Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Photo by Ellie Lonardo

The last time I saw They Live! perform was at the Showbox and they were opening for Ghostface Killah, the seemingly popular Wu-Tang Clan emcee on a Friday night. The ticket sales were way below expectations and the large Showbox seemed spacious and vacant. The first two groups to take the stage did little to engage the crowd and the audience probably wouldn’t have cared anyway as neither of those groups featured members of the Wu-Tang Clan. When They Live!, the local hip hop crew of Gatsby and Bruce Illest, took the stage, they came out with all guns firing and quickly turned the show around and suddenly everyone in the crowd was enjoying the time, not killing it and waiting for the headliner. Although he wasn’t there at that particular show, I believe I understood what local music journalist (and my friend) Travis Hay meant when he wrote, “there is nothing happening in Seattle right now that can match They Live!’s energy, stage presence and rapping skills.”

They Live! take their name from a 1988 John Carpenter sci-fi film that starred Keith David and pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and has become a cult classic. Gatsby is Larry Mizell, Jr., known for being in the popular group Cancer Rising, as well as a writer at The Stranger (whose weekly column “My Philosophy” is a must-read if you want to follow the flourishing local hip hop scene in as-close-to-real-time as you’ll ever get) and now DJ on KEXP, hosting the weekly hip hop show “Street Sounds” (on Sundays from 6-9pm). His partner is djblesOne, who is a member of the b-boy crew Massive Monkeys and goes by Bruce Illest. They’ve become one of the standout groups in 2009 in a scene that has blown up and has limitless potential.

I asked Mizell over lunch at a Lower Queen Anne Indian restaurant how he met up with Bles and he said it was when Mizell was judging a talent show at Chop Suey and “Bles’ old group Mash Hall performed. They came out in sunglasses and beanies and were flipping everybody off and I looked at [another judge] and said ‘this is awesome.’ The beats were fantastic. I stayed up with them and wrote about what they were doing and I came to find out he was a DJ and a DJ from Massive Monkeys, so he was really established in that scene. I asked him to produce some tracks for the last Cancer Rising record and he did that and oversaw that and arranged the whole project. It was nice working with the dude, but then he invited us to come on a couple of dates on the Warped Tour [which Massive Monkeys were part of] and we did that. We did a couple of dates and started talking about how we could put something together [between the two of us]. It was meant to be a quickie side project, that was how it got started, but we found we really liked working together and the response we got was ridiculous so we thought we had to keep doing this. It was the most fun I’ve had.”

The first release from They Live! is The Drobots Saga EP, which was released in 2008. Since then, they’ve released a handful of singles with the most recent being a remix of their “Meth Heads” put out in October. The Drobots Saga has a lot of really great rhymes and beats mixed in with some recognizable samples. It’s funny when it needs to be but it is impossible to deny the pure talent the duo exhibits. Nearly every song on the EP deals with marijuana use in one way or another (“My Weed” and “Weed Murder” are the most obvious) and it begins with the hilarious sample from Walk Hard where Tim Meadows is warning John C. Reilly’s Dewey Cox of the dangers of smoking pot. (“I don’t want no hangover.” “It doesn’t give you a hangover.”)

The use of samples is one of the many things that makes The Drobots Saga so memorable – there is another one from “South Park” that is quite funny as well. Recently such high-profile hip hop artists like Lil Wayne and Lupe Fiasco have released mixtapes where they’ve rhymed over beats from Jay-Z and Black Eyed Peas (Lil Wayne) or Radiohead (Fiasco) and it is highly unlikely those samples would be cleared legally but they were released outside of the label system and can be found after a few seconds searching on Google.

Mizell likes this system, telling me, “I think the mixtape in hip hop in a lot of ways has supplanted the LP because on the mixtape you can do whatever the fuck you want. With an LP you have to deal with a lot of red tape, not just from lawyers but from people from the label telling you what your album should sound like to chart the best. Lupe Fiasco just dropped a mixtape and he’s rhyming on Radiohead; it’s awesome. The digital EP-slash-mixtape-slash-whatever ”, I feel like the labels are getting really outdated, not just record labels – but they are – but labels for stuff. It’s just music, it’s just another project.”

The next They Live! album is likely to be released in a similar manner, but “it’s going to be a little different, sonically and thematically,” Mizell told me. He explained over the summer, They Live! were “kicking it in Los Angeles, where I’m from and Bles lived for a while, and thinking of how we both loved the place. It’ll be a little more ‘west coast’, which is both of our favorite types of hip hop. There’ll be some more 808’s in there, but it sounds fantastic and I’m really excited. We’re sewing up the last few details right now.”

They Live! is one of many standout acts taking part in Go! Machine, a two-night celebration of local hip hop that will be at the Crocodile this Friday and Saturday (December 4 and 5). When I asked Mizell which acts in local hip hop he is excited about and he said, quite accurately, “There is literally too many to think about and name right off the bat. People ask me that all the time and that’s really the most encouraging thing when I walk away and think ‘damn, I should have said ten other people.’ That’s what we have right now and it wasn’t always like this.” The first name he gave me, though, was THEESatisfaction, which he said:

I think their potential is ridiculous. Right now they are so good and getting better. It’s different and it’s not trying to be industry or mainstream; it’s weird and awesome. I love that they are two black, queer females making hip hop. For the most part, the scene doesn’t bat an eye. That voice is very needed as part of the dialogue and it hasn’t existed, at least in our hip hop scene. That’s not to say that everybody free of their prejudices now but the table has been set for people to think a little bit more. Beyond the political ramifications, I am a huge fan of what they are doing.

He was also eager to applaud the polarizing Mad Rad/Fresh Espresso crew, noting that “I love the Out for Stardom kids in Mad Rad and Fresh Espresso. (Producer and MC) P Smoov is ridiculous, he works and grinds; he doesn’t sleep. That’s what he called his album, Don’t Sleep. The energy they brought to the scene is something that I don’t think they get enough credit for but they have gotten a lot of people interested who wouldn’t have been otherwise, including lots of females. Female hip hop fans are more loyal and have more fun, so I’m all for that.”

After playing Go! Machine at the Crocodile on Saturday night, the next They Live! show is another one that Mizell was excited about. It’s “January 1st at the Comet, opening for [underground New York rock band] Japanther and Champagne Champagne is playing too. It’s going to be a party, so I hope people have it in them after New Year’s Eve. It’s supposed to be a bad show day, but it’s a Friday, it’s at the Comet and it’s Japanther; I think it’ll be okay.”

Speaking with Mizell over lunch, as well as reading his on-the-pulse column in The Stranger each week and listening to him on KEXP, you notice quickly how positive and encouraging he is. He summed it up nicely, “I’m lucky, there’s a lot to be positive about. There’s a lot to be negative about too, but that’s not really my approach. I feel like Seattle hip hop is always full of naysayers and doubters, politicians and gatekeepers and shit, but it needs more of an advocate, more believers and positivity. Energetically, I think that helps. In the last couple of years we’ve seen that and a lot more people believe in it.”

{Photo by Ellie Lonardo.}