Kingdom Crumbs in the Spaces Between
Kingdom Crumbs construct ascendant architecture out of beats. Their lyrical assemblages climb into and see out from edifice cakes of eyes. Levitated, ambient Brian Eno crossbeams connect sky to street, Funkadelic, and b-boy individuation. Tay Sean, Mikey Nice, Jarv Dee, and Jerm D are Seattle-based versifiers and musicians. The strength and face of their music lies in the notes and spaces they're not playing. These Crumbs live in the offbeat, in the spot hidden between girders. On their self-titled, Cloud Nice–released full-length, they rap from the unconscious, maintaining intent. Live, they wile out while provoking contemplation. Kingdom Crumbs also give the listener different levels they can get in on. There's the undeniable fun and sweat of dance grooves—or deeper, the hesitating, vacillated, human-made beats where reflection and a message take place. For this interview, we met at the International District's Panama Hotel Tea House. A fine coconut oolong was poured.
Because it's Decibel, let's touch on your beats. "Pick Both Sides of My Brain," that's a fat beat.
Tay: I vividly remember making that beat. I'd been listening to some Tyler, the Creator and hearing this drastic juxtaposition of atonal sounds paired with melody. Tyler's "Yonkers" cut had just come out. It starts off with a dissonant pulse, and then he comes in with pretty chords later in the song and layers them together at points. When I started making the beat for "Both Sides," I had the bass sounds at the interval of a sixth—six half-steps from where the root key on the chord starts. That interval has this atonal tension to it, like the lines aren't in the same key.
Tay: Tones that don't fall in our normal Western diatonic scale.
Tay: The way music and notes are divided. If you just have an oscillator and frequency, there's an infinite range of tones possible. So music arbitrarily sets intervals at which to measure notes. The placement of those increments in Western music, we call the diatonic scale. There are multiple scales and ways to break it up in different cultures.
Mikey: Certain instruments don't have the quarter-step, or microtones—notes that don't exist on the piano. Microtones tend to sound Middle Eastern to me. Those sitar joints [laughs].
Tay: There's an electronic artist named Brendan Byrnes who's got an album called Micropangaea. He uses microtones and the tension they create. He matches stuff that's not in the diatonic scale with stuff that is. The idea is that each track is a different continent on Micropangaea.
Next song, "Light It Up."
Mikey: First thing I think of is 10.4 Rog. He's just a funky brother, man. To channel his flavor, he loves that late-'70s/early-'80s funk. He's a huge buff, and always has the most random, best cuts he'll YouTube. He'll be like, "You'll like this," and we do. That funk element is heavy in our stuff. Parliament, P-Funk, West Coast gangster music. We love it.
Jerm: Rog, he's the weirdest, quietest, funkiest brother. If you just look at him, you're like, "You have no funk in you, brah." But then he comes out with the slap. [Imitates Bootsy Collins] It's that Bootsy thing.
With "The Mezzanine," it floats, even though it's heavy. You all live in that offbeat.
Tay: That song is unique compared to the other ones because it's one chord the entire time. Lyrically, Jarv started it—he came to us with the hook. I think I was comfortable doing one chord because I was listening to Sa-Ra's "Glorious." That's one chord. Perceptually though, from verse to chorus, it's like you're jumping to another chord. That offbeat space has become crucial to us. You're right: We live there. Maybe it's just me as a producer, but I don't quantize things. I don't like that feeling. Dilla was a pioneer. And Quik. Quik uses a lot of quarter beats, and eights on the hats, where it's every other eighth that creates the swing [beatboxes an example, and beatboxes it well].
Jerm: That's what I liked about Tay's music from the jump. He's got that boom-bap-sounding hiphop. He gives it a space, a swing, and character.
Mikey: Beautiful imperfection. Beautiful mistakes. On "Mezzanine," like "Glorious," it's the bass that's moving you from space to space.
Kingdom Crumbs use economy like J.D. Salinger did. He wrote a story in 1948 called "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." It's only five pages long, but it seems like an entire book.
Mikey: It allows you to fill in the spaces as the reader or listener. I like that.
It's interesting because I don't think of you guys as being "minimal."
Tay: I think of it as deliberate.
Jerm: And I think our syllable patterns support that. You don't need to say a bunch if you can put it in the right syllable context. Then there's Asun, one of the filthiest cats. He puts as much as he can into one bar. He's about information overload. He's tryin' to get it to you, and put a hundred words in that bar if he can fit it in there [laughs]. But he's a mathematician, so he hits it, and chops it perfectly.
