Any list of the top Kansas City/Lawrence hip-hop artists would be shockingly incomplete without Ebony Tusks. Formed in 2010 by main vocalist and lyricist Marty Hillard, Ebony Tusks evolved to become a potent and cerebral hardcore trio with the addition to Nathan Giesecke (Geese) and Daniel Smith. We caught up with the band ahead of their Middle of the Map showcase next week with a new interview and some generous movie, book and music recommendations.
Introduce yourselves. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
Daniel: My name is Daniel, I live in Lawrence and I work at a local non-profit which provides after school job-training programs for under-served youth. I normally wake up at 8:00am, work 9-5, and then play computer games while drinking beer.
Geese: My name is Nathan Giesecke, but everyone just calls me Geese. I grew up in Olathe but now live and work in Kansas City, MO. On a typical day I go to work, come home and play video games with my roommates or make beats in my bedroom.
Marty: My name is Marty Hillard. I am the main vocalist/lyricist (I rap under the moniker Bodye, pronounced "body") and I also produce beats, as do my bandmates Geese and Daniel.
I live in and work in the Old Town neighborhood in downtown Topeka with my fiancee and one-year-old daughter. I'm up by 7 am so I can get my daughter to day care on time before work. I work in customer accounting for a natural gas utility. I come home, have dinner, play with my daughter, put her to bed, do a chore or two, then try to squeeze in something creative before bed.
Tell us about the origins of Ebony Tusks. How has this band evolved? What are you most proud of so far?
Daniel: The group has just sort of naturally snowballed from being a solo project for Marty, to being a full fledged performing duo, to being what it is now: a trio working collaboratively. I'm really proud that we always approach finances as a stepping stone rather than an goal. Money is something that enables us to make music rather than music being something that enables us to make money.
Geese: Ebony Tusks started as Marty doing a rap project while being in another band that was very active, and then involved Dan and I onstage, and then became the three of us behind the scenes and on the stage. I’m really proud that I didn’t know either of these guys before we were in a band together and now we all like each other a lot and get along famously.
Marty: It was a project I started with other producers back in 2010. I asked Daniel to DJ for me sometime in 2011-2012 (?) and Geese joined not too far behind him. Daniel and I had become fast friends when I lived in Lawrence and he was the nicest, most easygoing DJ of the handful I knew. He made our shows a lot less stressful. Geese was and is a lighting technician for a number of our friends' projects and that was how I made acquaintance with him, seeing him work for a band and asking if he'd do lights for an EBONY TUSKS concert. He eventually asked if he could be hypeman for us and he brought an intensity that we didn't have prior.
We've evolved in that we all contribute to music production. I also think that, starting in 2013, we began to carve out a style of performance that best reflects our musical taste and our collective personality. It's gotten more aggressive, more impassioned, more emotional, which was perhaps a reaction to seeing so many insular, repellent rap shows up to that point.
We've had the fortune of opening up for some heroes, Shabazz Palaces, Talib Kweli, Vince Staples, clipping. I'm most proud of our ability to still find a way to leave an impact on their crowds standing next to those pillars. We are really in pursuit of inserting ourselves into the dialogue by being our unique selves.
Describe your creative process with songwriting and recording, especially in terms of collaborations within and outside of the band. What tools do you use? What may surprise people about how your music is created?
Daniel: Most people assume that I make all of the tracks because I'm the guy who stands behind the DJ stuff but historically Marty has produced most of the tracks. Going forward all three of us are producing and any future work we put out will probably be split fairly evenly amongst us. People might also be surprised to find out that we usually all work separately, and that we all live in different cities. Much of our collaboration comes from sharing tracks online and giving each other feedback.
Geese: All three of us make music independently, so it only made sense for all of us to start putting our heads together. Currently we have beats that we’ve made as individuals and submitted for feedback and adjusted in addition to more collaborative efforts. We’ve got some Dropbox folders right now with samples going back and forth all the time.
My toolset is Ableton Live with Ableton Push, everything I make comes through Ableton. I also enjoy utilizing analog effects and noisemakers on occasion. I currently have a drawer in my bedroom full of weird kid’s toys that I will circuit bend and sample into Ableton. We’ve got two tracks in the works right now that include samples from circuit bent components that I’ve made.
