As Champaign-Urbana emcees T.R.U.T.H and Klevah seamlessly flowed through an uncharacteristic local headlining Saturday night set at the Pygmalion Music Festival earlier this year, the pair’s ability to perform in high-pressure situations was never in doubt.
The duo, dubbed Mother Nature, was lights out from the first moment they crept onto the stage with black bandanas covering their faces to their emotional embrace that seemingly saw two local artists age decades within minutes and prove the potential they had let loose in each other. It was obvious the pair needed each other, although they don’t depend on each other. The collaboration made sense and brought out the best in both the locally established emcees. But while the two are trying to continue the blooming process in the wake of their greatest exposure yet, each has been consistent with their individual work, with both T.R.U.T.H (Eve EP) and Klevah (GLDN EP) dropping releases in 2015.
Mother Nature will be back on stage together for the first time since the September 26 show tonight at Cowboy Monkey in downtown Champaign, as part of the Pygmalion Show Series with alt-country band The Fights and punk band Bookmobile!. We met up with Klevah to talk about her latest GLDN EP, her collaborative work with T.R.U.T.H, and the trip to New York City that changed her life.
Ghost Track: How often are you doing shows now?
Klevah: I actually just met with (Canopy Club) about that. My next show is going to be in February. For a while I was doing open mics with Canopy and then a lot of times if there is another hip-hop artist, they usually reach out to me to do something there with them. I’m in there pretty frequently.
Ghost Track: You’ve got to be thinking about Mother Nature drawing in more crowds now (after Pygmalion), right?
Klevah: Yes. I’m going to do a GLDN show in February and then Mother Nature – I was shooting for March, but they were like, “Why don’t you make it in April, make it springtime?” We’ve been talking about that.
Ghost Track: So the release show for GLDN (EP) will be in February?
Klevah: Yes. Normally you try to do them closer, but the only reason why I dropped this project when I did was because it was the (one) year anniversary of when I dropped the original project. That was the whole point of it, then I’m like, “Holy shit, this is really good music – everyone really likes it so let me just do some type of party to celebrate my success and get people to come out, support, and kick it with me.” I want to make sure I keep my mind focused on (that) this is a celebration event. This is not a regular hip-hop show where I’m presenting my product to you guys. It is that, essentially, but I want it to be more of everybody just having a good time together.
Ghost Track: Your recent GLDN release was a revamp of the original GOLDEN EP?
Klevah: There’s like three new songs, two original songs, and three remixes. It’s a mixup.
GOLDEN EP (2014)
Ghost Track: Between your solo stuff and Mother Nature, which do you take priority over?
Klevah: Mother Nature. We’re just one collaboration. I have another called the Gr8Thinkaz, and that is probably where my priority is in terms of who I’m building with. That’s my home and that’s my family. I don’t want to run off and have another group blow up – I can’t let that happen. Whatever happens naturally is going to happen, but that’s my collective and that’s who I’m loyal too. Then, of course, I have my solo work, which nobody could ever take away from me. I’m always going to have that so that can take either the front seat or the backseat. Then with T.R.U.T.H, it’s kind of like a miracle. It came together so organically that I don’t have control over it. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m just trying to do my best to nurture it and put it in the right direction and put it in the right hands.
Ghost Track: How does the writing process work for Mother Nature?
Klevah: It’s completely collaborative work. Me and T.R.U.T.H have been knowing each other since her junior year of college (at the University of Illinois), my senior year. We were both in this group called W.O.R.D. – “Writers Organizing Realistic Dialect” – and she was doing poetry at the time and I was straight hip-hop, emcee. For her, she knew she could do it at that point. “If she could do it, I could do it.” She looked up to me, so that’s the relationship that we had. We maybe did a couple songs together, but I wasn’t really working with anybody at the time, just the Gr8Thinkaz. Then we got the opportunity to do the Pygmalion show and Seth (Fein) was like, “I’m going to give you both the opportunity, you can deal with it however you want to.” Me and T.R.U.T.H could have done: she does a 15-minute set, I do a 15-minute set. Or we could have battled, or go back-and-forth. We were like, “They don’t know, but we know we can do this together so let’s put a project together.” That’s how that happened. It was really organic.
Ghost Track: So you’ve been doing hip-hop for years?
Klevah: I’ve been doing it a long time. My dad (Mikell “Mo” Knox) was a hip-hop artist. He’s the reason that I do what I do. That’s what started me back then, and in high school that was the first time I came out and was like, “I can do this.” I explored it in high school. I was in a couple different programs In college. I was still pursuing academia. I wanted to do journalism at first, then I really wanted to be involved in writing or media of some sort for hip-hop. My intention was to be in school, grad school, possibly even further than that. Then this took over. It just took over in my spirit. I went to New York for a while and that really broadened my horizon with being a more artistic being, not just being a regular person. Like, you could actually do whatever the fuck you want. That expanded me and coming back home, that’s when I met the Gr8Thinkaz – that’s when we became the Gr8Thinkaz. That’s when I became a more professional artist: recording more professionally, thinking about marketing plans, and actually getting into the business aspect of it and putting music out. Then 2013 is when I put out my first record, it’s called The W8. That was a good project, it’s very, very hip-hop. I had some good ideas going into it. Then GOLDEN (the original 2014 EP) was a really, really rough project. It was really good music, but it was really rough.
Ghost Track: The way you recorded it?
Klevah: The way I recorded it.
Ghost Track: Would you take it back? I mean, are you happy you released it?
Klevah: I’m happy that I released it because I received so much success off of it. This entire year has been really successful for me. People are looking at me and being like, “I know who you are” based off of that, so I can’t really say that I’d take it away because I wouldn’t even have what I have now. But it was really rough in comparison from the first one to this one (released in 2015). This one definitely says the best about me, is most reflective of my personality and my talent.
