It's not in the mainstream that a listener can hear the true heart and soul of rap music. Underground hip-hop musicians are the lifeblood of the genre -- they are the internal organs incumbent on keeping the system alive. It's unfortunate that the genius and devotion of these individuals goes overlooked while someone like Kanye West gets to be the face of the genre, but that's a conversation for another time.
Proud members of the DIY underground movement, the Swollen Members have taken the notion of hip-hop brilliance to a new level. The dynamic group -- consisting of two MCs, Prevail and Madchild, along with DJ/producer Rob the Viking -- redefines what a lyricist and a writer are capable of conveying on track. Madchild's in-your-face vocal bounce can release the demons within, while Prevail puppeteers the entire scene with imagery and layers of subtext as if it were his own magnum opus.
"Mad is very good at speaking from his heart," says Prevail about the Swollen Members writing technique. "I'm a little more cryptic. I like when people have to work to find the message, but because of that yin and yang, we have this really unique balance of music and lyrics."
Labeling Swollen Members as strictly underground nowadays may not entirely hold true (the group did just place their 2013 album, Beautiful Death Machine, at No. 3 on both the Canadian and U.S. Heatseekers charts), but what does hold true is the fact that they carry their devotion to the mad and the macabre, after a career spanning 15 years.
Next month, Swollen Members will be releasing their newest album, Brand New Day, on June 17. Before the album is available for purchase, the hip-hop trio will be stopping off at Pub Rock Live in Scottsdale this Sunday, May 25. Up on the Sun spoke with Prevail before their performance to ask about literary influences, what hip-hop means to him, and why he never listens to his albums until the day it is released in stores.
Up on the Sun: Tell me about your upcoming album, Brand New Day, and what fans can expect?
Prevail, of Swollen Members: I'm proud to say the Brand New Day is definitely a step in a very creative direction for Swollen. We've always had a signature sound and we've expounded upon that, but we've also made an album where we have all gotten comfortable being the people that we wanted to become.
When you have the individuals in a group all in a healthy mind state with a positive outlook, it makes the strength of the group just that much more defined. So, of course Mad and I have that unified, unilateral envision that Swollen Members has always had, but we really allowed each other to become the characters and talk about the things on track that we really wanted to. It's been nice, and it's been eye-opening. And of course, over Rob the Viking's beats you can't lose.
I listened to the single "Brand New Day", and it sounded like an inspirational track. Is the whole album aimed more at the light rather than the dark?
No. [Laughs] But with all Swollen Members albums, we feel that the albums are usually pretty heavy as far as content and music. They do definitely have a dark feel-- that's just in the persona of the group--and this album is no different. We certainly encapsulated that dark poetry and that abstract imagery.
Again, we do realize that it can be quite inundating for people to take in a whole album like that, so we do have some moments of brightness and some moments of light. That's just how life is as well, and we're those kinds of people. That's why you hear songs like "Brand New Day", and a few other sprinkles of it across the album, but for the most part it's a pretty heavy listening album.
Do you have a favorite track that stands out to you?
You know, I don't. I have to be completely honest, I sort of go in and we do our thing, [then] I let Rob and Mad put the album together and I don't listen to it until the day that it comes out. I buy a copy, throw on some headphones and listen to it from beginning to end. I try not to get what we call in the industry "demo-itis," so you don't get tired of songs and it's a whole new experience to listen to it from beginning to end with the interludes and the final mix and master. That for me is an exciting way to approach it.
I have never heard of that approach. That is awesome.
[Laughs] Thanks, bro. Yeah, I've been doing it like that for a long time. It's nice because it's like hearing the album for the first time in its totality. There is something refreshing about that, and I think it helps me as an individual appreciate it more because it's a retrospective of what we've done.
That is very intriguing. It does seem like some musicians write music for their fans, while others write music that speaks to themselves and fans end up enjoying that. Where do you fall in that category?
I don't want to make it sound egocentric or anything, because it's definitely not that, but our first and foremost thing is making music that we're happy with and proud of. If that has the trickle-down effect then it's all the more positive.
I think it's a dangerous game to get caught up in; to make music that is strictly trying to predict what you think your fan base wants. I'll tell you right now that we've had songs on albums where we have said internally, "This is the song that's gonna blow up with video and radio play." Then, it ends up being a song seven tracks down the album. You can just never anticipate what the temperature of the listening audience is going to be like. We learned a long time ago to make tunes that we dig, and hopefully that has the right effect we're looking for.
You proved that last year with your album Beautiful Death Machine -- it did really well on the charts.
Yeah, I'm pleased anytime things we put out register with our family and friends and audience. It's the icing on the cake I guess you could say when it's received well on the industry side, because it's tough sometimes making sure they get it in their hands.
What can we expect here on the night of your show?
We try to come along with as much energy as we can. We're one of those groups, and I know a lot of people say this, but we feed on the energy of the crowd. Whether there are 50 people or 5,000 people, we are going to give it everything that we've got. That's been a working formula for us.
