July 6, 2011

Eric Steuer

Eric Steuer
Photo by Mike Senese
Also known as Eriksolo and Cuzzo, you might have heard Eric Steuer in one of his multiple groups — from mic.edu to Meanest Man Contest to his new project Not the 1s. The name might also ring a bell from his work for Wired Magazine or Creative Commons. With delivery as versatile as his subject matter and a sharp sense of humor, Eric’s newest project is the Not the 1s album Why You Cryin? with Mawnster, featuring clever fast-paced rhymes over a slew of heavyweight production. Last fall marked the re-release of Brand New Crime on Circle Into Square — an EP that was a collaboration of his first group, mic.edu, with Substance Abuse — in commemoration of the death of one of its members, Lafura “A-Twice” Jackson, of cancer ten years ago. Eric recently took some time out of his busy schedule to fill me in on what he’s been up to lately, as well as a bit of rap history.

Not the 1s – “Not the 1s” (prod. by Mexicans with Guns) by notthe1s

Not the 1s – “Your Dad Hate Me” (prod. by Daedelus) by notthe1s

Not the 1s – “You Dress Like an Asshole” (prod. by Lunice) by notthe1s

First off, can you introduce yourself?

My name’s Eric Steuer. I live in San Francisco right now and I rep a few different hip-hop groups from over the years. Meanest Man Contest, mic.edu, and a new project called Not the 1s.

How did you first get into rapping?

In elementary school. I grew up in San Diego and I loved rap music from the first time I heard it, and just started writing my own stuff right off the bat. I got into deeper stuff, rap that was deeper than whatever was on the radio, by going to this place in town called Kobey’s Swap Meet. There was a guy there with a booth that would sell mixtapes that he’d bring down, mostly from LA. Tapes by East Coast DJs and also LA guys like Dr. Dre and Steve Yano, and their Roadium mixes. Those were hugely influential for me. I’d go to the swap meet every week and just buy whatever I could afford. I met a couple other guys in school, kids who were mostly skaters and taggers, but who were also into rap and we’d trade tapes, just get our hands on whatever music we could. By junior high, I’d been making pause tapes at home for a while and scrounged up a mic and enough equipment to start recording my own music in my room. In high school, I started connecting with other rappers and local producers and making tapes to sell. One of the first tapes I did was under the name Section IX and a few of the songs were produced by the San Diego legend Steve Vicious, who was just starting out back then but went on to make beats for E-40, Suga Free, Bone Thugs, and others.

mic.edu (A-Twice, DJ Lion, Eriksolo, Quarterbar, and Rüd the Instructor)

What is the story behind the Brand New Crime re-release?

Well, the re-release is a tribute to my good friend Lafura Jackson, aka A-Twice, who was one of the rappers in mic.edu. That crew was made up of me and four other guys who went to college together in Santa Barbara and who met at KCSB, the radio station there, where a bunch of us had rap shows. This is like 1998, I guess. We put a few songs together, and at the time I ran a label called Rocketship Records with a couple of other guys, and we put the songs out on a split cassette called Brand New Crime. Four of the songs were by mic.edu, and the other four were by a group called Substance Abuse, who’s still around and doing stuff today. We sold a bunch of those tapes on the Internet and by doing shows and showing up at parties and stuff. Unfortunately, not too long after we made that music, Lafura found out that he had testicular cancer. He had grown up in Japan, so he went back to Tokyo to get medical care. He was able to return to California once more, but in a pretty short amount of time, the cancer killed him. He died in 2000 at the age of 24. I’d been wanting for some time to get the songs back out there, since they weren’t really available in any way except for the original tape and a few tracks that made their way onto vinyl compilations. I just wanted people to be able to hear the songs easily and get down with the amazing things was able to do in his short life. So I connected with Tom, who runs Circle Into Square, which is a label that I have a lot of respect for. I pitched him on the project and he was awesome to help make the re-release happen last year.

What set Lafura apart from other rappers?

