Part I: The Big Bad Web
The internet is a vast, terrifying frontier. It expands to welcome your fickle tastes and contracts just as quickly to paint you into the boxes you grow most comfortable in. Whether you fall down the Reddit rabbit hole, or stay glued to your Facebook page vibing off the validation of friend requests, the pulse of the Internet is wild and erratic.
Ironically, the musical internet is pure dope for a junkie with my kind of habit. Thankfully, I don’t need the weekly walks up Central Ave to browse the used CD racks and listlessly sift through the dogeared zines, especially since the days of the Music Shack in Albany, NY have come and gone. I don’t need those trips to spend hard earned cash on physical media, because I have all that I could ever need at my fingertips.
Rap music is something I have loved since I plugged headphones into a Walkman many years ago, and something I’ll go to my grave researching and reporting. But somehow Twitter has become my instant link to the beautifully bizarre world of independent hip hop. There are more crews and pop up talent blossoming by the day that even a voracious audiophile like me can’t keep up.
One of the most intelligent, forward thinking, unique voices in the game is Zachg from the Rad Reef collective. He’s popping and locking all over the world wide web, fueled by his love for hip hop, good food, and teal peace. Bouncing ideas off of him is a lesson in listening; the chance to school and be schooled on the finer points of a culture that’s far too often pigeonholed by trends and cheapened by the blind vices of a handful of heavy hitters who may have lost sight of what the game is all about. Sit back and sink into the first part of my feature with Zachg, a truly dedicated musical mind.
Music is the bond that Zachg and I share. While I do not create it, my respect and feel for it are the parts of my soul that I’d trade for nothing. For him, music is his life force, his way to connect far beyond the confines of a casual conversation. Zachg explains, “I didn’t understand it growing up, but I always connected to music the way a musician does. I rarely hear a song as a whole object, 99% of the time I’m hearing a collection of parts. That’s always how it’s been, like the drums are rolling and I tune in and out of everything else. I always felt like I was inside of the music that moved me, and I didn’t care about the people making it, or the names of songs, or albums, I just knew what moved me”. There’s truth in the idea that a great song is more than an artist’s reputation, or the label that backs it. It’s about the groove. The way your head nods on the train, even when you’re crammed in like sardines. When you feel it, you feel it all the way to the tips of your toes.
It was clear to me, by reading and researching that his knowledge of the art of sound was something deeper than ProTools and a mic hanging in the bathroom. Zachg’s background is that of a true renaissance man of the boards. “The music I make has always been an attempt to rectify differences between what I imagine I might hear, and what is out there”, he says.
“However, my experiences as a musician, and the observations that I garnered from my intense studies of Cage taught me that I would need a great deal of critical gravity to ground my work, and it would not be afforded to me by anyone but myself. If I was going to continue on my quest, and continue to find significance, it would only be as I authored my own place in the progression of music history, by continuing the parts of it which moved me, and truly understanding those historical origins”, he says.
Higher education also played a massive part in his understanding of the connection between sound and space. “I went to NYU in a program called Performance Studies that’s housed in the Tisch School of the Arts. Unlike the other programs in the school, PS is not about practice, it’s all about theory. That was really good for me, however, I did not fit in. At all”, he explains.
“I was an excellent student, but the fact that a Jewish rapper with white skin wanted to come in and talk about what his own work meant, as opposed to what Gilles Deleuze might say about what someone else’s work meant was abhorrent to the faculty. I found one ally in a professor named Allen Weiss who was a big scholar of sound. He loved me, and I loved him. He was an awesome dude who really showed me love as a wise and sagacious teacher when everyone else seemed too wrapped up in academic politics to care about what I was doing. As a result, my studies in my time there were strictly a product of my own design, and later when I met Allen, hugely informed by his canon.”
The average listener wants a sound that appeals to them. They don’t investigate why those noises trigger the euphoria, they simply want that instant gratification. The banger. It’s bigger than that. Zachg’s take is something of the complete package kind. He explains, “There’s an intrinsic connection between the sound and the performance of that sound. The big conclusion I came to is that listening is a performance. We are taught to listen by the music we listen to, and by social and cultural habits, reactions, and traditions. While sampling is a concept that predates hip hop, hip hop codified sampling and turned it into a practice that almost anyone can put to use effectively. The cultural and social context in which hip hop crystallized showed us that we can reach beyond the boundaries of the physical, we can disrupt time and space, and if we have no voice, then we must simply learn to speak through sounds.”
