Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fear the Poet: An Interview with Gel Roc

Gel Kevorkian

    Gel Roc of EX2, Massmen and The Cloaks has a voice that is instantly recognizable to anyone who is a fan of the Project Blowed movement. He has contributed numerous verses to projects by the Blowed alumni and his collaborations read like a list of who's who when it comes to independent west coast hip-hop. Whether he's recording with EX2, working with longtime collaborators AWOL One and Mascaria, or dropping a guest verse, Gel is always putting in work, effectively documenting L.A.'s underground scene. Gel took some time to chop it up with me about his early years as a b-boy and graffiti artist, the formation of EX2, his work with AWOL, Mascaria, Joe Dub and Xczircles, The Cloaks project and the latest EX2 record, Common Thread.

Could you talk about your earliest experiences with hip-hop and graffiti? What inspired you to start making music?

    Yeah, man. I started getting into music because of a lot of my family influences. My parents were heavily into music. I started collecting records at an early age, going through my mom's record collection, and I had uncles who were in bands, so music was an influence early on. Later I got into break dancing and then I went through the skateboarding phase. So hip-hop, early on, poppin', break dancing, skating, that eventually led into high school and graffiti. I hung out with a bunch of the homies that were already up on game. Eventually everybody turned out to be the crew that I'm still runnin' with twenty two odd years later, Life Seen Differently heads.

That would be the LSD crew? Can you talk about your connection with them and your experiences with graffiti?

   In high school, it started out with a bunch of homies that were from BK, which was Beyond Kings, out of La Mirada, Whittier. And also TB, Trouble is Back. Then there was LSD. Back then, a gang of homies were all part of different crews. I started out writing Reins with TB, then eventually got into BK, and then BK kind of migrated into LSD. So it was this natural evolution of all the homies who had different little clicks and the serious mainstays eventually became LSD heads over time. It was the established crew you graduated to. So there's different generations of the L. It started in 1989. It was BAS, Bombin' All Suckas and in '91 it officially became Leavin' Suckas Dead. So there's a lot of history with the crew. It's hard to do it justice in a brief interview but a good reference of our roots can be found in the book The History of Los Angeles Graffiti Art, Vol. 1. The experiences and wild ass trials are well documented. Nowadays, the collective is still pushing pretty tough with new blood and some vets still active in the streets. I get out and paint yards and walls when the crew gets together for meetings and shit.

So that's how you connected with AWOL? Through graffiti?

Yeah, that's the origins, but actually, me and AWOL, Roach, Deeskee and others have ties from the party crew days too. AWOL used to DJ. Vyrus from EX2 was part of a party crew. Me and a couple homies from LSD were from the party crew scene. So we actually knew each other from all of that, as well as the graffiti world. Tony kept doing his thing and started recording demos out of his parent's spot in Whittier. Eventually I got brought back into the loop through music. Next thing you know, we were recording Noise in the mid-90s. After that, I just kept writing with EX2 and started hanging out with [AWOL] all the time. Because before, back in the graffiti days, I was always freestyling with everybody. Everybody always knew I was into hip-hop back then. I was always freestyling and shit, but I never took it serious because I didn't have any way to record. When I got the opportunity to record with Tony, I started doing as much as I possibly could and that's pretty much how it got down, you know?

I'm glad you mentioned freestyling, because I always thought it was cool that you freestyled so many verses on the EX2 records. So that's something you've been doing since the beginning?

    Yeah, man. I'm kinda moody, so I write a lot of shit but a lot of stuff that I do is on the spot. I write a lot on the spot. It depends on who I'm writing with. If I'm dialing something in that's real super focused, like with EX2, or I'm just amongst some really good writers - there's a time and place for everything. Sometimes, back in the day, with EX2, we'd get into sessions and I would stay on that freestyle mode and I always liked to do the least amount of takes as possible. Whether it's combining a written or kicking a freestyle. I've done that throughout my whole career and there's probably freestyles on every project I've put out, including the new EX2. Me and Regret have a freestyle song on the new EX2 and I know I have some other freestyle verses as well. It's just how I get down, but obviously inspired by the Blowed.

