By Brian Tucker
“It’s something I’ve wanted my entire life,” AJ Reynolds says of hip hop band Temple5. A live hip hop group might be rarer today without The Roots and drummer Questlove and pioneers Stetasonic. The former act had significant impact on Reynolds and Temple5 drummer Keith Butler, Jr.
The seven member band performs an album release show Saturday at Satellite Bar & Lounge with special guests Ellsworth Jonson, Leroy Moody and Sam Brown. The show will feature material from the just-released The Bap is Eternal (The Argument). It’s their second release after less than a year together. Following on the heels of Strategic Arrival: The Statement, released in April, Reynolds sees them getting closer to being hip hop artists. On new material the band plays closer to hip hop form, reaching back to old styles by using heavy beats and incorporating rock guitar.
“It’s real heavy, a head jerker,” Reynolds said. “I walked away from this album…and I thought, we can do damn good work together.”
Butler, trumpet player Aaron Lane and saxophonist Reynolds discussed Temple5 on a muggy Saturday afternoon in June, the new EP recorded at Hourglass Studios only a few weeks prior. The group began as a collaborative effort for the hip hop community in Wilmington, where rappers could work with a live band instead of prerecorded tracks.
They met at UNCW and later played in local band Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine. By 2012 Reynolds felt it was possible to create a band mixing jazz music, hip hop and varied rappers but done with a positive, uplifting vibe. They craft music that can be sultry, smooth jazz, or hip hop done with a heavy back beat like found on 90s albums with boom-bap production style. Though live shows allow for improvisation they usually don’t stray far, save for following a rapper’s delivery.
“That can happen live,” Butler said. “If I notice someone getting into it a little more I might add syncopation to what they have going on. That’s what’s cool about the live stuff, the energy picks up according to how we’re feeding off one another. Live, there’s a little more improve, throwing in solos. Studio versus live is completely different. Live we just take stuff from the studio and branch out”
“There’s an element of improv there,” Lane added. “We try to have a more focused sound so we’re all hitting together.”
With a multitude of rappers in the area they made it known they were open to them. Most rappers are comfortable working with prerecorded tracks and a DJ but the band found others into live instrumentation.
“That’s where you get real hip hop heads,” Reynolds said. “Hip hop is sampled off live bands – Motown, 70s bands, jazz music from the 50s through 90s. Even though they aren’t able to play an instrument they understand the value of having live instrumentation.”
With the new EP the band is working to bring hip hop back to its more conscious, less caustic beginnings. Reynolds stressed that the genre as not saying things it once did.
“It doesn’t say the things that early hip hop used to say, which was that black people are peaceful, we don’t really all care about money, cars and girls with big asses. We’re actually talking about political motives and what we dislike and like about the environment that way. I feel like Temple5 is trying honor that, that soul from hip hop – what can we do to make it better, make it known to a lot of people to talk about,” Reynolds said. “That was a movement of hip hop, from its birth in the late 70s until I’d say 1999. The new millennium hit and that is gone now. There’s few underground rappers you can find that are that demonstrative to the original soul of hip hop.”
“I walk around and listen to what’s playing in people’s cars,” Butler adds. “It’s just nothing, there’s no substance. It’s reckless. Back in the day when people were making hip hop they had the message. Because of the message they wanted to put the same soul and effort into the production too. There was a community of people wanting to do good work and inspire each other to do good music for the sake of art and getting a good message out.”
More with Temple5
Did you have a specific idea of a band going in?
Reynolds: The point of Temple5 is to be a collaborative effort. Right now when you go to a show that’s run or sponsored by two or three event coordinators they pretty much have a huge list of rappers that perform for fifteen to twenty minutes. You’re talking anywhere from five to ten to fifteen rappers at a show switching on and off stage. It has a lot of draw but there’s nothing cohesive. Temple5 is our effort as musicians to link up with hip hop artists that don’t use musicians.
Generally speaking, how a hip hop artist works is they get their tracks, their beats, and record over them and then have a live DJ with them (at shows). The thing that’s great about Wilmington is that the crowd, they don’t really dig that. They crowd here wants a live band, whether its rock, R&B or jam band, they want live music. They want to be able to write that on the marquee. So there’s a whole bunch of hip hop talent that can’t be touched because they use a DJ. No one wants to deal with that, they want a band and a live band sound.
Are they usually open to that, are they hyped for it, or unsure?
Reynolds: There’s two sides to that. The first, we get is someone that’s hyped for it, who digs it. That’s where you get real hip hop heads. Sam Brown is down to work with us and those in his crew. Even though they aren’t able to play an instrument they understand the value of having live instrumentation. So when it comes to working with a band they’re on board, knowing there’s a band in town that can carry the hip hop beat the way its supposed to be done and not a rock drummer trying to play hip hop. It’s a drummer that can play the nuance the way it’s supposed to be. And then there are horns and keyboards and guitar and five string bass.