Lafura Jachson (aka A-Twice)Well, he was fluent in Japanese, and he could tear dudes up with rhymes in English and then flip on ‘em in Japanese. But more than that, he was just totally unafraid to be himself, and luckily for him and everyone who knew him, he was unique and hilarious and weird in a really great way. His dad was a jazz musician; he was the bassist for The Headhunters, Herbie Hancock’s group. He met Lafura’s mom while the band was on tour in Japan in the ‘70s. Lafura’s dad was black and his mom was Japanese, so Lafura grew up pretty much racially unlike any of his peers in Japan. He talked about getting a lot of looks growing up, and he would talk about how there was no one else like him in his school or his neighborhood or even in his whole city, as far as he knew. But he would also always talk about how he used that experience as an asset. He used his differences as a bridge to connect with more people rather than fewer. Being different let him relate to a wider range of people instead of feeling like he needed to tie himself to a particular group. In fact, the name A-Twice was based on that idea. The Japanese term haafu is used to describe people who are half Japanese and half something else. He hated that idea. He was like, “No no, fuck that, I’m not half anything. Call me twice everything!” I know that everyone’s got friends that have gone too soon, and that there’s a tendency to rewrite the history of the dead, as if they were the coolest, best people that ever lived. But this guy, Lafura, he really was the best dude ever. He made such a mark on everyone he met because he was born different and he wasn’t scared of that and he didn’t mind being weird and he could talk to you about a million things from obscure cartoons to Donald Goines books to Prince.

Are there any plans for the unreleased mic.edu material?

I’ll probably grab all the other tracks we did and put a more expanded tribute to Lafura together at some point. There’s about an album’s worth of stuff in all. About fifteen songs that we put down in the studio, a couple live recordings, a lot of stuff that we did on our radio shows, and some freestyles and stuff from parties or whatever. There is another tribute to Lafura on a DJ Krush album that came out about ten years ago. There’s a song on it called “Candle Chant” and it’s dedicated to Lafura. It’s a pretty cool story. When Lafura was in the hospital in Tokyo and was really sick, he was going through some pretty terrible procedures. He really respected and admired DJ Krush and wanted to meet him and possibly even work with him before he died. Word got to DJ Krush that there was this rapper who was on his way out of this world who wanted to meet him, so he rolled through the hospital with some of his crew and they spent a good amount of time hanging out. Lafura could barely move, but he was still writing rhymes every day, so Krush made plans to bring a bunch of studio equipment into the cancer ward where Lafura was being treated, so they could work on something together. But not even two weeks later, Lafura died. So Krush and his crew put together “Candle Chant,” a song about Lafura as a way to commemorate his life.

Meanest Man Contest
Meanest Man Contest (Quarterbar and Eriksolo)

Does the sound vary at all from mic.edu to Meanest Man Contest to Not the 1s?

Definitely. The five of us who made up mic.edu, we grew up listening to what I guess you’d call golden age hip-hop, and then we got to college and started doing the group in the late ‘90s, and it was during the time that a lot of that underground stuff was taking hold, and there was this whole culture and aesthetic around it and we were definitely into all that. The sound we had then was rooted in that underground world, people making things on four-track recorders and probably trying a little too hard to be heady with the lyrics. I mean, not to disparage what we were doing. I think we did a good job being interesting and thoughtful, but also having a sense of humor and not taking ourselves super seriously. Then I moved up to the Bay Area and started Meanest Man Contest with Noah, who was also in mic.edu. We initially put out a seven-inch single that drew pretty heavily from the mic.edu sound, but then we expanded in a few different ways. First with a mostly-instrumental album that we put out on Plug Research that was more in the vein of what we were listening to in the early 2000s, a lot of producer-based stuff, Warp Records stuff. Then MMC became a little more of a hip hop project, and then we started trying new things again and were doing more singing and playing instruments and not having everything be so sample-based. We’ve done all kinds of stuff with MMC and it’s been cool to not feel tied to one particular sound with it. And now with the Not the 1s project, that’s more of a battle rap, party rap thing, where my partner Mawnstr and I work with a lot of different producers who we love. Guys who can keep their shit complex and interesting but also fun to listen to.

How does your personal approach/writing/sound differ between the groups?

I was talking with Noah recently about what our objectives are musically, and I identified a mistake that I’ve found myself making sometimes with music. There’s this self-imposed pressure that I sometimes feel to make things the way that I think they’re supposed to be made or the way they’re supposed to sound. So if my approach has changed at all, it’s because I’m realizing more and more that the opportunity you have as someone who’s going to indulge your creative side is to communicate who you are as purely as you possibly can. Just by being you, and not by trying to be pretentious and not trying to make something that you think will be accepted or liked by a certain group of people, but by making something that really represents who you are. So I’d say if anything, that what I am trying to aspire to be as true to as possible. Even if it’s just, like, a battle rap, something that isn’t at all introspective, I want to do it in a way that reflects my personality, my sense of humor, and my perspective.

Is it difficult to balance all of those projects, in addition to your work with Creative Commons?