One of the things I wanted to ask you, with your work with Mascaria on The Void project, or your work with Xczircles on Beautiful Tragedy, it sounds to me like maybe the subject matter is inspired by the production. Like, on Beautiful Tragedy, the beats are kind of somber and reflective, and you were really introspective on that album, whereas on The Void, the production was more spacey and psychedelic, which seemed to inspire the lyrics. Would you say the lyrics were inspired by the production or is it the other way around?

    It's a little bit of both, but yeah, the production is definitely what inspired a lot of these projects. Going into The Void - Mascaria is a super creative type and definitely on some dark, sinister production and I think The Void really displays his personality. So it was more of a challenge for me to do a record with him on that level and really get deep into character. So yeah, production definitely drives a lot of what I do and I know exactly how a project is gonna sound based on the producer that I'm working with. Like, the Joe Dub record was a little bit more reality based.

And that's Mascaria rapping with you on The Void, right?

    Yeah, he did all the production and he rapped with me on that as well. He didn't really rap on the Laws & Flaws album, which is another one he produced. So we just kept building - we had some good momentum - and he wanted to do more rapping at that time so The Void was a good venue for him to do that.  You know, we pushed The Void out, which is a project I'm really proud of.

Can you talk about how you hooked up with EX2?

    I remember hanging out with AWOL and he invited me to the Brainfish. The Brainfish was a local show he was throwing. And I remember seeing Syndrome and Vyrus serving some fools from the east coast and I was like, "Oh, those fools are dope!" We just kept hanging out and eventually we ended up recording at AWOL's spot, like I mentioned, for some of those early projects. Vyrus was instantly, like, "Yo, Gel is on the roll call, for sure." We just clicked out the gate and the rest is history, but I ended up just hanging out with everybody and just ran with it. I've always been the type that had a lot of drive and didn't want to waste a lot of time. I always tried to document everything and recognized that we were doing something special. I just knew everybody around me was super talented. From the graffiti world, from the hip-hop world. So to me, it was like, we gotta get as much recording in as we can. So that was, sort of, my role, to make sure everything was legitimized. I just recognized what was going on in the scene. Things were starting to kick off. It was a special time. The L.A. underground scene was thriving and I didn't want it to be for nothing. I was always trying to get everything recorded and trying to put a vision behind everything. That's how a lot of the projects got put together. I just wanted to make sure everything was driven behind where we're from and just reppin' the town and whatnot.

Sirk did some production for the first few EX2 releases, but has he been involved behind the scenes on all the EX2 albums? What is his role when he's not providing beats?

    Yeah, Sirk has always been the Abolano Records label head. He used to do his own thing. He used to put out little mixtape compilations with other local emcees. I think he had one of the Black Eyed Peas on a tape he did back then. When EX2 hooked up with Sirk, he recognized us from the Three Eyed Cowz tape. That was prior to Undersounds, which is the first album we started recording. And he became accessible to us with a dope studio and we were like, "Cool! Now we have a legitimate studio where we can record, vibe out." He basically built Abolano Records around us at that time. He had the means and he became that person that was doing the production, doing all the graphics work - I would bring all the pieces from LSD heads, like Pang One, and he would put it all together. He was the one who really brought it all together. I would give him all the ideas and Sirk was always the one that was the real driver behind the label and made sure everything came out with the visuals that we needed to do for what we did, man. He's still behind everything that we're doing today. He's a big part of EX2, history and present.

You mentioned Three Eyed Cowz. I personally love Noise and The Evil Cow Burger and I know they're now considered underground classics. Do you have any memories you could share about the recording of those projects?

    We did most of the recording at AWOL's home studio. The biggest memory I have of recording Three Eyed Cowz was driving to San Francisco to work with Tommy V and doing one of those songs with Tommy V, Rashinel, AWOL, myself. That was probably the biggest memory I have, being out in Frisco and meeting up with, like, Global Phlowtations and doing all kinds of stuff out there. That was all the old school stuff.

EX2 lyrics always had a strong battle edge. Is that something you were into prior to the Blowed or was that inspired by your experiences there?

