of myself and Dree, our first EP was released last year called "Level: One". We're currently working on another project which is being kept secret for the time being. The concept of the name "Sonar Eclipse" is a metaphor, we block out the 'noise' of mainstream hip hop. Like a solar eclipse, but with sound.

DBB: Lauren, please explain your hip hop-influenced nickname, LoDo, to us. And, Tristan, how did you decide on the name The Engin33r?  
LD: You know, everyone likes the shortened nicknames (JLo, ARod, etc). A friend said it as a joke one day, it's a combination of my full government maiden name Lauren Donnelly, LoDo. But it just stuck, and everyone started calling me LoDo.
TE: I always thought it was unique to be a rapper and engineer. It isn't very common in the engineering industry to be into music (much less hip hop), nor is it common for rappers to be engineers. I figured it'd be easy to remember and hard to forget. The '3's instead of 'E's is a nod to my nerd friends ("LEET" speak) and also make it easier to find me in search engines.  

DBB: One thing I love having learned about people I've interviewed is that everyone reached a level of success through hard work, of course, but through various means and, often, out-of-the-blue opportunities. Do you have a grand plan right now for Ashy to Jazzy? Where would you like to be in, say, three years with the label and what you're creating?  
LD: Currently a couple different short-term and long-term projects in the works that we're not ready to announce yet. But in three years, national tour and some international touring, and helping to build the arts and music scene in our community here in Orlando. Definitely additional artists on the aToJ label, adding additional contributing writers

DBB: May I say I think you're doing an excellent job of promoting your music and sending out positive vibes? I truly believe music has the power to unite us. Thank you for this interview. Lots of love your way. And what might you like to say directly to my readers around the world? Any last shout-outs?  
LD: Yes, you may absolutely say that! And always enjoy the read from Buddy B! To your readers, be on the lookout for The Workin Class's upcoming album, American Dream/American Nightmare and also be on the lookout for the last 2 parts of my 5-part series on "women and hip hop." I'll be making an announcement in part 5 which I'm really excited about. Lots of love back to you and thanks for having us! A shout out to my Mom and Pops for molding me into the quirky person I am and, of course, a shout out to our aToJ family Dree Jessica and Unknown!
TE: Thanks a bunch, Buddy B, as always you're on point with some thought-provoking questions! Much love goes out to my family and friends. If I could leave your readers with one message, let it be this: Be who you are and do what you love. Happiness isn't a destination, its a journey... enjoy it! Don't dwell in the past or worry about the future, just be present.... Thanks for reading! 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for having us Buddy B, hope your readers enjoy! Peace/light/love,
    -LoDo

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  2. Thanks, Laur! And send my love to everyone down there.

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