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...
Spaceman Jones (Davaion Bristol) has had a busy year. He's about to drop the second release from Spaceman Jones and the Motherships, his project with MOTHER HOOD (Cliff B. Worsham of RBTS WIN). The first half of the project, released in May, features production from MOTHER HOOD and lyrics from Spaceman.
It's immediately apparent that these guys were meant to work together. Each of them possesses huge talent, but they also share that harder-to-cultivate hustle, a drive that keeps them making music and getting it out into the world with an enviable dedication. They are fired up by music-making and performance, and what they're putting out there is exciting, not only for Asheville's music scene but also on the level of the hip-hop genre more widely. Spaceman Jones and MOTHER HOOD. Source: artist
Spaceman's vocals and rhymes can move from gentle to harsh as he hones in on subject matters at the center of political and social conflicts, while MOTHER HOOD's production creates the perfect flow behind the voice. In "My City Has Lights," Spaceman brings issues at the national level right down to the valleys of the Blue Ridge: "Seems to me they trying to bring back that old thang," he intones, "Jimmy Crow human trafficking/...free labor is the plan to make this land great again."
In the same song, he styles himself as a force that lights up the darkness perpetuated by systems of oppression and inequality. "I was born to be the light that illuminate the night," he says, "because my city has lights/Mountaintop 'ville in the state of first flight." The song ends with a message of human connection for humanity in all of its messiness, with a call to action for the entire human race.
While Spaceman Jones and the Motherships is only one of his many projects, he's been spending a lot of time on lately. We talked with Spaceman Jones about this project, his evolution as a hip-hop artist, and all of the other irons he's got in the fire.
How did you get started writing and performing hip-hop music?
I grew up in Asheville in the 80s and 90s. It was a weird childhood. Just growing up in West Asheville in those times was different than now. It was a lot rougher, a lot harder coming up. I got into a lot of trouble as a young man, before and through high school and all through my 20s, too.
I started rapping maybe in 1994, but I didn’t really take it seriously; it was just something I did. I didn’t even hit a stage until like 2012. In 2012, I came home after completing a long stretch for coke and I had a passion around music and had the opportunity to record. So I started recording, and things caught on. I started doing open mics and was very interested in radio. I got a gig with 103.3 Asheville FM, and I've been progressing, trying to do all I can, and to learn about business, making music, stage performance, etc.
What precipitated your turning point? Why did you start taking hip hop seriously?
Because it’s boring in jail. It’s boring as fuck. You just sit around. And there were guys in there rapping and I thought, "I want to be able to do that." I wanted to be a part of something going on. I just started writing little stuff down. I didn’t really take it seriously, I just wanted to be a part of something.
It's kind of like a community thing. And being in an environment with all men, competition is number one. You start doing it because you want to be a part of it, and then you want to be better than this guy and this guy. The competition piece was there, and that drove me to take time and think about what I was writing. I studied how people going on at a very high level at that time patterned their rhymes. It’s no fun when you've worked hard on something, when you've been writing for a week, and then on Fridays people gather and beat on the table and you say your verse and...crickets. Or they boo you. So it makes you get better quick.
So I guess you have to be ok with harsh feedback.
Yeah, super harsh feedback.
What's something you learned from rapping in jail and being a part of that community and that harsh feedback structure?
The lesson I really took away, looking back, is that everybody sucks when they first start. You gotta grow and create yourself into being a dope MC. It takes time. Nobody’s good right off unless you’ve got a team of writers.
That’s the only way through it. Greatness is kinda like a seed. It's something you grow and develop, and you suck at first, but you gotta really care about wanting to be good to be professional. I think that a lot of that craftmanship is missing right now, with the microwave idea of pop culture. People have short attention spans, trends come in and out so fast. There's a lot of repetitive stuff out there because everybody is trying to catch that hit, so we tend to not be as creative. We try to be really faithful parrots, instead of creating and trying to do something different, to try and try again—that grind helps you shape your own sound.
