Soul for Real
Soul Cannon's Hip-Hop Mixes Up Live Instruments And Community Outreach
"There's gonna be a point today when I ask, `Who rhymes? And why is your life so different and so unique, and why can't you write about it in a different way?'" Ezekiel "Eze" Jackson says. "And one of these kids is gonna get up and say he wants to be an MC, and that's gonna be the most important part."
It's a Wednesday afternoon in May, and Jackson is helping pack equipment into the back of his car along with his band, Soul Cannon, after rehearsing all afternoon in the basement of bassist Ryan Dorsey's house in Northeast Baltimore. Having knocked the rust off of a few songs in preparation for a show that weekend in Annapolis, Jackson and the band are on their way to the NCIA Youth in Transition School in Woodlawn, where Jackson will talk to about 20 "at risk" kids from Baltimore group homes about positive hip-hop and drop a few joints with the band to demonstrate his points. It's hip-hop community outreach, and as a community organizer himself, for the faith-based activist group B.R.I.D.G.E., Jackson feels it's the least he can do.
"My purpose in going to these group homes is to challenge these kids in how they think about hip-hop," he says. "I came from where they came from. I can relate to their experiences."
Between platitudes about the importance of positivity and a few mostly unsuccessful attempts to get the kids to participate in a discussion beyond just naming their favorite hip-hop stars--Lil Wayne and Fantasia top the list--Soul Cannon performs three or four tracks from its new self-titled EP. "Dilapidated Buildings," the best of the three, begins with a nostalgic jazz guitar riff that Jackson uses as a rhythmic foundation for his rhymes, which bounce like pinballs between guitarist Matt Frazao's phrases until the whole band lays down a hard, bass-y hit on the chorus, a promise of undying love to Baltimore's "Graffiti on walls and snotty-nosed children/ Neighborhoods where they constantly kill men."
Jackson's lyrics echo the type of hard-luck stories that Common occasionally throws into the mix when not dissing wack MCs, but his words don't come across as quite so lifeless or innocent as is to be expected from conscious hip-hop these days. "I don't curse, I don't disrespect women, I don't glorify guns or drugs--but then again, I don't sound corny as hell like Will Smith," Jackson says. "It's just that there are too many words in the English language, and I'm too good a writer to have to rely on that stuff."
"Dilapidated Buildings," accordingly, is a PG-13 track, but the group-home kids start to smile a little bit and nod their heads in recognition when Jackson drops lines about smoking pot and trying to get laid: "At the game's end, me and Mike used to scheme/ Get a li'l green, hit video-game machines/ Couldn't tell us we was virgins in the alley rubbin' jeans with girls/ Get 'em frozen cups after the scene."
Eze Jackson was born in New York in 1980, and moved to Baltimore with his mother and eight brothers and sisters at age 9. The family never really settled, moving from a rowhouse on McElderry Street on the east side, then to the Murphy Homes on Harlem Avenue in West Baltimore, and eventually, with the assistance of the state's "Move to Opportunity" housing program, to Columbia, where Jackson finished up high school. His first two years were spent at the Baltimore School for the Arts, but tuition fees charged to Howard County residents and a long commute from Columbia forced him to transfer to a local high school there.
Up on stage, Jackson tells the group-home kids about the time when New York police knocked down the door of his family's apartment in Washington Heights. He was 6 at the time, and his mother and father had left him and his siblings alone for more than 24 hours.
"I used to hate the police," Jackson told the audience. As the cops hustled Jackson and his siblings out of the building and off to child services, Jackson says a police officer kicked his sister down the stairs while she was holding their infant baby brother. "I still don't trust the cops, but I've gotten past it."
While in high school, Jackson met Dorsey, also a student at the School for the Arts, through mutual friends. But after Jackson left that school, the two lost contact for about six years, four of which Jackson spent serving with the U.S. Navy. In 2005, Dorsey's last year studying composition at Peabody Institute, he met Jackson's wife, a girl he remembered from high school, at a Christmas party.
"I was like, `Oh shit, if there's one guy from back then who I'd love to see, it's Eze,'" Dorsey says. The two played phone and MySpace tag for a few months until they finally got a group together in the early months of 2006 to play Blackout Productions' Organic Soul parties at the 14 Karat Cabaret on Saratoga Street (Organic Soul is now at Eden's Lounge). The band consisted of Jackson on the mic, Dorsey on bass, and two of Dorsey's Peabody-trained friends, Jon Birkholz on keys and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums. A sax player and a female vocalist were later dropped in favor of Matt Frazao, also a Peabody grad and a local session guitarist.
Soul Cannon rehearsals are not your typical hip-hop studio sessions. The rhythm section tries to work out highly arranged backing tracks while the MC looks on thoughtfully, listening to how it all meshes. Dorsey explains his feelings to Jackson about the lyrical tone of one of the backing tracks he has composed, while Frazao tries to loop a pedal effect on his guitar in time with one of Ellman-Bell's hard-funk beats. "It feels like the phrase structure of the first section of this song isn't completed," someone says, sounding confused. "Well, yeah--it's an elision," Dorsey blithely replies.
Typically, the band brings instrumental compositions, most of them penned by Dorsey, to Jackson, who listens to the demos and writes rhymes that fit the music. Jackson's lyrical gravitas on "Alleyways," for example, jives well with the frantic breakbeat and truckin' bass line. The song is a set of three cautionary tales about the dangers that haunt the everyneighborhood: "You don't watch who's lurkin' in ya alleyways." The second verse ups the narrative pathos as a stressed-out wife gets tired of her husband's beatings and knocks him off. When the law finally gets her, she has one last plea that suits a tragic hero: "She told her children `I'm forgiven now that I repented/ Keep my wedding dress and make sure that I'm buried in it, buried in it.'"
The question is whether or not tracks like these--which scurry around most things (bling, bullets, bitches) that supposedly make rap appealing right now--and acts like Soul Cannon can find a serious audience, even in a local scene. Jackson thinks so and cites local acts Salim and the Music Lovers, Unison Collective, Jamma Wun, 5th L, and the Soul Vivaz Nation as examples of how the scales are tipping away from the "negative hip-hop" that dominates the radio. On the way to Woodlawn, a young black man in a pickup truck leans out of his window at a stop light and asks, "Yo, what are you bumpin'? That's a nice groove to that." It's "What's Real?" a track from Soul Cannon's demo. Dorsey hands him a free copy and tells him to tell his friends. "We're part of a movement," Jackson insists. But later at the Youth in Transition School, Jackson is wrong--none of the kids gets up and claims to be an MC. None of them wants to take the mic and rhyme with him when he offers it.
"It's OK, though," Birkholz says later as the band eats burritos in Charles Village and reflects on the afternoon. "We get much more love at the clubs, anyway."