Swollen Members Interview: Black Magic

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by Alex Shtaerman

Hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, Swollen Members is the best selling Canadian rap group of all time. With close ties to the West Coast underground as well as the legendary Rock Steady Crew, MCs Mad Child and Prevail have been putting it down since 1996, steady grindin’ on the independent tip to the tune of over 500,000 records sold. Recipients of critical acclaim and multiple Juno Awards (the Canadian version of a Grammy), Swollen Members have cut records with the likes of Dilated Peoples, Everlast, Ghostface Killah, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Nelly Furtado. Their latest opus, Black Magic, comes after a brief hiatus and is marked by a return to the signature sound that came to define the group on releases such as Balance and Bad Dreams. “We feel like we really got back to our roots on Black Magic”, explains Prevail, hopeful the new album will resonate with fans in the United States as well as his native Canada. With a massive US tour about to get underway, one thing is certain; Swollen Members are on their way to a town near you. So be on the lookout if you’re checkin’ for that Hip-Hop (tour dates on www.SwollenMembers.com).

RIOTSOUND.COM: Given the style and feel of the music you make, do you almost feel like Swollen Members wouldn’t have received as much acclaim as you’ve had throughout your career had you been based in the US? In recent years the US market has been dominated by rap music that often draws on trendy production and superficial subject matter. Taking that into consideration, do you feel like being in Canada may have been to your advantage?

PREVAIL: I believe that the kind of music that Swollen Members makes, especially on Black Magic, we got a real good sense of how we wanted songs to sound from beginning to end. [We’re] becoming a little more competent at creating songs as opposed to just making rap tracks. We’re confident in our product and we’re trying to make our mark right now in the States and we’re going to be the first Canadian rap group to really stake our claim and get the music to as many people as possible. Honestly man, I feel that with me, Mad Child and Rob The Viking on the same page and in the same mindset, when we start making music we got something unique regardless of where we are geographically.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How would you characterize the direction you’re taking on Black Magic?

PREVAIL: We feel that Black Magic is a return to the signature Swollen sound that we created with Balance [1999] and further explored on Bad Dreams [2001] and Monsters In The Closet [2002]. On our last project [Heavy] we went in a bit of different direction. We stopped making music for ourselves, which is a thing that can happen to groups – things were rolling and we just started thinking, yo, let’s just keep cranking out this formula, it’s working for us. We realized in retrospect that wasn’t the right thing for us to do. There’s obviously some songs on that album we’re proud of but we feel like we really got back to our roots on Black Magic. So we’re standing behind this one 100%.

RIOTSOUND.COM: The first single off Black Magic, “Put Me On”, is a memorable collaboration between Swollen Members and Everlast; you’ve also worked with Everlast in the past, can you talk about that?

PREVAIL: We worked with Everlast on our first album Balance; him, Mad Child, Divine Styler and Evidence have a song called “Bottle Rocket”. So this was just a friendship that we’ve been building ever since back in the day. Everlast is a great cat, he’s a good friend of ours and he’s very supportive of what we’re doing. In fact, I talked to him last night and I think he’s going to make a surprise appearance at the El Ray [Theater] show [in Los Angeles] and we’re gonna do “Put Me On” live. So it’s a friendship building thing and that’s the beautiful thing about making music.

RIOTSOUND.COM: For those that might not know, how did Swollen Members originally come together as a group?

PREVAIL: Mad Child was living in San Francisco and I was living in San Diego at the time. I was on my way back home to Vancouver and I decided to make a quick pit stop on Haight Street just to see what was going on and I walked into X-Large, which is a store the Beastie Boys owned and Mad Child was working there. We had known each other by reputation only; we’d never formally met in Vancouver. So you start talking, ten, fifteen minutes, neither of us really thought too much about it except that it was cool [to meet]. About a year and a half later we were both sitting at a house party and we started rapping to each other. [Next thing you know] we had 120 drunk people completely silent so at that point we knew we had some chemistry going on. Swollen Members was in the studio the next week.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You’re also affiliated with the Rock Steady Crew; how did the relationship with Rock Steady come about?

