Anthony Martin, AKA Awol One, has always struck me as possessing a decidedly punk-rock slant on West Coast Hip-Hop culture. Bucking trends for over two decades, his gravelly baritone voice is unmistakable, whether rumbling over danceable pop, snare-throttling boom-bap, or decidedly more “rock” productions. He’s followed his own compass, and eschewed wave after lapping wave of mainstream tropes, emerging from the deep as a celebrated figure in the history of what has come to be widely termed West Coast Underground Hip-Hop. While that broad fat-cap of a term could mean almost anything, Awol and affiliated crews are precisely the reason that “West Coast Underground” can encompass and describe a wide swathe of styles, sounds, and images.
Bravado, humor, fearlessness, melancholy and pathos all form a circular gradient in the music of Awol One, perhaps never more aptly displayed than his freshly-minted album Primer.
There is a clear penchant for exploration and experimentation across your vast catalog. At over 1,000 years old, with 20+ in the rap game, what keeps Awol excited to create new music year after year, and experimenting with different styles and production palettes?
Thanks, well part of what keeps me excited about music is not holding myself to one musical style. I make whatever I feel, and sometimes it comes out dope. Not everything can be great. Even though I have been a DJ since before I was a rap singer, I have always been influenced by all genres. Anything from Bikini Kill to Gangstarr. But hip-hop has always been my roadmap. I live a hip-hop lifestyle and I owe most of my youthful thinking to old school rap philosophies. They used to be proud of having knowledge. I will stay in the game as long as people still want what I am creating. I appreciate everyone and everything.
After seeing the critical success of your children’s book The Mombie, I was wondering if you could speak to how being a Dad shapes your approach to your music and art? It was really refreshing to see a “Badass Rap Human” make a piece of art aimed at an audience far outside their usual realm.
Ha! – thanks, I have always wanted to make a comic or graphic novel of some sorts. So when we had the concept of doing a kids book, the ideas started coming pretty quick. We used crowdfunding to create it, then eventually got distribution with Barnes and Noble. Being a Father definitely shapes the way I think and what I create. My family knows how much I love sci-fi and old school horror, so I wanted to make a very kid friendly story and creepy fun soundtrack. I even kept the art kinda messy and light. I definitely have tons of more ideas, so hopefully we can put out another book someday, or maybe a cartoon. I have always been a fan of the darker, fun stuff like Sid and Marty Kroft, Tim Burton or cheesy b-movies. I would even dig the villain costumes on Power Rangers. I’m even digging that new show Curious Creations of Christine McConnell. Its weird because years later people are still buying the Mombie book, seems like its becoming a kids Halloween tradition or something.
The Christine McConnell series is an original mix of schlock, b-horror muppets, and a cooking/crafting show. I’m completely sold.
From the Shape Shifters on up through Primer, there has been a considered aesthetic preoccupation in your album art, videos, merch, posters, etc. with Aliens, Monsters, The Undead, ad infinitum- usually deployed in a b-movie or tongue-in-cheek “Munsters” configuration, as if you are using “creepy” images in a playful way. The characters are always more cartoonish than terrifying, and one notices that this is a very specific artistic conceit. Could you unpack for our readers your attraction to those images, and how they interplay with the music of Awol One?
It definitely has a lot to do with my dad. For him, it was 24-7 Horror, Sci-Fi and Westerns. As a kid we would sit and watch Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits together. I never got into or liked the westerns though. My dad was an ex-marine and my mom was an intellectual so I lived in a weird but balanced house. I was always infatuated by special effects. My first movie, going as a kid, was Star Wars. I thought at one point that it (special effects) was going to be my career, influenced by Rick Baker and stuff…but even though I liked those kind of movies, I never really was into the possession stuff, those movies always seemed dumb to me. I guess to answer your question, it was not a conscious thing, it’s just who I am. I went to Universal Studios so I could see the real Munsters house. I also worked at Knott’s Scary Farm one summer because I was so obsessed with that kind of stuff.
Primer has distorted vocals and rock-drum programming abound, reminiscent of some danceable rock acts (White Zombie, for one example) at times. Can you grow us on the divergence in approach from your work of only a few years ago? The Crossroads EP with Factor Chandelier was all about smooth beauty, and now we have your own production on Feo and Primer feeling more noisy, dark, and urgent, but no less chorus-catchy. Primer feels stripped down to synths, drums, and guitar/bass sounds. It’s fairly punk-rock in approach.
The original title was “100 Foot Boombox” because the production was big and rough… and half the songs were very hip-hop and the other half of the songs felt very hardcore and uptempo. So then I felt “Oh dang, I made two separate records”- so I took all the songs that felt like a family and mixed it together. I have always been in the graffiti scene, and I also do design work for Sherwin Williams, so I thought: “What’s the origin of the art, the first step… Primer.” I am also a big fan of Beer! I grew up skateboarding so I have maybe put some of my “thrasher” mentality into this record.
