The music industry is a joke.
-- Drunken Immortals, "Ambush"
A&R men . . . bidding wars . . . contracts . . . demo recordings . . . promotional budgets . . . sales expectations . . . units moved . . . points earned per unit . . . radio feasibility . . . chart placement . . . and occasionally somewhere within these so-called necessities of the "business" lie talent, creativity and individuality. Unfortunately, the latter categories have become somewhat superfluous compared to the former when you're talking about success in the music industry today.
"The words 'music' and 'business' just don't go together, y'know," Drunken Immortals MC Mic Cause says somberly. "I don't know who put those together, but . . . [what a ] fuckin' asshole."
This anti-commercial philosophy, frequently expressed in the band's lyrics, is driving the Drunken Immortals to prove conventional wisdom wrong. The seven-piece East Valley hip-hop band is intent on carving itself a legacy through unorthodox means, and inspiring its peers in the process.
From the mainstream perspective, hip-hoppers have long maintained the image as big-ballin', Bentley-drivin' high rollers sporting gold chains, mad ice and fat Rolexes, drinking Hennessey (or keeping a fridge stocked with 40s) and puffing chronic. For these artists the music is a means to an end (the skrill dog, the skrill) rather than a creative outlet. But there's an entirely separate hip-hop province that doesn't subscribe to the bankrollin' philosophy. Much like punk and indie rock, the ideals of underground hip-hop are more focused on integrity and a DIY aesthetic.
These days there are just as many well-established hip-hop artists operating on the commercial periphery. These groups have managed to achieve a modicum of success while retaining their independence and integrity, and creating a blueprint for like-minded artists such as the Drunken Immortals.
During a pre-show interview at Tempe's Donnie Brasco's, where the Immortals hold court every Tuesday night, drummer/producer The Foundation (a.k.a. Jonas Hurst) and MC Cause are adamant that they not be confused with demo-shopping artists such as Kitch Kitchen, who was recently proclaimed "the hottest rapper in the Valley" in this very paper (though you didn't hear that from the Sprawl). "Don't call that shit hip-hop; it's not hip-hop," Cause says vehemently. "Don't connect us with those champagne-sipping money-fakers."
DI is deservedly proud of its recent accomplishments, which are helping establish the group as the leaders of local underground hip-hop. Earlier this year, the band put out its Drunken Poetry 12-inch, while MC Brad B celebrated the release of his phenomenal solo disc, Cerebral Subterranean. The group was also voted Best Hip-Hop/Rap artist in last month's New Times Music Showcase, a West Coast tour is booked for midsummer and there's an abundance of other Immortals-related projects in the works.
Despite its success, Drunken Immortals is a hip-hop anomaly of sorts; the main thing separating the group from its peers is that DI is a full band. Led by a trio of MCs -- Cause, Brad B, DJ Whut -- the group also features The Foundation on drums, keyboardist Tony Love, bassist Jeremy Dana and guitarist Chris Hill. Inspired by a broad spectrum of influences, the Immortals' sound escapes the narrow confines of traditionalism. The group's signature is a funky amalgamation of hip-hop, jazz and ambient grooves which intertwine with a dense swirl of lyrical acrobatics, with Hill and Love's instrumentation adding curious new dimensions to the bass 'n' beats infrastructure.
Clearly, DI has its bases covered as far as talent goes, but is that enough to establish a dynasty that'll be recognized outside of our little desert metropolis? The band is confident, but realistic enough not to crave a commercial coup.
"Five years from now I think Drunken Immortals will have mad amounts of albums and material spread around in record stores across the country," The Foundation says. "I'm thinking a pretty large underground following, lots of wax, new albums -- always bringing the raw shit." Considering the challenges involved with such an ascension, he later adds, "We're the most unorganized professionals you ever met."
"We're all pretty much business-illiterate, all of us," Cause admits. "We're really bad at promotion."
"Mostly at our shows what you get is word of mouth, which is a beautiful thing," The Foundation interjects.
Locally, word of mouth has proven to be enough. The Immortals have consistently drawn large audiences at their weekly residencies for the past two years -- first at Boston's, then headlining the infamous One-Two Punch Tuesday nights at the lamented Arizona Roadhouse. The group moved next door to Donnie Brasco's on Tuesdays after the Roadhouse's untimely demise in January. Aside from the weekly appearances, DI maintains a full schedule of other gigs, often playing benefit shows for organizations like Food Not Bombs and the Child Crisis Center, and frequently performing outside the Valley.
From a business standpoint, it's hard to see why a band with a large local following would continue to play so frequently and risk depleting its crowd. The members of the Immortals, however, cavalierly dismiss the notion.
"People are coming in every damn week," The Foundation responds with a laugh.
"And we like playing, so we don't care," Cause says. "We play, that's what we do. We play four times a week anyway, so we might as well go play for our friends and drink some beer."
Turning serious, The Foundation explains their strategy: "A lot of people don't have that much of an attention span -- we've gotta drill it into their heads. Once that's locked in, then we'll maybe give it to them every once in a while instead of every week."
For now, the Immortals are content with the progress they've made in their three years together. The recent successes have bolstered the band's confidence in pushing forward with the multitude of projects its members have on tap. They describe the release of the recent Drunken Poetry 12-inch as "a soggy wet dream come true" -- vinyl being the lifeblood of underground hip-hop -- and soon scores of DI-related efforts will follow suit. Brad B and The Foundation are working on an instrumental album; a seven-inch single from Brad's solo record (which was co-produced by The Foundation) will be available in a few weeks; The Foundation is also producing a record by fellow Indiana transplant Dirty Naps; a side project called the Vagabonds -- featuring Brad B and Serjrock -- is set to press its debut 12-inch; and bassist Jeremy Dana is working on a handful of projects as well, including tracks for Valley rappers the Critics.
An ambitious agenda to be sure, but one, the group is quick to point out, that's motivated by something more profound than dreams of chauffeured limos and record-company advances.
"There's nothing that we wanted to do besides this," says The Foundation. "Fuck us; we're minute. We're just vessels; this music is way bigger than us."
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