Empires Die . . . Life Evolves is a project that both reflects and explores change: personal, social, political, and artistic change.
The project’s beginnings manifested during a night of personal terror. Awakened by violent, unexpected nerve pain gripping my entire body, I dealt with the pain as best I could. I took my mind to another place, a place familiar but new in this darkness, this pain: a place of creativity, filled with thoughts of death and art and their combustible intertwining. This experience—this night—became the inspiration behind the first song I wrote for the album and initiated the project as a whole.
The backstory is worth telling . . .
That night punctuated the end of an intense emotional week.
Creatively I had reached a place of satisfaction and accomplishment; I had released an album as part of the super group: The 3rd Eye. But that creative happiness was tempered by the death of “my white rapper soul mate,” Mac Miller, an important and influencing creative voice in my musical psyche as well as the larger musical world.
At work, I had encountered street violence first hand, breaking up a bloody machete fight in Eugene, Oregon. Walking around a street corner I saw one homeless guy attacking another with a machete. Both were bleeding. I ran up and held out my badge. (That badge gets me into the gym; other than that, it’s worthless.) With uncommon authority I yelled: “drop the machete”! Somehow that worked and I was able to remove the machete from the man wielding it. Blood was everywhere. My coworker, who had been walking with me, took the next few days off. I retreated into my music, prepping for the 3rd Eye album release show.
These incidents cracked the status quo of my reality, breaking open the dams of stagnation in my life, cutting a path of change, marking the beginning of an epic, painful, magical and ultimately transformative, two and a half year journey from which Empires Die . . . Life Evolves has emerged.
Professionally I was an outreach worker, an advocate for street youth in Eugene. It was a job where intense experiences were more the norm than the exception. I held a teenager—overdosing—nearly unconscious, frothing at the mouth, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. I was present when another teenager—drunk and triggered by circumstance—ran away from our team moments before becoming involved in an event that led to him being tried for murder; I had to testify at the trial. I witnessed police verbally and physically accosting yet another teenager, challenged their actions, futilely pleaded with them to stop; ignored, I yelled at the gathering crowd: “Film! Film the police”! For that moment of standing up for justice, I was suspended from my job without pay.
There would be more pain, more loss.
My job and the program I had helped the city develop—not unlike many positions and programs that serve the marginalized and most vulnerable of our populations—abruptly lost funding. I fought the decision, challenging top local government officials and got myself suspended. Again.
Although the program ended it had brought me together with Charlie Landeros, a kindred spirit, also committed to creating positive social change.
Charlie and I launched a community garden to empower people dealing with persistent food insecurity. We began working together creatively, writing and recording a song called, “Tha Price of Righteousness.” Charlie was murdered by the police in circumstances that remain unclear and unresolved. I was devastated and, once again, in the eye of a tornado of controversy.
Financially broke and heartbroken by Charlie’s death, I accepted a job managing a camp for the unhoused. Days before I started this new, intense job, my wife of 13 years told me she wanted a divorce. I had grown up in a broken family and dreamt of creating a stable, lasting nuclear family for my two kids. It was a dream I had to let go of as the divorce process unfolded and my beautiful family was torn apart. I moved out two weeks before Covid hit.
I became so depressed and stressed, I was unable to eat or sleep. I lost 21 pounds. (My healthy weight is about 130 pounds so I didn’t have a lot of room for that kind of loss.)
I even faced the uniquely modern fiasco of a technology dependent creative: my hard drive died, causing me to lose 7-8 songs specifically created for Empires Die . . . Life Evolves.
I was mentally and physically destroyed. Artistically empty.
At rock bottom, I learned how to sit with my pain and emerge from it. I started to crawl back toward life. I began eating healthy foods and working out. I consumed lots of psychedelic mushrooms.
I started hitting the studio with as many artists as I could: artists from different walks of life, artists from different countries, cultures, races, religions, and ages, artists from different musical backgrounds.
Through this process, I learned to be vulnerable, to ask friends for help, to be receptive to the change that was inevitable and ultimately, to become stronger and more resilient. I transformed, becoming a more mature, self-assured soul and a better musician.
At one point, I was given a free trip to Costa Rica to study, network, and collaborate with world-class musicians at the Solar Sound Immersion Retreat.
This period was characterized by an explosive surge of creativity. While 22 songs made the final album, over 50 songs were recorded in this surreal period of life.
Of course, this period of personal transformation is set upon the backdrop of equally profound—and necessary—social and political change. Many songs on Empires Die . . . Life Evolves reflect issues we are grappling with as national and global societies: the virus, quarantine, economic uncertainty, police brutality, systemic racism, social inequality, environmental destruction—issues that define our collective experience and demand our collective engagement.
Combined, the songs that make up the album, Empires Die . . . Life Evolves, simultaneously proposes and composes an exploration of transformation asking: “How does one navigate these extraordinary times of turmoil and uncertainty to survive and maybe even thrive? How does one become resilient? How does one evolve?”
Because of the enormity of the quest reflected in these questions, I sought out and brought together a diverse group united by passion and purpose, creating a community of over 60 musicians to make this album, and over 20 artists, videographers, fashion designers, producers, and promoters to contribute to this larger artistic meditation. What has emerged is both a personal and communal testament to the possibilities of change.
While rooted in hip hop, these songs are a multi-genre musical mosaic capturing a kaleidoscope of emotions telling the story of learning how to die and how to live, how to fall out of love and in love again, how to re-imagine family and family life, how to make, connect with, and remember friends, how to be in community and conflict, how to embrace revolution and evolution.
Welcome to the journey . . .