On the John presents…
An evening of hip-hop with Chicago’s Young General
Part I published, May 27, 2010
IT IS 10 P.M. AND DARK when I arrive at the corner of 26th and Scoville. As usual, I can’t quite believe that this soft residential intersection opposite an elementary school is the site of a recording studio. But that’s exactly where Horse-Drawn Productions sits, and that’s exactly what it is, and there we are.
Horse-Drawn is a quaint Wisconsin summer house of a studio. The walls are composed of pine, plywood, particle board, insulation, and drywall, with an exterior trim of about 90% unfinished cedar. Founder Eric Yoder explains: “Cedar is one of the softest woods, and has a high absorption coefficient. The rough surface also helps break up sound waves.”
Wall-length windows in the studio’s largest recording room allow the band to maintain eye contact with the man in the mixing room. That man is usually Yoder, the dread-locked hedgehog of a musical fireball who serves as Horse-Drawn’s chief engineer, producer, and a resident studio musician.
It is Wednesday night, May 5, and Horse-Drawn regular Rob “Young General” Watson is rehearsing with his hip-hop funk band FiveSTAR. Two nights from now, General will play a pair of Friday night shows, one at LaSalle Power Co. with FiveSTAR, one solo joint at Enclave. Everything that will happen Friday night starts now, at rehearsal.
The first step is the gathering itself: all four band members have regular gigs with their respective bands, so getting the gang together for a rehearsal or recording session is difficult. They formed in January, and have Voltroned only a handful of times for either practice or performance. As the group’s lone solo performer, Watson seems most aware of their time together. “I love this,” he says as the guys set up their instruments. “Who knows when we’ll have these five guys? It’s like getting Wu-Tang together. RZA’s here, where’s Ol’ Dirty? Ol’ Dirty’s here, where’s Ghost?”
The comparison to Wu-Tang is apt. FiveSTAR’s members come from Chicago acts The Hue (Marcus Rezak, guitar), 56 Hope Road (Greg Fundis, drums), Katastrofist (Matt Longbons, bass), and Great Divide (Jeff Leibovich, keys), with all four guys regularly booked. They are not a hip-hop act that wrangled live backing for their stage show, but rather a full-fledged band, each member as important as any other. “Whoever is leading [on stage] needs to be in front,” Watson says. “It’s about different people leading at different times. I’m not the lead vocalist. I’m just the vocalist in the band.”
Nothing gets Young General excited like FiveSTAR. He is near giggles when talking about them, playing with them, listening to them. “I love my band!” he announces routinely as they rehearse; when his mates go into their jam, General sits on his stool and bops his head, his cheeks filled with a goofy grin as he watches them play.
His work with FiveSTAR is new territory. There are the scheduling conflicts inherent in playing with a band, along with the new perks of on-stage camaraderie not previously available to him.
This is the first band experience for the Chicago-by-Minneapolis rapper, and he is enjoying every drop. But just as Fundis, Leibovich, Longbons, and Rezak have other musical obligations, so does Watson. He is, like most rappers, first and foremost a solo performer. His closest human collaboration comes with his longtime producer Lamont “The Letter L” Holden, though his most frequent artistic collaboration is with his pen and lyric book. While his four band mates must make their nut with their established acts, Watson will sink or swim as a solo artist. He works the Chicago hip-hop game with passion and focus, booking as many sets as possible, getting up with fellow rappers during their shows for a song or two, funneling music to radio stations, and networking with as many MCs, DJs, producers, club owners, show bookers, graphic artists, bloggers, writers, and music promoters as possible.
The life of an aspiring artist is a busy one, and Rob Watson is as aspiring as they come. From sound check to bed time, his Friday double-bill clocked in a full day’s work, eight hours of performing, travel, clothing changes and coordination starting at 8 p.m. Here’s what happened:
1. Pre-show activities at headquarters… a haircut from the guard dog… boxing CDs…
Joey Dawkins is an important man to know on show night. Most MC’s take the stage either solo or with a hype man, their only musical accompaniment coming from their pre-recorded studio tracks. Modern hip-hop audiences seem okay with this arrangement – it’s a digital world, so why the hell not?
But when Young General takes the stage “solo,” he’s less worried about the hype and more focused on the beat. Which is where Dawkins comes in. Known better at these times as JD, Dawkins is Watson’s drummer, barber, bodyguard, first cousin, and general watchdog.
