Anyone wondering about the health of Asheville’s hip-hop scene need only listen to Josh Blake’s Unemployment Benefits. Released on Oct. 27, the stunning 13-track album features some of the city’s top MCs, spitting fiery verses over the prolific artist’s old-school beats, rounded out by live instrumentation from noted local players and scratches from a few of Western North Carolina’s most accomplished DJs.
Words with friends
True to its name, the project began early in the COVID-19 pandemic when Echo Mountain Recording, where Blake works as a producer, engineer, mixer and session musician, closed for three months. His focus quickly shifted to primarily home-schooling his children, but with his guitar-based, live-performance outlets — namely the weekly Funk Jam at Asheville Music Hall and gigs for the Josh Blake Organ Trio — on indefinite hiatus, he was concerned about keeping his creative side sharp. Though he’s continued to make hip-hop beats throughout his tenure as a professional musician and has amassed several albums’ worth of unreleased material, the extended time at home allowed him to dedicate an hour or two each day to the craft.
“I was listening to some [J] Dilla and thought, ‘You know, I could just put out a beat tape. That would be easy,’” Blake says. “And then as I got into it, I had 12-15 tracks starting to stack up. I was like, ‘I know a lot of MCs, but I want to make it relevant and don’t want to drag my feet.’”
He then called Foul Mouth Jerk and Agent 23 (aka Cactus) — his colleagues in the hip-hop band Granola Funk Express, which toured from 1997 to 2009 — to gauge their interest in contributing rhymes. Both gave enthusiastic responses, so Blake began compiling a list of other rappers and began sending out tracks in late April, setting a mid-May deadline for the collaborations so that he could have the album out in time for summer.
“I would pick three [beats] that I felt would fit [that particular MC], and in my head, one of them is the one that I’m thinking they’re going to choose,” Blake says. The exception was Cactus, to whom he only sent one track, confident that his longtime close friend would be unable to resist a beat so tailor-made for him. Despite his initial commitment to Unemployment Benefits, Cactus hesitated to fully sign on due to a host of other time constraints, but Blake slyly passed him the beat anyway and sat back, awaiting the inevitable. “Literally, 24-48 hours later, it’s done. He sends me the lyrics and everything, and he’s like, ‘Bro, you can’t send me that shit! That’s like rap crack to me!’ And I was like, ‘Oh. Sorry. My bad.’”
Other than Spaceman Jones and Virtuous, who laid down their parts at Echo Mountain, all of the MCs tracked their verses in their home studios. The remote collaboration was all but necessitated by the pandemic and facilitated the participation of frequent Asheville performers C. Shreve the Professor from Deep Gap, N.C., and Mike L!VE from Charleston, S.C. It also looped in Miami-based Breez Evahflowin, the lone rapper without strong ties to WNC, whose talents and strong history with Blake and GFE helped justify his inclusion.
But the project’s satellite nature also led to a series of delays. Blake describes the process as “like herding cats,” and after setting two more deadlines, which were missed by at least four-five artists, he decided it was time to move ahead without them.
“I couldn’t wait anymore. A lot of the stuff people were sending back was current, talking about what we’re doing now, and I couldn’t put it out later,” Blake says. “Jerk’s talking about this crazy kook in the White House. What if he’s not in the White House? I can’t wait till next year to put this shit out — it won’t make sense.”
While the lyrics — including Blake’s own verses on the unifying “All My Peoples” — capture the modern social and political climate, touching on racial equality, quarantining, defunding police and voting, his production exudes a consistently catchy, throwback vibe that’s sure to get heads nodding without obscuring the witty rhymes. The sonic goodness is further augmented by keyboard contributions from Simon Thomas George and Jamar Woods; percussion from former Asheville resident Johnny Durkin (Deep Banana Blackout) on five tracks; cuts from DJ RaMak, DJ Jet, Jeediem and Nex Millen; and Adam Strange playing a homemade synth on closing track “Ultra Meta,” on which the Moog Factory employee is also the featured MC.
Just barely fitting on a vinyl record, Unemployment Benefits additionally gave Blake an approximate level of human connection to which he’s accustomed but has been sorely missing during the pandemic. In addition to the revolving door of musicians at each Funk Jam, he also organizes and plays in the annual Asheville All-Stars concert for Downtown After 5. Though Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association, invited Blake to curate the show for the season finale of DTA5’s livestreamed series at The Orange Peel, the logistical nightmare of responsibly getting 15 people together in one room during COVID-19 proved unappealing. The same went for the prospect of the invited artists performing their songs to an empty venue instead of 5,000 to 8,000 people from the outdoor Lexington Avenue stage.
“There’s something about the collaborative spirit and pulling people together in the sake of art, music and pushing out positivity — that’s my jam. That drives me as a producer and as a musician,” Blake says. “I guess this album does kind of fill that void for this time period.”
And as for the MCs who missed the submission deadlines, Blake plans to include them on the next installment in what he hopes will be an ongoing series that attracts nationally touring artists and other Asheville-area MCs whose skills he’s excited to spotlight.
“I know that the hip-hop scene in this town is more diverse than this record,” he says. “There’s definitely other subsets. This is just really the people that I’ve been able to rub elbows with. I know it’s bigger than this album, and I know that there’s also plenty of people that I reached out to that I can hopefully squeeze in on the next one.” joshblakemusic.com