Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
Asheville isn't exactly known for its thriving hip-hop scene. Jam bands and folk musicians aplenty have always found a way to our rolling green mountains, but it's only recently that other musical styles have achieved representation and recognition. Onto this scene comes Musashi Xero, a 24-year old powerhouse of a performer whose exterior youthfulness is matched by an interior depth rarely achieved even by people who have lived much longer lives. Xero's expereiences led him to Asheville because it afforded him the opportunity to realize his dual visions of collaborating with producers and artists and leaving his distinct mark on our town.
Xero's talent is undeniable, and his execution consistently flawless. His energetic performances are luckily becoming more frequent and therefore easier to catch. Most recently he's opened for some big names, including local favorites Aligning Minds, Prefuse 73, and DJ Qbert. 2015 is a big year for Xero. As a member of Asheville's Beat Tape Collective, he's working on collaborative creative projects with some of the best talent in electronic music. Later this Spring, he and producer Panther God will release their project Xero God. He's also been doing quite a lot of work on his own. But first things first: Xero is about to release his latest EP, Underground Kill Wave, on January 13th. The album attests not only to his immense songwriting skill but also his staying power. It proves undeniably that Musashi Xero is a name you'll want to remember.
Xero's lyrical, thoughtful songs don't always reveal their deeper messages in one listen. This is actually one of the music's greatest strengths. Rather than working on a surface level of overt meaning, Xero's songs beg for a deeper level of involvement that pays off every time. My favorite song on the album, “Fossil Cruise Ghost,” is simultaneously deeply personal and profoundly beautiful. Over the flowing sounds of the track, Xero's voice is clear and uncompromising: “Lifted off the ground as I'm sifted into ash, I never asked for forgiveness.” Other songs, like “Graveyard Fields,” are undeniably Asheville-inspired, but with a touch of irreverence (“I'm always looking funeral fresh”). “Push Up” is an anthem to Xero's passion and his commitment to his craft (“They tried to put me under but I'm under new beginnings”). The first single off the EP, “Slay Fresh” moves between the jazz-infused sounds of tinkling keys, dance-inducing heavy beats, and Xero's own undeniable poetry and rhythm:
I sat down with Xero at Dobra Tea to talk about the EP, his inspiration, his opinion of the Asheville music scene, and his amazing, soulful voice. He's just as articulate as his songs suggest.
Ali McGhee: Can you give me some background on yourself? Where did the name Musashi Xero come from?
Xero: “Musashi” is the history of myself [he's half-Japanese] and “Xero” is more the style and the philosophy of it all. The Musashi part came from everything I lived growing up, and the “Xero” came once I had gotten a foundation and developed it into more of an aesthetic and got control of it. I'm an anime fan, was watching Gundam Wing, and in it the main protagonist has this thing called the “Zero Suit,” which is this robot-pilot system. You can go as far into it as you need to but it can also drive you crazy. I've always perceived music, for me rapping and hip-hop, in that way. You can go as deep into it, get as crazy as you want. The lines between your everyday life and your music can begin to blur. There's no difference, you're just in it all the time, full on livin' it. But it also made sense, the idea of this “Zero”—the absence of things. I like the aesthetic of zero. It makes sense to me personally.
Ali: How does Asheville particularly inspire your music? What do you think of the hip-hop scene here? What are you trying to do within that scene, and where do you see yourself in terms of its (and your own) evolution?
Xero: I heard about Asheville's reputation while living in Minneapolis. I hang out with a lot of people with the “Asheville mentality,” though I wouldn't consider myself as much that as Asheville's population is, or wants to be. It's nice to be around laid-back, open-minded, super peace-and-love people, and I have always found that I myself cannot fully become that, though I aspire in many ways to be like that. But I also like to be able to feed back into that. Though this city is very laid-back, a little “fuck you” is nice sometimes. Sometimes the scene here can almost be stale in how safe it feels. I like the peacefulness of it all but also like to be able to shake it up a little bit in my own way, especially through my performance. I grew up in the country, so this kind of a country-city is nice for me. All the hiking, the ability to get outdoors. Nature is always really inspiring. The Blue Ridge is great. Graveyard Fields is one of my favorite places to hike.
The hip-hop scenes in cities like Atlanta and Chicago are running things right now—there are a lot of interesting things coming out of those places. Asheville's scene is very, very small, and obviously other genres here are top dogs (jam bands, bluegrass, electronic music, etc). The hip-hop scene is smaller. That's part of why I wanted to move here. Someone I met in Minneapolis that told me about Asheville said “There's no scene.” Part of the appeal was to come here and help build it with other artists, not necessarily other hip-hop artists, and to make music with them, because I recognize the versatility of hip-hop. The genre is able to put itself in many styles and many places. This is what I'm doing with Panther God, and it works out so well. Part of the plan was move here and meet people just like him, the Beat Life [Beat Tape Collective] individuals, so that I could collaborate and have a producer base of people that were looking for a voice. A lot of people can rap and put words together, but I want to be a voice for a place that might not have someone who speaks to their sensibilities. Asheville's not a street-savvy, hard city, and I'm not that either and don't try to be, so I figured Asheville would be a good place for me to speak my mind, where others could relate to where I'm coming from and what I'm thinking about.
I'm building that. It's paying off, I can tell that people are relating to it. People hear me after I perform and things they thought I was talking about are things I didn't even realize someone could get out the music. A lot can get lost in translation sometimes, but often I write from a place that isn't super direct. I don't think of a subject and say “I'm writing about this today.” I like to be a little broader in my lyrics. I know what I'm talking about, what's inspiring me when I'm writing it, but people find their own avenues and get different things out of it. I prefer that.
Ali: Who are your biggest musical influences?
