Whether you know him as the front man for the beloved Warsawpack, or you know him as one of the best rappers around, Lee Reed is a familiar face in Hamilton. From playing numerous shows around town over the years, to leading protests at City Hall, to arguing with you over politics – he is hard to escape. Not that you’d want to escape him.
Lee is easily one of the best performers in Hamilton, and his live shows are a must see for music lovers. He is one of few MCs to master conscious / political / activist rap music. While many performers have infused their music with political messages, it is rare that the music actually sounds… good. The shelf life for preachy, political, music can be very short, and at the end of the day, people don’t want to listen to music that isn’t pleasing to the ear. The combination of thought provoking, often political, lyrics and heavy classic hip hop beats is never stronger than it is on Lee’s tracks.
I caught up with Lee to talk about the tour, Hamilton, and a lot of other stuff.
Q – Congratulations on the early success of your latest EP Written Large. You topped the CFMU charts while you were away on tour. Can you tell us a bit about how this EP came together?
Thanks. Yeah, it was nice waking up on the other side of the country to that news. Buoyed the spirits, and all that. The Written Large EP, by John P and I, is the first in a series of EP’s that I want to record over the next year and a bit. The idea is to record 5 track EP’s, each one with just one producer providing all the beats. Producers don’t get as much shine in indie hip hop. Unless you’re really paying attention, producers usually stay in the shadows. MC’s will use 5-10 different producers for a recording, and the names of those beat-crafters often get lost or forgotten. The idea here is that each of these EP’s/projects would be as much about their work as it is mine. Completely shared products. Something they could hand off and call their own, since 100% of the production is in their name.
I love the producers I work with, they are musical family to me, and I thought this would be a good way for them to get some well deserved recognition.
John P has been grinding in Hamilton since the early days. I love his stuff. He is a genius. He has that ‘sample based’ sound that I love – using his MPC-1000. But he’s also an amazing musician. Tracking a lot of his sounds live from keys, guitars, etc. He really ‘builds’ his stuff, from the ground up. And with a few of his beats already half written it made good sense to do the first EP with him. More of those to come though.. stay tuned.
Q – Speaking of the tour, what was it like touring as a single MC as opposed to touring with Warsawpack?
It was completely different. Like night & day. For this ‘Colony Collapse’ tour I traveled with my homies Test their Logik (Toronto MC’s Testament & iLLogik).. just the 3 of us, in a diesel car. Packed in tight. With very little equipment. We were nimble. Always leaving on time. Always arriving on time. Always ready to make changes to the itinerary or redirect things on the fly. It was so easy to stay on track.
Warsawpack was more like traveling with a small army. There were 8 of us. With a 7-piece band’s worth of gear. All of us crammed into one of those oversized 18 passenger vans. Every stop became an exercise in organization. A 10 minute refueling stop turned into a kinda horror film of disappearances. Where is so, and so? Are they coming back soon? What happened to so, and so? Is someone getting food? What’s going on? Should I use the toilet here, or are we leaving now? We were perpetually late. Always wrestling with time, and space. Stopping for breakfast for instance, which is normally the easiest meal, right?.. required waitresses to relocate furniture and rearrange their restaurant to accommodate us. Every step of the way was an organizational headache. We were just too large and didn’t really fit anywhere.
There were things I missed about traveling with the Warsaw boys. I mean, it’s always nice to arrive as a small army. Safety in numbers. We were always ready for a rumble. Ha! But, it was nice to travel so light this time. We were able to make stops and take our time a bit.. do touristy things.. things that Warsaw wouldn’t even have attempted. It was nice.
Q – I know that a lot must have happened while you were touring – but can you just share one anecdote / or favourite moment with us?
I’d have to say, the thing that stuck out the most for me, was playing with and hanging out with Savage Fam in Wet’suwet’en (unceded Native territory in northern BC). Savage Fam are a First Nations group from the States, and most of them from reserves in Washington state, I think. They are, hands down, one of the fiercest ‘radical’ hip hop groups I’ve ever seen. They roll as a family. 4 of them on stage, including a dad and his 9 year old son, and another couple a man & woman (who doubles as MC and RnB hooks). The main MC’s wife does merch and management stuff. And they roll with their kids. The name “Fam” isn’t just some hip hop phrase. They were a full on traveling family.
