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  • docwattson

Little Bit of Light




Sometimes finding your voice means knowing when others are speaking your language.


I wrote a week or so ago that I rarely if ever critique music or art within the genre I create. Today is no exception to that rule, and I want to be very clear at the jump that this is not a review or critique of an artist, per se.


I mean, the conflict of interest would be ridiculous.


You would have no way of unpacking whether I was giving the song a critical enough listen. My bias is assumed, and rightly so. I love this dude, and I don’t care who knows it.


Also, in a TL;DR that includes writer’s block and good timing, I am literally on this record.


All that said, Ronesh is and has always been the shit. And I’m celebrating him this week as he drops his newest solo project Basilica on 4/15.

***


My knowledge of Ro went back to my days in St. Louis in 2004 - 2005. Beyond that the true origin is unclear. I was involved in Wash U’s radio station and stayed in the loop on the goings-on in the underground hip-hop scene. I also had a high school friend who went to Northwestern University. I was up on the Chicago City Limits mixtape Molemen Records dropped, and the mind-blowing lyricism and lofi sounds of Typical Cats. I peeped artists from Evanston label Gravel Records.


ferreal tho if this record isn't intimately familiar to you go listen to it now. I'll wait (I'm fucking serious)

And then one day I came across a crew called Division One, featuring Mic Logik and Roknew. I can’t remember whether they were on a label. I don't even remember the name of the album. I do remember having their CD in my disc carousel (remember that 6 cd changer!?!) for quite some time, and tuning a lot of my friends onto their music.


I became a fan, and this was back in a time when engagement with artists was basically not a thing.


Fast forward a few years, and I am back living in Chicago. I buy a ticket to see Blu & Exile at Subterranean, and am super excited to see not only a ton of Gravel artists on the bill, but also Division One. I was pumped.



I bet you still haven't listened to the Typical Cats record. Your loss. SERIOUSLY GO LISTEN TO IT!!!

I remember the show being great (or what I remember of it lol). Every act rocked it (I think there was even a Kenny Keys beat set?!) and I finally got to see all these acts I’d sort of built up in my head as the acts to see in Chicago in 2007-2009 (If I only knew all the artists I was sleeping on… yikes!)


Satisfied with a show well rocked, and gut full of the most/cheapest booze I could afford, I was ready to hobble down the stairs to SubT and start the hobbly journey back to my apartment. And in the stairwell I ran into Ro.


I can’t tell you a single topic we discussed, as we were both hammered, but I remember him being a super cool and high energy dude, and when I said I also rapped he dropped me his number and we connected.


Honestly, I was flabbergasted. Mainly because at that point I still hadn’t identified my social anxiety, but crowded hip-hop shows are massively overstimulating environments. But this was one of the dudes in Chicago (heh) and he wanted to connect! I’d later learn he was just a cool, regular ass dude. And also coincidentally right around the same time he moved to California (Where he still lives).


In a similarly strange coincidence, a few years later I booked a show at a DIY art space in Pilsen. One of the weirdest gigs of my career to date, the show was set up in a seemingly abandoned warehouse furnished with a series of store facades as if to emulate the outdoors, and we performed ‘in the street’ of this shanty town. Anyway one of the acts on the bill was the I.Deal and Mic Logik.


It was actually this gig where I met Chris (I.Deal) and Mike and connected more formally with the Chi-Native family (No relation to Native Stranger lol!). It was also at this gig that I found out that Mike, too, was an incredibly cool dude. (Chris too, obviously). As importantly, I didn’t just get to be impressed by Mike and Chris, I got to show them what I was capable of on the microphone.


A relationship built on mutual respect began that night, and has flourished into a close friendship. I.Deal and Mic were consummate promoters, and kindly invited me to rock several sets over the years even though I hadn’t written much new material.


Mike and I also bonded (and commiserated) over our seven-plus year hiatus between solo projects. Writer’s block is awful, and entirely part of the process. And we related to the struggle, but we also pushed and supported each other, and validated each other’s energy and effort on the mic. In the background (on the boards and in feature spots) was Ro, producing both Mike’s 2018 comeback record Overdue and my 2020 comeback record Bonsai.


I still count Ro, Chris, and Mike among my peers and friends, and it’s always wonderful to see them continue to push forward with their creative goals.

Their logo is DOPE AF too tho....

(Side note, I’ve gushed about Chi-Native on Facebook but Chi-Native is a perfect example of surrounding yourself with people you admire. They have always kept their head down and continued to push forward, and the results are unimpeachable. Keep on grinding you magnificent bastards!) https://www.facebook.com/ChiNativeEnt/


***

2020 was a productive year for Native Stranger Productions (if you’re just joining us).


Self-promotion method: Shameless

Ronesh was a huge inspiration and mentor in helping me tell my story with Bonsai, but also as I cut my teeth as a producer/engineer with Daywalkerz.


It isn’t often when a creative project comes together with barely any stress. Sure, we held each other accountable, and we had creative opinions that didn’t always align, but even those conversations were approached with respect and empathy.


The phrase “great minds think alike” sounds like it’s fit, but it’s really more “Like minds think alike” I think.


Ronesh and I went into the project understanding each other’s vision, because it was always the same vision.