Mikey: That's why Talib Kweli bugs me sometimes. I don't think he gets it. He seems to force sentences. I've grown a fondness for the silence when it comes to rap. The spaces in between. Where you say what you need to say, then you let the shit hang for a second. Sometimes you don't need to say so much.
Tay: I like thinking of the turtle in Kung Fu Panda. He doesn't really say too much, but he's the OG. He hits him with the scroll at the end, and it's blank.
Lyrically for Kingdom Crumbs, how does it come down?
Jarv: For "The Mezzanine," I originally thought I was going to keep it by myself for Dopamine, but thought it was more appropriate for Kingdom Crumbs. My writing process is random. Compared to the songs I was making before, "Mezzanine" felt like I was digging in deeper. I was learning more about myself, and people around me, and how the system works. I went through some things, some court things, and some shit in order to come up with that verse.
Mikey: It could also be looking at a past version of yourself.
Tay: A mezzanine is usually an open area, too, up where you can see over the lower levels. Having the bird's-eye view of what's going on. We recorded that song on the top level of the King Way Apartments. I felt like it was an arrival. On the production end, in digital recording, there's a glitch that can happen with latency—a time delay between the signals sent from gear to your program. There's a low latency mode that will use more of your CPU and kill that delay time a little bit, but on that song, I didn't use it. I used the latency to our advantage.
Jerm: For me, words come from the beat, what the beat is saying to me. I don't really have concepts, or issues I'm trying to write about. I listen to the music first and whatever the music is telling me. It'll tell me the rhyme pattern, too, and what instrument I need to be. In "Pick Both Sides of My Brain," the dynamic of the beat really formed the words: Politickin' and makin' moves, and I'm dropping the jewels about the mission for the riches and wealth that my soul pursues, like a needle I'm in the groove.
Tay: Words happen one of two ways for me. Sometimes the beat fills them in. Other times there's no beat, just ideas in my head. Thoughts. Like an interaction with my girlfriend. "Make Believe" was something I thought of before I had a beat. I didn't have a girlfriend at the time, and was thinking about my interactions with girls. How they just seemed surface and pretend, without a real love thing, but still wanting some intimacy. So it was about pretending to love somebody. You can pretend that you love me tonight and I'll pretend to believe you tonight. Please say nobody but me tonight, and I'll say sure cause I need you tonight. We don't make love, we make believe. That was also when the first Shabazz Palaces EP came out. And that was big.
Mikey: I think my process is more sporadic. The first song we ever made was "For the Birds." There were two beats Tay had been working on that he put together like Voltron, and there was a middle section he didn't really know what to do with. So he sent it to me, and I was walking around mobbing to it, and it turned into Up, up, and away we go. We'd been listening tough to Animal Collective and the ambient background shit they were doing. We started with that song, and it was experimental for us—I was no longer hearing just raps, I was hearing arrangements and sounds, as opposed to just wanting to bust hard raps. The lyrics weren't throwaway, but it wasn't about what was being said, it was about the feeling and the vibe that was being built.
I've seen you all open your show with "Much Ado About Nothing." Why that song for an opener?
Jerm: I think it's a good tone setter, for more powerful, but smarter music.
Jarv: It's like, "Are you ready? We about to go."
Mikey: We've arranged our set from experience. I feel like we almost have to open up with it. It leaves people not knowing—they came for hiphop, right? That song's different. Then we get into the harder cuts. "Much Ado" was a song that Tay initially didn't want on the album. And I didn't want the last song, "The Infinite," to make it. So I said, "If you guys want 'The Infinite,' then 'Much Ado' has to be on there, too." I'm glad they both made it. We weren't sure how people were going to feel about them, because they weren't necessarily hiphop.
I remember walking into Nicholas Galanin's house in Sitka, Alaska, for a HomeSkillet Fest pre-party, and you guys were jamming. Playing drums, keys, guitar, horns, everything. I couldn't see who it was at first, but I thought, "Damn, whoever's playing right now sounds fucking great." Y'all are musicians who rap.
Tay: My hippie-ass homie gave me a drum set. We always have instruments lying around.
Jerm: I grew up in church, too, and was always messing with the drums there. Instruments all around, yeah.