“A dog sees something he doesn’t like, he barks,” says Watson, laughing. “He snarls. He lets it be known that this is a restricted area.”
Dawkins is short for the Watson clan – under six feet – but stout and strong with broad shoulders and a balding head. He can be spotted at most Young General events as the man behind the man, usually underdressed compared to the rest of the crew, an undershirt or white tee, occasionally a striped polo, a white towel on his shoulder, and wraparound sun glasses covering eyes that don’t give much away when bare.
The shades are all that’s missing now – flip flops, black socks, athletic shorts, beater, towel – as he stands in Watson’s kitchen, setting up his barber corner. JD comes with the full kit: clippers, scissors, straight-edge razor, brush, toothbrush, sanitizer. It is ten minutes to seven when Watson sits down in the chair. The next hour will be madness, so the haircut serves as his final peace. He nearly falls asleep, though like The Greek, he is business, always business, and so the phone remains clutched in his right hand.
On the other side of the room is Jason Garcia. This is Watson’s manager, the man responsible on General’s side of things for this Friday night double bill. Garcia’s duties on show night include…well, everything of course: as the hair falls from Watson’s head, Garcia is handling the evening’s inventory, counting the t-shirts in this box and the CDs in that one.
For tonight’s distribution, Garcia is taping a sampler CD of new material in a jewel case to General’s proper debut LP, 2007’s Best Kept Secret. The inventory must be dropped off at Enclave early, and so Garica exits Young General HQ at 7 o’clock while Dawkins rubs Watson’s head with the sanitizer.
When Garcia arrives at LaSalle, he will meet up with Lamont Holden AKA The Letter L. This is Watson’s producer, provider of the canvas, bringer of beats. The forming of this trio was one of those happy fall-intos that seem blessed in Chicago.
WATSON: “I met Jason at the gym. I already met his roommate Alex, and I was running sprints, and he was like ‘Yeah, G, I’m Alex’s roommate.’ I told him I rap, and he said, ‘Oh, you gotta meet L. He produces.’ It was one of those crazy, serendipitous things you don’t really believe is happening, like, ‘Oh sure, I say I rap and now your friend’s a producer.’ And he probably thought I was full of it too, like ‘Everyone’s a rapper. Who’s this guy?’
“When I came by the house, I was in my scrubs from work, came straight from work to the crib and just busted in the door kicking rhymes. Heading over to the crib, that’s really what solidified it. That’s kind of when the ball started rolling in terms of me meeting L, because Jay Gar and L go way back, high school and shit like that.”
It is this crew plus Leibovich, along with Robbie Schloss and Marvin Mentor of ChiIL Productions, responsible for the night’s lineup. The LaSalle show is a CD release party for Great Divide. The opportunity to open the release party came end of March, on the same day that the Enclave show was booked. It was here that the first waves of difficulty hit the band.
How do you start a group with members already committed elsewhere? It ain’t easy. One hurdle is the scheduling: rehearsal, recording, and performance time with multiple bands, especially hard when you still need your day job.
The hurdle that reared its head in March: Dueling decision makers and a miscommunication that led to a double-booking. Leibovich tagged FiveSTAR for the Great Divide party in an 8:30-9 slot without announcing it, while five blocks away, Mentor had already booked the group three hours later at Enclave without asking the band.
What to do? Play both? Play one? But which one? After much debating and online haggling, the schedule shook out: FiveSTAR would play the Great Divide party, Young General would play Enclave as a solo performer, and in the wise old words of Don Barzini, there would be the peace.
The haircut ends and it is time to go. Watson changes into his show uniform: black RUN DMC t-shirt, black Michigan State fitted hat, blue jeans. JD cleans up the barber kit and then begins taking down the drums, a task I help him with. Five drums, four cymbals, one seat, and the bass pedal. “Ever think about just playing a bongo, or something?”
He looks at me, crazy eyes through the glasses. “FUCK no.” And then, still incredulous I would even ask: “For what?”
Bam bam bam, drums loaded up and we’re off.
2. A quick sound check… Earnestness in hip-hop… Awaiting the crowd…
At 8 p.m., JD’s drums are set at Enclave. Pre-show activities at YG HQ went long, so before Watson’s sound check has begun he is already receiving texts from the guys at LaSalle requesting status updates.