Amazing and inspirational hip hop. Highly confrontational lyrics. Very radical, very anti-corporate, back to the land, protect mother earth, etc. They are a strong musical force, and I was honoured to rock with them.
We had a couple days off with the Fam, and we all got to hang out. They showed us how to play “bones” or “sticks”, a popular Aboriginal game on the West Coast. I won 3 jars of salmon. It was a very cool couple days. I hope to get them out to Ontario at some point.
Q – What does local hip hop sound like on the other side of the country?
For the most part, it sounds like the hip hop out here. But, that west coast flavour shines through a bit in their beat selection and their delivery. A little more laid back than us. Less attack and more bounce, if you know what I mean. Seemed to be a lot more people doing slam or poetry type stuff out there too. That seemed to be a lot more popular an art form out there. Which makes sense, you could see the seeds of that 10 years ago when Warsaw was out there. But when it comes to beats , and rhymes, I would have to say the competition is more fierce out here than other places I went. It feels like there are more people grinding at it in Ontario than other places.
Q – You’ve played a huge role in Hamilton’s music scene for the past few decades, and most recently as a single MC, what do you make of the Hamilton hip hop scene as it stands today?
The Hamilton hip hop scene is in a full-on state of bloom. Our hip hop spring has sprung. There is more and better hip hop coming out of the Hammer than I’ve ever seen, hands down. More groups. More solo acts. More producers. More recordings. More collaboration. More shows. It’s been a dizzying pace the last few years. And I can’t stress enough.. the quality is on par or better than any scene in the country right now. I go to shows and watch my Hamilton fam hold their own with American big names and Toronto openers. Pound for pound, Hamilton has one of the best scenes in the country right now. And it’s only looking to be getting bigger and better. I’m proud of the work we’re doing out here. And 2013 is looking to top it.
Q – Your shows are always well attended in Hamilton and you have seemed to collect a large and loyal audience. What is interesting, to me, is that many of your fans are not hip hop fans. What is it about you, and your music that draws in a wider audience, and especially people who don’t normally listen to rap?
I think it’s the result of two things. First, my time fronting Warsawpack. We were, in many ways, rooted in hip hop but, we were booked and treated like a punk band for the most part. Most purist hip hop heads didn’t really like our stuff, it was too ‘out there’ for most of them. So, that early brush with success was very much fostered in punk and/or rock circles. And that built a lot of bridges for me, with other artists, promoters, club owners, etc. And those relationships are still in play today.
The other would be the politics of my writing. I have a lot of fans that don’t listen to hip hop at all, but will listen to anything good that deals in radical leftist politics. Punk. Indie rock. Metal. Folk. Electronic. I have a diverse fan base, but the unifying thing is definitely the politics. The politics draws them across typical genre lines to show support. It makes for fun shows and diverse crowds. Not your typical hip hop show, that’s for sure.
Q – Another thing that is interesting about you is the following you have gathered on the internet; Facebook especially. Rants, and political commentary get huge comments and are shared many times by your friends. What do you make of this? Do you consider yourself as a role model, or as a social influencer?
Haha! Yeah. I have a confession to make. I love upsetting people’s worldview. And I love pushing the limits of acceptable discourse, and if someone’s view is backwards enough, I love arguing with them. Arguing with racists, the closet or the proud types; bigots; Ec-Dev champions; capitalists; cop lovers; warmongers; religious adherents; anything to the more extreme right wing really, I love arguing with. I don’t know why. I’m not sure what it is about being online that brings it out in me. But, yeah, guilty as charged. I love ranting and I love arguing.