And that conflict management is even easier if your producer is you.


Basilica has a few features, but this record is by, for, and about Ronesh. Like all solo projects should, Basilica is a timestamp of Ronesh’s life in the moment. No doubt this record was partially prompted as a reflection/inflection point on the eve of Ro becoming a new father. Major life shifts always prompt appropriate reflection.


It’s always a joy to witness growth first hand. It’s easy to just talk about it, but the doing is a rough slog. Because we grow incrementally.


We also invariably grow as a function of failure or adversity.


That adversity is often time.


We have a ticking clock and a finite window to make our mark on the world, and the more you obsess about the quality of your creativity the less you create. Which sucks. Because it happens to literally all artists, and it’s torture.


It’s also a joy to see those in your circle accomplish something, and Ronesh is a role model of ‘putting in the reps’.


One of the reasons Bonsai came to light is the result of Ro participating in a 30-day beat challenge and me finding intense and focused inspiration from a few of those rough drafts. (I actually paid him for the chance to record Library of Babel, demonstrating my earnest interest in collaborating more broadly on music together.)


Ronesh is a principled networker, and his features are always eye-popping. The single off his 2019 record Olive Branches featured venerable Freestyle Fellowship alum Myka 9, and the new single Little Bit of Light features veteran Chicago emcee and Psychodrama member Buk.


The beat on Little Bit of LIght is relaxed and funky, with an ambling bassline and a driving but downtempo boom bap beat dropping in the background. A languid flute melody is interspersed throughout the song.


The lyrics come in double-time, belying the calm mood established by the beat. Ronesh and Buk both honestly tackle depression head on. Both verses relate to the notion of it being difficult to get out of bed in the morning, but immediately juxtapose that thought with gratitude for another day of opening their eyes.


The song leans into therapeutic options, but more generally is trying to articulate that no matter how dark your feelings go there is always something to live for.


If this song helps even one person reflect on their own mental health issues then it’s been more than successful.


Of course that kind of change is hard.


I’ve been writing about the difficulty facing change indirectly for a while now (In fact the weekly blog exercise is my effort to change/grow as a writer and as someone wishing to monetize his voice now and in the future) but change isn’t just a discrete event.


Ro says it best himself, accenting a core concept I’ve heard repeated in the strategy meetings as well as in business school classrooms:


Change is the only constant

Evolution is the only option

Change the world? Gotta change the mindset

Looking for the words but they ain’t defined yet


The growth mindset is an important topic, and one I’ll touch on in later posts. Comfort with change and adaptability are critical human skills.


But Ro isn’t just talking about a growth mindset generally. In the very next bars he frames the changes in his own mindset (speaking to the timestamp of where his head’s at in 2021):


Pacifist but I’m thinkin’ bout violence

Militant but i’m thinkin’ bout peace

They ain’t never gave a damn about lives they ruin

What the hell would I be doing showing love to police?


Race against time clock ticking no doubt

I ain’t chasing no high I aint’ chasing no clout

Grown man put away childish things

Still putting in work for my wildest dreams


These bars do SO MUCH WORK. Our world is so chaotic right now, and there is a lot of violence, much of it actually perpetrated by the state.


We can often feel lost and flustered and unable to act in moments like this.

The answer is always in the grind.

Putting in work. Being nimble. Learning. But always dreaming.


I especially love in those last two quoted bars the juxtaposition of “childish things/wildest dreams”. The notion that our wildest dreams are NOT childish, in fact they are kind of all there is. What the hell else are we here for? What else are we working toward? It's validating but it's also a very practical look at reflection and taking honest stock of your goals.


Buk jumps in shortly after and his verse is so rhythmically rich and equally reflective. A few standout lines:


….Life is a beautiful gift that has been given to you so live it up

Key word given something you might want consider when you feel like giving up...


Then later in the verse:


Certainly these words can go over the heads of those that’s ducking the truth

Curtains be closing fast as burdens be holding you having you stuck in a loop

Go for yours get it all then come back and open the doors cuz it’s only right man

I never had too much to say when I do I just try to shed a little bit of light man…


My favorite insight with the last few bars is Buk’s connection not only to his own mental health but to the health of the broader community. Spreading the light and keeping the doors open for others to walk into it also necessary for your own mental health, and sometimes the most selfish act is to be generous. Not always a concept promoted in the “get mine” world of hip-hop, and also not a message conveyed with such matter-of-fact simplicity (wrapped in a ridiculously creative flow).


***


Fuckin' haven't listened to that Typical Cats yet.... sigh... seriously though....

I’ve obviously cheated, because I heard the whole record, but the quality is consistent throughout Basilica, and I actually can’t wait for you to hear the finished product in its entirety. In addition to the thoughtful reflection and skilled lyricism, the record fucking slaps.


Definitely go peep the single, and go support his record on Bandcamp. Then run up the streams on your favorite streaming website (secrets: support ALL your favorite artists this way).


Accept this screed not as a review but as a note of thanks to a legendary hip-hop artist, a great dude, and a soon-to-be-great father. Love you bro!


***


I truly had no idea what I was going to write about this week, and when I sat down I actually thought about talking about my journey as an artist.