    We already had that mentality from backyard parties, testing local emcees and bagging sessions that led to us battling each other for fun. We made sure our presence was felt at open mics, no doubt. And yes, we definitely went to the Blowed and had our fair share of experiences, for sure. That was a true battle ground back then.

    I think one of our first battles with Blowed heads was us and Kali 9, with Khynky Rhead, Slant and Puzoozoo Watt, but that one didn't start at the Blowed. There's a lot of stories and memories. Some of that shit kept on until we battled side-by-side at a B-Boy Summit in San Diego in some 310 vs. 619 ciphers. Those were some of the best times, man. I remember one year we traveled to Cincinnati to Scribble Jam, the year Undersounds of the 562 dropped. We ciphered and battled out of state heads that I won't mention, but are household names today that may surprise you. We didn't do shit in the actual Scribble Jam battle though. We were away from home and partying [laughs]. I'm pretty sure I was the only person that entered but I was on a good one and jumped on the mic when they called someone else up who lagged getting to the stage. I blew my shot to place because they knew I wasn't that person. May have been the year Sage Francis won it. Don't recall exactly.

I know you were part of Massmen. Was there a connection with Massive? Is that where the Mass from Massmen comes from?

    No, they're independent of each other, but Massive, he's family. He was always producing along with Fat Jack. I think that just happened to be more of a coincidence. Unless there's some history I'm not aware of. Massive was actually the vocals in the background on "Slow Lights." I don't know if a lot of people know that. But he was the guy doing the car jacking in the background of that song. His ties with Massmen are tight. He produced some of the early EX2 stuff and was a mentor to some degree. He took us and Roach under his wing and would come around with beats and shit to work on.

One of my favourite tracks you've done was "Dead Poets" with Existereo, produced by Longevity. Do you have any memories recording that?

    Existereo was working on that first album, Dirty Deeds & Dead Flowers. Him and Longevity invited me over. Longevity was making a lot of beats at that time at Deeskee's house, where him and 2Mex and Subtitle were living at the time. They had that slammin' ass beat and we came up with the chorus on the spot and we knocked that song out. That's a personal favourite of mine as well. Longevity's got dope beats. He's definitely someone that's in my line of sight that I need to build with. Everything comes together over time, you know?

EX2 took a bit of a hiatus after Nemesis. Did you record Laws & Flaws to fill in the gap or did you always have plans to do solo albums alongside the EX2 projects?

    Yeah, I just kept pushing and doing as much as possible. Solo shit was just the natural next step for me. For the last few years I've been working on multiple albums at one time, group works and other projects on my own. I really just like working with different people to see where I can push boundaries, trying to hit different audiences with different production.

You seem like you're connected everybody and have done some great posse cuts, one of my favourites being "Cease to Amaze." You had guys like Tommy V and Zagu Brown, who weren't really releasing too much around that time. Can you talk about bringing everybody together for that track?

    "Cease to Amaze", on Laws & Flaws, you know, I was always at the Blowed. I was everywhere where there was a hip-hop show in L.A. There were just too many people to do individual songs with everybody. I was the kinda dude who was trying to connect and do songs with everybody, like, "Let's do a song." So, you know, if I didn't have time to do a song with everybody, it'd be like, "Ok, let me do a song with Tommy V and Zagu and 2Mex and L'Roneous, etc." So that's how I view posse cuts. It's trying to get as many homies on a song, who I didn't get a chance to work with, and keep this documented. The underground hip-hop scene in L.A., and even abroad and beyond L.A., it's history now. So I'm always trying to work with as many people as I can, people I respect and want to hear music from.

Speaking of beyond L.A., you recently did a project with TDM out of Virginia, called The Element Tree. Can you talk about how that project came about?

    Tree Dust Muir is Ovate, Abomination, Toobz, who does artwork and vocals, and Rezult, who does production as well. That really started with Vyrus. He moved from Whittier to Atlanta, I think in 2006, 2007, and he hooked up with Tree Dusk Muir. They started doing production for his album, Silent Kaos. Before that album came out, we hooked up with those guys and I'd go out to Atlanta to work with Vyrus. So basically, I was out there maybe once a month, in Virginia, and we ended up getting that whole album done in, like, four months. That album was a collection of songs that Vyrus and I did with TDM around the time that Silent Kaos was recorded.