PREVAIL: We were at the b-boy summit when they used to have ‘em in San Diego and Mad Child ended up battling Cutfather. For anybody that was in the room at that time, there was only a handful of us but it was definitely a memorable Hip-Hop classic moment that I’m sure nobody [who was there] will forget. So that’s [the way] it is; you battle someone who is in a senior position in Rock Steady and if you hold your ground you’re in. So obviously Mad Child did more than hold his ground, it was a great battle and through that Swollen Members became a Rock Steady affiliated group.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What would you say is the biggest difference in the way Hip-Hop is perceived by fans in Canada as opposed to the United States?

PREVAIL: I mean, we’ve been all over the world; Hip-Hop is obviously now a worldwide thing and the more you see it and realize it, you realize it’s all different. You could have twenty groups from New York that sound completely different from each other, just the same as you could have twenty groups in Switzerland that sound different from each other. So it has more than ever become about individuality and I think for Swollen Members it’s great that it’s building up that way because we feel that we definitely have a unique voice that needs to be heard.

RIOTSOUND.COM: But as far as the attitudes of the people buying the music; for example, we always hear about how European fans are deep into the culture of Hip-Hop while in the U.S. fans might be more swayed by marketing gimmicks and things of that nature.

PREVAIL: I guess it depends on what level you’re at, you know. With marketing, pretty much the math of it is, for every record that you’re looking to put out there or hoping to sell, you gotta spend two dollars in advertising just to get people to know about it. So you got someone selling five million albums, they put ten million dollars into making those five million albums sell. It breaks down the same way from the top of the scale to the bottom of the scale. So advertising I feel is real important. And you gotta keep in mind too, in the States and Canada we have so much more exposure to shows coming through. It’s harder for groups to get to that point where they’re even able to travel overseas and make it make financial sense or for the promoter to have it make sense for them to bring the groups over. So, I think we’re just seeing more shows [over here] and that’s the only difference.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How would you describe your approach to performing live? Swollen Members are known for having a great stage show.

PREVAIL: I’m not going to give away any of our secrets, but I will say through that when we get on stage we love performing as much as we love recording. We really got the hunger and the fire back, especially in these last two years and we realized how much all of this means to us. So with that elevated level of focus our live show has become even a different animal than I think it was four years ago. We’re much more focused; we really really feed off the energy of the crowd and we try to reciprocate that. And that’s what it’s all about. Our main goal at the end of a show is to have people come as fans and listeners and leave as family and friends.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Right now you’re on tour with Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna; what’s that been like? What do you do to connect with fans that may come to the shows having not heard of you?

PREVAIL: For Swollen it’s awesome to be on the road with artists of that caliber. Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna are all natural born entertainers and all great and amazing people. We’ve toured before with artists such as Avril Lavigne and Nellie Furtado all the way to Sum 41, so we’ve been very lucky that we’ve had exposure to crowds in stadiums and arenas. People who haven’t heard of us before are going to [connect] with the work ethic of our live show. No matter if it’s 50 people or 50,000 people and all of them have heard of you or half of them have heard of you, you still go out and do the same show and give the same effort and hopefully that translates to people going away and going – yo, those guys that opened, I never heard of them before but now I’m a listener.

RIOTSOUND.COM: The new album, Black Magic, is in stores; what else should everyone be looking out for?

PREVAIL: Check the website www.SwollenMembers.com or our MySpace page and see if we’re coming through your area. We’re grinding non-stop until the 17th of December. After these shows with the Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna, Swollen Members is headlining our own tour called the Black Magic Tour all through the States. So that’s it and I want to thank our friends, fans and listeners for giving us the time off to get back into our personalities and put out the best product possible.

For more info on Swollen Members stay tuned to www.SwollenMembers.com and www.MySpace.com/SwollenMembers