Bron Don talks Cartoons, Chords, and Cover Songs

Bron Don From left: Mitchell Cardoza, Michael Cangemi (sideways), Colin Mohr, John Cattini

Bron Don
From left: Mitchell Cardoza, Michael Cangemi (sideways), Colin Mohr, John Cattini
Photo by Claire Roche

At 10pm on a Thursday in Valencia, Spain, I buy myself a Pepsi at Bocalinda, a restaurant in the building I live in and that half of the rock reggae band Bron Don has agreed to meet me at. As I sit down and set my change on the high top table, Bron Don bassist Michael “Wolfgang” Cangemi picks up my coins and starts placing them into a circle formation, trying to balance each on its side. The recording of the conversation I took to ensure proper quotations is peppered with the clinks of euros tipping over.

We’ve sat down to discuss cover songs and, in true Bron Don fashion, a myriad of other topics come up—many of which had to be omitted from this article since this is a school-run blog. (Keep an eye out on their Facebook page for the uncensored version. Just kidding. Maybe.)

I ask my first question: “What is your favorite cover song to play as a band? You can answer individually.” With that in mind, Mitchell Cardoza—lead singer and guitarist—dramatically leans over to Mike, covering his mouth from my view and whispering to Mike about what their answer should be. “No, you’re convening? Okay,” I say. I once again remind them they can have different answers just as they come out of their huddle, pleased looks on their faces. “Do you both agree on one?” They answer confidentially, half a second after each other, “’Fire’ by Jimi Hendrix.”

The first time they played “Fire” was during the Valencian holiday of Fallas, which celebrates Saint Joseph by setting fire to giant, elaborate sculptures all throughout the city. They had wanted to add the cover to their set for a while, and decided a festival of fire was the perfect time to do so. Mitch remembers the show vividly. “At the end of the song, like, the peak of the song, I [accidently] kicked my chord out of my pedal, so it just made a ‘zzzzzzzzz’ sound and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ but it was kind of in the key, so it was all good.”

The coins Mike was placing all crash down as someone knocks into the table. Mitch and I start cracking up as Mike throws his hands up in the air, defeated, before he beings to laugh as well. They have a contagious energy about them, so I quickly try to bring focus back to the interview before any of us can get too distracted. “So, ‘Fire’ is your favorite?” Of course, their minds have changed now. Mike is a fan of their cover of Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe”, as well as Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” which Mike says is the first cover they learned as band.

You guys just released a cover on your Facebook and SoundCloud, right?
*Author’s note: The cover is a mash-up of “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley & the Wailers, and “Welcome to Jamrock” by Damian Marley. Bron Don titled their live cover of the mash-up “Get Up Jamrock”.
Mitch: Si.
Mike: Yes, we did.
Mitch: [It was of] “Zimbabwe”. No!
Mike: “Zimbabwe” and “Get Up, Stand Up”.
Mitch: No, nope. It was “Get Up, Stand Up” and—
Mike: “Welcome to Jamrock”.
Mitch: That’s by Damian Marley. Bob’s little son. *Laughs*
Mike: Or the rap medley. The rap medley is always cool. Yeah, I kind of like the rap medley one.

What’s it a medley of?
Mitch: So, since I was a little baby boy I’ve made this rap medley of all the best—all my favorite—like, rally songs.
Mike: 90’s rap songs.
Mitch: 90’s rap. Like, Biggie, Tupac, “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg, and I just put it all on I-vi-ii-V.
*Author’s note: I-vi-ii-V is a chord progression commonly used in jazz music.
Mike: Look at that! Cardoza is learning chords!
Mitch: Little jazzy, a little doo-wop, and then I just go off.
Mike: It’s literally just verse after verse and then chorus. He just hits you with the classics.

What’s a cover song you love done by another artist?
Mike: “Mama, You Been on my Mind”. Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Bob Dylan song.
Mitch: “Higher Ground” by the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers. Well, by Stevie Wonder [originally].

