Interview: STL GLD trade in bleary-eyed optimism for devastating realism

The last time I caught up STL GLD was three years ago, when the Boston duo released their debut album, My Monday Morning Music. The project, which was surging with both a deep reverence of traditional hip-hop and an aptness for creative exploration, set the bar considerably high for musicians who just started to find their footing together. The pair, comprised of legendary Boston rapper Moe Pope and renowned producer The Arcitype (né Janos Fulos), weren’t just content to conduct the interview — they were ecstatic. My Monday Morning Music received notable acclaim and the artists couldn’t wait to share the videos from the record that they were working on. This time around, though, there is a palpable heaviness when we meet to discuss their sophomore effort, Torch Song, an album full of songs that are just as explosive as the title implies.

Pope’s meticulous lyricism still remains his steadfast trademark. He uses his skills strategically and unapologetically; he’s traded in his bleary-eyed optimism for devastating realism. With cameos from Dutch Rebelle, Avenue, Latrell James, and Spnda, Torch Song bravely tackles perilous subject matter like inter/intraracial community violence, poverty, and police brutality. The beats used on the album are as dangerous and cerebral as the bars themselves. Naturally, this intensity trickles down to this interview.

As STL GLD and I nestle in a dimly lit booth inside of State Park a few hours before a fundraiser they were hosting (all proceeds went directly to the Cambridge based youth program Hip Hop Transformation), we discuss a slew of topics—starting with Pope’s open letter to the New England Music Awards, posted via Facebook last week, that called out their perceived exclusion of black artists at this year’s ceremony. From there, we eventually worked our way down to why making Torch Song was so life changing. It all sets the tone for STL GLD’s upcoming live performance this Saturday at Sonia in Cambridge, and their matinée show at Hojoko in Fenway on June 17.

Candace McDuffie: Moe, let’s just jump into your statement regarding the New England Music Awards. You addressed the elimination of blackness in the categories — including how jazz, R&B, and rap were completely left out. What was the catalyst for writing that?

Moe Pope: First and foremost, I’ve been speaking out on a lot of things. This is just another thing I had to speak out on. I saw a friend’s post — Lisa Finelli of Xperience Creative — who addressed the issue on Facebook. I asked to speak to NEMA co-founder and producer Joe Graham about the lack of diversity and he refused to respond to me after I hit him up twice. He did respond to her, though, strangely enough. I also left a couple of messages on the New England Music Awards page. They posted a recap photo thanking everyone and someone commented “What a great job this year — you guys nailed it!” I was like nailed what? No hip-hop, no thank you.

Arcitype: There was a dialogue on the New England Music Awards page about the categories this year, but it’s been deleted. The only response we got was “Did you offer anybody for nomination?” I replied that I didn’t even know it existed, and as soon I typed that the whole post was erased. So I called Moe and told him.

Moe Pope: After speaking with Arc and Lisa, I decided to make a statement that night. It was just my feelings about the whole situation and I’m glad that it got the response that it did. I hope people read through the lines here…

I was thinking about that too, on a larger scale. Hip-hop culture, which is black culture, and the nonchalant erasure of it…

Moe Pope: We are seen as less than, all the way around. From the music down to our skin color. We are opening shows that we should not be opening because we are better than [certain headlining artists]. We know that. But we are being treated like we should just be happy we’re here. Unfortunately, most people don’t get those opportunities. I have it better than some and I know that. The thing is: If you’re consistently good you should get those looks. Not for nothing, Dutch [Rebelle] is consistently good. We are consistently good. I’m not going to stand for just being happy to be at the table. It’s just unfair. Hopefully, after all of this, groups coming up in the next four or five years won’t know about these conversations. They’ll be getting nominated and recognized. This isn’t about just having a strong opinion — this music is keeping people alive.

Arcitype: The other thing that was interesting to me was watching other artists respond to Moe’s statement, which were for the most part extremely favorable and supportive. Ironically, Joe’s statement never took any real ownership. It actually put the blame on the artist’s shoulders. So essentially, it’s Moe’s fault that there wasn’t a category represented for the music that he makes? “Did you guys partake in the admissions process?” It’s just insane.

Moe Pope: And nobody’s noticing — that’s the funny part about it. No one noticed that there were no black people in the room. It was no big deal — everyday shit. That’s what frustrating… that no one cares. White people are all too happy to be on their segregation —

Arcitype: And pat each other on the back about it!

