Right now, in “professional” and “bedroom” studios across the globe, thousands of producers are trying their hands at what might have previously been considered Southern hip-hop. Today, it’s pop. Trap drums are steadily becoming as ubiquitous as the word “bling,” and with imposed genre distinctions fading further by the day, the pairing of rappers based in the South with producers typically known for East or West Coast beats has moved far beyond the experimental phase.
Still, perhaps no current cross-regional hip-hop collaboration has managed to remain as consistently fresh and doggedly uncompromised as the team-up of New Jersey-based producers Parallel Thought (Drum, Knowledge & Caness) and Alabama-based rapper Gene The Southern Child. Over the past two years, they’ve released two critically acclaimed, yet criminally slept-on, albums (A Ride with the Southern Child and Artillery Splurgin’), both of which transcend regional aesthetic while painting vivid pictures of a specific section of the world, namely Florence, Alabama a.k.a. Flo-Town, Gene’s home city.
This week, Gene the Southern Child and Parallel Thought will release Southern Meridian, their third album together and first on Adult Swim’s William Street Records imprint. A few weeks ago, Gene, Drum, Knowledge, and Caness all took some time off from the video shoot for “Smackman” to discuss their past and present work, as well as the places and performers that inspire their continually evolving collaboration.
Parallel Thought’s connection to the Alabama scene dates back a while, presumably through Caness. Was it you who put Drum & Knowledge in contact with Gene?
Caness: Yeah, I am from Muscle Shoals, and have been working with Gene for a minute now, and I had moved up to NYC where I met Drum & Knowledge, so for about the past decade I have been doing music with them, going back and forth from NYC to Alabama, and we finally connected the two.
The first collaboration being on the Art of Sound album?
Knowledge: No, actually with Gene the first record was A Ride with the Southern Child, but they were both released at the same time, the latter being recorded first. Caness and Gene were working together at the same time me and Drum were working with Tame [One] and Del [the Funky Homosapien].
Before No Limit and Cash-Money started to blow up in the late 90s and early 2000s, our exposure to Southern hip-hop in the Northeast was limited. Now, the South is considered the dominating force. Even still, when most Northeasterners think Southern hip-hop, we tend to think Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, and Memphis. Huntsville and Florence didn’t even really enter the picture until the past few years, thanks to artists like Gene, Bentley, GMane, G-Side, Block Beattaz and Big P.O.P.E.. That being said, it doesn’t take a lot of research to see that there’s a huuuuge mixtape circuit in Alabama.
Gene, I know that you were on that circuit for a while, having released The G and Controversy Pt. II in the late 2000s/early 2010s, but just how far back does your involvement in the local and regional scenes go, and what, if anything, is your connection to some of the other artists mentioned? Beyond those artists, can you name some older ‘Bama rappers who inspired you?
Gene: I used to rap in school at the lunch table, I used to write rhymes during class in high school so the teacher thought I was taking notes, so I have been rapping for a minute. In terms of local scenes, I was doing some verses on mixtapes [by] GMane and Alabama Hustle Unit. I put together my first project around 2003, which was a mixtape. Then I linked up with Caness and we started doing a lot of music. As far as Alabama rappers that inspired me, I would have to say Southern Bred. They were one of the few local groups that were putting stuff out that people wanted to listen to, and that I listened to.
Any of those older mixtapes still floating around? I looked and all I could find were three tunes on MySpace, a video and some cover art.
Gene: No, we actually took them down, decided to keep it fresh with A Ride with the Southern Child.
Caness: I have them all [but they’re not coming out].
Same questions for you, Caness. What, if anything, is your connection to some of the artists mentioned, and who are some older ‘Bama artists who inspired you?
Caness: GMane introduced me to Gene. I heard him on a mixtape and wanted to work with him, so we got in touch, met up, and went and recorded our first mixtape in a few hours’ time. I was familiar with Southern Bred, Slave Kamp, Mr. Bigg, etc. I was always more into East Coast hip-hop, but I am a huge fan of Master P and TRU’s first releases and plenty of other Southern stuff. I have worked with G-Side, but really I don’t have much of a connection with any artists in Alabama other than Gene, Shocc, Bentley, and everyone else from the Florence area in that circle.
That record is some of my best work and I say that because I wrote that song when I was 16. That was over 15 years ago but I never forgot about it and it never got old to me.
Going further back, before we fast-forward to the near-present, Muscle Shoals has a deep and rich musical history, as was pointed out by the Parallel Thought Fame mix. Is there any connection to the area’s past musical traditions, other than admiration and inspiration?
Caness: It’s something that’s just part of you if you are from here. It’s a small town with a huge history. Some of the breaks on the Fame mix, we recorded at Fame [Studios]. Personally, we don’t have too much connection with the past. However, I have met a lot of people from here that were a part of that time.
Any stories or ideas that they’ve shared with you that stick out in your mind?