Jarv: I grew up with a lot of instruments, too. I played saxophone and drums for band at school. What I love about the group is that we're always showing each other new stuff, and pressing each other to bring a new element to it—it keeps us on our toes.
Mikey: The approach has always been to never stop trying to learn. Starting the Cloud with Tay, we built a studio, then we got to where we could mix, then we wanted to improve on the music itself.
You all are four kings. Onstage, you never trip on each other's toes. The movements and transitions are well-oiled. It's this agile machine. How do you do it?
Jerm: Well sometimes there is war. We try to keep it contained in our own shores [laughs].
Tay: We understand that when we're battling with each other, we're trying to make each other better. It's not a battle to eradicate the other kingdom, it's about figuring out how our kingdoms can work better together. It's like being in a relationship. Little things can build up, and you need to talk about it. And it makes us look at ourselves to see how we can improve the dynamic.
Mikey: We know and love each other enough to keep our battles behind closed doors. It's not a good look to openly battle with each other, which we've done. I think it's reflected in the music and what we do live. It's not about, "Okay, y'all get behind me, I'm about to do a Dougie." It's about how can we formulate it all so it's a unified thing.
Jarv: We're all moving together up there. Changing positions. It's never about one guy being in one spot.
I've seen single rappers stumble and fall all by themselves. There are four of y'all and you don't stumble. I don't think that's such an easy thing.
Mikey: Probably because we've stumbled so fucking hard so many times. It's not that we don't stumble, it's that we're getting better at it. We're crash masters. We can fall and make it look like a move. That's what I meant to do [laughs]. And we cherish our mistakes, we keep 'em in the music, and we remember them in our lives.
Jarv: We've performed so much together, we know each other so well, and we feed off each other's energy.
How do you write songs now, as opposed to when you began?
Mikey: I think we're defining that right now. The first album took years to make. It was all from different places, and it became this cohesive thing. Now, with this cohesiveness, we're figuring out where to take it. Also now, I'm already thinking how we're going to perform the new songs live, and that informs a bit too. On the first record, we didn't have that experience to pull from.
Tay: I'd say we're about halfway through the recording for the new album. What's starting to happen is that Mikey and I will start a song, then put it to Jerm and Jarv. We decided before we started recording that Jerm and Jarv would be contributing more lyrically to the album, and Mikey and I would contribute more musically. But it's not really panning out that way, because I find myself writing a lot of fucking lyrics. When a concept is there and I have weeks to dwell on it, I can't help it. It'll probably be the opposite by the time it's finished. Jarv will be making the beats.
When's the new album coming out?
Tay: We don't know. We're more concerned with making a dope record than we are with just putting something out. We have six or seven tracks we're working on now. We're not one of those bands that makes a ton of songs, then strips it down. We're more deliberate. We know when we're working on a part that it's going to be on the album.
What do you each represent in the Kingdom of the Crumbs?
Mikey: Jerm is the OG street prophet, the educator, the cat that's providing vital information to influence our choices. Tay's the captain of the ship—the one with the map. Jarv is the muscle [laughs].
Jerm: If Jarv were an element, he'd be fire. Tay is water. Mikey is earth. And I'm wind or whatever you want to call it.
Tay: On the village tip, Jarv is definitely the soldier, he's the army. Mikey's like the court, he allows the interface between people. Jerm is the scientist, or the teacher, on the academic side of things. And I'm like the priest-shaman that brings shit from the other side to here.
What's your message?
Jerm: Self-awareness. Wake up, find your direction. Wake the man in the mirror up. Don't trip on other people.
Jarv: Do what you want to do. Feel comfortable you being you.
Mikey: I feel like we have less a message and more a mission. Wake up, that's the mission. Especially in hiphop. It's needed, to have people that are trying to wake motherfuckers up. With us as those four elements, I think there's a good balance. There's street shit, there's knowledge, there's fire.
Tay: When I make music, I try to take something that's in my heart, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, moral or wrong, and bring it out. There are so many filters we could smash our stuff through—it's important to take what you feel and put it out there. I don't think you can judge feelings in and of themselves, because you can't help a feeling. I think we could start to relate differently to each other as human beings. When people are like, "Yo, I can relate to that feeling." We all have a lot in common if you break it down to those emotional drives.
How do you bring your tracks live?
