On the internet there are hundreds and thousands of indie artists trying to make it. The internet has made the act of getting your music to the masses infinitely easier, and as a result, I think, the quality of the pool of artists has been watered down. Not all are good, in fact it seems like the majority that I've heard out there are pretty bad. There are tons of indie artists out there flooding the internet with their horrible .... *shudder*.... horrible music, which perhaps makes it a bit more difficult to find the diamonds in the ruff that should be standing out, if it wasn't for the mountains of garbage covering them up on the internet.
One such diamond, in my opinion, is El Paso, Texas rapper, singer, producer and director Adair Lion. He got a lot of exposure last year when his video for "Ben" was released which, aside from using the vocals from Michael Jackson's song of the same name (leading to a bit of legal issues which you'll read about in the interview), got a lot of press due to his unabashed support of those who are LGBT as well as marriage equality.
As I looked around on Youtube, it was clear that Adair had been around for a little bit, as he had a good number of music videos out, some of which are dealing with social issues such as Immigration (the track "Am I Dreaming?") and of course LGBT issues ("Ben"). I found myself feeling a kinship with Adair, as our political ideologies seemed to line up, and I was really digging his music.
I also liked the fact that in addition to regularly highlighting the Four Elements of Hip Hop in almost all of his videos, he also regularly puts his peoples in his videos as well. Loyalty is a very important aspect, at least to me. If someone is loyal that goes an incredibly long way with me. There's too little of that in the world these days, as everyone's out for themselves. So it's good to see regular faces show up in his videos, whether it's Louie who seems to have an unhealthy hatred for cameras that he feels like he has to punch at, or any of the other cast of characters that have shown up repeatedly.
For awhile now I had heard of his upcoming project "Michael & Me" which would feature, as he put it, "An Album of Singles", all featuring samples of Michael Jackson. The track "Ben" features, obviously, the early Michael song "Ben", the song "BAMF" features MJ's "Smooth Criminal", and other tracks like "Another Part of Me" and the upcoming single "Black or White" featured samples of those same titled tracks by MJ.
All of the production was done by him, and he also worked overtime doing pretty much everything on the videos as well from directing to editing the videos. Not often you see an artist basically take almost every role in an album and the music videos on a project him or herself. That's kind of impressive, I think.
Now the album has finally been released (Read my Review of it here), and it's actually a relief to know it's here. I enjoyed the album, and as he mentioned it's an "Album of Singles". So many albums are designed to have three or four singles, and then the rest are simply "Album Tracks". They know they have a handful that are really solid ones that will (hopefully) connect with the public, so they put those out as singles for radio play.
I recently got with Adair Lion himself to get his thoughts on the "Michael & Me" project, his thoughts on rappers advocating social change, some of his controversial videos, and just what does it mean to be "Above The Notes".
SEARCHING FOR CHET BAKER: I first came to hear of you, as I'm sure more than a few did, from your pro LGBT song "Ben". Talk about how that song and video came about, if you would.
MORE AFTER THE BREAK
ADAIR LION: Ben came about because I decided to do a project called "Michael & Me, and I already had some lyrics for a song that I had been working on a year ago. It was going to be called "It's Okay". However, back then, I was working closely with a producer that was closed minded about the subject in Hip Hop. So once I was on my own, producing all my own music, Cyndie (Adair's Manager) said "Use Ben", and it was a perfect fit. The rest is history.
SFCB: Your project Michael & Me has been in the works for awhile. I remember reading about how the original uploaded video for "Ben" was pulled from Youtube, I believe over the Michael Jackson vocals that were utilized in there. And then you re-upped it using your own vocals for the Chorus & Hook.
For those who may not be aware of all of this, are you allowed to talk about the process of trying to license the rights to use his vocals for the album? It's been quite awhile since I read about the issues you were having, so I wasn't sure how everything ended up when the dust settled.
ADAIR: Well, I'm going to make a long story short. We paid an attorney to get the sample clearance and he didn't finish the clearance before the song released. The video went viral (Time.com / MSN front page / Huffington Post / Buzz Feed / Perez Hilton etc...) and UMG shut the video down 10 days after the release. I had uploaded it to iTunes and that was shut down as well. I was doing an interview with MTV Act in Los Angeles when I got the news of it being blocked.
