Tune in to Wisconsin's Mantras, a tri-force of Safari Al, aka Alexander Kollman from the Dilla Gents, JP Merz and Paul Smirl. Combining their respective gifts from the Gents, and Ghost of James; the 3 apply holistic sound stylistics to the hip-hop game with a contemplative and conscious voice. Joining us today for a discussion on their new project, Mantras premiere their just released EP easy, hogarth from Puppyfish Records that provides more than a word of comfort for The Iron Giant protagonist but continues the search for a new superhero through those endless lists of common era conundrums.
On the opener “While I Live & Breath”, Al explores the physics of transcribing the modern continuums between the delete button and repeated messages of feasts and peace. It is here where Alex spills lyrical smoke plumes like “I stay listless head stays lidless”, backed by a minimalist rhythm progression ala The Last Poets. The track's closing bars rap about the complicated discontinuities and inconsistencies of the human condition. “We are intricacies of the quilted sea, and we are the frailty of continuum”. Underscored with pensive indie guitar progressions, the fragility is further described in terms of exhaustion, doubts and life's Ponzi scheme of frustrations on “Bruises”.
The plugged-in ambiance of “Chrome and Blue Blood” is a two parter that runs back-to-back with “Villain” that features some words from their friend Milo. The second chapter of “Villain” allows Merz and Smirl's melodies to expand and grow around Milo's guest appearance that outline a modern poet's digital difficulties, civic concerns and the happenstance sensory of memory. “…To write poems in Time New Roman, and then hide them in a digital folder, why does progress look like destruction? Why can't I forget your banana-nut muffins?” Like the EP's title allusion to an animated character's plight, “Ashitaka” vanquishes all the evils in the world with sriracha and tribal rhythms referencing Princess Mononoke's hero of Irontown in “a loveletter in the form of a madlib”. Closing up shop is “While I Sleep & Dream” that brings back Al's memorable line from “While I Live & Breath” in a half-awakened recitation that ties together sleeping, dreaming, living and breathing into the same conscious state of being.
We had the opportunity and pleasure to talk to Al, JP, and Paul about the creation of Mantras, dbyangs melodies and the prosodic lyrical development.
What struck me about your project Mantras was the prosodic focus where poetic mechanics work in calculated motion with the percussion rhythm sets. What are some of the creative developments that you employ prior to getting it down on the mic?
AL: As a consequence of limited availability, this project was approached as more of a traditional rap collaboration – JP and Paul acting producers and me as kirko bangz.
JP: The instrumentals were created without Al there. We would upload demos to SoundCloud and discuss some very basic elements like tempo and form on Facebook. We kept Al’s aesthetic and rhythmic flow in mind while we were recording but as for the poetic mechanics, I guess we just have to give credit to Al for picking up on the subtleties of the instrumentals and Al can speak more about that than I can.
Al: They put all the way too much faith in me. I'd like to take this moment to plug Tahitian Treat—the singular fuel for my creativity but not diabetes.*
Paul: Other than “While I Live & Breathe,” every song was hashed out between JP and myself with complete uncertainty about what Al was going to lay down on the mic. I definitely tried to envision Al rapping on the tracks, but engrossed in the instrumentals, we just tried to develop music that we liked and trusted that Al would be creative with his vocals.
AL: I definitely reciprocated that trust. with the intricacies that JP and Paul embed in their songwriting, it becomes a situation where I’m unable to casually dismiss a piece which, weirdly, has become permissible with beats. Frequently, rapper/producer relationships function with the mechanics of a grapeshot, and I find myself wishing personalization wasn't as rare of a commodity as I feel it is.
CONVERSELY. As a rap guy, I definitely have developed a preference for certain aural landscapes or have a propensity to gravitate towards a particular style, but being cognizant of that, I will sometimes put myself in situations where I have to bend. Flexibility is an important asset & the capacity to perform in different arenas is tight.
Mantras is something that music critics often referred to in chorus like mini-statements of chapter and verse. What is your own personal definition of the word Mantras?
JP: I’ve studied a decent amount about a few major schools of Tibetan Buddhism and their ritual music. Monks use mantras to memorize and teach Buddhists texts. These chants have varying degrees of “musicality” ranging from purely spoken chants to very intricately beautiful melodies called dbyangs. However, monks don’t consider any vocal mantras as music, even if there are Western conceptions of “musicality” to these recitations, because their rituals make a very clear distinction between vocal mantras and rolmo which is their instrumental music. But practitioners still blur these distinctions between music and “non-music”. For example, while reciting mantras, monks, as a meditative exercise and as an offering to the deities, will mentally construct their own individual rolmo to accompany the chant. Another example is that many of the dbyang melodies, normally not considered music, are often replicated during practice of rolmo. This blurring of dualistic divisions in ritual music practice is used to reflect the balance between dichotomies and to help understand the “oneness” of the universe.
For me, mantras reminds me of this blur. Paul and I started working with this concept of blurred duality when we decided we wanted an intro with just floor tom and an outro with just piano. Creating this dichotomy at the bookends of the album allowed us to explore the relationship that the two ideas represented throughout the EP. Lyrically it allowed for a blur between song and poetry and I think ultimately a blur between a rap mixtape and a band’s EP. I’m not really sure what to call this project and that’s one thing I love about it.
Paul & AL (chanted in unison): Liberal arts education at its finest.
How did Mantras come about, and what events let up to it's inception for you?
Paul: Mantras was for the most part an Internet collaboration until the final days of recording. Al had played with JP before in their hip hop project the Dilla Gents and asked to collaborate after hearing Ghost of James’ Disappear. I had heard his stuff, dug it and JP and I starting writing songs that we thought might fit the three of us. After a few months of going back and forth online, JP and I spent a few days figuring out the arrangements and recording and then we all met up to record vocals.
JP: Also this probably wouldn’t have worked with like any other rapper, he just has the perfect voice and lyrical styling for something like this.
AL: Listen to this song and absolve any lingering curiosity of why I wanted to collaborate with these gentlemen: http://ghostofjames.bandcamp.com/track/roll.This is lowkey a crew anthem and merits daily rotation.
*statistic validity disputed
Get even closer with Safari Al, JP Merz and Paul Smirl in the minimalist b/w video that showcases the potent prosodic nature of Al sharing breath and words live and direct.
Mantras' easy, hogarth EP is available now from Puppyfish Records.