Like the sci-fi character the Brain. Ryan Lewis

The brain of Blue Scholars’ MC Geologic is part machine gun, part compass, part mill. It’s well fed, well kept, and calibrated. Thought and stimulus go in. Rumination occurs and churns. Then a beat-triggered tongue empties the clip, and metered Seattle proverbs and schemes roll out in word form. Geo is like the sci-fi character the Brain—with his brain sitting in a clear tank of bubbling liquid on the body of a droid. Not that he’s a droid; Geo is more a scribe. And the job of the scribe is to stay inspired, to stay open to creativity, to keep bringing fresh words to the people. Geo’s compass stays magnetized to new things, old things, things that catch the interest of his ears and eyes. For Blue Scholars, Geo the Brain has been at it for three albums and four EPs. The latest full-length being Cinemetroplis, released this past June, where Geo’s compass points and illuminates with cinema, the camera, film, and pictures. We met at Caffe Vita and sat on sacks of beans in the bean room. Geo had his camera with him and looked through the lens. We took some shots.

What kind of camera is that?

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A 35 mm Olympus OM-1. I hit up estate sales and buy cameras of deceased people.

Who had it before you?

I don’t know. I got this one at a Madison Park estate sale. Some slides came with it. Whoever it was had been around the world. There’s stuff there from trips to China and Africa. There’s a lady in there, and I think it must have been the person’s wife. It makes me appreciate the technology and the history behind it.

There’s Geo the MC, but what do you think of yourself being besides an MC?

A failed professional athlete? Sometimes I wake up when we’re on the road and can’t believe I’m doing what I’m doing. I think I’m a reflection of those around me, the people who I see on a daily or weekly basis. My wife, my friends, [Blue Scholars DJ/producer] Sabzi, fans we meet, the kids I saw on a regular basis teaching a photography class at Cascade Middle School last year. Those are good people.

You taught a photography class? Did they know you were Geo of Blue Scholars?

It was an after-school class. They were 13 and 14 years old, seventh graders. They didn’t know at first. Well, one of them knew. Her older sister was a fan. She went on YouTube and then told everyone. I walked in one day, and they were like, “Rap! Rap for us.” It was cool because then I used that opportunity to show them videos we had filmed with Zia [Mohajerjasbi] and point out certain techniques. Then I gave them CDs. And then I remembered that there were curse words on there, and that they’re not 18 yet, and I probably shouldn’t have.

No, it’s okay. Curse words aren’t even curse words anymore. The lingual canon has officially been bent. Blue Scholars have run into some issues with schools and teachers before. What happened again? A teacher got suspended for playing one of your songs in class?

Yes. The teacher’s name is Brad Read, he teaches in Spokane. It was about a year ago. He played “Commencement Day,” which has six shits and one fuck in it. A student said something to their parents, and it was the parents who set off the whole storm. The teacher was suspended for 19 days without pay. A bunch of students hit us up on e-mail and Facebook saying their favorite teacher had been suspended, and they made a Facebook petition page they wanted people to sign. So we signed it and put it up and told people what happened. Next thing you know, KOMO TV showed up at my house, and I was getting all these calls about it. We hit up Brad to support him, and he was very gracious and thankful, but he said politely that he still had a family to feed and felt that it was best to just accept the suspension and keep his job and keep fighting the good fight in the classroom. It was only his second or third year of teaching, and he wasn’t tenured yet. So we left it at that. I think it’s unfortunate that he had to lose basically a month’s salary for trying to spread something I wrote.

I mean, shit and fuck? Come on. It’s not like you were rapping about twat burgers. Shit and fuck aren’t bad words anymore.

Maybe not here. But probably in Spokane. It did make for a really good generational debate online. I was surprised and glad to see a lot of older folks and parents come out in support of the teacher. It was interesting. People were bringing up these archaic lists of books that are banned in schools, like Mark Twain’s, and comparing that to accepted literature and pointing out how there is way more violence and sex in the accepted literature. Maybe not the profanity. Most schools have banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but they still read Shakespeare, with all the incest and beheadings.

Lots of sex in Shakespeare.

Yeah. Money and hos, that’s all Shakespeare was about.

Is writing a song similar to taking a picture? Framing? Light? Meter?

I think about this all the time. I think all creative outlets are essentially different forms of the same human act. There’s expression, communication. Framing, yes. There are the things that you know are there, and then the things you want to show other people. There are things that get excluded on purpose, or things that you include on purpose. There are parts where you think that’s what you want to show people, and there’s feedback with what you’re working on, and you realize it’s not cool, so you refocus and reframe or change the exposure. There’s the aspect of seeing what other people have done, and emulating that, then maybe trying your own thing.

And developing.