We tried to explain that we were already in the process of clearing the sample and that it was just red tape we were waiting on. The Jackson estate wasn't responding. Changing a song to a free download for promotional use should have fixed the situation. YouTube is obligated to allow the bar to be lifted and the video be seen again unless the infringed party is willing to sue. I have counter notified several times and still haven't been allowed to unblock my video. I guess that's what happens when you're up against a giant.
One funny thing is on my YouTube copyright infringement page, it says that I've infringed on Akon's remix of Ben and not Michael Jackson's original Ben. Moral of the story, sample clearance first. If not don't try to sell the music, use only for promo use. I tried to negotiate for months after to no avail.
SFCB: Michael Jackson was a huge influence to a lot of people the world over, arguably the most influential artist of all time. I remember growing up at home and watching on HBO when they'd have the Michael Jackson tours and you'd see these bodyguards along the front of the audience in front of the stage and watching all these teenage girls (and some in their 20's) just hyperventilating and passing out just from the excitement of being that near to a musical legend. And this one image that has stayed in my mind since I was a little kid is them passing this girl over their heads towards the front who had just passed out. It was the most insane thing I'd ever seen, and I don't think any artist will ever have that massive effect on the audience ever again.
How did you first get introduced to MJ's music and when did you decide that you wanted to do an album like Michael & Me?
ADAIR: I've answered this question on several interviews. Since I am producing all my own music, I needed to have a theme or at least have some parameters so that I could make my next body of work seem like a body of work and not like random songs jumbled into a pile. Cyndie showed me a song called "Music and Mme" by Jackson and that pretty much sealed the deal. I knew from then on I'd do an album called Michael and Me.
SFCB: I read about some of the reaction and how some hip hop blogs that used to shout you out a lot, suddenly went silent, while you then got new promo on a lot of sites that had previously not been aware of your music. Which brings to mind the Alexander Graham Bell quote about "When one door closes, another opens."
Why do you think that Hip Hop has such a difficult time coming to terms with this issue above all others? I mean there's misogyny pervasive in hip hop, whether against Black women or just women in general, but then you'll hear often those same artists do "Pro-Women" songs. I mean Tupac can do the most offensive songs as it relates to women, and then come out and do "Brenda's Got a Baby" and "Keep Your Head Up". Yet you'd rarely if ever hear those artists doing sometimes violently anti-LGBT lyrics, turn around and doing an equality type track.
Do you think it's a situation of Occams Razor, where the simplest explanation is that it's just a genre that has had masculinity and whatnot just so deeply ingrained into it, that the idea of a gay rapper, or a rapper who's pro LGBT is an affront to it?
ADAIR: I believe that as artists we are human. And as humans we tend to be different things at different stages life. That's how a bully can become a good guy or girl later on. Should that person stay in their role or be judged forever for stupidity? Na, but I also don't believe that we should hold any artists work to be their personal thoughts or rules for life it's still all entertainment. It's still just art.
I've done art where I talk poorly of another person, is that who I am? No. It's just how I was feeling at the moment and I lashed out. Another thing to consider is that hip-hop grew from rap battles and cypher raps. So, to show dominance, masculinity and power while simultaneously exposing vulnerabilities, femininity and weaknesses to your opponent has been a staple and a cornerstone of the culture.
The good thing is that we are evolving... and we are becoming a better community of artists and entertainers that are more sympathetic and conscious.
SFCB: Your next video that elicited an interesting reaction was the "BAMF" video, which prompted some in the youtube comments to throw out labels such as "the objectification of women". I noticed that you had posted an explanation on your website about that song soon after that going over your thought process behind it, and how your mindset was a complete 180 from what was being alleged.
Were you surprised by the reaction to it, or did a part of you perhaps think that maybe there would be people who took it a certain way and you were prepared for it?
ADAIR: It's funny because it was supposed to be a Feminist type video, you know? This this gang has taken me hostage, my homies come and save me, then the girls still win. But you know a lot of things get lost in translation. I was originally supposed to have a sorority from OSU, but plans fell through and the "one take" music video with 150 verse girls turned in to the "one take" video with 4 main verse girls and 20 gang member girls.
It was supposed to show that women are bad ass, the girls were trying to be really sexy and I kept telling them, "No. You gotta be tough and gangster". (laughs). Anyway, the video came out awesome in HD, with the lip color change effect, but it really riled up some people. I'm cool with it. People who hear my music know how I feel and who I am, so I know when people get upset, it's because they don't know me or understand my music.