Caness: I think the fact that you had white artists working with black artists in Alabama at that time and pumping out hit records from the middle of nowhere was really impressive and inspiring. I think it is similar to what you see with hip-hop crossing race. Music bringing people together and doing something positive is always something that sticks out in my mind. Also, the Southern hospitality mentality and just people being respectful of people is something that I am really a fan of, and I think we have that here.
I ask about all of this location-specific history because, to me, it seems that Gene, your style is very much rooted in the art of storytelling and more specifically, in telling stories about your territory. The very name, Gene The Southern Child, implies that you consider yourself a product of your environment. How would you say you’ve explored that theme in your music, and how would you say that time and place influence you as a writer and a storyteller?
Gene: Well, I can say that’s true, being where I’m from and all — I mean Florence is a city that’s small but has the same things happen that happen in bigger cities, so I have lots of memories of bad things appearing in my vision of my city. I took those bad memories and made stories out of them, because nothing is better than getting the raw and the real all at the same time.
Drum & Knowledge, I know you’ve worked with rappers from all across the country, and obviously you have your own sound. But do you tailor your production style to suit the emcee you’re working with, and how would you say your experiences with Gene, whether on the road or in the studio, have informed your beat-making approach?
Knowledge: Starting out, we really weren’t making anything specific for a particular emcee. We were mostly making straightforward East Coast-sounding beats, and it was easy working with guys like Tame [One] or C-Rayz [Walz], as we knew they were going to sound at home on these beats. Working with Gene was a challenge for us because we wanted to break out of that stigma, expand the sound outside of the boom-bap stuff, and work with a Southern emcee but at the same time make him sound at home.
I think you’ve definitely accomplished that, while still staying true to your core sound. How do you think you’ve done so?
Knowledge: We still keep it sample-heavy. And we still are into dope drums. It just changes when it comes to drums patterns or the types of things we sample. The formula is pretty much the same just with different ingredients.
Drum: We have made East Coast beats for Gene, and then just tweaked the drum pattern a little to suit his flow. Once we started getting used to Gene, we started making beats with him in mind, which we have never done for an artist before.
I hit a point a few years ago when I was getting more inspiration soaking in heavier music like Godspeed, Swans, The Body, Sunn O))), etc.; delving deep into the left-field experimental stuff coming out [on] Editions Mego [like] Pan Sonic; and then going further back and soaking in some of the early Musique concrète stuff from John Cage, Daphne Oram.
I’m also curious to learn about your creative process and how it’s evolved since you guys started making beats as teenagers. You have roots in hardcore and punk, and I recently saw an interview in which Knowledge stated that he’s more inspired by non-hip-hop acts these days — Swans and Godspeed You! Black Emperor were mentioned. How do you manage to incorporate these outside influences, if at all, or is it just a matter of “I like this, it makes me want to create”?
Knowledge: Primarily, I’m the one who picks the samples, and it’s just been inevitable that my musical taste would start evolving. I hit a point a few years ago when I was getting more inspiration soaking in heavier music like Godspeed, Swans, The Body, Sunn O))), etc.; delving deep into the left-field experimental stuff coming out [on] Editions Mego [like] Pan Sonic; and then going further back and soaking in some of the early Musique concrète stuff from John Cage, Daphne Oram. It was refreshing to hear something so different and appreciate how far they can stretch sound into emotion. Listening to their sequencing [and] sound design just helped us fine-tune how we were approaching our stuff.
How the fuck do you get your drums to sound like they do?
Drum: Thank you. That’s my name, man … Gotta live up to it haha. Honestly, the way we make beats, Knowledge’s job is the sample and my job is the drums, so it’s easier when my focus is on one task. I was a drummer in a hardcore band and I went to SAE in NYC for audio engineering, so I know how to play drums and also how to make them sound good whether [they’re] recorded live or sampled. You gotta understand the sonics of things, what frequency will help or hurt a song, and also how to pick sounds based on what they will sound like when we mix a song. We also make beats in Pro Tools, so I am kinda mixing while we are making a beat, so it’s easy for me to tell if a sound will work or not pretty quick. And without giving away our “secret,” I will say that it’s not uncommon for us to have a session with 10-12 drum tracks alone.
We have also been doing this so long. The process has always been the same, so we just keep perfecting it instead of trying to switch things up too much.
Looking at the evolution of your sound since A Ride with the Southern Child, it seems like that album, with all its soulful, cinematic smoothness, was a yin to the yang of all-out lyrical assault that was Artillery Splurgin’; and Southern Meridian is a kind of reconciliation between the two extremes, particularly as illustrated on “Split Personality.” Is that a fair assessment, and if so, is this something you all were conscious of doing while making these albums or was it more of a natural progression?
Drum & Knowledge [collectively]: That’s very fair. Ride was before we were making beats specifically for Gene, so you get that old soul sound from our 90s-style hip-hop beats that we just redid a little. Gene had raps already for that album, and we had beats already. We just matched stuff up without a real concept, just some good songs. Artillery, we made pretty much as a concept album. We wanted to make a Southern gangsta rap album that was super-violent, but for the sake of the art and feel of it, not just for nothing. So Gene wrote to that concept and we picked stuff that fit that mode. We made beats for Gene on that album, and that’s why it sounds like that. Southern Meridian is really the whole package. The songs span different subject matter and cover a lot of ground. There is something for everyone on this album, which we did on purpose. And the beats are us feeling 100% comfortable with Gene. We have settled into a good groove and this record was actually recorded in one week in December at our studio in New Jersey.