So there's a formula for getting successful, but people create something derivative and then there’s no legacy.
Eespecially now, if you listen to a lot of these records with guys that get a real high spike and blow up fast, they can’t sustain it, and the next guy has a record that sounds similar to what you heard before. It's replaceable. There's a revolving door of people. I think that’s the symptom of the hit-driven industry. It’s not very good for young rappers or young producers to come up in this environment. It's very hard to create a unique sound because you’re not going to get a lot of money, not at first.
You mentioned that you started performing at open mics. What did you take from that scene?
I met a lot of local guys at open mics. I thought it was really cool to be able to hone your craft in front of people doing the same thing, and it was a great tool for networking and developing stage presence. You can test out songs you want to use as singles, and find your sound and what people will accept from you. A lot of times open mics are more promoter-driven, which means they mean a lot for the guy putting on the show and charging the door but not so much to the guys coming to rap. So performers come two or three times, and everyone’s heard all the stuff already, so after a while it just starts to die off, because, I would say, there’s not enough push.
There's not enough pressure being put on artists to create new content, and that’s simply because there’s not a lot of mainstream success in town, so people aren’t very motivated to keep reaching higher and making new stuff. If guys were getting deals, you’d see people working a lot harder at their craft. But this year has been best I've seen for local music. There's more consistency, and there are new projects and videos coming out. A lot of people are making good moves.Spaceman Jones. Source: artist
Why is that? Have you seen an evolution in the scene here?
I think when you work at something collectively for three, four, five years then it’s kinda like baking a cake. It’s cooked long enough to have a finished product. So I think right now you’ve got guys who have been working on their craft for years starting to get good. There are really solid, reputable records coming out, and a lot of collaborations happening between really talented people.
And I think there’s more willingness from casual people to listen to local hip hop at this time. Gone are the days of really crappy palatable hip hop, kinda like McDonald’s hamburgers. They're good, but not that good. We had that going on in the Asheville hip-hop scene for a long time, and I think those days are over. It’s a very good thing. Now people can actually get a shot. For a long time there was no room at the top. There were a couple of bands that were very, how can I say, very safe. And people like to see things they can identify with, so there was a reason some bands had success for a long time—maybe even longer than they should have, to be honest.
But if you look at records coming out in past year versus records before, it’s a quantum leap in quality, just in the hip-hop genre. There are some really good bands in town not just making good music, but also important music. There are people savvy enough to work the media and get what they’re doing happening on a larger scale.
This is a good segue to your own work. What have you been up to, and who have you been collaborating with?
This has been a very creative year for me. I've been able to be really productive in production and writing, recording and releasing music. In January, Chachillie and I released the Grateful Meds EP. And with Brien, Spaceman Jones and the Motherships was in May. And I also produced an album for SK the Novelist called House Demos, I made every beat on there. And not only on that: I’ve done production for MC Sparkplug, the Last Word Benders, Doug Dew...
When did you start doing production?
Maybe a year and a half ago. I had owned a company—I still own it, but it was a partnership. We spent a lot of money on a studio and equipment, and we released a couple mix tapes in 2014. But that dissolved and for maybe a year I didn't release anything, I was going through a bad spot. So then I get a call from [Jeremy] Horton (Ho Tron Beats) and he asks if I wanted to go in with him on a studio, and we did the deal. And just in the everyday, being there running the studio and doing sessions for people, I started dabbling in production. I bought some studio equipment for production and started tinkering, and had a real knack for it quickly.
I produced an album that's going to be released hopefully soon, and I signed a one-album deal with Brain Kave Music Group out of Florida. So I delivered that and made 80% of the beats on there, and I wrote all of the lyrics. The first video for that was “God’s Breath,” which was just released and just featured in Underground Standout, featuring Adlib from Battleaxe Warriors, I made most of those beats and delivered to them—the title of that is Spaceman Jones World Traveler.