That’s one side; the other side is a couple of people who aren’t interested in it because they’re focused on their own game. I understand and I respect that. They’re on a path for themselves, already have some albums out and they’re established. They don’t need us whereas an up and coming rapper might. They’re a little standoffish. The novelty of working with a live band isn’t really there because they’re just on their own path.
Do you change things up in the live setting, rapper to rapper?
Reynolds: We don’t to jam per se, we want to have our stuff together and come off polished. Live, we try not to improv too much. If there’s ever a time when rappers can’t make the show, of course we do what we have to get by, keep the show moving.
How many rappers in the realm of Temple5?
Reynolds: We have yet to have a female vocalist yet working with us. There was a show where two girls showed up and sang some of their prose. We did track with Whitney Lanier on one of our songs that has two versions.
What is your background as a musician?
Butler: It’s always been drums. I got my first kit at thirteen. I try to pick up bass or guitar and I just can’t. I feel like there’s so much I need to explore on the drums I can’t spend time on anything else. I grew up just playing whatever I heard on the radio and on TV. Some of it was good, some bad, some of it was cool but I just liked the drums. I started playing System of a Down songs because they had cool drum parts, they’re so ridiculous, playing real fast.
I started playing around thirteen, I went to church but the music there didn’t draw me. I went home and listened to rock music, I couldn’t even tell you the names now. It was the alternative rock stuff in the late 90s and early 2000s, whatever was on MTV and interested me at the time. I went to boarding school for high school and that’s when I learned about The Roots and Questlove and that changed everything.
It was really him and the rapper Black Thought. I was really drawn to Questlove because he approached the instrument so different from what I was used to. He would try to get the craziest sounds to be different, try as hard as possible to sound like a computer because that’s what the hip hop police, if you want to call them that, were into. People didn’t want that live sound.
Did you start out on trumpet Aaron?
Lane: I started out on piano. In middle school I picked up the trumpet and decided that was going to be my main instrument. (Piano) helped me be miles ahead of others in band class. It was a lot easier because on the piano you have to read a lot more notes and think about more notes. But when you simplify it down to one line it’s a lot easier.
Do you play more by feel?
Reynolds: I feel like it varies song to song. If we’re playing something with a lot of energy I definitely want to play more feel-based ideas. If we’re playing something more chill, more reserved and intellectual, it really varies. I’ve played trumpet for ten years and piano for fifteen. I actually wanted to play flute but my dad said, your friends will make fun of you. I still like the flute. I really thank him for that.
Did you begin with saxophone?
Reynolds: I started in sixth grade. My band teacher was my mentor all through middle school because I had anger problems. Music helped me a lot. It has taught me a lot of lessons. I was a nerd. I used to get picked on a lot in school. I was also the black kid that by that time didn’t listen to hip hop anymore. I started listening to Korn and Slipknot. I was the angry, angsty little dude. All the black kids hated me because I didn’t listen to rap and listened to rock, so I was weird. All the white kids made fun of me because I was weird. I was living in Maryland at the time.
So I learned saxophone. I remember sitting in my room and BET on Sundays they had BET Jazz. You could see Victor Wooten and Jeff Kaufman playing on television together. But I saw a video of Charlie Parker playing and I wanted to do that. I went to school and said I wanted to play French horn. They said they didn’t teach kids French horn and where did you get that idea? I explained what I saw and they said, you mean saxophone. He said, you want to learn saxophone.
He got me started playing in middle school band, playing alto saxophone. He was a really nice guy, a role model who had played in the Navy band. That’s how I learned a lot of lessons about controlling my anger. I broke a lot of reeds. Through working with him, and learning to count in music, it almost became like a meditative process. He was the first person to show me that music breathes. Once you have a tempo its breathing and you go with that and follow all the way through which then changed my temperament. It went away by high school. I moved during the middle of high school to Jacksonville and it was gone by tenth grade. I switched to other instruments but always played saxophone.
Hip hop with live bands still seems like outsider activity.
Reynolds: It’s something I’ve wanted my entire life. I didn’t go that route as a musician. You grow up, you get into rock and then into jazz and then you work around different stuff. I didn’t even know if a live hip hop band was possible. But I did know that when I listened to The Roots or Erykah Badu or anyone in the neo-soul genre. I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I got older. I moved to Wilmington and went to school and this is a rock and jam band town. So I got involved with Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine which was a new interpretation of rock.
I didn’t get a hunch for it until 2012 and Robert Glasper’s album Black Radio came out and that really clicked. All the new school jazz guys they’re either remixing Radiohead and alternative rock music or they’re reasserting the element of hip hop into jazz which is a really interesting movement going on now. Jazz was inserted into hip hop and the jazz heads were like, what is this? After a while it came to sit and breathe as a culture. Now hip hop is being inserted into jazz music and wonderful to see come around in my generation.
We remixed Justin Lacy songs to hip hop beats in the idle time of band rehearsals for fun. Justin would walk out and I would sing his lyrics and Keith would drop a beat. Next thing you know Justin’s songs were in hip hop form and sounding like Cody Chestnut. After that I thought, this could happen (a hip hop band). (Justin’s) actually used one of the songs, the last song on Overgrown called “Weeds,” we turned that into a hip hop groove in the live show sometimes. It’s fun.