Ghost Track: When you say it was “rough,” are you referring to the production quality?
Klevah: The process and the production quality.
Ghost Track: How did you record it compared to this most recent GLDN EP?
Klevah: I recorded it probably in like two-to-three different studios at different times. There was a point in time where it was rushed, like, “We’ve got to get this shit done.” Personally, I was in a pretty depressed place and in a very bad state. My mom was locked up at the time, I was going through relationship issues, the person I was in a relationship with was the person who essentially had control over my music. It was just a lot going on and I was really sad. GOLDEN for me was me writing myself out of that. It was like, “Well, I don’t want to write about this shit so what can I do to make me feel better and what do I tell myself?” It brought being “golden” into fruition and that’s what the EP is about. It’s actually being in this place, feeling lighter, feeling love, and having love for myself. Just being in a good place mentally and spiritually. That’s the difference between the two. It’s like, “This is where I wanted to be and this is where I am.”
Ghost Track: Would you confidently say it got you out of those situations?
Klevah: Yeah, because if I didn’t have that work then I would’ve been even more depressed. For me, my mood is completely determined on what I’m creating. If I’m creating a lot and I’m productive and I’m putting my energy into music, then everything else might be fucked up but it’s OK. If I’m not producing music and everything in my life is so chaotic to the point where I can’t make music, then it’s a cycle. I think a lot of people can relate to that. That is what people don’t want to talk about. It’s a space that people don’t want to be in but it’s a space we all get to at some point. Like, “OK, I have to motivate myself.”
I don’t know if I consider the original GOLDEN EP a full-length project, but this EP is exactly what it was supposed to be. I really wanted to make (the original EP) that and I tried so hard, but sometimes you don’t have control over stuff like that. This (new EP) ended up being exactly what I wanted it to be.
Ghost Track: Is the content much the same, when comparing the two EPs?
Klevah: I still have the content. I honestly didn’t even focus on love as much as I did with the first one. This one’s not as soft as the first one, but I still was drawing inspiration from the first project but I had a completely different producer (Rokmore) who did this one. It’s not the first time I worked with him, but it was the first time working on a full-length project together. He completely held me down. He had everything to me on time when I needed it. His music is what kept me motivated to keep writing. I’ve always wanted to be able to do a project with him and this provided us with a perfect opportunity to start.
Ghost Track: So when did you go to New York?
Klevah: That was my junior year of college. It was a study abroad thing. It wasn’t through (the University of Illinois), but I got a thing in the mail from NYU advertising this “Spring in New York” thing. I’ve always been pretty ambitious so I was like, “I could do this,” and I got in. It cost a lot of money (laughs), but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It changed my life. Just imagine being from Champaign and going to a big-ass city and being by yourself. I didn’t have family or friends with me, so I was just out there. Already being a pretty independent person, it just made me stronger. At the time I was 20, but I wasn’t recording music.
Ghost Track: You were interested but weren’t pursuing it at the time?
Klevah: Exactly. I was writing it and I would present it for people. But I didn’t have records, I didn’t have work, I didn’t have a website, I didn’t have a blog, I didn’t have shit. Just a regular old student. I had fans, but they were friends. I started interning at this place called the Nuyorican Poets Café and it’s pretty renowned in New York. That was a perfect fit for me because they do poetry, slam poetry, everything like that. I did a few open mics with them and I met so many people. The guy I was dating while I was in New York was actually very, very – I don’t know what to call him. He was doing a lot of photography, but he just knew a lot of people – like, really cool people. There was a lot of cool shit going on. I’d randomly be at a dope show on a Friday night in a tall building in New York and there’d be artists there jamming out and have their merchandise. It showed me what an artist was. Like, “This is how it works. This is what I have to do.” I’ve been doing that in Champaign.
Ghost Track: So going there and experiencing it first-hand is what pushed you into pursuing music?
Klevah: Yeah, and realizing that it was so accessible and that artists are so accessible. Now I’m like, “I knew that person. I was in the same space as this person when they were pursuing their artistry and they weren’t famous yet and haven’t received this acclaim yet.” It was cool for me to realize that I could do that. If I was to go back to New York now, I know I would kill shit. It’s just a matter of opportunity and money. Money is always, always the thing.
Ghost Track: Sounds like there was a moment where things clicked in New York City?
Klevah: I draw a lot of inspiration from there. In town (Champaign-Urbana), we have culture here and we do have a good indie community, but we could do really, really cool shit with hip-hop that was being done there in the city (New York City) that hasn’t fully reached here. Those ideas haven’t reached here yet. Like, rooftop parties and stuff like that where you have a band on a roof and people are just kicking it. Street shows and I don’t know, it’s so rich there. And that in comparison to coming here. It’s just totally different. It’s really dry here in comparison.
Ghost Track: You want to do a lot of outside-the-box stuff in Champaign-Urbana then?
Klevah: Yeah, a lot of promoters and business owners here, I think they are afraid of stepping outside of the box because they’re used to “this works, this doesn’t work.” And I’m totally trying to defy that. I might be wrong sometimes but I’m totally into trying new things and being innovative. Let’s provide a new experience for people who are used to the same hip-hop and indie shows. Let’s create a show around a particular topic. I’m trying to get more experience in building shows and getting people to come out to shows in Champaign-Urbana. This is a very unique place where people are flaky but people also want to do cool shit – they don’t have shit else to do. It’s constantly a challenge.
Catch Klevah and T.R.U.T.H together as Mother Nature tonight at Cowboy Monkey in downtown Champaign. Doors open at 9 p.m. and you can grab tickets here.