What cover song has garnered the most positive response from a live audience?
Mitch: “Waiting in Vain”.
Mike: Any Bob Marley song, but yeah, “Waiting in Vain”—
Mitch: Mostly “Waiting in Vain”.
Mike: “Zimbabwe”.
Mitch: We’re so tight with [“Zimbabwe”]. We’ve been playing it for like a year and a half. We’ve played it ever since we were a band pretty much.
Mike: We played it at our first show, I think.

Any plans to add new covers to your live set?
Mitch: “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix.
Mike: Covers are cool. We’re always kind of looking for new shit to spice up the set.
Mitch: The hardest thing about covers is that we like songs that not everybody likes.

When you choose cover songs to play, do you keep that in mind? Do you try to introduce your audience to new music or are you looking for a song that will get everyone singing along?
Mitch: We kinda play covers just to like—sometimes, just [for ourselves]. Not in like, a self-centered way! We just like playing songs. Like “Fire”, I wouldn’t expect all the girls to like “Fire”, but they do because we’re passionate about it.

Do you think the somewhat heightened value of cover songs in the Internet age is a good thing or a bad thing? What do you think about artists like Justin Bieber and Karmin getting discovered through YouTube?
Mike: Well, in the case of Justin Bieber, that sucks.
Mitch: He’s hated more than Kim Jong Un.
Mike: Just because you can do a good cover of a song doesn’t mean you’re a good musician.
Mitch: Yeah, because they get a [record] deal and then they can’t write their own songs. So, personally, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s easier, I think, to get discovered on YouTube doing only cover songs. This happens all the time: I’ll look up some song, and it’s like five cover songs and then it’s the song. And there are people who just chill on YouTube all day just watching those things, I guess. Somebody has to watch ‘em. It’s good to get exposure by posting songs people already know. If it’s a killing cover they’re like “Oh, I’ll check out their original stuff.” But they usually don’t have any original stuff.
Mike: It’s usually like, “Oh, check out all my other twelve covers of Taylor Swift.”

I’m out of questions, so the conversation drifts to television. Mitch is a fan of 1990’s cartoons, while Mike opts for more recent hits, such as Game of Thrones and The Americans. However, they both agree that SpongeBob is the holy grail of TV. They also agree that the 2001 film Shrek was nothing short of masterpiece. Seeing this as my opportunity to organically guide the interview away from topics such as the inappropriateness of the late 90’s children’s cartoon Johnny Bravo and back to music, I ask what their favorite song from the Shrek soundtrack is. Mitch gasps excitedly at the question, while Mike immediately responds with “Hallelujah”.

Mitch: I never liked Hallelujah in the movie. I like it now.
*Author’s note: John Cale’s version was used in the film, while Rufus Wainwright’s cover was used on the official soundtrack.
Mike: Jeff Buckley’s [cover] is the best—even better than the original. Anyway, I don’t know my favorite song from Shrek. There’s so many. “My Beloved Monster”…I like that song because it’s a happy part of the movie.
Mitch: What are you talking about, dude? “I’m a Believer”. That’s my favorite song.
Mike: Yeah.
Mitch: And “Accidentally in Love”.
*Author’s note: “Accidentally in Love” was in Shrek 2.
Mike: In context with the movie, [“I’m a Believer”] is probably my favorite song. But if I listened to all the songs separately, it’d be “Hallelujah”.

Anything else you want to say about cover songs to wrap up the interview?
Mike: I like cover songs that are original.
Mitch: Me too. [I like] covers that can express your originality. I don’t like it when you just play it note for note. Like, vibe for vibe.
Mike: Or literally transcribe every part and not play it as your own.
Mitch: That ain’t no fun.
Mike: The whole fun part of doing cover songs is taking a song you really like and making it your own.
Mitch: Unless you’re playing a Bob Marley song, ‘cause then it’s just fun to play.
Mike: But we kind of make it our own, because we aren’t Jamaican.

Any final words to the readers?
Mike: We’re just decent dudes.
Mitch: Yeah, decent dudes.

Lecrae, Part II: Laying the Groundwork (albums 1-5)

Today, we are examining Lecrae’s musical development in his early career. I’ve picked one song from each album as a representative of Lecrae’s style for that album.

