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People Want More: An Interview with Collective Efforts

Michael Frauenhofer

J-Mil of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group feels sorry for the record industry?

From 2003's Visions of Things to Come, their debut, to its well-received follow-up, 2005's Trail Mix, Collective Efforts, the Atlanta-based hip-hop union of producer/MCs Ben Hameen, J-Mil, Bambu, and Creashun has been steadily increasing its profile through a series of strong releases, live shows, and even opening slots for artists like Fort Minor. Perhaps what sets them apart the most from their competition is their unique vision on music, reflected in their name. Collective Efforts are all about cooperation and community in art, living together and constantly collaborating both within their group and also with fellow Atlanta underground artists like Gripplyaz and Minamina Goodsong. A far cry in sound and positive message from the vast majority of other hip-hop acts coming out of the South recently, Collective Efforts are poised on the critical verge, on their way up to greater things.

After building their profile with Visions of Things to Come, Collective Efforts moved on to completely switch up their approach for the follow-up. Trail Mix, their 2005 sophomore album, was 25 tracks of straight-up dope hip-hop, showcasing lyrical development alongside noticeable improvements in production. As their eagerly-anticipated next full-length Medicine hits the streets, rapper/producer J-Mil spoke with PopMatters on his group, his music, and hip-hop today.

Do you feel hiphop culture has really changed since you started?
Yeah, I do. I think there's a totally different focus on what people are putting into songs, you know, I feel it went from ... well, there's always been things in the hip-hop music that moved away from putting a message into it, but, shit, when I was first getting into hip-hop, it was a totally different vibe than it is now. Now, it's a lot less about the music and more about your clothes and your jewelry ... which is cool, I'm not mad at that, but it's just not where we're trying to come from as a group.

Do you feel that you or similar artists could really have an effect on that?
Actually, yeah, I think, like with anything else, you can have an impact on it, you just gotta do what you do and be who you are and I think in time that'll impact on listeners, which ultimately, I think, is what makes the band for the music.

Do you ever feel like it's hard to strike a balance between really expressing who you are and trying to provide an alternative to some of the darker aspects of the culture?
For us, I don't think that's the hard part; I think what makes us unique and makes us different is we're not trying to prove a point in being different, we just speak with a message in mind and that's what we thrive on, is being able to be that something different. We don't sit down before a song and say, "Alright, this is what we're trying to add, this is the point that we're trying to make." A lot of the times, we'll have a specific message in mind, in the song, but other times, it all ends up being on the same tip, based on the vibe of the track, and a lot of times it's just kind of the vibe that we're on. It pretty much stays consistent, because this is who we are.

Do you feel that you've changed or evolved since you've started out, over the course of your albums?
Definitely ... I think one thing that's changed is we get closer and closer as friends with each record that we make. For the first record, the Visions of Things to Come album, it wasn't meant to be an album to begin with, we all got together and the point of it was, we were just recording songs, I just started going over to Ben's house and bringing my beat machine over, and he had his computer set up, and his guitars and stuff, and we started just making beats and writing verses to them. Originally we were all working on our individual solo projects, and�[laughs]�we sat back, and after a little while realized that all these songs that we were creating weren't solo songs at all, you know, they all featured each one of us on them and we'd always burn discs with all of the songs and finally, we had a disc with a bunch of songs with me, Ben and Bam all over 'em, and Cre, and we were like, "You know what? There's an album." That's how that came together...

So with Trail Mix, you feel like you approached it more like, "We're Collective Efforts, we're making an album now�"
Yeah, and that album�it's funny, 'cause that record was finished way before it came out, and for us, we were evolving more as a group, as Collective Efforts, and we didn't have an opportunity to be like, "What's our sound?" or, "What is this?" I don't think we ever focused on that. It bounced around so much, you had more Dirty South style beats, you had more aggressive beats, you had some more introspective kind of stuff, so it was everywhere, which actually was one of the strengths of the album, in some ways...

