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Slingshot

Virginia rapper McKinley Dixon on the power of community and making music for himself

Although McKinley Dixon grew up between Annapolis, Md. and Queens, N.Y., he ultimately found his home as an artist in Richmond, Va. Growing up an avid drawer who loved cartoons, he moved to Richmond in 2013 to pursue animation, but soon discovered that music gave him the best space to communicate.

“I loved being transported to other worlds through media,” Dixon explains. “But there was a moment where I felt like I had a lot to say and a lot of time and distance traveled, and drawing wasn’t moving fast enough for my head, so I started making music.”

Dixon’s first two albums, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? (2016) and The Importance of Self Belief (2018) served as vehicles for processing, healing and exploration. His latest album For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, released last year on Richmond’s Spacebomb Records, rounds out the musical trilogy. As a storyteller Dixon draws on the imagery and techniques of Gothic literature, and is a self-described “musical time traveler,” relying on genres from hip-hop to jazz to analyze the past and enact change in the present.=

At times dark and brooding, and other moments rejuvenating and cleansing, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her is deeply personal, but also serves as an homage to Dixon’s community. Each track features around a dozen instrumentalists, with a large portion from Richmond. He spoke with Desiré Moses from WNRN Radio in Central Virginia about arranging records and the influence of place.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desiré Moses, WNRN: Can you talk about when you moved to Richmond and how the region helped you come into your own as an artist?

McKinley Dixon: When I started making music and first had the idea to create a song, it came out of a necessity in my life to express myself. But I didn’t really get as confident in myself and in my music until I came to Richmond. Around that time, I had been making music that was very jazz and instrument-centric, you know, but nobody knew who I was. But then I was put into this position of being a rapper who is not rapper, but a rapper who was not in the indie crowd, either. It sort of became this thing where my music was intrinsically linked to me being in the Richmond community because the Richmond community has such a heightened indie scene. So many people have come from this community to go on and do great things in and outside of the underground. I definitely think being [in Richmond] pushed me to be more confident in how I approach music.

I have been [in Richmond] for almost a decade and the things that I’ve done in music would not have been accomplished if I didn’t have a home base in a community like this. I’ve learned about so many different things including identity, racial construct[s]. I’ve decided to approach things from a more non-binary perspective in how I move about my life, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without my loved ones here in Richmond. The Black and brown queer community of Richmond, it really was something that sort of showed me that there’s nothing to really be afraid of and if you are afraid, it’s okay to be afraid. I think those are the reasons why people find truth in my music and approach it from that perspective, because it’s sort of this vulnerable thing that is not linked to one group, but an overarching community.

Who were the key players and venues in this overarching community that had an impact on you?

Rest in peace [to the music venue] Strange Matter. That was a really big one. Before now, [when] everybody is so bent on making safer spaces for everybody, there was a community that was Black and brown, queer kids that were doing house shows: 3 Moons, rest in peace, Rock Bottom, a house venue, and Soft Web, a DIY venue.

And these were people that in 2015 would, at the beginning of the shows, read manifestos and things like, “If you are this person, please come to the front of the room.” And these were my peers. I was 18 years old, these kids [were] 18 years old, dealing with these things and these ideas. Of course we were young and it didn’t really always pan out and we were trying, but those were the venues and moments that really sort of stuck with me.

Like Manny [Lemus] from Citrus City [Records], if it wasn’t for him, Combo Chimbita would never have came to Richmond and I’ve seen Combo Chimbita five times now. If it wasn’t for Soft Web, Soul Glo would have never come to Richmond and that band was so formal in how I approach music and incorporating punk music into my stuff. If it wasn’t for 3 Moons, I would have never known that you can state your intentions at the beginning of things and if people have problems with it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s conflicts — it just means that maybe it’s time to approach it differently. Going to these venues and shows that no longer exist anymore, those were the formidable players and moments in my time.

Your music is very intricate and layered and you’ve had more than a dozen instrumentalists on each of your releases. What’s the creative process like when you sit down to make a record?