First up is a chat with the house DJ. Watson is playing a 15-minute set, a total of four songs, with a guest appearance from friend and fellow MC Jason Gatz. The discussion with the DJ is simple but vital, and goes on while a rapper named NaPalm runs through his set. Joining NaPalm on stage is his hype man; a camera man circles them from the floor, documenting.
Over the past three and a half years, I have met enough people in hip-hop to refute any sort of negative stereotypical assessment that non-fans may have of hip-hoppers as people. If you assume all rappers to be hedonistic boasters with coarse language and rude manners, you are mistaken.
Now, I cannot vouch for the Mainstream Folk, the Hovas, 50s, Kanyes, Weezies, and Ems of the world.
But I have found the working rapper on his or her way up to be welcoming, enthusiastic, humble, and earnest.
Of course, soon after I think this, NaPalm begins spitting his next song, an uptempo booty jam with a banging refrain of “All I do is fuck and party.”
That kind of diddy will play well at Enclave. I am a tavern man myself, and the further away from that structure the less comfortable I become. I am right at home in taverns, saloons, and pubs, a bit out of place at sports bars and cocktail lounges, and certifiably bored by frat bars or dance joints. So Enclave – with its red carpet parking lot entrance, man-crew security force, 12 dollar drinks, no-sneakers mandate, and constraints on audible conversation – is not my spot.
But who cares what I think? Enclave serves its clientele with skill and passion. The music is loud, the Go-Go Dancers toned, the drinks flowing, the couches soft.
Watson takes the stage at 8:18. Three minutes later he declares his sound check sufficient and we bolt for LaSalle. Enclave’s official address is 213 Institute Place, though the parking lot entrance is a half block south on Chicago. So we whip out of the parking lot toward LaSalle Street, hang a right, and pull up to the valet just before 8:30.
Fortunately, the crowd is sparse when we arrive, so the show is not quite ready to start. Unfortunately, the crowd is still sparse ten minutes later and time is ticking. The Great Divide release party bill is packed: FiveSTAR is slated to play for a half hour, followed by indie/soul guitarist Theo Katzman for 45 minutes, and then Great Divide for an hour fifteen. The DJ must be on stage by 11, so there is not much time to “wait for the crowd.”
Watson joins Leibovich, Fundis, Rezak, and Longbons near the stage, as they enjoy drinks and greet guests. Also present is Holden, Garcia, and Mentor, along with Cherish Samuels and Cheryl Bautista, the steady girlfriends of Watson and Garcia, respectively. Holden is married, so along with gaining strength from each other, the Young General Trio pulls reserve energy, support, and enthusiasm from their significant others.
Samuels and Bautista are seated at a booth while the boys stand around. Rezak and Longbons are getting antsy. “Wanna just go?” Rezak pitches.
“I’m ready,” says Fundis.
“Let’s do it,” says Leibovich.
And with that, the tall, slender Longbons flips around and leads the group to the stage.
3. The Long-Haired Joker… on-stage grooves… “That’s the one!”…
It is easy to mistake Matt Longbons as “angry” or “serious,” especially when he is playing his bass. He is six foot three and rangy, with a pony-tail that matches his physique and drops half way down his back. His eyes growl as he plucks his strings. His lip curls like Thayer’s Casey. His foot steadily taps the floor below. He is rarely a head bopper, leaving his shoulders to sway just a touch.
…but if you are really paying attention, you pick up on the humor in his performance. “I enjoy looking like a redneck and being able to groove as well as anyone,” says Longbons.
He and Leibovich can be spotted during shows casually mugging at each other, and Longbons instinctively plays up the bad-ass image while his eyebrows smirk. Perhaps the greatest tip that he is an underhanded joker is his tendency to perform in a Bootsy Collins star-glasses and afro t-shirt.
The shirt is here tonight. His hair is untied, flowing past his shoulders underneath his “Soul Brother” trucker hat (another coy staple of the Longbons wardrobe), as Bootsy’s mad grin and the word BOOTSY broadcast beneath Longbons’s sly glower. The angular bassist actually lathers himself into full rock mode fairly quickly as the band launches into “Night and Day,” a FiveSTAR staple here in the early going.