We are done with Spaceman Jones and the Motherships, Volume II. We just started getting the masters back for that; it will be out in the coming months. Brien does the production and I have the words. We don’t want to mess with stew too much. It's a good partnership. The Motherships project is self-released. We partnered with RBTS WIN; they’re helping push it out. Javi [Bolea] and Josh [Chassner] help out if we need them to lay down guitars and synths, but mainly it's me and Brien.
I also have a series of EPs from Out Tha Gutta Entertainment, my record label.
How did the collaboration with Brien/MOTHER HOOD start?
Back in 2012, I met him at a show at the Orange Peel; my homie Timmy Smith introduced me. And Brien hit me up on Facebook, and I think I had released a song on Soundcloud or something that he liked a lot. He sent me some beats and one made it onto Hope Fiend, my release in 2014 on Out tha Gutta. Since then he sends me music. It took a long time to get something cohesive going, but I think it was Christmas of 2015, and I’d made a beat and recorded a song one day, and put it out to him and he sent me the beat to "Cut the Grits Off," and he said “Let’s get together.” We did live recording sessions here and there, and finally, we thought, "We've got really good stuff here, we might want to take this seriously." So we decided to go ahead and make it a thing.
I’m very pleased at the response to the Motherships, because releasing records in this town is hard without the major budget. It’s very hard because attention spans in this town are extremely short. Albums are old in a month. Just seeing that we’ve been able to sustain through the summertime—it means it’s still got a lot of legs.
You mentioned finding and developing your sound a few times. Was there a point when you hit on "your sound" and what you're offering?
I’m still figuring that out, because you can hear the style of music I make with Brien is more '90s. It’s more like blunt force trauma. I've got a whole 'nother side too, because I’m a child of the south. So I make a ton of trap that nobody ever gets to hear. I'm going to put some of that out and I don’t know how people are going to receive it. It’s part of my musical heritage, though. So be on the lookout, I’ve got a ton of that stuff.
I've also got some work with up and coming artists in town, a really good record with Po'Folk, Philo, Hunter Bennett. Me and Mr. 15 got a couple records together.
So you're not busy at all.
If I don’t create I feel very lazy, to be honest. People say, "How are you able to do this all?" And I say, "You haven’t seen my bedroom. I lose stuff all the time because I’m not organized!"
What are you digging now, in terms of music, movies, tv, anything else?
I really really really like the new Sean Price album, and I love Westside Gunn and Conway. And I’m watching Game of Thrones for the first time. It’s a little savage. I’m trying, it’s ok. It reminds me of a lot of books I read as a youth. I was really into Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks, Robert R. McCammon. I read a lot of horror and fantasy as a kid.
And I'm into food. I'm always loving food, cooking, eating. I'm getting into the food center of Asheville. Stu Helm is a really good friend of mine; I might be doing some food tours here really soon.
Doing the food tours look like fun.
It looks like a lot of fun! I’d like to have fun! (laughs)
What shows are coming up for you?
Spaceman Jones and the Motherships were at Snug Harbor August 14. THe RBTS WIN album release party is on August 25. And there might be another BEAT LIFE show with MOTHER HOOD. I was talking to someone about doing a beat set at BEAT LIFE but I don’t know, doing a beat set is intimidating to me.
Anything else you want to mention?
That Brien is a genius. And I know he likes to big me up a lot but he brings something out of me. I’ve never been able to write as easily as I can to his production. He pulls the words out of me, and I haven’t sturggled to write any of these songs. We have a really strong working relationship. He’s a genius, and he needs to make more money.
Yeah, I'm just waiting for RBTS to get really famous.
We’re all tied down by the golden handcuff. Mortgages and marriages will keep your favorite band local forever (laughs).
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Listen to Spaceman Jones and the Motherships Vol. I here.
Follow Spaceman Jones on Facebook here.