There’s still this weird notion that people don’t know that rap is instruments. It’s so wild because people will be like, “I’ve never even thought this could happen.” Rap technically came before a lot of other genres, if you really want to go there, you know what I mean?

I always have to kind of be prepared for people approaching me after my shows. I think a lot of people hear me talk about these vulnerable moments, and they sort of then think, “OK, I have a vulnerable moment that he wants to hear at this moment.” I love people talking to me about things, it can just be hard, you know. A lot of people ask a lot of questions all the time with my music and I think it’s sort of this thing where this record was just written for me to process — not for others to dissect.

Because you’re putting these ideas out into the world, do you think that then comes with a certain responsibility?

I think the other thing is that I am Black. I think I’m maneuvering through scenes that are usually white folks, or white folks that are not themselves. When you have a band and you hear a band’s story, you automatically assume it’s the story of these four people that came together to write this. I mean, there’s a lead singer but these people move as a unit. Whereas with me, I am the one that wrote this and I am the one that is going to receive your thoughts on my life. It’s not like the history of the band, you are talking about the history of me. So it gets interesting being on stage and then coming off stage and people have a lot to say.

 

You mentioned the manifestos being read at the house shows and some of the ways you now navigate the world based on what you learned there. Are there any other touchstones or lessons that you’ve incorporated into your live performance from that time?

I’ve learned that when you’re walking into these spaces, nobody is scarier than my grandma. So if anyone’s going to try to cut myself short for a band, I’m gonna be like, “No, you’re not.” [Laughs] What I’ve found [while] maneuvering through this community of such a vast level of popular peers is that you really have to start being more confident in yourself. And I think I learned that by being in these house shows, by my set getting cut short one too many times in the early 2010s.

Can you explain why your sets would get cut short?

Another problem is that rappers are not seen to be as interesting unless they have a band. So they will put about 10 or so rappers for 15 minute sets on a bill, which is usually not good — it’s a lot to do that. But then with rock music, if it’s a five-person bill and if somebody needs to go over or somebody needs to come on, because I’m the rapper, I am the one that is now not on the bill.

It don’t feel good to me; it don’t feel good to my band. So that’s what I learned from these house shows — to not take nothing. You have to have that tough skin.

I read in another interview that you would bring the lyrics to the band you were working with and they would craft something based on how they felt and what their reaction was to the written piece that you brought. Is that how a song usually gets started for you?

A lot of people think For My Mama was made in the studio. For My Mama was made over the course of three years starting in 2017 and ending in probably 2020. Honestly, the way I would work was because I didn’t have the resources to record a full band at the same time.

I’d write a lot in my notebook — really meticulous notes and arrangements and then I would record verses, like me just rapping or me humming a melody. Once I had that, I would then send it out to a lot of people. The first thing in my notes is to find the bass for this song, so then I’d send it to one or two bassists. I wasn’t pressing people. People would get back to me when they had something and I would move on to the next instrument. And then when I had all of those individual pieces, I would rearrange everything and sort of build choruses.

My ideology for For My Mama was that people are people and this is real life, you know, everyone’s going through real things. I’m going through real things — that’s why I’m making this music. I would approach it like, if this person is recording on this song, no pressure, they can get back to me whenever. They will either record when they are in a moment where there’s so much emotion that they feel like they need to express it, or when they’re so comfortable that they can think about it. I was just moving on my own time. So with that intention, then people would send these wonderful things that I used wherever I needed them because you feel it. I don’t think any of [the record] was recorded in the same room at the same time, because everybody was sort of given the freedom and control to play whenever, whatever — then it wound up feeling cohesive.

You had musicians from other states and even other countries sending you their parts, but you also kept it close to home with a lot of Central Virginia musicians.

Natalie Prass is on [“Mama’s Home”] and literally just says, “Have heart.” Gina Sobel [from Charlottesville] did all the flute arrangements and some singing. That song was [rapper] Alfred. in Richmond, Gina in Charlottesville doing the trumpet and saxophone and singing, Natalie in Nashville or wherever she was at the time and then harp by Caroline Bryant who recorded at her house in Richmond.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the title of the record, For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her and how it speaks to the importance of representation.