SFCB: One of the things that I've mentioned on Twitter as being a major reason that I have enjoyed your music and videos so much, is that you are clearly a true student and follower of hip hop. Sadly you can't say that about everyone. Not everyone really cares about the history, about those that came before, it's all about the here and now for them, and where Hip Hop can take them.
ADAIR: I try to be a good steward of Hip Hop. Meaning I want to care for and help advance this culture that saved my life and gave me purpose. So it's important to me to show love to all the elements of Hip Hop. The DJ, the BBoy, the Graf artist, and the MC. Why would I want that to die or even let anyone forget? It's a beautiful thing that we as artists need to remember and show off. It's a beautiful and unique part of our culture.
SFCB: It didn't even occur to me until I'd seen about four or five of your videos (it was actually on the Sicka Than Your Average video) that you made a point to consistently highlight all four pillars of hip hop. That being, for those not knowing, Breakdancing, DJ'ing, Emceeing and Graffiti. And by acknowledging and applying those four, you achieved the fifth pillar, which is the knowledge of Hip Hop.
After I realized that as I was watching Sicka Than Your Average, I then went back and checked other videos, and sure enough they were there. That was really a cool thing to do, and it shows the respect you have for hip hop as not just a medium for you to find success. Was that a conscious thing where you knew going in that "okay, in these videos I'm going to feature some breakdancing, some graffiti, a DJ and I'll take care of the emceeing, or was it something that just naturally came about?
ADAIR: I originally didn't intend for that to happen, it's just what I surround myself with I guess. It's just the culture. I'm actually glad that I started to do it and happy that people notice. You know, I do all my music for the love of Hip Hop. It's a self gratification thing. So regardless of if other people recognize that I'm including the four elements, I'm still doing it.
SFCB: Also, one of the things that stood out about that Sicka Than Your Average video to me was the location. Where is that shot at? Because I remember seeing that for the first time where you're like out in the middle of nowhere, but there's these cars sticking up out of the ground. It was the craziest thing I'd seen in a minute.
What's the story behind that place you shot that at, and those cars?
ADAIR: The original idea for the video was a 4 story bonfire, however after all the arrangements and hard work, we weren't able to make a fire because there was a fire ban in the panhandle of Texas. You couldn't even light a cigarette outside because you could start a huge fire with the winds being that strong.
So being in Amarillo Texas we shot at "Cadillac Ranch". It's pretty famous. These Cadillacs were placed in the ground years ago by an artist/millionaire by the name of Stanley Marsh. People from all around the nation come and graffiti on these Cadillacs off Route 66. You can see that we were out there in 70-75 mile an hour wind. It felt like we were getting sand blasted in the face. (laughs)
SFCB: I've noticed by reading your Twitter timeline, and watching some of your videos, particularly "Am I Dreaming" and "Ben" that you seemed to be a fairly socially conscious individual. I've noticed that while some artists such as Lupe Fiasco, Ohene Savant or Jasiri X will really jump right in with the politically themed music, others will prefer to stand on the outside not making waves, because as Michael Jordan once famously said in response to criticism that he didn't use his power and influence enough for social change, that "Republicans buy shoes too."
Do you view that type of thing as an obligation to speak up for those with no voice, or do you think that sense of self preservation is acceptable as well? That there can be both sides, and that one doesn't necessarily have to take advantage of the potential change that could come through using ones position?
ADAIR: I think political rap is different than social justice rap. I'll probably stay clear of "Vote for Him or Her" raps for life. Or even "Don't Vote or Go Vote" raps. Or even endorse a candidate. There are enough smoke and mirrors in politics that adding a slander or a support anthem would just cloud up the situation. I believe that advocating for a cause as a social justice platform isn't the same as other artist screaming about how bad the situation is. My philosophy has always been "Either give a solution, or shut the f*ck up."
SFCB: Your company is called "Above The Notes Entertainment". If you would, please explain to everyone what "Above the Notes" means, and who all makes up Above The Notes and what role everyone plays.
ADAIR: Above The Notes was started in late 2010 by me and two of my closest homies. It was started because I've always wanted to present myself in a professional manner and also because I wanted to surround myself with other talented people with like minds. We give back to the underprivileged youth by doing free shows and workshops in low income areas. We even go to Juvenile Detention facilities like Al Price and show them how to drum, dance, dj, produce beats and write poetry and raps.
We pride ourselves on being more than just the music that we create (hence the name). We pride ourselves on being the change instead of just hollering about it. The people that are part of Above The Notes are dope ass artists that I love who are down to make awesome music and promote the Hip Hop culture.