Per request, here is the interview with G-Side for Frihet translated to English:
The duo behind the Alabama-based hip-hop phenomenon G-Side, Stephen “ST 2 Lettaz” Harris and David “Yung Clova” Williams, rap about broken childhoods, drugs and homelessness with a musical backdrop consisting of sampled indie rock as well as mezzo-sopranos. And they found Sweden’s Alabama in northernmost Kiruna.
A five-year-old kid by the name of Stephen and his mother sleep under a bridge in the city of Athens, a half an hour drive west of of Huntsville in northern Alabama. They have been homeless since the family was evicted a couple of weeks ago, they lost everything, even the stroller they got in a baby stroller center with which they used to walk. Soon, Stephen is to be taken from his mother; for the next three years he will live in different foster homes.
– Lots of people use their childhoods to project a certain aura of themselves as successful despite harsh odds. But I gotta be honest with you, it was tough, somewhat reminiscent of a sad movie, Stephen says today.
Late eighties. The bull market and extreme speculations on Wall Street creates a generation of young millionaires. In tandem is a society that is deeply cleaved under Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts for the affluent, while social programs are rolled back. Most affected are underprivileged African-Americans, not the least in the South. Alabama is, together with Mississippi, one of the States with the most fragile social fabric.
David, six years old, lives in a trailer with his mother. Only ten yards or so from the home, gunfire is heard through the pitch-black night. When the sun comes up, the daily drug trade kicks off. David’s mother happens to be one of the crack users.
– Mom always told to shut up about having no money, it was too shameful. Nobody in school realized how I had it at home. That experience and insight is humbling, Clova elaborates.
”Evictions, convictions, addictions. Sickness, astma, cancer, Aids. I be praying to god to let me see my last days. ’Cause the pain is too much, and I couldn’t cope. And I’m dead broke. Single mom no father, got caught up in the system, that’s when shit got harder. Crackers tryna tell my moms smoking crack. Three years, three foster homes, then I got her back. I don’t cry, but you can see the pain in my face.” – ”Pray”
A red-tinted, shimmering, light reflects through the dense fog from a fog machine adjacent to the stage. The permeating bass beat vibrates, finding force through the sneaker sole all the way up to the scalp, thick and syrup-like fog trickles down in the lungs. Stephen “ST 2 Lettaz” Harris and David “Yung Clova”, enter the stage and the impact is instant: the sound of the audience in the previous, nowadays refurbished, industrial building is roaring. Huntsville has come to Stockholm.
We meet G-Side during the duo’s European tour, where they perform in the Swedish cities of Malmo, Stockholm and Kiruna.
– Kiruna was kind of like home to us. Folks rode around in classic cars with huge rims and pumped music through oversized speaker systems. Just like in Huntsville. Kiruna, like Huntsville, also has space research, ST explains.
On paper ST is often considered the more skilled rapper, typically stacking multiple syllables and using imaginative metaphors and similes to paint stories. Clova is more direct. Stripped-down and rough around the edges, accompanied by minimalist bars. The accent is more distinct, the voice raspy and laidback. In 2007 the group released their first album under the name G-Side, “Sumthin’ 2 Hate”. The album, fully produced by Block Beattaz, introduced the particular sound that through the years has become a hallmark of G-Side. Yet it was on the sophomore album “Starshipz & Rocketz” that the productions refined and ST and Clova rapped more personal.
– The areas where our family and we come from all have a story to tell, a story deserving of a wider audience. The fact that we’re from Alabama also made it tougher to break through the media noise and prejudice. Basically, people considered us too country, to backwoods, for big labels, Clova says.
– But Huntsville ain’t country. There were groups before us. We don’t ride horse, we’ve got electricity, ST jokingly points out.
“Momma stay gone, Daddy been gone, lights ain’t on so I had to get grown / No TV, can’t watch the Flintstones so I went outside with the boys and flipped stones.” – “Youth Of The Ghetto”
The nineties are culminating. Stephen Harris and David Williams both attend Junior High School, ST in ninth grade, Clova in tenth. They are introduced through a mutual friend and soon discover that they reside on the same street.
– We used to make rhythms and beats by banging hairbrushes on the kitchen table while rhyming and playing with words. Since that day we were inseparable, ST remembers.
In 1999 they laid the first rhymes as G-Side, with memories of fragile upbringings as creative fuel and canvas to present a larger story of Huntsville, “the city without a voice”.
– There were groups like 8 Ball & MJG, Outkast and UGK before us. But we never wanted to be the new something, we wanted to be the first us, according to ST.
The dream of making music and the reality of having to pay bills and provide for their respective families has nevertheless been frustrating. Clova and a couple of friends run a barbershop in Huntsville, where he works in between recording. ST takes shifts at a gas station. And it says something important about the expression that is G-Side. The peregrination of the group never was about the grand gestures. Rather, its success is due to the constant motion, the small steps in the right direction. By blog posts, tweets and using people around the world as tentacles for spreading the G-Side gospel. And tellingly, the name of the hip-hop collective of which G-Side is the core is Slow Motion Soundz, “Slow motion is better than no motion”. Ten years ago few recognized Huntsville, the city mostly known for its military industry. A humongous space rocket, a reality G-Side use effectively on their recordings, dominates downtown. On the cover of their second album, “Starshipz & Rocketz”, two young boys under a star-spangled sky are seen pointing toward said rocket.