Yes. Taking negatives, and making positives.

You develop your own film?

I do. When I used to work at the Wing Luke Museum in the International District, I would always volunteer to take the pictures. I’ve always really appreciated photography. I wasn’t [doing my developing] until Blue Scholars started touring. Digital photography is convenient, but there are battery issues and memory problems. So I started going back to film. At first with the disposables; we’d pick them up at gas stations and get them developed at Walgreens on an off day. Then put the scans up. Then I started realizing that the way this old technology works, and how hands-on it is, it’s almost meditative. You’re being forced to think about what you’re doing before the actual act. Which is the same thing with older analog music gear. You couldn’t have a hundred takes to do your vocals for a song. The musicians had to know their parts. You had to go through trial and error beforehand and learn the technique before you recorded. So I decided to go back to film, and my writing reflected it. When I was on tour taking photos digitally, I’d take 300 and not even bother to look at them, then bring them back to the computer and hope some came out. And if they didn’t, I’d edit them in Photoshop. Which is what I was doing with my writing. I was writing and writing, even if it sucks, write. Write in the car, write in my head. But I’m at a place now, with other analog technology that I use, where I want to be more intentional about it. Put a little more brainwork and effort into it. I think I’m at a more disciplined place with writing and photography.

You seem open to what inspires you, and you have the ability to harness it. You’ve been doing it a while. How have you been able to maintain that openness to creativity and keep harnessing it?

I’m very interested in the process. I think if you become too conscious of it, you’ll live in your head and nothing will ever come out. There’s a balance. I’ve made a point of studying anyone I’m a fan of, whether it’s the most prolific writer or musician to the most reclusive ones. I’m always interested in how they work. There’s that myth saying Charles Bukowski wrote 10 pages a day and threw out 99 percent of it, and what we ended up reading is that 1 percent. There was a while where I did that, and forced myself, even when I wasn’t feeling it. Then there were times where I felt like I was forcing it, so I didn’t write. Then three months go by with nothing, then one day it hits, and it all comes pouring out. It was almost necessary to just live those three months and not write. I definitely pay attention to how other people do it. If someone’s process looks interesting, I’ll try it. If it doesn’t jell for me, I’ll move on. I don’t limit it. When people ask me what my process is, I always answer differently. It’s always changing. I went through the whole “writing on napkins at 2 am at a diner” phase. When we started touring, I entered my “mini Jay-Z” phase, where it’s writing rhymes in your head and not letting it touch the paper.

Which of your songs are from your mini Jay-Z phase?

There’s a few. Verses here and there on Cinemetropolis that were constructed that way—on a long drive. The first verse to “Fou Lee,” for instance. I always wondered, how do people do that? Write without paper. It’s got to be some innate gift that you were born with. But I came to find that it is something you can harness. There’s a hidden musicality to it, too. You have to have a rhythm template in your head. It comes easy for some people. For me, I always have so much to say, and it’s not always in the same rhythmic pattern. I don’t do the mini Jay-Z all the time. If I’m feeling it, and everyone else in the car is asleep, and I happen to have some instrumentals on me that I can play through the stereo.

What are you finding inspiring right now? What currently floats your boat? Anything. The shape of a wing? Lawnmowers?

Lawnmowers not so much these days. I did go through that phase, though. My pops used to make me mow the lawn. They have a big lawn at their house in Bremerton. That was one of the chores I had to do before going out on a Saturday night. And I couldn’t do it unless I was listening to music with headphones. So I connect hiphop music with mowing the lawn. But it’s a painful memory, so I haven’t revisited the lawnmower phase. As far as other influences, cinema was big for this album. Cameras and lenses. I think there’s this whole generation that sees through multiple lenses. We have our own lens, our own eyes, but there’s another lens we see through—the things we’ve seen someone else take with a camera.

Next phase, Gangster Geo. So how does your writing now differ from when you started?

I try not to censor myself. I always thought I wasn’t censoring myself, but looking back on past material, I was definitely censoring. It was a reflection of where I was at the time.

Censoring what?

When I had a day job, I had to be sensitive to that. I worked on campus while I was going to school at the University of Washington. Then I worked at the Wing Luke Museum. They were very supportive, but if you work there, you’re representing the institution and the community, and I needed to be cognizant of that. What’s different now is I have less to worry about. There was an in-between phase where I realized people were listening. That wasn’t the case at first. I was just making songs for my friends and me. Realizing there’s a larger audience out there, around the second album in 2007. I didn’t want to lose fans or listeners by doing something too different. I didn’t want alienate them. So we deviated, but not too much. Somewhere between that album and this one, I lost that worry, that anxiety. Not to be irreverent. I totally love and respect fans. I think this one is less about pleasing everyone and more a return to why I did it in the first place and making sure I’m true to myself and who I was when I started.