I didn’t conceive this idea. There’s somebody who said it better than me and this is how I approach this teaching, you know what I mean? I think it’s all just trying to find language. Songs like “Make a Poet Black” were me searching for languages and then “Mama’s Home” and “Chain Sooo Heavy” were me finding it, in a way. I just want everyone to be able to tell their stories better. I didn’t really make this record for people. I say that and people think that means I didn’t care that there was going to be an audience. But in actuality, I did make it for myself and I hope that language is provided by this. I just hope that someone is trying to learn from it.

Over the past year, Richmond has been spotlighted in the national news surrounding the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Ave. As we’re talking about language, have you noticed a shift on a local level in the way the Richmond community vocalizes itself?

I definitely believe there’s always kind of been that movement. I think that monuments are distractions, if we’re being honest. The community that I move with has always been on the move. So it’s never really been this sort of thing where certain moments like this are impactful, because in actuality certain moments like this usually are diversions. Monuments and things like that don’t really make it into my family’s world, because what does it mean to us?

Most of my community doesn’t participate in the protests because in actuality, what’s going to happen? I’m going to get knocked out and it’s going to be an issue. It’s going to be another one. We look for safety, moreso. Moments of rest, really big moments of communal love are more impactful than a monument getting taken down.

2022-03-01T12:53:19-05:00February 25th, 2022|

How Illiterate Light Is Making Bike-Powered Concerts A Reality

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of live music has been in flux, shuttering venues nationwide and bringing touring to a halt. As the music industry continues to navigate the nuances of COVID-19 variants on a global scale, outdoor concerts and club shows have reemerged in modified formats. While necessary, these precautions tend to exacerbate an element that’s already inherent to performance — the physical space between the performers and their audience.

“I know what it’s like to be an audience member, but I also know what it’s like to be the artist and to feel that divide, says Jake Cochran, one-half of the touring duo Illiterate Light. “There’s a lot of times where I want the connection with the audience in a way that I don’t know how to create.”

“A lot of times during COVID, even if we played a festival, there was a big outdoor stage and then 30 feet of barriers and people sitting in lawn chairs,” he continues. “I know we need space, but I [was] having a hard time connecting.”

Cochran founded the alt-rock outfit Illiterate Light with guitarist Jeff Gorman after the two met as sophomores at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. over a decade ago. Sharing an interest in environmentalism and social justice, they joined a cohort of other musicians from the university in an annual summer bike tour called the Petrol-Free Jubilee, traveling throughout Virginia by bike and stopping to play gigs along the way. Not only did the bikes provide a way to avoid burning fossil fuels on the road, but they also became a staple of the crew’s live performance. By putting a bike on a generator stand, the group was able to power a small PA system while an audience member or a fellow performer pedaled.

“When we experienced [the bike generators] for the first time in 2012, it rewired my brain in how I understand my use of electricity, because live music and sound is something I’ve always loved, but I had no idea the cost associated with it,” Cochran explains. “It’s really an experience that, since then, has followed Jeff and I around in a way that we wanted to share with a bigger number of people.”

Cochran and Gorman took on an agricultural internship during their senior year of college and began farming by day while playing music by night. After graduation, they continued both passions — selling produce at the local farmer’s market and garnering a following performing at clubs in Central Virginia.

“The first time I ate food that we grew, it was like we were so connected. We were suddenly creators of the thing that we were enjoying and I felt the same way when we first started the bike-powered stuff,” recalls Gorman. “We were still consumers, but now we were taking part in this creative process and that sparked a lot of excitement.”

Rethinking their place as performers in an industry disrupted by the pandemic, Illiterate Light is reviving the bike-powered set as a way to forge a new connection with audiences — all while doing their part to help the environment.

