At least another hour is left until touring headliners The Perceptionists are set to perform at the Old Brickhouse Grill on a recent Saturday night, but there are already hundreds of people in the house. When a startling siren blasts through huge speakers and a dense swarm of fans crowds in front of the stage, local talent Brad B. strolls out, clenching the mic in one hand and pumping his fist with the other. His old-school "Get on up!" chant on the soul-driven "Sound the Alarm" creates a sudden sea of hand-raising and dancing bodies on the floor, and it's clear that this MC is causing plenty of buzz of his own.
Better known as a member of the Drunken Immortals -- a tight eight-piece band that's one of Phoenix's most beloved hip-hop crews -- Brad's mostly performing songs from Drifter, his new full-length on the Tempe-based Universatile Music label. It's his second solo album, although that doesn't mean he's going it alone for the show. Backing him up is the double DJ assault of Pickster One and Skip Skoolnik, manning a row of turntables at the back, and Scott White, whose elaborate percussion setup and lightning-quick skills are put to good use.
Two nights later, Brad's relaxing with a beer on the patio outside Rio Salado Brewing Co. on Mill Avenue in Tempe. The hundred-plus heat of the day has mellowed into a warm, almost beachy breeze, and Brad's slouched back in a faded blue knit cap, a green tee shirt, and jeans -- pretty much the same vaguely bohemian look as his stage persona. As an MC, he spouts brainy, streetwise philosophy with a deep, fiery voice ("Art is the shadow of a struggle to transcend," he raps on "No Lie"), but in real life, he's a laid-back guy whose smarts are quietly wrapped in humility.
"Hey, how's Europe?" asks one passerby, the first of many people who stop to say hi throughout the evening.
"Great, man." Brad chats up the guy for a minute, then turns back to the interview, to talk more about the Drunken Immortals' first trip to Europe, the three-week Shut Up and Rap Tour with Awol One and Existereo of L.A.'s Shapeshifters crew. He just got back days ago.
"Hip-hop is everywhere -- it's such a dominant cultural force," he says. "But it's really different over there. We had something to offer, so people were nice to us, but outside of shows, we could tell that they didn't like Americans."
Still, the whole thing was a success -- shows were always full, and sometimes even sold out. In a van full of guys with a multilingual driver, Brad visited Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden and Finland in April and early May. "We drove the equivalent of L.A. to New York to L.A. to New York -- it was almost 10,000 miles," he says, adding that he was ready to come home by the end of it. "After that tour, we're so inspired."
It's not the first time life on the road got his creative gears turning. Drifter itself is the result of constantly being on tour, a concept album that's "The Original Soundtrack" for an imaginary movie about Brad's life as a hip-hop artist.
Brad abruptly admits to being a teenage troublemaker with divorced parents growing up in suburban Indianapolis. But he says he started channeling his restless energy into rap at age 18. He moved to the Valley with his girlfriend on the day after he graduated from high school, and although the girlfriend soon left him, he made a lot of good friends through skateboarding, including fellow MC Mic Cause, and joined Drunken Immortals within his first year here. For a while, he studied at the Conservatory of Arts and Sciences, and even briefly moved to L.A. "But I had to come back," Brad says. "Everybody goes there when they're trying to do shit, but we're trying to get stuff going here. There's so much talent here, and when people come here on tour, they're amazed."
Now 27, Brad's become accustomed to hitting the road every three months or so. He plans on doing a West Coast solo tour in early July, plus a one-off show in New York City. But all that's just gravy on top of his commitment to Drunken Immortals, who are scheduled to tour again (like clockwork) in August.
"I'm definitely not trying to go solo, because Drunken Immortals is my crew, my family," he explains. "But I live with my producer and my manager, plus their girlfriends, and a dog and a cat. I feel like I'm constantly thinking of shit to write about, and we have a studio in our garage, so I can always work on songs."
Brad didn't set out to make Drifter a concept album. "We were just going on the road a lot, and so many of my lyrics were about that," he says. After writing enough existential raps about transience and unfamiliar places, "the album happened real naturally."
Most of the 17 tracks were produced by Foundation, Brad's Drunken Immortals bandmate/housemate, and there are guest appearances by Cause, 2Mex of the Visionaries crew, Awol One, Die Young, and several members of Seattle's Oldominion crew. Shh! The Baby's Sleeping jammed for three infectiously groovy interludes.
"All Come Along" has the most familiar sample here -- the bouncy bass melody from The Cure's "Love Cats," set to a hip-hop beat -- but a lot of Drifter's songs have an earthy, minimalist touch, with simple drums, guitar, and occasional piano melodies. It gives Brad's lyrics more urgency, whether he's getting political on "Thought Criminal" ("They claim they're cleaning up the city -- that ain't true/What they mean is they'll turn it corporate as fuck like Mill Avenue"), defiantly facing mortality on "Stand Still," reflecting on different walks of life in the waltzing title track, or sinking into solitude on "Lonely People."
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And throughout the album, Brad makes much of connectedness, friends, truth, and grassroots community, especially in "Revolution": "This is language and art -- we want something meaningful," he insists, rallying listeners to support local, independent, underground hip-hop.
Ultimately, Drifter is about the power of music itself.
"It's all I got that really keeps me going," he admits. "Without music, I don't know what I'd do."