You had a low key project with Joe Dub recently. I really love that project, and I think Joe Dub really captures the 80s with his beats. Can you talk about that album and explain the name From the Vault?

    Yeah, that album was actually started quite some time ago. I recorded, like, three, four songs back in 2005, 2006. When I was out in Hawaii, I visited Joe and he gave me a bunch of those beats. So I recorded a few of those songs over the next year. And in the last, I don't know, four years, I went back and grabbed those beats and started to flush out that project. But I always felt like it was an older identity. Even Joe, I think, today, would be like, "I love this project, but let's do something current." So when it came out, I was like, "Ok, it's all revised, remixed and remastered. We'll put it out, but let's call it From the Vault." So it was old to me, but new to the world when we dropped it last year. I dropped it low key because I didn't feel like it was the most current project. But all the close homies around me, they really dug it. So I like that it came together the way that it did.

It was cool that you had J-Smoov on there because there isn't that much material by him out there.

    Yeah, and J-Smoov was one of those guys I was always saying, "Yo, we gotta do something!" So that was an opportune moment to do that. I was recording a great deal with Self Jupiter from Freestyle Fellowship, and J-Smoov popped in mind, to do that song with him and Jupiter. So that's how that came about.

Can you talk about recording the Beautiful Tragedy album, and how it came about?

    Beautiful Tragedy, I got a chance to hook up with Xczircles. At the time, I thought he had some really dope production. I don't know if people realize how dope he is. The production he was doing, along with where I was, recording in my own studio, was a good time to capture a lot of progressive song writing on my own, in between EX2 projects. I felt that album was really reflective of where I was at, at the time. There's a lot of substance and growth in that album. I felt more matured as an artist during the writing of that record. It was also dope to get my old school homie DJ Drez to do all the cuts on that one. I'm real proud of that record.

And you had another beast of a posse cut on there, with Longevity and... Shit, I can't even remember who else. You had like twenty emcees on there.

    See, I forgot I even had Longevity on that one! Zagu, again, was on that album. Mestizo. You know, I just try to build as much as I possibly can, man. There's a lot of dope emcees out here, so whenever I get a chance I'm always trying to work with people and keep building.

So obviously you've done a lot of work with AWOL over the years, and you guys go way back. You had the Life After Death mixtape a while back, but can you talk about what was behind the decision to do a project now and what inspired The Cloaks project?

    Well, we had done so much work over the years. We've just been really down homies. We were always kickin' it and doing songs and features together and we felt it was well overdue for us to do a project together. So we did that Life After Death mixtape as a sort of precursor to this album. And we started working with Awkward. He just seemed like one of the dopest producers to fuck with on some current shit. But at the same time, we knew we'd go through the beat selection and find something that we thought was reminiscent of where we started, but just extremely current. That was the whole purpose, really, to work with someone who was really progressive with the production. Two, three songs in, we didn't even really have a name for the album, and then one day Tony called me and said, "Yo, I got it!... The Cloaks." And, you know, the way me and him work, songs get started off text message jokes and bullshitting on phone conversations. That's how things take life for us, when we're building. Songs could just be us sitting in a room, talking shit, and then, boom, we start writing. So The Cloaks was just this impromptu idea that he had and next thing you know, I was turning out a verse and he was like, "Oh shit! This is it." And then the whole thing, the concept, just fell in line and started taking structure and took a life of it's own. The identity became, "Fuck all these selfie taking social media rappers. Let's do something that pushes anonymity and is different than what anyone is doing.

And you guys really put effort into making cool packaging, and unique merch, like the action figures. Is all that stuff still available?