“Regarding sustainability, it can feel really difficult to even know where to begin because the honest truth is that we live in a pretty unsustainable consumer culture, so it’s really hard to know how to break that,” Gorman says. “One area that we’ve landed on is to start where you’re at and it’s got to bring joy.”

With those guiding principles in mind, Illiterate Light is breaking the audience barrier by forging a new path. Last August, the duo relaunched the bike generators for a handful of songs during a three-night run at their hometown music venue, The Golden Pony. Made by a company out of Oakland, Calif., Rock the Bike, the bike generators differ from solar offerings and other green touring initiatives in that they don’t have any battery storage. The energy that each audience member generates on the bike is immediately transferred to the speakers so that in order for the music to get louder, the audience members have to pedal more.

“We’re approaching the bike generators as an experiment that we can’t do alone. It’s just an open invitation to show up and figure it out with us and it’s risky,” says Cochran. “We’ll probably have shows that will flop because somebody gets off a bike and somebody else gets on and in that minute-long process, the power has dipped enough that the PA cuts off and the show stops.”

Cochran and Gorman plan to continue this experiment on a small scale as they begin touring behind new music. While they’re not in a place to perform a whole cross-country tour that’s powered by bicycle, they can supplement their tour with intimate club or outdoor shows that utilize the two bike-powered generators and small sound system that they currently have, with bikers trading out between each song.

“We’re inviting chaos into something which is, I think, a necessary step to expanding our minds and discovering what other solutions to these problems could be,” Cochran says. “But both Jeff and I love and live in a space where we have to put ourselves in a place where we might fail, or else why are we even doing it? That’s how we create music and how we live our lives.”

-Desiré Moses

2022-02-25T14:12:03-05:00February 21st, 2022|

Learn How A Record Gets Made At Blue Sprocket Pressing

Central Virginia has been an incubator of music and culture amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains for decades – look no further than the success of veterans like Dave Matthews Band, the breadth of lo-fi poetry from Stephen Malkmus and David Berman, the deep tradition of bluegrass, or the rise of a new generation of indie stalwarts like Lucy Dacus.

Charlottesville, Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley boast no shortage of recording studios and treasured venues, but it’s a vinyl manufacturing operation in Harrisonburg that’s put Virginia’ s music scene on the map in a whole new way: WNRN in Central Virginia met with Chris Jackson, the founder of Blue Sprocket Pressing, to learn how a local, independent plant achieves international success while still serving its community.


Chris Jackson has an ear for minutiae. Some of his earliest childhood memories of growing up outside of Harrisonburg, Va. involve dropping the needle on a newly procured vinyl record and settling into the groove, honing in on the different touchstones of some of rock music’s greatest producers and engineers — the sound of the drums on an album by The Police, for instance, or the way Paul Simon‘s guitar line was captured.

“I not only had this love of the music, but also this fascination with how these recordings came to be in my home,” Jackson recalls.

His interest in music and technology only deepened in adolescence.

“I was the kid that was setting up the sound system,” Jackson recalls, “and trying to build little home studios out of [stuff] I could get out of Radio Shack and little cheap multitrack recorders — whatever I could get my hands on.”

Jackson’s musical pursuits came to fruition, eventually opening his own recording studio and a vinyl pressing plant right in his hometown. Since its establishment in 2018, Jackson’s Blue Sprocket Pressing has carved out a niche in the vinyl pressing industry for producing specialty records. While larger pressing plants in North America run commercial releases for major labels, Blue Sprocket Pressing prints exclusive colored vinyl for indie labels, fan clubs and subscription services, like the limited-edition blue vinyl of Sturgill Simpson‘s Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 for Vinyl Me, Please and a compilation of work by the late John Prine for a Record Store Day drop last year.

“We didn’t come at this immediately just from the manufacturing side, like, how can we make as many flat round discs that will play music back on a turntable as humanly possible in a day,” explains founder Chris Jackson. “We wanted to know what it would take for us to make a consistent, quality record.”