I don’t really consider myself a role model, at all. I think of this stuff as more ‘being a booster’ for the political thinking/theories that I identify with. There is just so much right wing bent to our media, and news that I feel a sort of obligation to push back a bit. It’s the same with my music. I feel like there needs to be more people pushing back, and more people speaking truth over the deafening status quo. Social media gives us an opportunity to engage people, and to have our differing opinions heard. I like to take that opportunity, whenever possible, to remind folks that there are different ways of seeing the bullshit. There are concrete things that you can do about it. And that the narrative isn’t fully written yet. We can steer things. We can cause change. And as useless as social media is in the grand scheme, it can very much act as a primer and launching point for a lot of radical thinking. I wish the landscape of social media translated into the real world a bit more. As in, I wish the ‘likes’ I would get for a comment would result in people attending rallies/marches, or organizational meetings. But, it’s a starting point. I take it for what it is – a big ass soap box.
Q – Are there any MCs or groups that you look to as artists who have perfected the balance between intelligent lyrics, and great music?
Political or protest music is a funny thing, with very specific criteria to qualify for. And ‘political’ artists are always struggling to get their message out while still sounding cool. It’s not easy. At all. Some of the topics are just impossible to talk about and still sound hip. You know? It’s easy to come off as too preachy. Or too politically correct. Or too verbose. Very few people get it right. Which, to me, is to sound as dope as anything else out there, while still maintaining that political integrity/message. Artists doing it right? I would give praise to.. P.O.S., The Coup, Immortal Technique, Homeboy Sandman, Invincible. More locally.. Mother Tareka, Test their Logik, Babylon Warchild and Unknown Mizery, Progress, the Freedom Writers. There’s definitely some dope political hip hop happening in Ontario. Seems to be on the rise. It’s great.
Q – What are you listening to these days? Do you have anything to recommend for us to check out?
A little late to the game.. but, while on tour I overdosed on the last Killer Mike album, R.A.P. Music, and the last El-P album, Cancer 4 Cure. Both of them are gold. So happy to see those two doing more work together, Run the Jewels they’re calling themselves. Those dudes are both amazing and sound great together, I’m pumped to hear their next stuff. I also got into an MC named Bamboo from the States. It’s a really amazing album, Test their Logik introduced me to to that.
Q – Homegrown Hamilton hosted ‘rock against racism’ a little while ago, and you did a cover of ‘Rage Against The Machine’s killing in the name of’ with the Safety Collective. It was awesome – are you into doing more those kinds of collaborations? I know a lot of people would love to hear you doing ‘Warsaw type’ stuff again…
I am definitely into more collaborations. I did that track White Russians with Cowlick, and the same kind of thing happened. A lot people telling me they missed hearing me yell loud like a metal front man. Haha. I enjoy it. And have some more things in the works. Both hip hop and more live music-ish stuff. Stay tuned. There’s some crazy good collabos coming. With a real variety of genres/styles.
The other thing to mention is I’ve been working on a ‘live’ outfit with some of the Warsaw boys.. Matt Cormier, Jaroslav Wassman and Realistic, and some other musical family, and friends. We’ve been jamming in the background the last few years, slowly putting together a new outfit. Nothing recorded or ready yet, but always great building with those dudes. Always sounds good. We’re aiming to do some big unveil at the end of the summer or early fall maybe. I’ll keep you posted.
Q – What are your musical plans for the rest of the year?
Well.. the big one for me is getting that live outfit moving. Playing more with live drums and live feel, and doing a bit of the instrumentation myself. Keys. Sampler. 404. I’m trying to get good at playing, and doing vocals at the same time. It’s been great, and it is so close to gigging. I really want to focus on that this summer. And in the meantime, I’m working on the next couple EP’s. Hoping to serve up another one this fall, if all goes according to plan. Watch for it.
Q – I’ve found some funny YouTube comments on your video for Bazooka Rap – would you care to address these?
Oh man. That whole rap rock genre.. *shudders*.. the Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, late 90’s, wannabe Rage Against The Machine for the consumer kiddies kinda stuff. It was all very much the bane of my existence. There was a time there for about 5-10 years where anything that involved rhyming over rock-ish rifts was thrown into that bucket of slop. Including me. And so I hated that whole era. This person clearly knows how to push my buttons. Fuck all that stuff. Project Wyze. Kazzer. All that shit. So much garbage. I hate it like early punks hated disco.
Ha! Well.. we’ve been offered scads of cash and that didn’t do it. But, I’ll check in and see if any of the guys has need of some first borns. You never know. I’ll see what’s up.