    The vinyl is still available, I think we have a few CDs left but we sold out a lot of the merch. The Cloaksmen are all sold. But yeah, man, The Cloaks, the packaging, it was just Abolano Records putting out good projects that the fans and supporters can depend on. From the LMNTL Work EP, to Undersounds, to Nemesis, to Resurgence, all those records, we feel really good about the artwork and we feel like we set a precedent for what the artwork should be, including The Cloaks, which came out on Abolano Records. From Resurgence and Beautiful Tragedy, we take a lot of pride in that. And that comes from a lot of the graff heads I work with, in my crew, and the likes of Ghostshrimp and Albane Simon who is responsible for The Cloaks layout and imagery, but Sirk dials all of that stuff in behind the scenes to maintain the vision that I keep feeding him, like, "It's gotta look like this. It's gotta sound like this." He does all that stuff. So currently, he's wrapping up the new EX2 album, Common Thread.

I thought it was great that you got Gonjasufi to rap on the album because everybody focuses on his singing, but I always liked his rhymes!

    To be honest, I thought he was gonna sing on that song! But he just turned it around and spit a rap. I met him back on Pepsi on the Record, when he just went by Sumach. I think that really had to do with our roots because when I reconnected with him for The Cloaks, that was our frame of reference, rapping in San Francisco, when we were younger. So full circle, even though he's established himself more as a singer, I think he just kept it exactly where we started and that was super dope 'cause he just did that verse and I was super hype!

Are you guys planning on doing a second Cloaks record?

    Yeah, we've actually already started the second Cloaks record. We're about three, four songs in. We're still collecting beats for that project. That'll probably get released in spring of 2016. Awkward is still a producer.

He's from the U.K., right?

    Yup, Awkward is from the United Kingdom. He does music with a lot of people out here and we just had an opportunity to do The Cloaks project with him, and we just wanna keep things going. We're real happy with The Cloaks and all the homies that supported it, so we got that next project in the chamber.

So you mentioned the new EX2. That's being produced by Xczircles...

    The new EX2 project is produced by four different producers. Xczircles does about a third of it. Calm, from LSD, does about a third of it, and Boise from CBS does a third of it. And there's one song produced by Leineken. So technically it's three primary producers, which really brought together a cohesive sound. And the Leineken track, it was sort of an impetus to the whole album. I had been doing some solo touring and Digit was with me. We went to Frisco with Tommy V, and we hooked up with the homie Haez, did a random song and then we were like, "Ok, this is the start of the new EX2 project." Tommy V and Haez are on the new project. The rest of the project we recorded at my studio, here in Whittier.

So what can people expect from the new EX2, in terms of the sound?

    The new record sounds like some 2015 EX2 shit. It's got Tommy V, AWOL, Origin. It's got a posse cut with Ellay Khule, Existereo, Subtitle, Escape Artists with Zxcircles and Aamir, NGAFSH, Riddlore?, you know, all these heads are on this album. This album is pretty much headed up by Regret, Digit6 and myself - and, of course, Vyrus is on the record as well - and then those features and guest appearances bring it full circle. But it sounds like some traditional EX2, but 2015 vibe, so we're really proud of the record. We accomplished what we set out to do. It's 17 songs deep. The production is dark, like you'd expect from an EX2 project but definitely some bangin' underground hip-hop. And it's got cuts all throughout the record by Otek and Roach the DJ. Deeskee did the mixing and mastering on the album. So it's got that EX2, La2thebay feel to it. It sounds real traditional, from our camp.

    We're real proud of this record, mainly because Digit was locked up for most of the 2000's, so he missed from Nemesis to Resurgence. So to get him back in the mix, full circle, he really crushes this whole album, you know, getting a lot off his chest and saying a lot of stuff he's been wanting to say over the past two records that he missed out on. So I'm excited for him and for all of our fans to hear this new record, especially with him in the mix.

So other than The Cloaks and the new EX2, do you have any other projects in the works?

    Yeah, I'm also working on an album with Megabusive. It's called Hip-Hop Against the World. It's produced by Megabusive and he raps on there with me. It's currently being mixed by Deeskee. It's probably three quarters of the way done. That'll probably drop in 2016 as well. I'm excited to get that out and let people check it out. Beyond that, I have multiple projects that I'm working on. I have another album with Avatar that features The Shape Shifters and Onry Ozzborn. There's individual songs with everybody from EX2, Acid Reign, Neila. It's just an opportunity to build with everybody from Project Blowed and Los Angeles and keep everything movin'.

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