Marty: I personally use a Yamaha 16-track, an Ibanez Artcore semi-hollowbody electric guitar, a Squire bass guitar, and lots of Roland keyboards and drum machines. Fairly rudimentary compared to what's available. I personally like the constraints and I'm used to the workflow. Outside of editing no one I know seems to be able to tell the difference. We've given input to one another on tracks and are experimenting with actually collaborating on stuff. It's still pretty new to us.
What artists do you look to these days for inspiration? What do you admire most about these artists?
Daniel: My biggest influences are always whatever I'm listening to most recently. Lately I've been listening to Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never a lot. Over the past two months I've probably listened to the Hamilton soundtrack every day at least a little bit. The final David Bowie album is also legitimately great. I admire courage in music more than anything else. It takes courage to make music that is unexpected or ugly.
Geese: My biggest inspirations are Daft Punk, Kanye West and Jack White. Daft Punk because of their influence and aesthetic. I am passionate about lighting design and live stage production and I think Alive 2007 is the greatest stage production of all time. I love Kanye because I don’t think anyone else on the planet Earth could make Kanye West music. He’s incredibly unique and that’s my favorite thing about him. Yeezy 2020. Jack White is my favorite musician full stop. The White Stripes really resonated with me when I was young and I’ve been hooked ever since. I drove to Nashville last year to visit Third Man Records for Record Store Day.
Marty: I'm still fairly inspired by many of the artists that I was when EBONY TUSKS started, Chuck Inglish, HEALTH, These New Puritans. I'd say over the years that list has come to include producers like the Haxan Cloak, Andy Stott, Lotic, and Arca. I also like instrumental bands like This Will Destroy You and Blue Sky Black Death. I spend a lot of time thinking about drones, fragments of sounds, minimalism, negative space, elements that our music doesn't have much of now but will as time goes on. I'd definitely be remiss in not sharing acts we feel a kinship with like clipping., Cities Aviv, Death Grips, B L A C K I E, Young Fathers, artists with whom we've been working in a similar space. Sometimes musicians shy away from referencing acts they may be accused of sounding like but we're not worried about that. If we do or don't belong it doesn't matter, we'll still be EBONY TUSKS.
What are you most looking forward to in 2016?
Daniel: I'm really hoping they finally announce a new Pokémon game. The last set of new games were released in 2013. At this point I have caught them all and I want some new monsters god damnit.
Geese: Swish. The J. Cole/Kendrick collab record. Another new Star Wars movie. Virtual Reality. Yung Lean. Saving money. Hopefully getting to perform out-of-state more. Recording an album.
Marty: Staying active, finishing some new recordings, spending time supporting our friends and enjoying some good food and weather!
Daniel's, Geese's and Marty's picks from the Johnson County Library Catalog:
Daniel B. Smith:
"Well, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia is my favorite book. And I hold The Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright in very high regard even though the author has said some horribly homophobic things. I don't read as much as I used to. I started readingThe Satanic Verses but never managed to get through it. The Act of Killing is one of most impactful movies I've ever seen. It had a actual physical effect on me in a way I can't recall ever experiencing. I'm also still shocked at how overlooked 2014's Under the Skinwas. I don't think I've seen a movie as good since it came out. Recommending music is difficult when you are so focused on music.Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never is hands down my favorite album from the past year, though. To me it is both a perfect album and also a perfect example of the direction I would like to see all music go. Almost all music I enjoy has something in common with that album. Portishead's Third is probably my favorite album of all-time, however."
Nathan Giesecke (Geese):
Books: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson. All were great books that became great movies but the books were still better.
Martinez (Marty) Hillard:
Books: White Teeth, NW, and The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith; The Corrections and The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen; The Known World and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Music: Kid A, In Rainbows, and Hail to the Thief by Radiohead, Plans by Death Cab for Cutie, Silent Alarm by Bloc Party, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest, Licensed to Ill, Paul's Boutique and Ill Communication by Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine's self-titled album.