Moe Pope: “We’re not racist! We voted for Obama!” But then you have these shows and occurrences when we’re not being invited. We are not being taken seriously in any way, shape, or form. And there aren’t many musicians in the city who don’t have love for black artists. In Boston, I’ve seen various rock bands get all types of acclaim, but we’ve sold more records than them. Yet we don’t get played in the same places. Twenty years of making music, I’ve had all the local awards, I’ve been in every publication. But for some reason, I’m not afforded the same opportunities. And this is addressed on Torch Song — brown people are speaking out more than ever. That’s what needs to happen; we won’t accept not being in the room.

It’s funny how you hit the mark with topics like these on Torch Song. You talk about racism and poverty and oppression. You talk about how black people have always suffered and continue to suffer. But essentially, those themes will always need to be addressed.

Moe Pope: Where is your post about Eric Garner dying? Where is your post about us dying? If you can post about your new hair salon or your favorite TV show, why can’t you post about us dying? I’ve lost a lot of friends this year as well as family — it’s a complicated thing. I know for a fact that no one in this whole city did a record like ours. Nobody. And I know for a fact that not everyone listened to it even though they knew it was there. They should have. That’s the record that you need to hear. If you’re so eager to talk about how destructive black people can be to themselves, why would you not talk about a record that discusses how we can better ourselves, how we can come together, where the problem lies, and how we can move forward? Even Vanyaland dubbed “Wild Style” as paranoid — but it’s not paranoia: It’s facts. That’s what’s happening in the world. We are being killed and nobody cares.

“I’m not afforded the same opportunities. And this is addressed on Torch Song — brown people are speaking out more than ever. That’s what needs to happen; we won’t accept not being in the room.” — Moe Pope

People are so quick to label hip-hop and rap as misogynistic and violent, but then they won’t play a record like Torch Song because there’s a lot to unpack. You need to spend time with it… it’s not a quick listen. You have to digest the record, so I think that has something to do with its reception.

Arcitype: We’re trying to grab the attention of an ADD culture and have them sit down for an hour. Like listen, really listen. The album is… a lot to unpack is really the right way to put it. Moe’s pretty straightforward with what he means on this record. You can hear his message right off the bat. It’s also diverse in its sound and presentation. And it’s a message that really needs to be heard, digested, and processed. But our approach is similar to artists like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley: We like to draw you in using the music and have the message for you once you’re there.

Moe Pope: I truly believe we made a full body of work… you can’t just hear one song, you have to hear the whole record. A lot was going on during the making of this record. My oldest daughter was in the military and she’s gay and a black woman. All of the Donald Trump political bullshit. My cousin, after 20 years of being in prison for murder, had just gotten out. The scores of unarmed black men being killed and the video footage circulating of it happening… almost becoming desensitized to watching people get murdered. Arc became my brother during that time. I could go into the studio and exhale a bit, laugh, cry. Out of all these years, this is the first time I felt free to create.

Arcitype: The burden of life was getting heavy and more so for Moe than myself because I’m a white man in America — it’s just the reality of it. But for us to be able to come together in that room… as those doors closed and we just locked in we tuned all of that out while processing it. All of the beats I was able to make during this record were not dictated by anything. There were no restrictions put on either of us — it was completely organic.

It’s interesting to see how certain political messages are perceived in rap music as opposed to more vapid messages found in other genres.

Moe Pope: If there was a rock group that was talking about the same thing… but there’s not one, even one. Are there are no white people that care about this shit? Yet, they’re getting the recognition, they’re being talked about. That’s what I mean — it’s frustrating. I’m lucky to have good people around me. I feel safe at all times because of the people who are around me. But I don’t think everyone feels that way.

Arcitype: Hip-hop is the music that moves and shakes generations. It’s absurd to not to hold it in high artistic regard. Think about that dichotomy… that discrepancy. It’s moved its way into every part of life because the generation responds to it yet is so rarely given the high artistic credibility it deserves. You get a few, the Commons, the Oddisees. But as a whole — especially in this city — it’s considered taboo. There are only two venues that will book us at this point. And I don’t mean us [points to Pope]. I mean us. Hip-hop in general.

What’s the takeaway regarding the album that you want people to have after reading this interview?

Arcitype: Torch Song is about recognizing difficult situations from all angles and aspects. It’s about starting a conversation. You can’t change what the past is, but you can certainly adjust the future. Own your shit, be honest with yourself and keep it moving. I’m still a work in progress myself.

Moe Pope: I don’t know too many records that are about equality and accountability—especially from this city. Listen to our record — it’s a good one.

STL GLD + THAT HANDSOME DEVIL + KENDRA MORRIS :: Saturday, May 13 at Sonia, 10 Brookline Ave. in Cambridge, MA :: 7 p.m., all ages, $12 in advance and $15 at doors :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page