As Blue Sprocket’s reputation has grown, they’ve pressed records for Alanis MorissetteThe Lemonheads, Morgan Wade and one of Jackson’s favorite artists, Edie Brickell.

“It’s an amazing feeling to make something and flip it over and remember, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been listening to this artist my entire life,’ ” he says. “There’s a lot of nostalgia there.”

 

After high school, Jackson began working live sound gigs with engineers and sound companies around his hometown, before moving to Nashville to pursue his interest in recorded music. After meeting his neighbor, Dave Piechura, Jackson’s world opened up. With a background selling high-end recording equipment to studios at a company called Vintage King, Piechura’s connections ran deep, and he introduced Jackson to facilities around town. Jackson began working in the tech side of the studio industry, most notably at the well-known Blackbird Studio, maintaining equipment and getting a crash course in how records are made.

Around 2008, Jackson moved home to Harrisonburg, helping a few friends record an album. He enrolled in a telecommunications program at James Madison University while building a studio in his basement, anchored by a console that he brought back from Music City. By 2013, Jackson was married and he and his wife decided to dig in their roots and expand the home studio.

“Harrisonburg had this really diverse community that we loved, and there was a lot of music here,” says Jackson. “The town had been growing for quite some time and I’d been wondering for a while if a studio more similar to what I had grown accustomed to working in in Nashville was viable here.”

Jackson called the new studio Blue Sprocket Sound.

“The Blue Sprocket name comes from being in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley and wanting to pay homage to that,” he explains, “And around here, there’s this huge community around cycling. This idea that a sprocket on a bicycle is a small thing that takes the power from your legs and moves the wheel and propels you forward – it’s this small part that’s part of this whole system, and that’s how our studio felt.”

Jackson worked with a variety of artists, always leaving room for bands from Central Virginia, like The Steel Wheels, Illiterate Light and Dogwood Tales.

“I love being a part of that process, of figuring out how to get an idea out of someone’s head and eventually into someone else’s hands,” Jackson says. “Even as streaming has become more and more popular and entrenched in the way that we connect with music, there is still this need for a physical vehicle.”

Before long, Jackson noticed that artists he was working with were all running into similar issues when trying to press their albums to vinyl: lead times would be extremely long, or small bands would dole out a significant portion of funds only to be disappointed in the product. Vinyl had largely fallen by the wayside with the advent of the compact disc, but with the format’s resurgence in the late aughts, facilities in the U.S. became backed up trying to meet the demand.

So Jackson had an idea: why not start a vinyl manufacturing operation next to his studio?

“There were a lot of North American plants doing exceptional work, but we knew some of the issues that artists we were close to experienced, and we wanted to build a place that addressed those issues,” he says.

Along with his studio colleague, Logan Stoltzfus, Jackson secured a vinyl record press made by the Toronto company Viryl Technologies, and launched Blue Sprocket Pressing in 2018. Stoltzfus took on the role of operations manager at the pressing plant, and hired Taven Wilson as their first press operator. With family backgrounds in construction and manufacturing, the trio got to work putting up walls, pulling wire and hoisting pipes for infrastructure.

Word spread fast in the region’s close-knit music community, and what began as the little-pressing-plant-that-could has put Central Virginia on the map in a whole new way. Blue Sprocket continues to press records for major label acts and unsigned artists alike, shipping records all over the world while maintaining its homegrown status as a hub for local artists.

Harrisonburg’s Dogwood Tales turned to Blue Sprocket for the vinyl run of their first LP, Too Hard To Tell.

“It was truly a magical moment heading over to the plant for the first time, seeing the sleeves of our record all ready to go, and watching the pressing of our record as it was happening,” says Kyle Grim of the Harrison-based band Dogwood Tales. “Having Blue Sprocket in Harrisonburg has been huge for a lot of bands in town that have wanted to release physical media instead of just doing things the digital route. Blue Sprocket has also given so many musicians in town a place to work and continue to live within their passion.”

-Desiré Moses

2022-02-17T08:38:30-05:00February 9th, 2022|