NOTE: The following Q&A was conducted by Roy Ghim. He’s been instrumental in getting together the movie portion of Saturday night’s Block Party at the 200 East Art Haus. It should also be noted that he filmed the above video. If we could link to something of his right now, we would, but unfortunately, we have no idea what he would want us to link to. Either way, thanks Roy!
Retro/Ricole Barnes will perform this Saturday as part of our Block Party at the 200 East Art Haus. We recently caught up with him via text messages (yes, that’s true) to talk about his latest LP, “Mr. Sunrise,” some of the rapper’s influences, and the current state of Frederick hip-hop. To lean more about Saturday’s event, click here.
First off, big things are going on right now with you. You recently dropped a new LP, “Mr Sunrise.” Honestly, it’s a jaw-dropping album. It’s been on constant repeat at my house (and that’s a difficult feat to accomplish). You’ve been called up to perform at the Block Party at the 200 East Art Haus on Saturday. What strikes me about the album – not only does it flow, words/music, all that … it comes down to the music. It is SO dense, in a real good way. What’s your process with conceptualizing and laying that all down on record?
I really appreciate you taking the time to listen and in turn, listen again. It’s really fulfilling when I exceed expectations. I treated the production alone of “Mr. Sunrise” (all beats used from Chicago MC/Producer Chuck Inglish’s Instrumental mixtapes “WRKG” and “WRKOUT”) as if they were assignments. I listened to each for the entire summer of 2013 before even writing a lyric. I wrote lyrics to them for the first time that winter, and then finally recorded in the spring of 2014. Not until I was satisfied with the mixing (thanks Sacrifice!) did I want to release it – which was an entire year later. So as you see, my process was rather lengthy (laughs). I envisioned the LP having a certain sonic, visual and social effect. When all those things finally came together, it was time to release it to the public.
You and I talked a month ago about the timing of releasing the record. You said at the time, this felt like a “summer record’ and it was important contextually to drop music on people with the right climate. By the way, you just might be the first “climate aware” hip hop artist in history.
Wow, you might be right on the “climate awareness” tag (laughs)! I felt “Mr. Sunrise” couldn’t be experienced properly in pea coats and corduroys. Hell, the cover art is yellow. Certain colors and sonics just sound better in certain climates. I believed the sound and presentation wouldn’t heighten the listener’s senses in the dead of February. I released it on my birthday, May 8 – the music sounded like an 80 degree afternoon into the evening. It was only right for me that warm weather be correlated with the songs.
“Mr. Barnes, you got the whole world ahead of you,” is a lyric on the record – words spoken in transition to the second track, “Maryland ’02.” Is that an older, wiser you going back in a time machine speaking to a younger version of Ricole?
I’m speaking to the younger me and the listener at the same time. “Had I knew then what I know now.” I’m just speaking on how it’s never too late to start living and winning at life, no matter what mistakes were make in the past.
Words of wisdom. So the third track, “Out Here Causing Trouble,” with Passport on board with you, there’s trouble allegedly being roused. What grabs me is this descending melody in the middle of it. It makes it so outstanding. When you say it took you a long time beginning in 2013 to process and do this album, I can believe it. It leads me to segue back to our conversation a month ago where you were namedropping Thundercat and Flying Lotus – that’s some heavy duty musical forces right there. I have to believe listening to some of that wild creativity subconsciously made its way onto the creation of this album?
“Out Here Causing Trouble” is exactly what it felt like: Two children misbehaving on a rap record. Passport’s flow on this one is flawless to me. At the current moment, L.A.-based producers/musicians like Thundercat, Fly Lo, Terrace Martin, Tyler the Creator, Dr. Dre, etc. have been creating the most invigorating hip-hop music of the last couple of years. They all inspired me somehow during the making. I harmonize a lot on the album. I was listening heavy to the Beatles at the time, believe it or not. I always loved their harmonies on songs like “Girl” and “Because,” and for years wanted to incorporate more harmony into my brand of hip hop because of that music.
Oh yeah, I detected some hints of Marvin Gaye on your first track, “Up,” with the whispers of “get up, get up” in the backdrop.
Indeed! Any musical reference to the ’60s, ’70s music era was an ode to my late grandfather who passed away last year. He loved that music.
I have to then go back into that time machine to 2010 when you recorded “Passion Park.” That first track, “Another Eagle (Knowledge remix)” reminds me of some interesting things Mos Def and Talib Kweli were doing with their restart of Blackstar – juxtaposition of the musically rich past with the future present, but the listener comes away with something that resonates on different levels. Describe your thoughts on that version of Ricole. And is there some kind of creative tension when you pit Retro with Ricole? Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe they play well with each other?
Yes, I’m glad you asked that question. The “Passion Park”-era version of me was all about bringing a golden era style delivery to modern day ears. I’ll take a Mos and Kweli comparison any day, by the way! I have two names for a reason. There definitely is tension between the two worlds. With “Mr. Sunrise,” I finally merged them together, which took years to do.
Talk about your last track “Down,” you got collaborators with you – Cubs the Poet with a spoken word piece that brilliantly snaps the puzzle together, followed by Sacrifice and Jade Hurdato kicking things to another gear to conclude things.
Yeah, “Down” was the perfect album closer to me. I wanted to shine some light on two of my brightest friends and collaborators in Cubs and Sacrifice. I wanted to start the track offering enlightenment but couldn’t think of two better artists. The crazy thing is that Jade Hurdato’s vocals were already included in the instrumental, which was pretty dope! The song assures friends that we won’t look down on you if you try.
Talk about the state of hip-hop in Frederick, circa 2015. Honestly, as someone relatively new here, quality hip-hop is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Frederick. But this album (and coming across J Berd’s material) has forced me to take notice and wonder what I’ve been missing in terms of the music scene here, particularly hip-hop in this city.
The state of hip-hop in the city is pretty interesting. I can honestly say it’s a reflection of the bigger state of just hip-hop in general. I’ve been fortunate enough to build relationships with local hip-hop artists throughout the city over the years. I’d like to think I played a part in opening doors for the “powers that be” to be more accepting of a genre and culture they may know little about. PassPort and I originated from a group named Center of Attention [later changing our name to Razor Eaterz]. We were lucky to come of age in the MySpace era. By way of social media, I’d like to say we helped to create an awareness locally. Even before that, J-Berd and his team were making moves. I agree when you think of Frederick – hip-hop never even crosses the mind upon first impression. However, my mission from day one was to change that perception. I’ve been fortunate to headline major festivals in the city and share stages with other local artists in different genres.
You must be looking forward to September 5 with the Block Party at 200 East Art Haus and before that, a film screening of “Ex Machina.” There’s some incredibly fun chaos afoot all day. You’ve seen the place, right? I never thought we’d see a venue like this popping up like – it’s like a bona fide club. For your set, what can we expect? Some interesting onstage collaborations?
In regards to September 5, I’m happy to just be a part of history in a sense. I’m a product of the arts in Frederick, a kid that grew up in the city, had friends from all walks of life, dabbled in all forms of art, bundled it up into what you see and hear today. I know I can speak for my peers when I say that 200 East is a dream fulfilled! I would go to 9:30 club in D.C. and Sonar in Baltimore and just envy. “Why couldn’t such a celebrated arts city like ours not have a place for musicians and visual artists to call our own?” I thought this for years. I visited 200 East for the first time last month and was moved, like really. I have a mean show planned for the Block Party. Live shows mean a great deal to me – you’ll see! I don’t want to reveal too much now (laughs).