The song “U Know” begins with the line, “Don’t let nobody tell you what’s impossible / you’re the only one that’s ever stopping you.” It’s a fitting introduction to The Grateful Meds: They Exist, the new collaborative EP from Asheville-based hip-hop artists Davaion Bristol, aka Spaceman Jones, and Charles “Chachillie” Stewart. The soul-searching and beat-savvy four-song collection came out of a four- or five-day writing and recording session. Bristol and Stewart perform a show at The Odditorium on Saturday, Jan. 21.
The project started when Stewart, who’d created the song “99%” with fellow rapper Philo, reached out to Bristol for a verse. “I had some beats from some local guys, and we were listening to them,” says Bristol. “We just started writing verses” that resulted in The Grateful Meds. But there was a connection beyond the shared musicianship. Both Bristol and Stewart were working through personal challenges, and the collaboration allowed them to process those hardships as art.
“Everybody wanna be somebody / move like stars, be the life of the party … you can stay in prison for as long as you like / or you can choose freedom, liberate your life,” Bristol raps on “Your Life.” It’s a positive lyric that reflects his own complicated path to art. After a few brushes with the law, Bristol served 80 months in prison. He’d been introduced to writing rap lyrics during an earlier incarceration, but throughout that long sentence he really delved into the craft.
Bristol points out that hip-hop artists have to want to hone their talent: While schools and music programs teach a wide variety of instruments along with vocal techniques, there is no formal education for MCing or producing — creating beats.
On The Grateful Meds, Bristol and Stewart trade off verses and hook-writing duties with each MC performing his own hook in most cases. Stewart produced the brisk, bouncing “99%,” which begins and ends with samples of protesters chanting “We are the 99 percent.” Stewart’s lyrics are fleet and exacting: “Hands in the air, I’m playing theremin / the game’s tortoise and the hare, I’m a ninja terrapin.” There’s humor and there’s also dead aim at a system that excludes the majority of its citizens.
Mike Holmes produced “Your Life,” $ouf$ide Pat contributed production to “U Know” and Ho-Tron Beatz lent his talents to “Yin Yang,” which Bristol and Stewart co-produced. On the latter, Bristol’s syncopated rap skews socio-political: “They flip the switch, then we do the dance for spare change / wage slaves we pay our way to the grave. … This kind of dirt, it don’t come off even after you bathe / ’cause of all the sh*t that’s in the water, and it’s only getting harder.”
“Every man’s got their own issues. I was going through some things — I wasn’t feeling as confident,” Bristol explains of the the mood around the album’s creation. “I was feeling a little afraid of what was happening around the country, I was feeling superdisappointed in the Obama presidency. I was also feeling like I needed to speak.” What came out is raw and visceral, but there’s also a palpable sense of style, a kind of rooted luster.
“Whenever we get together, we have a synergy,” Bristol says of working with Stewart. “We were trying to make the absolute best music. [I said], ‘Let’s not just make something that’s going to be good locally, let’s make some legacy music.’”
The thing is, though hip-hop comes from humble roots, most of its makers start with the idea of launching huge careers, Bristol says. “You want to get a chance. Everybody starts off thinking, ‘I’m going to blow up.’ … The economic motivation is entwined in the art of hip-hop, more than any other genre, I think, because it’s mainly made by poor people.”
But even as The Grateful Meds — which launched online at the beginning of the year — addresses issues of economic injustice, it’s rich in sonic texture, vivid imagery and thoughtful delivery. It’s an album that, in its four tracks, offers up a big vision and leaves the listener wanting more. Bristol and Stewart have plans for nationwide exposure, including college radio play, but they’re not ready to rest on this initial success.
“We’ve got more work to do, after this, to continue on and see what we can come up with together,” Bristol says. “Now it’s up to the people to conform my suspicions, or” — he gives a wry grin — “send me packing back to the lab.”
WHO: Spaceman Jones and Chachillie
WHERE: The Odditorium, 1045 Haywood Road, facebook.com/ashevilleodditorium
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 21, 10 p.m. $5