"We’re public enemy number one, as far as bands are concerned,” Lord Kash says with a wry grin.
Kash is one of the emcees for Arizona hip-hop band The Stakes. Loud and commanding on the mic, in person he’s soft-spoken and seems content to let his bandmates do most of the talking. But when members of the seven-piece band are asked about some of the strangest experiences they’ve dealt with as a live group, his voice cuts to the front of the line.
“The strangest thing is that we’ve had police shut down so many of our shows,” Kash says. The rest of the band nod in agreement and chime in about run-ins with the law. “We’ve set up here in downtown, and right when we were literally about to start playing the cops would swoop in and say ‘no, nope, you’re done,’” singer Marah Armenta adds. Bassist Paul McAfee points out how the cops have let all the other bands on their bills play but stopped The Stakes before they could do their thing.
Armenta and McAfee, along with guitarist Luis Martinez, are the newest members of the band. The Stakes have gone through three different iterations. Emcees Lord Kash and ZeeDubb, pianist Ben Scolaro, and drummer Kevin Phillips have been the group’s constant core, playing their fusion of jazz, rock, and hip-hop together since day one.
It took some time for The Stakes to settle on a name. “We had a bunch of names to choose from,” Phillips admits with a laugh. “Like Seoul Mob, but not spelled S-O-U-L; Seoul like Korea.”
“We were doing house parties before we had a name,” ZeeDubb adds. The memory of those nameless gigs makes Phillips smile. “We used to tell people, ‘Come see us!’ They’d say, ‘Who is us?’ Us!”
The band’s name works on two levels: as an homage to De La Soul’s 1996 classic Stakes Is High and as a reference to the very idea of stakes. While they make killer party-rocking music, their lyrics and attitudes display a deep concern for the circumstances that affect them and their loved ones. Their songs are as much about asking what the stakes are as they are about laying them all out.
“We want to make sure that it jams and that lyrically, there’s a message, even if it’s just something fun,” ZeeDubb says of the band’s approach to songwriting and storytelling. “We have songs where we’re going at the pigs, but people still want to dance to it.”
The Stakes could write songs about calculus and people would dance to it. Live and on record, the band has a powerful chemistry, creating a potent combination of rap, jazz, funk, and pop touches that sounds totally modern while also harkening back to the golden age of Native Tongues-style hip-hop.
One of the reasons the band is able to expertly weave together so many disparate styles is because of their different backgrounds. While many of The Stakes knew each other before the band came together like Voltron, they couldn’t be more different as individuals. There’s a drummer with no formal training, two rappers, and band members with formal jazz training. Which means their differences are staggering in terms of technique, musical approach, and experience level. But that’s what makes them such a versatile and flexible musical outfit. They can move seamlessly through various genres and switch up their style because they aren’t all drinking from the same well.
It’s fitting that they’re named after Stakes Is High. The first De La album to not feature the madcap, sample-delic production of Prince Paul, it’s a collection of hard-nosed rap from the prophets of the Daisy Age. That mix of positivity and anger, of feeling yourself in good times and being wary about shit raining down from above, courses as much through The Stakes’ music as it does De La’s fourth album.
When asked about their creative process, the band admits that it’s a marriage between well-thought-out ideas and spontaneous creative energy. “One strength of the group is that we can really write songs in both ways — either from one person developing a concept or the whole band jamming together,” Scolaro explains.
The band have had plenty of chances to jam and hone their material over the years. The Stakes are relentless performers, doing shows all over the Valley and playing gigs at festivals like Viva PHX and Bisbee’s Sidepony Express. “We can play rock shows, because we have songs that fit that,” McAfee says. “We can do two-hour jazz sets at The Nash.”
And their timing couldn’t be better. Instrumental rap has seen a resurgence over the last few years. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly made jazz-accented rap a part of the cultural conversation again. The Roots do their thing on late-night TV. Old godheads like Tribe and D’Angelo are back in action and putting out work that’s as strong as their hall of fame material. The idea of a “rap band” in 2017 doesn’t seem as anachronistic now as it did back in the days of Paul Wall and Lil’ Wayne mixtapes dropping like fur from a shedding dog.
“There’s a different kind of energy than what you’d get with just a DJ and a rapper,” Phillips says, explaining the band’s raucous live shows. “The energy is always crazy.”
Lord Kash also thinks that their shows can be revelatory experiences. “I think that it expands your horizons on what you think hip-hop is. It’s giving it to you in a way you’ve never seen it before, with a lot of different tools that you haven’t seen incorporated into rap. Like Marah — you normally don’t get a skilled singer who’s a focal point of the songs, instead of just being a highlight. I think that’s why people respond to us differently.”
After releasing a tight six-song album in 2015, The Stakes are set to release a new album on May 26 at the Rebel Lounge. The band is also doing a music video with Matty Steinkamp, and they’re putting together some recordings of their RawSessionsPHX video jams with I-Dee.
The conversation returns to the subject of strange gigs. “We were playing a RAW show and they had this crew of makeup artists,” ZeeDubb says. “They were doing zombie makeup, so we had this zombie fashion show happen in the middle of our set.”
Inspired by the story about the zombie interruption, the band thinks back to another time when somebody cut into their performance. “We used to play Caffe Boa in Tempe,” Scolaro reminisces. “We were playing on the patio and this drunk guy came up and tried to convince us to let him be our manager! We were playing, and he’d try to interrupt us: ‘You need a manager! Sign me up!’”
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“The cops shut us down there, too,” Lord Kash says.
Phillips took a swig of his drink and smiled, doing a what-can-you-do shrug with his shoulders. “City of Phoenix noise ordinance is real.”
The Stakes play the Rebel Lounge on May 26.
Correction: A previous version of this article indicated The Stakes were assembling recordings from RAW artists events. The recordings were from RawSessionsPHX.