Does any label evoke doubt more than "white rapper?" For every Eminem, there are a dozen Vanilla Ices.
"I agree there are authenticity issues with white rappers, and I think just rappers in general have some authenticity issues," says Phoenix's Moe'Z Art.
Good thing Morley Simon Gordon, a.k.a. Moe'Z Art, doesn't consider himself a traditional rapper. Sure, in high school he spent as much time rapping over Wu-Tang Clan beats as he did riding BMX bikes with NOFX blaring through his headphones, but for Gordon, it's simply a matter of chasing the kind of music he connected with.
"My mom said I started singing with the radio right on key when I was strapped into my car seat, driving in Brooklyn," he says. "You know, I wore cowboy boots and neon shorts to my first day at kindergarten. And I've just been myself ever since."
Gordon doesn't wear boots and neon anymore — not on stage, at least. He wears a dress shirt and tie when performing, which he's done a lot since releasing his debut album, The Beast, in 2011. He has clung to a sense of originality, though, playing live with disparate artists like Kongos and Nameless Prophets. His music alternates between rapping and soulful crooning — almost Nelly Furtado-like, at times — layered on top of electric guitar riffs, catchy hooks, soft R&B beats, and synth.
The music is funky and buoyant, but the record's title refers to darker subjects than the bouncy beats might suggest. Riffing on themes of addiction and depression, struggles Gordon openly admits to, the album is packed with radio-ready hooks. The title track and "The Up N Up" sound like obvious singles, and the album's standout track, "As We Carry Along," features a thoughtful, uplifting flow that channels 2Pac.
Being a musical polyglot comes natural ly to the 5-foot-3 Gordon. While biking and skating, his friends turned him on to punk like MxPx and the Misfits, and metal like Metallica and Pantera. But at home, he was exposed to Barbara Streisand, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, endless musicals, and even Raffi.
Gordon learned to go against the grain while growing up. His great-grandparents came to the United States as Russian refugees, supporting their family with a fruit stand and moonshine. His grandparents ran their own grocery in the 1960s, and it was one of few that didn't discriminate against African Americans. His family moved from New York to Paradise Valley when he was 5 and encouraged him to experiment musically.
"In fourth grade, my dad took me to a pawn shop and got me a beat-up electric guitar. I only learned songs with power chords — like 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and 'Enter Sandman.'"
But his addictions weren't strictly musical. In junior high, he started experimenting with drugs. After getting caught with pot in school, he cut his wrists with his own fingernails. It marked the beginning of an addictive lifestyle. Throughout high school, he bounced between drugs and BMX, the latter saving him from falling too deep, explaining the tattoo of handlebars fading into wings on his back. But when his mother was diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live, Gordon fell deeper into drugs — and writing. When he wasn't at his mother's side, he was downloading Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep instrumentals from Napster and recording his own voice over the beats with an old karaoke machine.
His depression spiraled, and he began having suicidal thoughts. One desperate night, he decided to commit suicide. He searched his room for a knife he kept there but was unable to find it. Frustrated, he fell asleep.
"I saw the knife on the floor when I awoke," says Moe'Z. "But maybe I truly didn't want to see the knife before. The mind is a powerful thing to an isolated, highly affected individual."
Addiction is a primary theme in Gordon's music. He doesn't define addiction by drugs alone, but by the things we turn to in tough times instead of finding strength in ourselves, whether it be drugs, consumerism, or religion.
"As I see it, drugs have fucked up my generation. It started as a party — a celebration of accomplishments and ambitious futures — and ended as a funeral. A literal and figurative sinkhole of self-pity," he says.
Once Moe'Z started to get more serious about recording, he saved up to buy a Roland Sp-808EX, sampled drum loops, played a super-old Casio keyboard, and covered a microphone with a sock for vocals. His first performance was at his high school's coffee house, and after graduating, he went to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he learned basic music theory from his 17-year-old roommate, who was on a full ride for alto sax.
He came to back the Valley, studied audio engineering, and was mentored by Valley musician Mark Kopentis, who died unexpectedly in 2009. "Mark taught me all I know about the world of analog and digital recording. The day he passed away was the same day I finished my One Man's Trash . . . EP."
Recently, he spoke to students at Canyon State Academy, an establishment where young men from troubled backgrounds have the chance to change their lives. He played them cuts from The Beast, looking for reaction.
"To see these young men bobbin' their heads, free-styling, making positive comments about my music . . . It was an empowering and humbling experience," says Moe'Z.
Despite his struggles, Gordon is an optimist. The Beast is not a hip-hop album, and Moe'Z Art is not a hip-hop project. It's something less defined, indebted to many styles and textures. Nonetheless, Gordon has no problems conjuring the kind of braggadocio common in the genre. But while your average rapper might boast about cars, bitches, or bling, Gordon is more likely to brag about his poetic aspirations — and he isn't afraid of setting lofty standards, either. "Eleven years after starting music, I'm still unsure of exactly what my path is, but I am as I view everyone else: an artist with endless potential to blindly inspire, and change the world by being an individual."