We’ll be listening to:

Take Me As I Am (Real Talk)

Prayin’ for You (After the Music Stops)

Don’t Waste Your Live (Rebel)

Just Like You (Rehab)

Battle Song (Rehab: The Overdose)

Lecrae’s first two albums, Real Talk and After the Music Stops were his introduction as a rapper to the Christian community. Released in 2005 and 2006, they maintain solid technique and his lyrics demonstrate the elements Lecrae held most valuable: his faith.

Let’s listen to “Take Me As I Am” from Lecrae’s first album, Real Talk:

As with many of he songs on this album, “Take Me As I Am” is autobiographical, and is themed around a biblical message. His beats are comfortable, though not particularly exciting; and his songs are primarily rhythmic with very little melodic or harmonic work (there’s a basic underlying chord structure, and a brief reoccurring melody in the synth).

Lecrae’s biggest selling point on Real Talk is the style and content of the rapping itself. He has an enjoyable flow and presentation, and manages to take the style of rap where it hand never been successfully exploited before: the Christian and Gospel audience. Because Lecrae raps about deep struggles he remains authentic to the themes of rap, even though the struggles his lyrics allude to are spiritual as opposed to more common themes.

Lecrae’s style doesn’t change very much for his second album, After the Music Stops. The main differences you can note by listening to “Prayin’ for You,” are the inclusion of a female vocalist in the background, as well as a few extra instruments.

“Prayin’ for You” from After the Music Stops:

The first remarkable stylistic change doesn’t come until Lecrae’s third album, Rebel. When you listen to “Don’t Waste Your Life,” you’ll notice something new: the chorus is sung. In addition, the underlying beats have a much more robust harmonic structure and instrumentation – Lecrae is expanding and developing his musical style. I believe that his expanding musical style is what helped him to be well received in the 8 different charts he made it onto (see Part I).

Take a listen to “Don’t Waste Your Life” from Rebel:

In Rehab, Lecrae makes a huge stylistic change, which I enjoy. We’ll listen to “Just Like You” first, then discuss.

“Just Like You” from Rehab:

I love what Lecrae has done with the introduction of this song… he’s incorporated a beautiful instrumental, then a sung melody. It is expressive and musical. He still raps for the bulk of it, but he is intentional about using his rapping style to control the mood of the piece.

Even though his style is growing in harmony, melody, and instrumentation; and even though he us making different artistic choices about how he uses his voice when he raps; Lecrae holds true to the autobiographical and religious themes he has aligned with since the beginning of his career.

To me, this development is a sign of artistry. It is one thing to be good enough at rapping (or any skill, for that matter), but it is true artistry when you are able to alter how you use that skill in order to more effectively communicate through your craft. With the huge artistic strides Lecrae made in Rehab, is no surprise that he was nominated for a Grammy, or that he topped 3 charts (Gospel, Christian, and Independent). It should be noted that Lecrae collaborated with several other artists for Rehab.

These musical styles and collaborations continue to grow Lecrae’s follow up album, Rehab: The Overdose. Check out “Battle Song,” featuring Suzy Rock as an example.

Tracing back to Real Talk (Lecrae’s first album), you can hear a dramatic shift in the harmonic and melodic elements, as well as Lecrae’s developing artistry as a rapper. In Part III, we will examine the albums to follow.

To be continued…

Lecrae, Part I

In the past few weeks, I have listened to more rap than the rest of my life combined. You see, rap doesn’t make it onto my top 10 genres list – it’s probably not even on my top 50; I like melody, harmony, instrumentation, and a notable absence of vulgarity and oppression in my music. It’s not that I dislike rap, I just like almost everything else more.

This month, however, I have put all that aside (except for the standards on vulgarity and oppression) in order to examine Lecrae.

I’m studying Lecrae because he’s done several notable things. Early on in his career, Lecrae became the first rapper to receive such a high level of notoriety in the Gospel and Christian music scenes. Fast forward to this September, and his most recent album (Anomaly) hit #1 on the Billboard 200, causing quite a stir. You can read about it here and here and here.

