Asheville hip-hop artist Davaion Bristol, aka Spaceman Jones, lays out the stakes clearly in his collaboration with local electro-soul group RBTS WIN. “Strange are the ways of the days, man / seems to me they tryna bring back that old thing / Jimmy Crow, human trafficking / the plantation transform into the damn pen / free labor is the plan to make this land great again,” he raps in “My City Has Lights,” an early track on the upcoming Spaceman Jones & The Motherships.
That ripped-from-the-headlines political consciousness runs throughout the EP, which is set to be released at Isis Music Hall on Saturday, May 27. “I feel like this project had to be a sign of the times,” says Cliff B. Worsham, who produces for RBTS WIN under the name MOTHER HOOD and worked as Bristol’s main collaborator on the record. “Just because life’s good for you don’t mean that life is good all around, and we’re just trying to give people what we know.”
Although both of the artists are Asheville natives, the pair didn’t start making music together until late 2015, when Worsham sent Bristol the beat for what would become “Cut the Grits,” the second song on the EP. The writing and recording sessions for the project began in earnest during fall 2016 — the fever pitch of the presidential election campaign — and continued through the first 100 days of the Trump administration. “We were talking a lot of politics in the studio, looking at everything that was going on and seeing there was going to be a major shift in the world,” says Bristol.
Ironically, the two were drawn to begin collaborating not through contemporary politics but by a shared love of hip-hop’s past. “When I would listen to [Worsham’s] beats up on SoundCloud, it took me back to the era when I first thought I wanted to rap,” says Bristol. “I felt like I did in the ’90s when I would go buy a CD, like Westside Connection or Goodie Mob, and it’d be an experience from beginning to end.”
Worsham agrees that the project felt like a throwback to his youth. “I wanted to get [Bristol] on the record because we both came up in the same school, the boom bap era,” he says. He defines that style by a specific way of sampling pieces from drum breaks — the “boom” of the kick and the “bap” of the snare — and recombining them into new rhythmic patterns.
Drawing from the approach of classic hip-hop producers such as Pete Rock, Diamond D and Large Professor, Worsham’s beats resonated with Bristol’s attitude toward rapping. “I come from the old-school thought about it, that the music is what speaks,” says Bristol. “When I play a MOTHER HOOD beat, I can hear where he’s trying to take me, what he’s trying to get out of me.”
That connection feels particularly strong on “White Owl,” the EP’s debut single. As an ominous organ blocks out heavy chords and a booming kick drum echoes below, Bristol raps about the possibility of apocalypse: “Right now shit sweet, better hustle / Learn to use a gun, plant food, speak Russian / Gotta do something, shit coming.” The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, but the driving beat demands action.
The other members of RBTS WIN, producer Javier Bolea and guitarist Josh Chassner, make their presence on Spaceman Jones & The Motherships known largely through samples from the band’s back catalog. Worsham is cagey about precisely where all of the sounds come from — “Being a producer is just a long line of ripping other people off,” he laughs — but says that he supplemented the RBTS WIN material with vinyl sampling of Italian rock, Japanese obscurities and classic ’50s and ’60s soul.
The resulting music is more aggressive and harder-edged than previous RBTS WIN releases, but Worsham is unconcerned about alienating listeners. “Even people who don’t like rap can bounce to the beats, and we might turn them on to something they never thought they’d be into,” he says about the sound. About the politics, he adds, “This is reality. A lot of people have a problem with reality these days.”
WHAT: Spaceman Jones & The Motherships EP release show
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Saturday, May 27, 9 p.m. $8 advance/$10 day of show