I heartily respect and appreciate that you are citing beer and skateboarding as influences on this record! Have you made beats right along, or is this a new creative outlet?
I have always made beats and engineered some of our sessions. I used to just splash my production here and there, but on Primer and Feo I produced and mixed the entire project. Unfiltered and not influenced by anyone except me. I want to eventually score a movie, or a cartoon. I have the heart of a drummer but I have no skills…so I do the next best thing, produce.
I recall a conversation we had many moons ago, and you telling me that you actually began your musical foray as a DJ before transitioning to being primarily an MC. Would you mind telling us that story, for folks that have no idea?
Yes, I was a DJ in the east L.A. party scene in the early 90s, and started touring with Thump Records and Low Rider Magazine opening for Zapp and Roger. Back then I used to DJ for Slow Pain, Stacy Q, Toddy T and would work with people such as JV and Lighter Shade of Brown. I even did some ghost-writing for Thump Records artists. I would DJ anywhere I could on the weekends, sometimes the underground parties would get broken up from fights or whatever, and we would have to pack up our equipment quick-styles and get out fast! I owe it all to DJing… drunk fools would always want to get on the mic to rock the party, and most of the time they were wack. I was always like, “I can take that fool out…” – so guess what?! That’s what I did, I started battling people on the mic. That why when I finally made it up to the Good Life and Project Blowed I was already kinda seasoned. I also knew my obscure style couldn’t be imitated or fucked with.
You have a long history of collaborative projects, from Daddy Kev, Mike Nardone, Factor, the Shape Shifters, The Cloaks, The Chemikillz, Three Eyed Cowz, Ecid, to name a (very) abridged list. Are any of these partnerships going to continue with a new installment in 2019/2020, or are you staying the course on the solo tip for now? What’s the difference for you, between making collaborative albums and making solo records?
Well, we have a new The Cloaks album dropping this summer with a lot of dope features. We also dropped a Cloaks collaboration with the Playground App available now. I also designed the art for the app. As far as solo stuff, I’m touring this year to promote Primer and I feel like making a follow up record like Primer in the same style. When I make music with others, I’m open to suggestions and input, and when I make music by myself I have no one to steer my thoughts, its only my dumb self at the wheel. I like both methods of creation.
Primer was released on Alpha Pup, and I realize that you and Kev have a long history. How did the new partnership come about for the record?
As the album was approaching its final stages I asked him about releasing it on Alpha Pup, and he said of course. Then I was honored to have him take the album and master it in the big studio. He took a gritty rebellious record and gave it that big current sound. We have known each other for about 20 years, so we have a mutual respect for each other’s artistry. We sometimes rock shows together still, he will always be a big part of what I do.
Albane The Surreal Collagist (Paris, France) did both release-covers for The Cloaks, you are a visual artist yourself….who are some of your favorite artists (Graffiti, Gallery, Digital) or designers?
Yeah those Cloaks covers are some of my favorites, and France is one of my favorite places to tour. Yes, I work at a graphic design and print agency with my wife and a small team of creatives, called Brainheart Co. We work with a variety of different clients and industries. There are so many talented artists out there I can’t think of any off the top of my head…but Alex Pardee, Mear, Craola and Ghostshrimp come to mind.
Can you tell us about what you do with Brainheart Co when you are not rapping, writing, or producing? I feel like design is often a natural trajectory for long-term artists who cut their teeth in street-art.
Word, well I went to college for graphic design and broadcasting, I have always been into screen printing and color. So when I wasn’t making records or touring I would do design work, or print for clients. I’ve got to work with some of my biggest influences, it feels surreal sometimes. It doesn’t feel like work to me, and I like the physical part of screen printing and getting my hands dirty. I like the thinking part of the graphic design. I have always been into the grimy hardcore arts like tattooing, graff, ink printing etc… I think most gallery artists are kinda weak and sheltered, just kinda pathetic and tortured. I always have a little more respect for the ones who went out there and got dirty and risky with their art. I feel like art has to be a little rough around the edges and rebellious. A survivor mentality, not a victim mentality. God has plans for all of us. I also have nothing but love for all graffiti artists worldwide, but of course my heart is with the 573s and the Cali Bomb Squad.
Thanks so much for your time Wolrus, let our readers know what/whom they should be checking for, and where to find you in the immediate future?
Tour Dates and Merch: Speakerface.store
My handle is @AWOLONE
Thank you very much BRZO! You are always awesome!!…
AYYYY…and there you have it, folks. Primer is out now on all major platforms via Alpha Pup Records, West Coast tour dates for April 2019 below.