– It’s the proudest thing we’ve got in HSV, a great symbol of hope. Rockets are historically the literal bread and butter for generations of families, ST explains and continues:
– On the other hand: The rocket never moves. That motherfucker just stays there, nailed to the ground. Therefore it is also a symbol of folks who never advance, who never make it anywhere. That’s why we never want to get stuck; we always want to keep up.
Perhaps the fright of standstill and their constant restlessness is what drives relatively frequent album releases. “Starshipz & Rocketz” dropped in 2008, “Huntsville International” in 2009, in 2011 G-Side released both “The One… Cohesive” and “iSland”.
– We need to constantly grow in order to prevail. Our fans live in a digital age and the life span of music is so much shorter, Clova says.
Clova has numerous examples of family members and friends who fell victims to the financial crisis and the recession in the U.S.
– Many lost everything, man. Had a good job and a year later their out on the street corner hustling and selling drugs. That’s not worthy. We want to be the folks who pull up people out of the gutter, who inspire. So that kids get better chances than we did, so that your mom can get a house to live in instead of breaking her back for working too long.
”The stars look so bright, when you come from a city with no lights.” – ”Y U Mad”
States in the American South have a complicated relationship regarding racial relations and its history. The legacy can be traced back to the American Civil War, where the Confederate States in the South fought for independence from the, at least partially, abolitionist government in Washington. All the way until the mid-sixties African-Americans were structurally discriminated in the South under the Jim Crow laws, for example by not being eligible to vote. Many stores hung signs declaring “whites only” above their entrances.
– It shaped us and it still shapes us today. The main difference between being black and white in Alabama is huge; the racism is so tightly intertwined in the state history, Clova says.
ST concurs but to him the racial dimension is less relevant today. It is increasingly about social and economic status.
– Black or white is not the main contemporary divide in America. Disdain for poor people and blatant classism is more prevalent.
He thinks little has changed in the right direction during the last decades.
– Poor people don’t have shit, while the richer get richer. It forces folks like us to work harder, to strive more, in order to make ends meet. We are scared as hell that we may once again have to return to poverty, and we will be regardless if we have ten bucks or ten million dollars in our banking accounts.
November marks the presidential elections in the U.S. and the question everybody is asking is if Barack Obama will be able to govern four more years or if the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, takes over. Among African-Americans the electoral turnout has historically been low, but the election of 2008 saw a demographic shift. Albeit supportive of Obama’s policies, both ST and Clova are deeply disappointed in the politics of corruption in the U.S. Both think that the established parties don’t care about underprivileged.
– I mean Obama is cool and everything but to be honest nothing has changed for ordinary people. The economic divide is widening and even if the U.S. prospers, nothing trickles down to the streets, ST elaborates.
Clova shares ST’s sentiments about the current political landscape.
– It’s the corporations, not the people, who have the real power. And that’s why nobody cares about politics. It may sound cynical, but that’s the truth. I get pissed off when I think about folks back in Huntsville who live in the same shacks as their parents did.
Both mention health care as an essential issue in the American society. Despite Obama’s health care reform, which increases accessibility and decreases costs, there are still many who can’t afford to get ill.
– We should really have a universal system, like in Sweden and other countries in Europe. The costs are so extreme here. If you get diabetes, you’re done, ST says.
”The day i cease to cry, will be the day money fall from the sky.” – ”MoneyintheskyII”
When describing the music of G-Side critics and listeners alike often touch upon the vivid story telling. Comparable to timeless literature, music or journalism, for that matter, a well-told story is often unsurpassed. Both ST and Clova acknowledge that going from rapping about the past to weave in contemporary life is a challenge.
– Every album is like a time capsule that reveal where we were at that certain point. Our previous works were about our past, but “iSland” and our upcoming albums are about what is happening right now. Life changes and so does the music, ST says.
– You get to a point where you have to leave behind, or at least come to terms with, previous years. You can’t rap about the same poverty and struggle. Music also needs to be uplifting, not simply making the crowd depressed.
Spherical productions with intergalactic connotations have become the mark of nobility for G-Side. On each album, Block Beattaz tweak the creativity further. Through the years their beats have sampled, among others, indie group Beach House, singer Enya and popular nineties TV show “Seinfeld”. Clova and ST have different interpretations of plausible dream collaborations.
– I’d love to work with singer and rapper Cee-Lo Green. And Scarface too. He’s amazing, ST elaborates.
– For me, it begins and ends with Kanye West. He’s from a different planet, according to Clova.
It is running late. In six hours Stephen Harris and David Williams boards the plane from Malmo to reach their beloved Huntsville. For hip-hops perhaps most restless group the journey has only begun.
– On our next album, “G”, which arrives later this year, we come full circle. It takes our past to the future.
Stephen “ST 2 Lettaz” Harris
Lives: Huntsville, Alabama.
Dream when growing up: Rap star.
Favorite album: 2 Pac – “All Eyez On Me”.
Unfamiliar talent: Writes R & B songs for singers.
Person who inspire me: Bob Marley, Scarface
David “Yung Clova” Williams
Lives: Huntsville, Alabama.
Dream when growing up: “Something. Just not standing still”.
Favorite album: 2 Pac – “All Eyez On Me”.
Unfamiliar talent: Great quarterback in football, according to ST.
Person who inspire me: Kanye West.