Listening to his early work, it’s easy to tell what made Lecrae well received in the Gospel and Christian niches. His flow is smooth; his beats are easy to grove to; his songs have strong hooks; and his lyrics unapologetically address the issues his audience faces. We’ll talk more about Lecrae’s musical style in Part II.

The more I heard about Lecrae, the more I began to wonder: what about his music and marketing allowed him to transfer so seamlessly from these very specific target markets to the popular industry, where the content of his raps is not in line with the content of his peers?

It turns out that Lecrae isn’t just smart when it comes to crafting raps – he’s strategic about whom he works with and how he releases his music. For Part I of this study, I am looking primarily at these two components.

Lecrae’s first two albums were well received within the Gospel and Christian communities – Real Talk (his first album, released in 2004, then 2005 with a different label) reached #29 on the Gospel albums chart, and After the Music Stops (his second album, released in 2006) made it to #5. After the Music Stops also received nominations for the Dove Award and the Stellar Award in the Rap/Hip-Hop category, though won neither.

Album 3, Rebel, was released in 2008, two years after his second album. By then Lecrae had gained some traction in the Christian community, and debuted as #1 on the Gospel albums chart. Rebel made it onto a total of 8 charts, and represented his second nomination for the Dove Awards in the Rap/Hip-Hop category.

Real Talk, After the Music Stops, and Rebel represent the development of a steady following in a select target market – Lecrae marketed himself as a quality rapper to a market where rap was a rare commodity.

Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose (albums 4 and 5, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively) continued Lecrae’s slow and steady climb, topping Gospel and Christian charts, and even made it onto the Rap charts for the first time. His work received nominations (including another Dove nomination), but no awards. Rehab was even nominated for the 53rd Grammy Awards “Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album.”

Lecrae’s 4th album was also when he changes his tune a bit: Rehab contained more collaborations than any of his albums so far in his career.

Judging by what comes next, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he made it onto the Rap chart and earned a Grammy nomination… Rehab was a successful trial of a strategy that Lecrae moved on to implement more fully, thereby changing his audience group dramatically.

Four and a half months before Lecrae released his 6th album, he released his first mixtape, Church Clothes. This mixtape changed the game. Lecrae obviously learned the values of collaboration from his 4th and 5th albums, because almost every song on the mixtape features or collaborates with another notable DJ or artist – many from outside the Christian bubble. Church Clothes was preceded by a music video teaser a week before its release, and was downloaded over 100,000 times in the first 48 hours it was available.

The buzz off of this move was huge, and positioned Lecrae for his next big move. By collaborating, Lecrae strategically positioned himself in the market as someone who could not (and should not) be limited to the traditional religious boxes. Gravity, his sixth album, was released while Lecrae’s sound was still fresh in the ears of new audience members, and followed his new strategy of collaboration. He shot to #1 on the Christian, Gospel, and Rap charts, #3 on the Billboard 200, and even made it onto charts in Canada and New Zealand! Even more exciting, Lecrae won two awards that had been eluding him: the Dove award for a Rap/Hip-Hop Album, and the Grammy for Best Gospel Album.

Lecrae maintained this magic formula for his second mixtape, Church Clothes 2, which he released in November of 2013. Although it was considered selling out by many in the Christian community (see here), it was generally well received and well ranked.

Finally, we arrive at September 2014. Lecrae released Anomaly, his seventh album, and shot to the top of almost every chart he made it onto – including #1 on the Billboard 200, as well as #1 on Gospel, Christian, Independent, and Rap charts.

Although I do not (musically) like Anomaly as much as some of his earlier works – which I will discuss in Part II – Lecrae is doing something daring: he is moving away from collaborations, and back toward independent work. Until he did this, there was no way to tell which audience members were listening because of him, and which ones listened to his work because of one or more of the artists he partnered with. By stepping out on his own again, Lecrae learned that people would listen to his music, and he regained a platform for the powerful messages he wants to send. You can read about it in his interviews here and here.

