Organic hip-hop: Developing Grieves’ Sound6/3/2015
It is a double-edged sword when a local artist makes it big. Around these parts, veterans of the local music scene remember all too well when Slipknot first broke into the big time and prompted a thousand local imitators, all of varying degrees of quality, none quite as good as the original. But whether you call Des Moines or Nashville or Seattle or Omaha home, the story is the same: one band breaks out, and suddenly most everyone acts surprised to learn that your hometown has music at all, much less something worth sharing.
Seattle-based hip hop act Grieves has seen the phenomenon firsthand after the town unleashed its biggest export since Nirvana.
“When you land at the airport now, they give you a picture of Macklemore and a bottle of Lubriderm,” he said with a laugh during a phone interview.
Grieves — whose real name is Benjamin Laub — and Macklemore are actually on good terms. The pair even collaborated to put together a tour-exclusive album in 2009. But when it comes to Seattle’s hip-hop scene, there is a clear delineation between the time before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and after.
“I think what it did was opened something up locally that hadn’t existed for us,” Grieves said. “Before him, a local show was just a couple randos and some other rappers who came to judge you. Then (Seattle-based hip hop act) Blue Scholars started really playing out, and you started hearing people talking about ‘the Northwest sound.’ Since then, there are Seattle acts that are selling out 1,100-seat venues. Used to be, you had to be out of Seattle to do that. Now you have local kids selling out their local spots.”
Grieves has made a name for himself by developing a sound that includes a preponderance of live musicians and moves away from the hip-hop-standard reliance upon samples. It is a more organic approach, and it has helped Grieves develop a devoted audience.
“You’re limited with a sample,” he explained. “You’re stuck to the confines of that. It’s hard for me to find what I want, and I don’t want to sit and cut through albums all day. You’re able to open up the music a little more, and it allows you to find different energy. Plus, it keeps the whole ‘Hey, I’m going to sue you, motherfucker’ thing away from me.”
Keeping the music open and free is important to Grieves’ writing process, which is often intensely personal and cathartic — not the kind of stuff he could do if he was stuck trying to conform his thoughts to someone else’s hooks.
One aspect of Grieves’ recent sound that is missing from his newest album, however, is producer and multi-instrumentalist Budo. The Brooklyn-born, Seattle-based musician had collaborated with Grieves on the latter’s past two releases, “88 Keys & Counting” and “Together/Apart.” But for 2014’s “Winter & The Wolves,” Budo is noticeably absent, as Grieves continues to move his music in a more flesh-and-blood direction (he tours with a live band now), while Budo’s own tastes have become more involved.
“I just don’t think we hit it,” Grieves said of working with Budo on “Wolves.” “We tried. We wrote a record, but it wasn’t something that either of us wanted to do. Neither of us really wanted to compromise. He wanted to go more electronic, and I wanted to go fully organic.
“Then the Macklemore offered him a job, and that was that,” he continued with another laugh. “Hell, I’d quit rapping right now if he offered me that check.” CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines who would love to take his talents abroad if the rent were not so much more affordable in Des Moines.