Tay: We have the beat that we produce for the song, then we'll pull things out and improvise them live. We'll pull the bass line out, and Jarv will play it live. He'll learn how it is on the song, then freak it a little. We're going to be doing more and more things live. I think that makes it more exciting—people get a different version of the song live and it's fun to watch. I love going to shows where I can see people doing the shit. It's something that's been missing from hiphop. The producer or the DJ used to be so prominent. Now people are getting their beats off SoundCloud from someone they don't even know.
Jarv: It's become so easy, everybody can do it. There's less of, "Wow! I wanna go see this artist." And more, "Oh, he's just doing the same thing that everybody's doing." We're trying to bring a new element of shit we've seen.
Mikey: Growing up, we knew what we liked, and what's made us. We're like, why is it not happening more?
Tay: We came from freestyling with each other at barbecues. We all danced, too. That's a big part of us, the b-boy side.
Jerm: We have more of a direct connection to the culture and the history of the culture. The generic stuff thinks it's connected to the culture, but it's really just connected to the industry, what's on TV, what's commercialized. That's why it's all the same.
Mikey: From my experience in the b-boy culture, you have to have your own style. Nobody gives a fuck if you look like everybody else. We cherish the old-school mentality, and we want to bring it with new flavor. Define yourself through your style.
Jerm: Hiphop used to be like that! It's a vital thing, I think, when it comes to music and hiphop, to check yourself: "Am I doing it my way? Am I being me right now? Am I adding something to it?" 'Cause it's anti-hiphop to do the cookie-cutter thing and just try to make some bread.
Jarv: I try to make music for that kid that feels embarrassed to play music around his homeboys. I was that kid. I was listening to a whole bunch of stuff, but I couldn't bring it around.
Tay: Jarv turned me on to the Clash.
Jerm: Jarv used to do polka music. Jarv's ill.
Tay: I remember growing up in the mean streets of Mill Creek. In sixth grade, my Asian homies clowned the fuck out of me because they found a cassette with one of my first rap songs called "My Beats Be Real." I took the cassette, pulled all the tape out of it, and was like, "We're never listening to this again."
Mikey: I hope there's cats out there who see themselves in us, and see that there's different ways to do this shit. You don't have to clone. Like what you like. Do it how you want to do it.
Jarv: Some people think there's a certain way you have to go about it, but there really isn't. It's whatever you create. People get lost—you might not get that instant glorification of everybody being into it, but at least you're being true to yourself.
Your live show goes off hard. You cloak your message well. It never seems heavy-handed or preachy.
Jerm: It's more effective if the listener tells me, "That was good information." As opposed to me being up there, telling you what you need. That's why I leave the religious stuff alone. It's arrogant to suppose there's only one right way to do things.
Jarv: I don't like when things are heavily preachy. There are two roads to it. I did this and this is where I went, or, you have to go down this road or you're never going to do anything.
Mikey: We submit that we don't know—this is just how we see it.
Tay: Mikey always says, "You gotta smuggle it in." The message is there, but cats might not know, cause they might just be jamming to it. There's a philosopher named Osho, and he had this cool idea that there's no such thing as a teacher. To teach something is saying, "I'm giving a piece of information to you." But that's not the way it happens. It's kind of what's wrong with the school system, I think. This teacher teaches, but if the kids don't choose to be receptive, there's nothing you can tell them.
What's your new song "God Body" about?
Tay: It's about an experience I've never had before. Speaking of teachers, and knowledge. I'm glad when I think I don't know something—it gives me a chance to use my imagination. "God Body" is about astral projection. I've never experienced it, so I get to use my imagination to paint the picture. That's more powerful; that's really what reality is. Playing that song live is helping us see how it needs to be on the album.
What's something you all have learned about the song from playing it live?
Tay: Lyrically, it used to be, "God body, everybody, yeah. God body, nobody, yeah." And we would just repeat that. Then we changed it. The second half is now, "God body, any body, God body, somebody." Another thing is, live, Jarv plays an ambient sound to punctuate our verses that wasn't there before. We might add that to the recording.
Mikey: Toward the end live, we might land on different words, too. I might land on "somebody," someone else might land on "anybody." That's one of those dope mistakes. It's actually the whole point. It's nobody, it's anybody, it's everybody, it's somebody.
Tay: Everybody has a spiritual body. The "nobody" part means you don't have a body. You have a spirit body that's separate from your body, that's not a physical thing. I don't know if it's true, it's just what we're saying.
Jerm: Us as a body of people. Or a body of work. No flesh. Anybody could play this role, too. And then no one at the same time because you don't even need nobody to be somebody [laughs].