No not really, because I love working on all of the things I’m a part of. My job at Creative Commons is good for me because I get to work with people all over the world who are making music and art and things that they want to share with other people—I’m inspired by them. It’s not really a challenge, because in a lot of ways it occupies the same brain-space for me.

Do you think there’s a future for interaction between rap music and Creative Commons?

For sure. One of the things that appealed to me about Creative Commons right from the begining was what they have to say about today’s culture and creativity relying on the culture and creativity of the past. Today’s art stands on the shoulders of its predecessors, and with hip-hop, you have music that is literally built on top of the music that came before it. At Creative Commons, we want to make it easy for tomorrow’s creators to build upon the work of today, without the legal barriers that can sometimes get in the way.

What do you do outside of all that music and Creative Commons?

I write for magazines, mostly Wired. I’m interested in technology and the culture around it. Before I started at Creative Commons, I was an editor at Wired.

Not the 1s
Not the 1s (Cuzzo and Mawnstr)

How did Not the 1s get started?

I’ve known Mawnstr for a long time, through friends in college, I guess. We met just because we’d roll through to the same spots where people were drinking and freestyling and geeking out over rap shit. We’ve been wanting to work together on something for a number of years but it just never happened. Mawnstr was doing a group called Connoisseurs for a while with P.E.A.C.E., Dranged, and No, and then that wrapped up. Noah and I had finished the most recent Meanest Man Contest stuff and I had moved back to the Bay Area after some time away, so it was just like “hey let’s try working on some new music together. No pressure, let’s just see what happens.” The third member of the Not the 1s crew is our friend Waes. We started recording tracks with him in a role as sort of a combination of engineer and advisor, just having fun and seeing what we could put together. The shit we came up with was feeling pretty on-point, and we got enough tracks together that we thought we had a strong album, so we took them to a label in Berkeley called Gold Robot, which has put out records by all kinds of artists, including some Meanest Man Contest stuff. Gold Robot was interested in putting the record out, so we said “let’s do it.”

How has Gold Robot Records been compared to the other labels you’ve worked with?

Gold Robot is great. The guy who runs it is named Hunter Mack, he’s just a really cool guy who’s got an eclectic sense, great taste in music, and a good understanding of how music relates to other types of creativity. He’s a visual artist, and some of the stuff that he does is around matching musicians with visual artists and encouraging them to collaborate around an idea. He puts out rock, noise, electronic music, hip-hop. I like the fact that he pulls people together from a bunch of different worlds and that his label has less of a specific sound than a sensibility.

Can you tell us a bit about Why You Cryin?

It’s an album in the vein of the rap music Mawnstr and I grew up loving, where I guess we’re just showing our senses of humor and making music purely for our enjoyment. Obviously we want people to like it and and hear about it, but our number one objective was to create something that we knew we would wanna listen to. That’s sort of a cliché, but it really is the overarching principle that we put this project together by. It’ll be out on vinyl and digital in June on Gold Robot Records. The producers include Lunice, Mexicans with Guns, dEbruit, Daedelus, Monster Rally, Young L, Waes One, and we have a collaboration on one of the songs with Isaiah Toothtaker. I’m also putting out a mixtape around the same time to sorta help promote the album. It’s called Bad at Rap. For a long-ass time, I’ve been collecting examples of people who have recorded, like, the worst rap music ever. Stuff like ill-advised sports celebrities who someone let get on the mic, bad TV commercials from the ‘90s that mocked hip-hop in order to sell fucking Pop Tarts or whatever, and a lot of really lame comedy projects where basically the joke was that oh hey, look at this, it’s a white guy rapping and, boy, that sure isn’t something you would ever expect.

The album features a variety of producers, who has been the best to work with?

There’s only gonna be eight tracks on it, so it’s a pretty short album; we recorded more stuff, but the eight tracks we’re including are the ones that we felt strongest about, that we enjoyed putting together the most, and that we felt had the best vibe. Working with each of the different producers on Why You Cryin? was really fresh.

If listeners could take away one thing from the album, what would you have it be?

I guess that not everything has to be so serious.

Are there any tours planned for Not the 1s or Meanest Man Contest?

When Not the 1s’ album comes out, we’re gonna work with Hunter at Gold Robot and get something together.

Any last thoughts or shout-outs?

I just hope that people will be able to go check out some of the stuff that we recorded with Lafura. When I listen to the stuff we did together, I’m happy we were able to get as much as we did done. But it sucks too because I realize how that was just the starting point for him, and he would have done to do lots of great things. He was a great dude and I still think about him every day.

Brand New Crime re-release on circleintosquare.com