Recently I had the honor of talking with Pierce Freelon, emcee of progressive hip-hop quartet “The Beast.” If you haven’t heard their latest EP, “Freedom Suite” by now, then you are missing out on what is one of the best albums that’s come out in the past few years, in my opinion. They can incorporate any genre into their music at any given time, and they also include messages of empowerment and inspiration in their craft. To simply call them a hip-hop group is to say that Shawn Carter is simply the founder of Rocawear. The talented quartet also includes Eric Hirsh on the keyboards, Stephen Coffman on the drums, and Pete Kimosh on the bass.
Mr. Freelon has a master’s in Pan-African studies, and teaches periodically at both the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University. Being that he is such an incredible artist and an accomplished scholar, it was surprising to hear how down-to-earth he was when I called, as he balanced the interview with dealing with his young children, which I heard in the background throughout our conversation. Despite him multitasking the entire time, I was rewarded with a very insightful and interesting interview from a very intelligent man. Check out a couple of my favorite tracks from The Beast’s latest EP’s and read our conversation below.
Describe yourself in twenty words or less.
Musician first, scholar, activist, father, and husband, basketball player and cool dude as my son would say.
You mentioned that you are an activist. How so?
Musically, and community-wise, with the curriculum that I teach. I convey progressive messages about self-empowerment, and the importance of being invested in the community through my music as well as with my students. I use a lot of West African principles. One that I use in my classes is “San Kofa” which means “you need to look back in order to move forward.” I’m involved in philosophy and activism as well, teaching young people about history of hip-hop and embracing it in a positive concept. I want to teach everyone to embrace the history of their passion, whatever it is. I’m also a mentor. My blog, Blackademics [http://blackademics.com] provides a venue for young black, brown and white voices to express voices on community and other issues. I’m also a leader of after-school programs in Durham and workshops across the country. I provide programming and education-based empowerment.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
I’m a teacher, a father, and a husband.
How did you meet Eric, Stephen, and Pete?
Steve is from Durham like me. We’re both Durham natives. He met Eric and Pete in college. Steve, Eric, and myself went to UNC Chapel Hill and graduated in ’06. Pete was ’05. They were all in the music program there together, while I was over in African studies. We didn’t start making music together until after graduation. They were all music majors with a concentration in jazz. I emceed for group called “Language Arts” in college.
Compare your experience MCing for a band as opposed to being a solo artist?
It was very different. Before we created The Beast, I was just like most emcees. A lot of emcees only work with a particular producer or DJ. From a songwriting perspective it’s very different to work with a band. It’s a very specific exercise to craft a verse to a theme, such as a traditional beat. Not to take away from other emcees, but from a creative standpoint, writing about a particular topic when a beat is sent is radically different from what I do as a component of The Beast. Our niche is a songwriting process based off of improvisation. When we write a song it’s like a process; it’s a collective of improvisation. Song concepts evolve organically off of a lot of rehearsal sessions. Content is derived from these sessions, and, we can respond to each other as musicians. For example, if the piano and baseline take a dramatic shift, I’ll lyrically or harmonically take a direction or aesthetic that fits direction of band. Getting a beat produced by someone in your absence is different. It’s very static, and the beat can’t change in the moment. It’s a much more organic and collaborative experience being part of a band such as this.
You mentioned the word “collective” several times. Is that concept of collective improvisation where your song “Collective” off of the Silence Fiction EP came from?
No, actually, “Collective” came about when Pete had a dope baseline - it went so hard! This was before we had any concept of the trumpets you hear so prominently on the track. As for the lyrics, I was a Pan-African studies major, which I now have my masters in. All the references to community activism and commentary on prison-industrial concept and need for self-determination came out of work I was doing in grad school. I’m also a science fiction junkie. Star Wars is a dead-on reference for Imperialism. My vibe at the time was very community, collective consciousness. I really wanted to reflect that in my lyrics.
You teach classes on Hip-Hop, correct?
Yeah, I work between universities as an adjunct professor. I work where I can get work. At various times I work at both, either, or neither based of each school’s budget. I teach a class on Hip-Hop and Political Movements at NC Central, and a class on Blacks and Popular Culture at UNC Chapel Hill. Both focus primarily on hip-hop, but from context of politics and culture in general. This semester I’m teaching at NC Central.
What artists inspired you the most as you developed your own style?
Several. Nas has definitely been instrumental, how he craftily tells stories and he weaves these very narrative versions. “I Gave you Power” is a unique song, because he’s coming at you from the perspective of gun. In songs such as “Drunk By Myself,” he really just talks about the ups and downs of life. In that song specifically he talks about drinking getting high. He always strikes you with his very powerful imagery, and I’m really inspired by his narrative storytelling. He’s got this great mix of dope emceeing and going hard, and being politically and culturally aware, despite his inconsistencies. Lauryn Hill is another favorite emcee. All three albums are some of my favorites. There is no verse where she doesn’t come super-hard and I don’t learn something about myself. That’s a level I aspire to reach within myself. I also love artists like Phonte and Cee-Lo, where you can’t determine if they’re singers or rappers. It flips everything you thought about singers or vocalists or rappers on its head because you can’t tell what genre they fall into. I weave in and out of singing and rapping in that same manner. I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet, but I’m not confined by just being an emcee.
Where do you see yourself and The Beast in terms of music ten years from now?
Hopefully with hundreds of thousands of records sold, and having traveled the world. Having been a contributor to communities here in Durham, not just somebody who came and rocked shows. I want the band to noted for its commitment to supporting the community that produced it. Makin’ mad music, with ten more Freedom Suite caliber albums. I want a lot more collaborations. I already have several artists in mind. We gave you both ends of the spectrum recently. Silence Fiction had no collaborations, while almost every song on Freedom Suite had at least one.
If you could add one person, be it a singer or musician, from any era to your group, who would it be and why?
Bob Marley is just so dope at blurring the lines between pop and progressive. Artists like him are very rare. He had so many songs with such a wealth of material, that reached such a wide range of people. We just did a section on him last week in my class at NC Central, so that’s why I’m going hard. He’s probably one of my biggest inspirations.
A manifesto is a public declaration of intentions. What would you say is your Artistic Manifesto?
Wow, great question. I really have to think about that one. This isn’t gonna sound very eloquent, but it would have something to do with good music. Really good music, excellent music. Art vs.. entertainment. Not that the two are mutually exclusive. That was a philosophy that a lot of musicians had during the bee-bop era. Artists such Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were creating art not for art’s sake but for our sake. Entertaining, but dope at the same time. Really dope, high quality music. My brother in law has a notion of a quilt being the barometer for what all important black art should be. That is that it should be a functional resourceful, beautiful and emancipatory. Good music is beautiful. It is also emancipatory, not just run of the mill party music. We have a much broader mission and perspective. It’s largely being resourceful, not relying on what other people have done instead choosing to innovate. Music has the function of uplifting and inspiring, and also educating. Music should be transformative.