“But to me, this stuff was never just thoughts and abstract ideas either. I needed some way to create significance and order in my life. I dealt with a lot of crazy shit growing up and my family didn’t talk about the ways that we were living in a world entirely different from everyone around us. To me, my education through music was a way to better understand myself, by understanding something outside of myself”, he says. He continues, “It was a context to provide order for an otherwise unruly realm of chaos. So, I mean, it’s impossible for me to parse myself from my music. I don’t think I ever really even made a choice to learn more about music. I was just compelled so strongly that I never bothered to consider that there might be another choice.”
Zachg writes and records his own music and collaborates with other independent artists under his Rad Reef umbrella. How it came to be is one of the most interesting tales I’ve ever heard. There’s something to be said for working all night, tweaking an idea or phrase until you get it right. It’s another thing when it all sort of crumbles into place. Rad Reef’s saga is one of legends. He recalls, “I had been living in New York, and I was dating this very famous rapper’s stylist. I had spent the last 3 years applying unsuccessfully to PhD programs, and in 2009 I had been working for Mishka while applying for PhD programs.”
“I got to Los Angeles in August of 2010, and the plan was to stay with my girlfriend until I got acclimated. I started looking for jobs, started familiarizing myself with the cannabis industry, and started researching how to grow cannabis. Come late October I was staying with a college friend in Humboldt getting the most hands on introduction to the cannabis industry possible. I worked the 2010 harvest and wound up writing a post about it for Mishka. That post led to me writing a column for Vice about medical cannabis, and that then led me to move to Oakland. I didn’t have a car, but I figured out that I could move to Oakland and start a delivery service with very little capital up front and make deliveries on my bike. I moved down to Oakland and set about really formulating my delivery service, and the name I came up with was Rad Reef. It was certainly suggestive of cannabis, but not indicative of it.” It’s honestly the stuff of legends.
“My delivery service was going to stand out because we would have a brilliant branding campaign that would rely on my then burgeoning music connections, and my graphic design abilities. We would give away free music, and build a reputation by associating ourselves with artists, and also provide the highest quality cannabis from local growers. It took a while to get things rolling because I didn’t have job at the time aside from the gig writing for Vice, and occasional gigs from the cannabis industry, but by April I had gotten all of my regulatory papers filed, come up with a solid business plan, and developed a strong brand identity. I had found an investor just through a friend mentioning something to another friend at some point, and then connecting us when the investor expressed interest”, he says.
After the delivery service Zachg was working for was raided by the DEA, he knew it was time to reevaluate. Keeping the idea of Rad Reef alive was nonnegotiable, but getting away from the hand to hand peddling was a must. “When I got back I decided that Rad Reef could not be a cannabis business anymore, and that it would still be the same brand, but we wouldn’t do anything with weed”, he says. “So, that just meant it was a record label. I released a live Clams Casino record, a live Main Attrakionz record, collaborative EPs with myself Black Noi$e/BK Beats/Fresh Galaxy/Left Leberra, and a collaborative EP with me Jel and Main Attrakionz early on. I also did a record for Lofty305, and one for Sortahuman.”
Press rewind if that hasn’t blown your mind. He’s shifted his dreams into full on reality by hustling with a blue collar mentality. “Rad Reef is a collective for artists intended to deliver the things artists need (microphones, monitors, soundcards) at wholesale prices. Members pay an annual fee, and get to choose from a carefully selected line of products meant to maximize their money and deliver the best possible quality”, he explains. “Of course we still sell our own goods at a mark up, but when it comes to the tools you need to be an artist, we’re here to make that available to more people for less money by acting as an ally rather than a middleman. Rad Reef is a lifestyle collective built around a record label that has different ideas about how capitalism should work.”
It’s far from slight work, yet nothing like the stuffy doldrums of a 9-5. Zachg is living his life according to beats and rhymes he imagines each time his eyes close. It’s inspiring to realize how much energy exists in the world around us. He’s not making millions. Instead, he’s spreading his message one phenomenal independent release at a time, reinvigorating a sense of truly doing it yourself. Raging against the machine never sounded so funky.
Stay tuned for part 2. Coming soon…