This is one of the Young General-Letter L tracks that FiveSTAR has fully musicalized, and it’s a rocker. Longbons unleashes his full rockiness on the song’s first jam; his hat is launched to the front of the stage as he unleashes his total head-banging hair.
This is a band that adores live performance, a love apparent in their bodies, faces, and overall grooves. In the arms and chest, Fundis seems birthed from the Charlie Watts school of casual rocking. The key physical difference is their faces: while Watts has a bemused look of front-porch ease that matches his body language, Fundis always looks a millisecond away from pouncing upon and slaughtering a wild rabbit for the day’s kill.
Tonight, however, the Moment has transformed our wild game hunting drummer, as evidenced by the slight smile slipping into his cheeks and his newly angry eyes. Over at guitar, a small head bop has taken over the usually all-business Rezak, while nearest to the bar, Leibovich can be seen clearly enjoying himself. It is his night, (along with Great Divide), and as he plays his keys, his eyes can’t help but float through the crowd, connecting with the smiles of friends and family here to support him.
Watson stands in the middle of it all, directing the show. He has an easy relationship on and off stage with the four musicians, and has already created a strong presence on stage during the breaks in his rapping. That skill is one of the most difficult for a vocalist to master, and arguably the key question driving our enjoyment of his performance: What does she/he look like when not vocalizing? Mick Jagger is captain of this skill.
By the time FiveSTAR is halfway through their second song “Rock You,” LaSalle has filled out. The seats and booths along the side of the room are well-populated, the bar business humming, the dance floor packed. The band plays “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” a track that, 18 years later, is undoubtedly a standard. From there they move into Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” followed by Lil’ Wayne’s “Runnin” – Watson’s lyrical performance matches his bandmates’s free-rolling play, flowing from established lyrics into his own, into freestyle, and back into a chorus. (“One, two, three and to the four/ Young G and FiveSTAR came to rock another show…”)
For the Lil’ Wayne track, a female vocalist and friend of Longbons named Dina joins the mix on stage. The group has been on for just over 20 minutes when the final reverberations of that song shake out. The crowd is fully invested: it is now time for “Tinted Glass,” another General-L-FiveSTAR concoction.
Watson begins to introduce the song, and upon hearing the words “Tinted Glass,” a girl returning from the bathroom exclaims to her friend: “‘Tinted Glass!’ That’s the one! That’s the song I was telling you about!” They sit at their high-chair bar stools as Watson looks around the stage, smiling curiously. “This is a hip-hop/soul show and I’m the only brother up here,” he says contemplatively. “Times are changing y’all…”
And then, before he starts the song, he leans his face down toward Longbons’s bass and suddenly yells, “Real quick!…Matt!” That is Longbons’s cue to play a little bass jam, which Watson enjoys from six inches away as he curls his own fingers and does a mocking bass jam.
The crowd loves “Tinted Glass.” How could they not? It is a dark, rolling, creeping song, highlighted by Rezak’s snarling guitar and General’s pleading chorus. Watson throws his shoulder into his rapping, squaring off toward the audience as if he is preparing for a boxing match. The crowd responds in kind with leaping, head-banging, fist pumping, and lots of Woos! and Yeahs!
The group finds its total groove on this track. Venue, promotion, and crowd size, this is their biggest show to date. They flip that momentum straight into the howling rhythm of “Tinted Glass.” Their on-stage relationship builds during this song; they look tonight more like a single band than they ever have previously, a spiritual connection that manifests itself during one of the verses when Longbons, Watson, and Rezak all turn toward Fundis and Leibovich and begin swooning in and out as a circle, the long necked bass and guitar leaning inward as Watson raps to their own, private circle. This lasts for two bars, tops, and they swing back toward the crowd as Rezak approaches his solo.
When he hits it, he is fully ensnared in the song. He has also kicked off his hat somewhere during the show; Watson steps back and watches, nodding, as Rezak rips the faces off the patrons at LaSalle.
The song ends with rousing applause. The show has been an absolute success and a joy for all involved. After a brief encore and celebratory toast among band members, it’s out to the valet and into the car and back to HQ for halftime.
END OF PART I
Click here for PART II
And, because you deserve it…
FIVESTAR performing “Tinted Glass” in rehearsal at Horse-Drawn Productions
Check out mrlitchfield.com for more of Michael Litchfield’s photography.