Do you feel that that's similar with Medicine, or will Medicine be different in that respect?
With Medicine, man, I'm really excited because we had the opportunity to ... well, the album we did in the house together. We all moved into a house together. I think there's a lot of continuity between the album, there's definitely a lot there, and I think with all classic albums there's a distinct vibe ... not necessarily a reoccurring theme, but there is a continuity based off of when the group was making it, the state of mind that they were in, whereas Visions ... for me, I was goin' through a lot more personally. I still miss just wanting to get it to where it needs to be, you know, just wanting to get music to people, and we feel like every time you get a little taste of exposure, we want more. You just want people to get the music, that's the most important thing to us. We want people to be able to hear it, 'cause we feel like if people can check it out, there's a lot more of a chance for them to dig it, you know, get into it, relate it to their life. It's all about the exposure to us -- we just want people to see it. Of course you want to make money and want to make a living off of what you love to do, I think that's natural, but every day, there's another opportunity to get it to people, and every time we get a chance to have people check it out, that's exciting to us, that gets everyone all amped up.

Do you feel like Medicine could be the album where you really get bigger and grow more, and spread your message?
Well, there's a couple unique things about this record ... you know, we've had an opportunity to build with different artists along the way. We've never been a group that gets someone on it, to be like, "You know, we need to get this guest on there, because they're gonna help pull us up." That's never been the case. We're not necessarily about that, we just want the music to speak for itself, have it be pure, and ... you know, I do think a lot more people will be turned onto us because of this record. I can't stop listenin' to it ... I try to step away and approach the album as a listener, you know, and I put it in with different people around ... it's kind of hard to do, everyone knows our voices, most of the people we're around know who we are and what we're doin', so I try to slip it in, just step back and listen to see people's responses, and�we definitely gettin' a really cool response.

What's it like for you working with all these different artists, like Gripplyaz, Manchild from Mars Ill, Ruthie Smith, Minamina Goodsong ... does your perspective on making the song change when you're with a different artist?
I think you definitely get a new perspective workin' with another artist, just based off of their music, you know, that's an influence. We don't necessarily ever change up the style or anything to integrate those people, but we're all friends, you know, so when we're kickin' it, like on this album -- Grip was just over here, recordin' some new stuff, he was just workin' on a new song, he's got a whole different ... he's such a cool dude, man, and he's so friendly, he just loves to have fun with it, you know, and that's what he does, and it comes off really tight. As an artist, he's one of them that has gone and grown so much, me included. Workin' with Ben has been, for me, one of the biggest things. Ben used to be in a band called All the Way, and I used to go and check out all their shows, man, and it was always my dream to work with them, and here we are. Every day, man, I'm just really thankful to be able to work with all these people.

Your favorite part of life as a musician?
My favorite part, actually, is listening to the song right after you make it. I listen to it a million times, I just sit in the car and drive around just listening to it over and over again, just getting amped up ... I must look like a retard, the person in the car next to me lookin' over, like, "Whoa, what's wrong with this dude," but that's my favorite part. I love doin' shows ... I don't like doin' shows that no one's at. [laughs]

On the current state of hip-hop:
You can't hate on each other, man, 'cause you're all you got, and if you're hatin' on your own scene, then all the credibility just goes straight down the tubes. You got to all help build each other, 'cause we're way too small to start actin' like we got some kind of clout, 'cause that doesn't mean shit in the long run. You got to be able to pick each other up, which is what Collective Efforts is about, man, it's in the name ... it's about everyone working together, tryin' to make it something big, tryin' to make a difference in music, 'cause to me ... I mean, there's a lot of good things goin' on in hip-hop, but what's goin' on for the community is shit, you turn on the radio, and it's almost sad. I'm not embarrassed to be a part of hip-hop, but I'm embarrassed for what I'm listening to, you know, I might accidentally turn on the radio with my mom in the car, and have to hear "My lovely lady lumps" or some shit like that, and that's, like, "God, man." I don't want to hear that when I'm next to my mom, it's ... weird ... it just makes me feel uncomfortable.