We've been in the industry for 15 years, and we're really proud of that. We're proud to still have a presence and to be able to put out music that is relevant. Something else we learned over the years was making sure the songs that you're doing on your record translate to your live show. [We] have tracks that have energy and will translate the same way to the crowd. We've always been the kind of group to make sure the record and the [live show] herald the same importance. We champion both of those entities and realized they work symbiotically together. You can't have a great live show and a shitty album. We focus on being able to have as much energy as we can on stage, and I think we're getting better as we learn.
When you began recording music, were you targeting a specific audience?
Not at all, and when we began we didn't know what the audience would be. We just knew that we wanted to put out music, and not be dictated by a major label. As a group, we were still finding our footing. Madchild and I were still getting to know each other as people, and as artists. When Rob joined the fold, we began getting more akin to his production style and the quality of music and style of music that he made.
So, there was a learning curve there where you are getting to know yourself as an artist, and getting to know your partner. So, no, we never really sat down and said, "Let's make this particular style." Our brand just became what it was out of natural placement. I think there is something powerful to be said about that.
Tell me about the culture of hip-hop from your perspective?
I'm of the mind that hip-hop is the culture and there are certain elements that we understand, and that happens to be the spoken language of it. Mad is very good at speaking from his heart -- he speaks straight off the chest. He doesn't hide anything, and he's been very open about instances in his life where he has had trials and tribulations. He's also been very open and vocal when there are things to celebrate.
For myself, I'm a little more cryptic. I like when people have to work to find the message, but because of that yin and yang, we have this really unique balance of music and lyrics where you're able to get things on the first and second listen that really registers. Then, you have lyrics that allow you that time frame to digest them and do a little homework.
So for you personally, what inspires that cryptic style of writing?
Well, I enjoy reading a lot. I really enjoy seeing how other authors phrase their words and the pace they use. [I like] the way that they set scenes, the words they put in their character's mouths, and the character's conflict and resolution arc. For myself, I'm really trying to adopt the discipline of being an actual writer into my lyrics as opposed to just putting words together that rhyme, which is hard enough in itself sometimes. To actually develop a scene and a setting has been really refreshing for me. I think, it's brought some new light to the flexibility that we have, and we're able to push our boundaries by having that understanding.
Who is your favorite author?
I have a few, but I gotta say the most challenging book that I've read was Dante's three book compilation, which is known as Divine Comedy. It starts with Inferno then goes to Purgatorio and on to Paradiso. It's just beautifully written, and the way that he sets the scenes is just astounding. For a 600-year-old piece of literature to still be verbally impactful and thematically impactful is pretty impressive.
I know there were some struggles about five years ago with addiction and record labels. I'm curious about your views on that, as well as substance abuse today?
Well, I hate to see it happen to anybody, but it's especially heartfelt when it's someone that you are so close to. Mad is not only a brother and a friend, but he's also my creative partner and my business partner. When a relationship exists on that many levels, something like that can definitely have a trickle-down effect and takes its toll on all levels.
I'm proud of Mad for being able to get himself back, and not only that, he's back with a vengeance on the solo tip, on the Swollen tip, and on bringing Battleaxe Records back. He's the kind of person that is very resilient -- once he puts his mind to something, he's pretty impossible to stop. Unfortunately, that also means that when he was having his battle with the prescription drugs it was pretty full-bore as well.
He's shone a lot of light for a lot of people, and I think that he's helped a lot of kids that were struggling with that as well, to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that you don't need that stuff as a crutch.
In general, it's brutal. We all know that 15-year-old kids aren't getting prescriptions for this stuff hand over fist for back pain and stuff like that. It's coming out of medicinal cabinets, and people's homes, or it's coming out of Mom's purse. Then, it's being dealt at a street level as well at a super inflated price. I think it's horrible, and I'm glad to see that they're dialing back on changing dosages and things like that. I'm sure there are people that need pain relief, although I'm more of a believer in the organic route. Diet and spiritual balance I think are the greater causes of feeling than popping a pill.
For those people that do need it and it works for you and you're not harming anyone, including yourself, that's great. But, I've just seen the effect of those things lessen over time, which causes people to think that they need to ramp up what they are ingesting, and that I believe is a spiraling downward path.
You mentioned earlier that you guys have been recording over 15 years. So, is there something you know today that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
[Laughs] Yeah, I wish I had a little more insight into the inner workings of the industry. You certainly learn those things as you're going along, but the entertainment industry isn't for everyone. You have to have some thick skin, and you've gotta be willing to be turned down and told that you're not good enough. Sometimes, "not good enough" means not good enough yet, and sometimes it means you're not built for this. But, do I regret any of those lessons? No, because it's made me the person that I am today, and made us the group we are today.
It's an industry that can beat you down, and it can mess with your head. Going in to it, I was probably a little naïve thinking it was all roses, but it's certainly not. You can plant as many flowers in the garden of entertainment as you want, you just have to learn when to water, and sometimes leaves do grow.
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