Parallel Thought has worked with several different labels over the years, and has been operating as an independent artists’ collective/label for a while as well. Why team up with Adult Swim and Williams Street, how did that relationship start, and what exactly does it entail, i.e. is Southern Meridian coming out on Williams Street Records or is it just being released through their website?
Knowledge: It all came through Jason Demarco, who is the head creative director at Adult Swim and head A&R at Williams Street. I had been trying to get in touch with Jason for a while now because he also puts together the Adult Swim bumps and we were trying to get 3:33 into doing bumps for them (which did happen). Randomly, Jason had bought some music off the bandcamp, and as soon as I saw his email I gave him a shout. We stayed in contact, and we saw that he was really supportive of Gene, so we stepped back and tried to figure the best situation for this new Gene record, because what we were doing self-releasing projects wasn’t progressing as far as we wanted. We didn’t want to repeat what we did for Artillery and at the same time weren’t looking for an outside indie label to come in, so I just pitched the idea of Adult Swim releasing the record and Jason was into it. It’s getting an official release through Adult Swim, digitally — it will be free, and we are doing a super-limited run of vinyl. This was the dream deal for us; their reach and audience is untouchable.
You gotta understand the sonics of things, what frequency will help or hurt a song, and also how to pick sounds based on what they will sound like when we mix a song… Without giving away our “secret,” I will say that it’s not uncommon for us to have a session with 10-12 drum tracks alone.
Whose idea was it to name the album Southern Meridian, and without giving too much away, what is the influence of the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian?
Knowledge: I suggested it, but as a group we agreed on that title. I’m the bookworm out of the group, and during the recording process Blood Meridian just kept creeping into my mind, how straightforward and intense the novels is; the complexity of what initially appears to be such a simple story is similar to this record.
The song “Calvary Dust” stands out as a personal favorite … partially because of the title, partially because of the lyrics and vibe. Gene, what can you tell me about that particular record?
Gene: That record is some of my best work and I say that because I wrote that song when I was 16. That was over 15 years ago but I never forgot about it and it never got old to me.
Staying with individual songs, what inspired the decision to include “A Ride With the Southern Child” on this album? The beat and the vocal delivery are very different this time around, so even though the lyrics are the same, the feeling of the song is changed. I’m curious to know if this was a different take that’s been around, or if the song was re-recorded, whether its inclusion was as simple as “we need another song for the ladies” and if its placement in the center of the album has any significance.
Gene: I will let Parallel Thought speak on that. I let them handle being producers and trust their decisions.
Caness: I think that was my idea. We talked about not using it because we had a couple other songs for the females. That is one of my favorite songs that I could remix 100 times so I pushed for that one. Knowledge and I [picked] identical track orders; we ended up moving one song. I don’t think there was any significance to it, though; we just go with what we feel sounds right. We all felt revisiting a couple songs wasn’t a bad idea.
The first Gene & P-Thought album was released as a split CD with the Parallel Thought album Articulation, which featured Caness throughout. Caness, you also appear on one of two bonus songs on Southern Meridian, with the other being “The Police Pulled Me Over,” which first appeared on A Ride with the Southern Child. All of this, plus the revisiting of the song “A Ride with the Southern Child,” gives this album a sort of victory-lap feel. Am I reading too deep into things, or is this intended as the last collaborative album between P-Thought and Gene? Either way, what’s next for you guys, individually and collaboratively?
Gene: This album is a victory, but we are just hitting our stride. This is long-distance running, not the 50-yard dash, so we are just getting warmed up. I will say there have been plenty of hurdles along the way, but we work well together and always seem to be on the same page, and the music and everything else we have done is always tailored for me and is only getting better in my opinion.
Caness: Everything came together almost exactly how we wanted, and we’re all happy about the end result. This definitely won’t be the last collab; Gene and I have been working together for around 10 years or so now, about as long as I’ve been with P-Thought, and we have all remained dedicated to our music and each other. We are working on a few projects right now with Gene; The Land of Ice & Sand [Gene and P-Thought’s next album] has been in the works for a few years now, we have a lot of unreleased stuff coming and are always working on new music. We have a few Parallel Thought projects with me on the mic lined up as well. Expect to see a lot of different stuff in the next year. We are working on an album with Bentley, and we have a handful of projects with some other artists that may or may not be coming out soon.
Knowledge: We have been sitting on this album Hell Up In Harlem we did with Swave Sevah, for years. That needs to finally get released, along with a slew of unreleased material that’s been collecting dust for the last few years. And Parallel Thought doubles as a label home to 3:33 — they have two new albums ready for release this year, along with two movie scores on the table that we will be mixing.
[Photos: Amy Albataew]