By Nikki Delamotte
The asphalt gave off a heat in the post-meridian midsummer sun, the kind that beats onto the gravel of the open parking lot at 63rd and St. Clair that doubles as Muamin Collective’s stage; the kind that blasts onto the industrial garage doors them.
“We gonna do this next joint,” introduced Aaron “aLIVE” Snorton. “I got from my friend Bim Thomas.”
It was 2009 at Compound Fest, a month after they’d released World B. Free, and someone in the audience already calls out for “Grandiose,” cut nine.
“It was outside, right in the middle of the hood,” recalls Snorton four years later. “When we were coming up, we did a lot in the punk rock realm. And having those venues and having people be open to that kind of thing helped the scene here too. That’s street music.”
Before a recent show at Cleveland’s Now that Class, Muamin Collective’s Josiah “Zion” Quarles inhales a drag, the kind of drag that plays checks and balances to the energy of retelling a decade of history.
“Our biggest fans are people that come here,” says Snorton. He’s only a few feet away but he leans forward on the club’s makeshift wooden benches so you can hear his voice over the buzz of a shaky radiator. Quarles exhales.
They’ll go on sometime around midnight and a few songs in, Quarles will break into a moment of prose — “The ugly, the gutter, the beautiful,” he’ll chant — and someone in the back of the room will rally, shouting CLEVELAND. Moments of silence are rare at a hip-hop show; this happens to be one of them. And he’ll launch into “Inna City,” a song that, on the album version of So Blue It’s Black, features Lamont Bim Thomas.
Bim won’t be at the show; he’s headed to Austin for a gig with his band Obnox.
When Snorton isn’t DJing like he did the night before, when he isn’t waking up at 6 a.m. to ear train and plot chords like he was before meeting at the coffee shop, when he isn’t working with Quarles on Muamin projects like he will later that night, he’s collaborating with friends like Thomas. Chopping up Anthrax, Comets on Fire, Pere Ubu.
Snorton and Quarles first met at church camp when Snorton was 15, Quarles 14. Snorton had a Saul Williams book, Quarles happened to be into Williams at the time. It turned into tapping out beats with pencils against bunk beds, freestyling at night in the quarters. Snorton was the hip-hop aficionado, while Quarles was the son of a gospel singer tagging along to his mother’s choir rehearsals, sneaking tapes and learning the disciples of The Roots and Method Man from a willing older cousin every day before summer track practice.
“What I lacked in hip-hop cultural knowledge, I had excess in history, poetry, novels. I had people around me that were feeding me that. I looked at it literary, I looked at it Etheridge Knight, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alex Haley,” says Quarles. “I always came at it from a denser perspective. I’m really just starting to feel comfortable.”
Snorton had been making beats for two years by that summer, starting at 13, “when Wu-Tang first came out.” He would grow to love jazz, appreciate Art Blakey, Max Roach, Stanley Cowell, admire the younger New York scene of Robert Glasper, Roy Hargrove. It would lead to the instances that shined with a golden-brimmed nostalgia on World B. Free and went on to offer shades of melancholy and somber on So Blue It’s Black – the hazy backbeats of “What’s the Use,” the spacey percussion of “Capital Gains.”
“That ideology of African music in the sense of purposefulness,” says Snorton of Black. “We wanted something that was going to last.”
Muamin began collaborating with live bands, performing with musicians such as Neil Chastain.
Quarles speaks of collectives like the Soulquarians, the late ‘90s alt-hip-hop montage of artists like Questlove, Erykah Badu, Common, and Snorton’s hero Hargrove, whose work was steeped in arrangements.
“There’s something about instrumentation, something in the tone, in the vibration, that speaks in a certain kind of way. The root of hip-hop was always about this record, and these sounds, and making something new and fresh but not discounting what was already there. I always gravitated towards that. There’s a certain kind of soul,” Quarles says. “There’s something about a guitar, there’s something about a trumpet, there’s something about a violin. It’s human and I always want that to be central. Going back and forth, creating beats from sampled chops of live instruments and then reinterpreting the beats created with live instruments, that’s the kind of synthesis the ethic of hip-hop is all about.”
Over the years, Snorton and Quarles spent late nights working at the old MODA night club, taking side jobs while they created music together.
“Josiah’s writing is just so vivid, so descriptive,” Snorton starts to sing a hushed version of the hook of “Inna City” across the table. “Where the sun shines for three months a year / most nights are like reruns of Cheers. Everyone I know in Cleveland can relate to that. That’s the one thing Josiah can do. For a long time, us just trying to stay artists, we took a lot of odd jobs, making certain sacrifices. And Josiah, he’s that guys that always has three jobs. That’s why he can get over to the next person, just relate to anyone. Here’s right in there, that Cleveland blue collar mentality.”
Snorton points west, toward the door, mapping out where an underground space called Cleveland is Dying once stood. At West 98th and Lorain, an old, unused storefront was converted to a space that Snorton describes as a co-op. Four DJs, two beat makers, turntables everywhere; where the city’s hip-hop experimentalists and new kids alike could come to test the waters.
“Seeing Keyel and those guys, from that initial interest in hip-hop to now seeing how they came up, they actually started a movement. There’s a whole clique of kids that are just gravitating towards them,” says Snorton. “And it’s cool, now cats like Keyel and other heads around here can come out and feel relaxed and not feel like they have to do this radio bullshit. They can actually be themselves, be artists.”
The play to a wall-to-wall audience at Now That’s Class. In the morning, Snorton might wake up at 6 a.m. and scour records. Quarles might continue his progeny of poetry, penning their next album, one tentatively titled Race Music.
“When I started writing, everything was very black and white to me. And I’ve gotten wiser; I realize it’s not exactly the case. But there are still things in your gut that are horrible. There are still things that give you shivers down your spine,” says Quarles. “I have, over the course of time, made my politics more personal. A lot of time you feel you’re preaching to the choir. Everybody who wants to hear that, comes to hear that. The people who you might want to hear that, aren’t going to listen to you. You have to find your own way to say the things you want, to say things in a way that gets heard.”
The following article was first published in Cellar Door Cleveland on August 16, 2013.