Xero: There's music that I get inspired by and there's music I just listen to on the daily when I get into my car, and they're rarely the same thing. I love music that motivates me and captures my imagination. Most people wouldn't expect some of my tastes. Trap artists. Chicago drill music. I like the rawness of that kind of music, and the underdog vibe—this idea of having your back against the wall and picking yourself up is something I've really related to and is one of the main things that draws me to hip hop.
My bigger influences: Mick Jenkins (Chicago), whose sound is soulful and lyrical. Future, Migos (an Atlanta-based trio), Erykah Badu. I pretty much exclusively listen to hip hop, but that can range from Aesop Rock to turning on Future for the next song.
Ali: Can you talk about your performances? You're such a natural performer. Have you always been comfortable in front of a crowd?
Xero: Yeah. When I was a kid I was a really hyper, really loud bombastic little child. I was always putting on a show. That's how I got out of trouble a lot. I was really rude too. I could charm my way out of stuff by just being silly and childish. When kids are acting really ridiculous, I know that they're trying to get out of something. People think they're innocent, but I played those same mind games.
I grew up playing drums with my father and have been doing shows since I was about 11. I've always been comfortable on stage. My brother played bass and guitar and sang. I played drums and we would gig out and do shows together, until eventually I was just doing shows with my dad's full band—sax, keyboard, bass, him, all full adults, 40 years older than me at 13, playing drums. My dad—and my whole family—have been super supportive. My dad has always been there for me musically. I'm really grateful. Music is a part of my bloodline. I have to continue the tradition.
Ali: Where did your incredibly deep, unique voice come from?
Xero: It took a while. The first answer is puberty [laughs]. Second: a lot of trial and error. I rapped for years before I started recording, more spoken-word stuff, and when I started recording it, I realized that I needed to find my voice, and that was its own process of recording, over and over, plus a lot of being super thoughtful of what I wanted to sound like, breaking it down and finding the types of beats that I liked and that my voice would sound good over. I'm still developing it now. On the project with Panther God, you'll hear me using new styles with my voice.
Ali: What's your writing process like?
Xero: Sometimes I've got something pre-written. With the Panther God collaboration I had a lot of ammo in my head and inspiration waiting to go. It takes good production to get the best out of a lyricist. If I hear beats that don't inspire me, I have to force myself. In terms of the production on Underground Kill Wave, those tracks [created by Clefto and Dead Giveaway Beats] spoke to me immediately. As soon as I heard them, within five seconds I got a hook idea, or different words just automatically came. People always ask me if I produce, but I don't necessarily want to produce for myself. I used to, but I don't anymore because I really like the collaborative energy that comes from someone making a track and sending it to me. The produced beat itself has context and emotion around it, all this stuff going on inside of it, and I can immediately get pulled into and work around that.
Ali: What are “Halfway Freaks” (the title of the third track on the EP)?
Xero: On the surface level that's just a fun song that's speaking about halfway freaks as far as, like, people who are freaks in the sheets. Surface level. Really, it's more about being a nerd about things. If you're not a nerd about something, you must be super boring. You gotta be a nerd about something. For me it's music, hip hop, skateboarding to a lesser degree. Some people are nerds about football, some about books, science. If you're not a nerd about something, it sucks to be you. So if you're a halfway freak—if you're not a full-on freak about something, it's kind of like, why are you alive? What are you doing? I'm a very passion- and inspiration-driven person, and in many ways I'm passionate about inspiration on a more fundamental than even music. I'm looking every day for ways to be inspired. Things that catch my eye, that make me feel passionate about just being alive—that's what drives my music even more than the music itself. “Halfway Freaks” is about that element of being passionate about something, of being so into something that you're just a freak about it. But on a surface level, it's about girl stuff. [laughs] Everyone likes that stuff. On a deeper level: just be a freak about something. Don't be a halfway freak about life. Be a full-on freak about life.
Ali: What are the details on the release of Underground Kill Wave?
Xero: Underground Kill Wave is like a handshake. It's an introduction to what I do. I'm starting at a more familiar place with sample-based beats, a motif of samurai samples, things that people have heard before, but in my own way. I also wanted to curate it to be something that Asheville would listen to and enjoy. The release date is January 13th. I have physical copies, I've done all these custom CD sleeves. I used a broken champagne glass as a stencil and a toothbrush for the brush strokes to create a streamlined aesthetic. The album cover is a photo I took at Graveyard Fields. I'll have the physical copies at all my shows, and it will be on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Ali: Can you talk about the project you're working on with Panther God?
Xero: It's a concept album that tells a long-form story about a character, “Xero God.” I'm super excited for it. I've never done a concept project but I'm really pleased with how this turned out. The production element is awesome; great sound, great vibe. We're gonna put a lot of time into making sure the release goes really well. We're thinking April or May.
Ali: What other projects are on the horizon?
Xero: I have like 4 projects going right now. Before Xero God is out, I'll do Death Obsessive. That'll be a successor to Underground Kill Wave. Sample-based production with the same producers as far as it stands right now, so it'll be that same aesthetic, whereas Xero God is a whole new direction. I'm super excited about future collaborations and working with Beat Life [the Beat Tape Collective]. It's cool because I'm the only vocal element. Everyone's a producer, a DJ, so I'm really excited to get to move forward with their projects. 2015 is a big year for a lot of things. A lot of things are coming to fruition, a lot of things that I moved to Asheville to start doing are happening this year. The ball is finally rolling.
Musashi Xero's Show Dates
Jan 17: Headlining at the Asheville One Stop (benefit for Asheville Movement and Flow Society)
Jan 29: White Horse Black Mountain (Black Mountain)
Jan 30: King's Barcade (Raleigh), with Panther God, Bombassic, Realms, Slums
Feb 13: The Local (Boone), with Aligning Minds, C. Shreve the Professor, David Garrett, SASS