Are you having more fun now?

Lots more fun. I was having fun at the beginning. Had fun here and there throughout. A lot of it goes beyond the art. And some just has to do with life. I think I’m in a good place with family, friends, the city, where I’m at age-wise, my son being who he is and how he’s turning out. I think it’s a great time to be making the kind of music we’re making and to know people are listening. I’m very grateful.

For yourself as a scribe, what MCs have inspired you the most?

From a literary standpoint, I’d have to say Nas. When he dropped Illmatic, it was a very visceral description of his life, and hood life, with his wordplay describing everything. For me, it was big break from everything I had listened to up until then: Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Egyptian Lover. I still love that stuff and am still a fan, but at that point in my life, Nas blew my mind. I was 14. I was seeking something to set me off into my adolescence, and I was beginning to understand more and think deeper. And Nas comes out with this album that captured it and opened my mind so much. That’s when I started writing. I grew up on hiphop music, an ’80s baby. But that mid-’90s era of MCing began for me with Nas. Then I went back and discovered Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, and I saw a direct correlation between Rakim and Nas. 2 Pac and Biggie were big for me. Boots Riley and the Coup.

Vanilla Ice.

Vanilla Ice, oh man [laughs]. I don’t know. Then something happened in the late ’90s, people got all experimental, like Company Flow on Rawkus Records, and then Freestyle Fellowship, and Project Blowed out of LA.

Busdriver?

Yeah. And Aceyalone. And Myka 9. The form was very abstract, but underneath it was the same shit. They were describing their lives, their neighborhood, the people, and stories. It was in this coded language. It’s out there. It’s almost like saying to the listener, “I’m making this music, and we’re coding it this way because I think you’re smart enough to decipher it.” That abstract form is amazing to me, from a lyrical standpoint. My favorite stuff is still ’90s-era Boom Bap, MPC, DJ Premier, Pete Rock–type beats.

What literature made the biggest impression on you?

I go through phases there, too. I’ll read anything and everything. I’ll read every word in a XXL magazine, put it down and read The Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. III.

When you were 14 discovering Nas, what were you reading?

You know, the path into appreciating literature happened through the music I was listening to. It was first being attached to the music and deciphering the lyrics, then discovering books that were referenced. At that time in the mid-’90s, there was a lot of mafia rap. Which led to watching all these mafia movies, where MCs were naming themselves after characters. Then realizing the movie is based on a book, which meant reading a bunch of Mario Puzo. For nonfiction it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember Ras Kass dropped an album called Soul on Ice, I listened to that and a week later picked up Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice, which is a first-person account of how he became a Black Panther, and about his experiences with them. I’d want to know who influenced him and so on. Wu-Tang made so many literary references in their music. If you wanted to be cooler than the other guys listening to Wu-Tang, you would actually read William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse. The bible of conspiracy books dealing with Illuminati and Masons and stuff. It gave you a leg up. Which is always important in the hiphop world.

And you said lens, which winds us back into Cinemetropolis. You’ve tied it all up into a nice bow.

I feel like I need to do that or I’ll get a bad grade.

When did you know this is what you wanted to do? When was your first performance?

Last year? No. I spent so many years emulating and not taking it seriously, I can’t remember. I’d buy cassettes and copy what the MCs were saying, and putting my street name or my crew’s name. That went on for a while. Then everyone starting battling. Battle freestyles. That’s what made me start wanting to write my own stuff. It was competition-based. For all my teens and early 20s. Then it got fed because battling became a national thing. People from the battle scene made it big. It was weird hearing about his guy named Eminem, right when the internet was coming around. I remember hearing his tape, which was a recording of another tape that was a recording of another tape. I never knew who he was, just that he was this unknown white guy who was killing it in the Midwest battles. Then two years later, seeing him on MTV with Dr. Dre. Late ’90s, that’s all I was about. I started taking it serious then, but only to compete. But it wasn’t really that serious. It didn’t have actual bearing on society. I think the true answer to your question is when I started getting away from that. Not to belittle it, because without that experience, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I could have seen myself getting stuck in the battle scene. I’ve seen a lot of guys get stuck in there. Some of my favorite rappers are still stuck in there. They are like eight albums deep of battle raps. Part of me appreciates it; another part of me thinks there’s more to life than saying you’re better than the other dude. I might have gotten stuck there if I’d hooked up with a producer who was all about battling. But I happened upon a producer who was a student of hiphop–Sabzi. He challenged me, and he wasn’t satisfied with a bunch of songs that sounded the same. That’s when I decided to hang up the battle-rap jersey, with my record of zero actual wins but many runner-up trophies. Around 2001, 2002, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to start making songs.” recommended

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