It’s a ballsy move, but knowing how strategic Lecrae is, I’m confident that it is wise. Lecrae has some powerful things to say, and he wants to speak his own voice. He has an ever-broadening audience that primed to listen, and going back to solo work gives him the freedom to bare his soul on his terms and uncompromised – what he as always circled back to as an artist.

In Part II, we will be examining the evolution of Lecrae’s music. We’ll see if there are any parallels between the development of his content and his changing audience… or perhaps what stays the same.

Unreal and Unsigned.

If you haven’t already, meet unsigned artist Chance The Rapper –

I couldn’t believe what I was listening to when I legally downloaded Chance The Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap in May this year. The fact that such a polished product, with quality beats and raps, featuring some of the best talents in the business, was free came as quite a surprise.

Offering free music got me thinking about the direction the music industry is going at the moment. It is quite a contentious issue; international industry and music news magazine Billboard describes it as a ‘Black Hole’ in music. Should artists just give up on selling music?

Ironically, Acid Rap managed to peak at 63 on the Billboard charts, selling over 1000 copies. I would love to have been in the room when Chance and his management realised they were being completely screwed. They had no idea how it happened. The whole concept of a mixtape is that it is a free product. He took it in his stride as his lawyers attempted to stop the illegal selling of his album, stating, “This shows that there’s a strong appetite for Chance in the marketplace, how often does a bootleg hit a Billboard chart?”

When asked why he released it for free, Chance replied,

“What’s an album these days, anyways? ‘Cause I didn’t sell it, does that mean it’s not an official release? So I might not ever drop a for-sale project. Maybe I’ll just make my money touring.”

This new model for making it as an artist in the digital age seems to be the common trend. Initially a free record, Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites by electronic producer Skrillex went on to win two Grammy Awards. The notion of making less profit money wise but gaining social currency and brand awareness is becoming increasingly popular and is what Chance is asserting.

In a recent interview Rolling Stone Magazine Chance proclaimed,

“there’s no reason to sign with a record label,” and that the “music is a dead industry.”

As a twenty-year-old unsigned, up and coming artist, it takes some guts to have this attitude. Check out the whole interview here.

Not to say that I’m a hip hop guru but I thing I have listened to enough music to differentiate between the likes of Drake who is has a lot of power and money fueling each of his projects and Chance. Chance has a large creative team of producers and guest rappers who collaborate with him. Here’s a sweet a look into how the tracks on Acid Rap were made.

He carries himself like any twenty year old would in his position, it seems like the people in the industry find it refreshing. He has found a formula to break the industry with his product, fans and market, taking his rise to fame one humble step at a time.

At the end of last month, Chance announced his “Social Experiments” tour that will travel to over 30 cities in America. With no revenue from record sales, his sole income comes from touring and merchandise.

I wonder if this time next year, Chance The Rapper will still be unsigned. Let’s hope so.

By Carl Pires.

White girl rapping… the next bit hit?

Give me one famous rapper who is a white girl. Do you know any? 

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Human beings like to have leaders in many things they do, especially in music. In the early 90s very few white guys dared to get up on stage and rap. A few years later, once Eminem was out and getting big, there where white rappers all over the place, because they finally had a leader. Eminem became the trademark for white rapping. If you ask any average person in the street, who is the white male icon for rapping, they will answer Eminem. 

Girls rapping is slowly becoming a new trend. There are many female black people rapping and a few of them are already world wide famous. But no white girl… “Yes but white girls can’t rap”. Are you kidding me? That sounds oddly familiar to what people said before Eminem came out. “White guys can’t rap”. And he proved them wrong. There’s a gap in the music industry for the white female icon of rapping.

There’s a few white girls on youtube rapping, but none of them are real rappers. I’m not talking about a girl with a good voice and rapping skills. Nor am I talking about cheesy rap and wearing all kinds of popstyle clothing to attract attention. The girl I’m talking about, she’s got to have the “don’t fuck with me” attitude, she’s got the guts to stand up and get criticized and she dresses like a rapper in her every day life. She raps in her everyday life, and that’s all she does. In other words, she’s got the identity of a rapper, and she’s got something to say.