History is overflowing with pithy quotes about rules. Douglas MacArthur noted, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind,” while Henry David Thoreau wisely stated, “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” But President Franklin Roosevelt may have offered the best perspective on the subject when he observed, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”
For the very principled Natives, rules are definitely not sacred. The Hip Hop collective has been around in this particular form — rapper Pii (rhymes with the similarly spelled game system), keyboardist/rapper Hap, keyboardist/vocalist Champayne (Champ for short), keyboardist/vocalist JJ (who was unavoidably absent for the interview), drummer/vocalist Feeno Goodie — for about three years, playing local shows and building an increasingly large fan base. Back in January, the Natives self-released their debut album, Native America, available for free download on a variety of sites.
“It was called a mixtape, but really it was an album,” says Pii in the courtyard behind Original Thought Required, the Over-the-Rhine clothing store run by James Marable, the Natives’ de facto manager. “We did maybe 2,300 downloads, so that was pretty good.”
In a rule-breaking throwback to the ’60s, The Natives are releasing their sophomore album, Coup d’etat, a mere six months after Native America (which was notable for the group’s incredible spin on Toro Y Moi’s “Freak Love,” which they dubbed “Waiting”). Although Coup d’etat will offer a slightly more traditional mixtape structure, the Natives insist that the majority of the music is generated by the core band.
“Native America was all us, top to bottom,” says Goodie. “That was our first project together. On Coup d’etat, we mixed in songs mixtape-style.”
“And Native America was for us, it was what we liked,” says Pii. “Coup d’etat is for the people. Every song has a point.”
Even before the Natives birthed their first two albums in a six-month span, they’d already skirted convention by releasing a handful of solo and side projects. Pii dropped The Thesis in 2010, followed by 20 Miles North last year, and Pii and Hap had a project called Happii Holidays that also produced a recording, all while working as The Natives.
And after Coup d’etat hits the blogosphere and beyond (it officially released Aug. 1), both Champ and Hap have solo mixtapes that are close to completion and should drop before the end of the year; as might be expected, the other Natives have all had a hand in their bandmates’ projects.
As a teaser for Coup d’etat, The Natives released the track “G P.S.” online with the promise that it accurately represents the spirit and tone of the new album.
“Expect it to be that heartfelt, that passionate,” says Pii. “ ‘G P.S.’ represents a specific side, part, dimension of Rap. Every song is like that.”
Which is not to say that Coup d’etat will offer sonic uniformity. The Natives have worked hard to craft a body of work that reflects the group’s individual talents and the full range of influences that steer them as a whole. Musically, the Natives embrace a broad style spectrum: Champ, who doubles as the Natives’ producer, calls out Jazz-tinged Hip Hop and Gospel; Goodie mentions Gospel, Funk, Latin and Reggae (“That was the reason I started playing the drums...”); Pii essentially touts the history of Rap (“We love all the Hip Hop greats...”); and Hap is the Natives’ wild card (“I like freaky shit...”), whose musical inspirations include Pink Floyd, Rage Against the Machine, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and Coldplay (his bandmates verify Hap’s devotion to Chris Martin and company). All of it gets filtered through The Natives’ blistering vision of Hip Hop specifically and music in general.
Lyrically, The Natives tend to rise above mere street boasts, digging deeper into more relevant social concerns while maintaining a balance between enlightenment and entertainment. In a certain light, Coup d’etat could be construed as having a thematic structure in that The Natives want the album to represent who and what they are.
“I guess it’s almost a footprint marking our presence in what the industry is,” Pii says. “To show what we can do as a unit, and to show we’re not going anywhere. What we do is very basic, very to the core of what music is.”
“And to show that before wasn’t a fluke, and we’re going to keep firing,” Champ adds. “It’s so basic, it’s complex.”
Far from a fluke, The Natives are a group of destiny, connected for nearly a lifetime by mere degrees of separation. Pii and Champ have been friends since high school, Hap and Goodie are cousins, and JJ’s aunt was Pii’s mother’s hairdresser for years. As they coalesced, adding members bit by bit, their previously unknown relationships were discovered and at least partially explained their almost supernatural musical chemistry.
“We were all connected and we didn’t know it,” Goodie says. “That’s the crazy thing. It’s crazy that we understand each other and we can get inside each other’s head. That’s the freaky thing. I’ve only been connected like that to people from my family. Coming from them, it’s cool.”
“We’ve been together forever in our hearts,” Pii says with a laugh.
One of The Natives’ most significant accomplishments has been to transcend the narrow definition of Rap and attract fans on the basis of their sheer musicality; JJ is a piano prodigy (and was a star on MTV’s Taking the Stage), Goodie is an extremely versatile drummer and all of them are extraordinary rhymers. Although the quintet hasn’t yet played out much beyond greater Cincinnati, their gifts, clearly evident on Native America and Coup d’etat, make them prime candidates for a much bigger stage.
“I got positive feedback from people who don’t even listen to Rap,” Goodie says. “Because I told people I was a drummer, they were like, ‘OK, I’ll listen to it.’ My being a musician and them knowing I understand music and that what we could bring to the table could possibly be different, they took the chance, and I appreciate that. And the music spoke for itself.”
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