Everything flows into each other now, the genres affecting each other.
Reynolds: I think its computers; I think that’s what did it.
Lane – The evolution of producing. I think a lot of us hear music really produced now, we’re used to it. We expect that perfection out of our music because we’re used to hearing it that way.
And it’s easier to try things because its more cost effective.
Reynolds: Yeah. Before you would have had to go out and find someone to physically do it. Now that we have computers, I don’t need a person that can lay down a fat beat. I can go to a record from 1990-something, a Cypress Hill record where the first the first two seconds of the song is a drum break, take it, and now I have a four minute song with a drum beat.
How do you feel about that, Keith?
Butler: I’m definitely a purist. I would prefer, if I know a rapper, I’m going to hit them up and say let me record these beats instead of going to get a sample. (But) I don’t mind it because they’re sampling a live drum sound. It’s still a live drum sound, it’s just that they’re just taking it from another record.
I was thinking about this earlier, it goes hand in hand with The Bap is Eternal. If you listen to most of the hip hop songs people like, the drums are from a sample of another record. Those drums aren’t dead. It just goes around forever. I don’t mind it, its still impacting other people’s lives. I don’t like when people overuse a sample. There’s no reason for people to keep using “Funky Drummer.” It’s played out. It’s crazy that it’s lasted this long.
Lane – Being sampled is a really special thing, they’re saying that this section of music is really good and it’s not unable to be used. There’s still life in it.
Butler: Especially when people, do it right. Listen to a J Dilla beat and there’s no way you can get mad at him for using the samples he uses because it’s so amazing. He digs so deep into this person’s song and found this little three seconds and put it in yours and made it sound special.
You see it as making something new?
Reynolds: It’s recycling, it’s like watching your grandmother quilt. That’s the best way I can think about it. Watch her take an old shirt, cut it up into pieces, add it onto another shirt and then add it onto a blanket. It’s now something you’re using (in a different way).
You mentioned before that you wanted to reach back to that.
Reynolds: J Dilla really brought it up to the next level of producing. Everyone else was using turntables, instrumental tracks and drum break tracks and mixed them together. It worked out nice but it wasn’t anything…you can hear and say its Spinderella, but he took it to the next level. We’re trying to bring funk back to hip hop, that’s honoring J Dilla who is funky as all get out.
It’s just weird listening to hip hop now. I’m not that old, I’m twenty four, and I can hear the difference between what hip hop was, what I grew up and loved as hip hop and what is out now. In ten years so much has changed and it hurts to watch people gobble all this stuff up and it’s so bad and so destructive. Lyrical content, a lot of stuff that to me is really counterproductive to black culture.
Butler: I just walk around and listen to what’s playing in people’s cars. It’s just nothing, there’s no substance. It’s reckless. Back in the day when people were making hip hop they had the message. Because of the message they wanted to put the same soul and effort into the production too, so everything was good. There was a community of people wanting to do good work and inspire each other to do good music for the sake of art and getting a good message out. You don’t see that.
Reynolds: And on top of that having a party at the same time.
Butler – You can go back to Questlove if you want. If you go to the beginning where they started, Common was in his circle, D’angelo, Erykah Badhu, Jill Scott, Rory Hargrove, all kinds of people and they had this community. They eventually split and did their own thing but all those people had such an impact on music.
Reynolds: They created a new genre, they created neo-soul.
How do you handle rappers that get on stage and say something improper?
Reynolds: It’s happened. Hey, you got to think, my grandmother is over there.
Butler: And she was literally there.
Reynolds: It was actually other people our age, saying you need to get control of your boy on the mic. He’s going too far.
How different are the new albums to you?
Reynolds: I haven’t said this to Keith (Butler) yet, but I was saying to Aaron (Lane) the other day that the change between them is us getting closer to being artists, really being hip hop artists. Before you could hear the jazz elements in the group and you could hear the horns and identify with the fact that there are jazz educated people in this group and they are making jazz music with a pulsing drum beat behind it. With this new album we have more form as far as being in the hip hop form. Our sounds are little more aggressive, the way old hip hop was with heavy beats. Just like Run DMC sampled Aerosmith there are some rock elements brought in, occasionally on one or two songs.
How did Louis come to be with you?
My dad texted me about this kid Louis, said he went to school with you when you were a senior and he was in the ninth grade. That he’s going to UNCW. Within twenty minutes I called him. He said, “You’re calling me already?” I said, “Yeah, you’re stuff is on fire.” We’re both from Jacksonville. He came to listen to us and said we got to work together.
So, he’s permanent?
Reynolds: Yeah, he’s permanent. He’s our Black Thought. The reason I felt we needed to have a house rapper was because after three shows of no rapper showing up we would have to be a jazz band at that point.
Butler: That’s what I like about Louis, he is an artist. His words are his art; he pursues that like we pursue our instruments. He doesn’t want to be a rapper because it’s cool. He writes, I think he’s a creative writing major.