There's so much more out there, that doesn't get a chance to play on commercial radio. That's messed up, because radio DJs used to break records, you know, they used to be able to be on the street and be out checkin' out music, it's now this big ... there's stations and some of the directors are into our music, they're like, "Oh, man, we love your stuff," but we don't even step to 'em like, "Well, why don't you play it," because they can't, they don't do that anymore, they have a preset program that they have to play. I remember back in the days, there'd be the request lines, they'd be like, "What do y'all think?" and then they'd play the record and then everybody would be like, "Oh man, I'm feelin' it." I used to be one of those cats that would call and be like, "I loved that," you know, whereas now, you hear the same twelve songs over and over all day on the radio

Hip-hop today is soul music, it's the voice of the people, and people want more. It's just a matter of letting them know that there is more�

Do you feel like the Internet or new distribution methods could become sort of the new radio, to spread music more democratically?
Totally, man ... first, like MySpace, how tight is that? Anyone can go anywhere in the world, you could check out anyone, new songs that they put up, you know ... Sirius, the digital satellite radio stuff, Internet radio, I think all that's gonna take over ... I feel bad for a lot of these record companies, A&Rs and stuff, MySpace is just gonna kick it in the face. Naturally, kids are always gonna go more to commercial pages, 'cause they get all the pump, they get all the push, but I totally think that the Internet and Internet radio and satellite radio, man, is where it's at, they're gonna get the strength. I don't think you can ever get rid of MTV and commercial radio, as much as it sucks, still�

It's entertaining, sometimes -- I listen to it sometimes, it's pretty funny, I can't help it. The songs are so dumbed-down, and they're so catchy, it's fun, but at the same time, when you're going through something, you can't relate! People, man, we go through ups and downs, we go through highs and lows, sometimes you want to just step in the club and you don't want to have to think, you want to grab a brew, and you want to bug out and get your groove on, you just want a bangin' beat and you want to see girls dancin' at the club, but sometimes, man, you want someone to help you out of somethin'. Let's say you had a shitty day, you lost a friend, you lost a relative, or you lost your job, you're just not feeling well, you're goin' through a problem with a good friend, the things that we deal with, day-to-day, that aren't always all the easier things to deal with. For me, music has always been the thing that gets me through that.

Have you heard back from anyone that you've picked them up, or seen yourself actually have a specific effect?
Yeah, when you affect someone, man, people want to tell you. When we first put out Visions, we got an email from this kid who had been struggling with drug addictions, with heroin, a heroin addiction, his life was goin' to shit and he felt terrible, and he started gettin' down on himself [and] he was like, "Man, your music helped me get through it, man, helped me be somethin' else." That's powerful, to me, man, and it really lets you know how your words can affect other people in life. With music bein' the rhythm of life, you gotta watch what you say, because there's kids out there listenin' to this stuff, and you could have an impact on those people.

Some people don't always do the right thing with the power that they have. I was datin' this girl a couple years ago, and her daughter was in the car, and a Ying Yang Twins song came on. I love the Ying Yang Twins, I think they're hilarious, but, still -- five, you know what I'm sayin'? We're ridin' in the car, and we have the music on low, and all of a sudden I hear this five-year-old girl, in the background, singin' "from the window to the wall", talkin' about sweat drippin' off her balls, I was like, "Hold on a minute, wait a minute, what'd you just say? Where did you learn that?" She's like, "In school," that's horrible! Five-year-old girls aren't supposed to be singin' that!

As musicians, I think we owe it, to everyone else, to try to be a better influence ... we are role models, it'd be nice for people to look back and be like, "You know, there was a lot of bullshit going on, but CE had somethin' to say, and they were able to make a difference."

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