For most of us, a conscious shift toward a more positive frame of mind would be met with congratulations and well wishes. But for the Seattle-based rapper Grieves, it represents a daunting career crossroads.
Over the past 10 years, Grieves has earned a reputation as one of the most brutally honest and emotionally exposed rappers in the game, even by the standards of underground hip-hop. But on his new album Running Wild, Grieves, aka Benjamin Laub, finds himself in a new headspace, one that’s about embracing new sounds and a more positive outlook. For an artist that’s worked in the dark corners of hip-hop, that’s a risky change but one that Grieves knew he had to embrace.
“I look back at these records and I see all this bad sh*t that’s happened to me: All this heartbreak, all this death, all this confusion, all these drug problems. All this sh*t,” Grieves says of his first four albums. “And I wanna be able to look back when I’m an old man and see some happiness there. ‘You traveled around the world laughing your ass off and you didn’t speak about it once!’ And I want to see that. I want a happy photo on the wall,” he finishes with a laugh.
Most happy photos on the wall are taken in far off locales and for Grieves, that location was Stockholm, Sweden, where he worked on the new album with Jens Eric Resch Thomason, aka Swedish producer and rapper Chords. Though hardly a hip-hop hotspot, Stockholm offered the type of creative solitude Grieves needed to grow as an artist and a man.
“Jens really help me push myself. Being alone with just the music and no distractions - no phone, no videogames, no bullsh*t,” Grieves says. “So I just spent that time with me and the music. I would walk to the studio, I would make music for 14 hours, I would walk back to where I was staying, I would listen to that music, I would take notes on that music and I would repeat the process every single g*ddamn day.”
The resulting album is warm, funky and frequently funny (check his video for “What It Dew,” embedded above). Those aren’t the typical descriptors of a Grieves album and although songs like “Gutz” and the lead single “Rx” are more emotionally fraught, they sound markedly different than anything Grieves has done before. That’s not going to sit well with all of his fans and according to Grieves, that’s the point.
“I’m extremely proud of it and I can’t imagine a better song to show me stepping out of my boundaries than a song like ‘Rx,’” he says. “When I saw people reacting kind of negatively to it, I knew that I did what I set out to do. Because you cannot push your boundaries without pushing other people’s. It’s just gonna happen.”
“On this one, it’s either like, ‘This is the best record you’ve ever made’ or ‘F*ck you, I hate you, I’m never listening to you again,’” he says of early fan reaction to the new album. “I’m getting these emotional responses from people, which means I did exactly what I needed to do. I didn’t land in the middle.”
Besides, if you’ve seen Grieves live, you already know his world isn’t all darkness and misery. In fact, much of the inspiration for Running Wild came from trying to capture the energy of his live show on record.
“Our live show is very energetic,” Grieves says. “The cool part is I have a lot more to work with now. I’m taking all my sad songs and figuring out a way to make them, like, jacked up. I have stuff to work with now and creating these peaks and valleys is so….it’s not easier, it’s more dynamic, I guess. And since it’s such a musical record, there’s so much more I can do with the music, with my band members, to branch it out. I programmed all the lights for this, so I feel like aesthetically, I’ve created the energy the way that I want it to be.”
One of the biggest stops on Grieves’ upcoming tour -- which launches tonight in Portland and wraps up Nov. 24 in Minneapolis -- is his two-night stand at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver, CO on Sep. 9-10 (click here for tickets). Both the venue and city hold special significance to Grieves.
“I grew up in Fort Collins, so that’s where we went to see shows. My whole hip-hop experience as a kid stems from Denver, pretty much,” he says. “It’s always been that to me, it’s always been like, ‘oh, that’s where I went to go to see all this music.’ I didn’t know it was that to everyone else too. I didn’t know that, like, if you ask any touring musician ‘[what are your] top five cities in the U.S.,’ Denver’s gonna hit that list 90 percent of the time. Denver is such a music-going city. It’s crazy. Other than Minneapolis, it’s probably my biggest market. It’s been supportive of me before anyone was. Colorado always showed out before any other cities ever did.”
With a stellar new album and a more well-rounded, authentic attitude, Grieves sounds happy to be, well, happy. And if his old fans show up expecting the angst and anguish of early albums like Irreversible and Together/ Apart, they’re in for a pleasant surprise, literally.
“I want people to be affected by the music in a different way other than being like, ‘yeah, I play this sh*t when bad sh*t happens to me.’ I don’t want to be associated with all the bad sh*t that happens to you,” he says. “I’m down with also being associated with some of the good sh*t that happens."
Grieves - Running Wild Tour
Aug. 31 - Portland, OR - Hawthorne Theatre
Sept. 01 - San Francisco, CA - Slim's*
Sept. 02 - Los Angeles, CA - Troubadour*
Sept. 03 - San Diego, CA - Casbah*
Sept. 04 - Santa Ana, CA - Constellation Room*
Sept. 05 - Tucson, AZ - Club Congress*
Sept. 06 - Mesa, AZ - Club Red*
Sept. 08 - Salt Lake City, UT - In the Venue*
Sept. 09 - Denver, CO - Bluebird Theater* (Click here for tickets)
Sept. 10 - Denver, CO - Bluebird Theater (Click here for tickets)
Sept. 11 - Durango, CO - Animas City Theatre*
Sept. 12 - Albuquerque, NM - Launchpad*
Sept. 13 - El Paso, TX - Tricky Falls*
Sept. 14 - Austin, TX - Antone's*
Sept. 15 - Dallas, TX - Club Dada*
Sept. 16 - Houston, TX - HOB Bronze Peacock*
Sept. 18 - New Orleans, LA - Parish at HOB*
Sept. 19 - Atlanta, GA - Masquerade (Purgatory Stage)*
Sept. 20 - Raleigh, NC - Kings Barcade*
Sept. 21 - Washington, DC - DC9*
Sept. 22 - Philadelphia, PA - Boot & Saddle*
Sept. 23 - Brooklyn, NY - Knitting Factory*
Sept. 25 - Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall*
Sept. 26 - Montreal, QC - La Sala Rossa*
Sept. 27 - Toronto, ON - The Velvet Underground*
Sept. 28 - Ann Arbor, MI - Blind Pig*
Sept. 29 - Chicago, IL - Schubas Tavern*
Sept. 30 - Milwaukee, WI - Cactus Club*
Oct. 02 - Fargo, ND - The Aquarium*
Oct. 04 - Billings, MT - The Pub Station*
Oct. 05 - Bozeman, MT - Zebra Cocktail Lounge*
Oct. 06 - Spokane, WA - The Bartlett*
Oct. 07 - Spokane, WA - The Bartlett*
Nov. 03 - Seattle, WA - The Crocodile#
Nov. 09 - Reno, NV - Jub Jub's#
Nov. 10 - Santa Cruz, CA - The Catalyst Atrium#
Nov. 12 - Fresno, CA - Strummers#
Nov. 14 - Santa Barbara, CA - Velvet Jones#
Nov. 15 - Las Vegas, NV - Backstage Bar#
Nov. 16 - Flagstaff, AZ - The Green Room#
Nov. 20 - Omaha, NE - The Waiting Room#
Nov. 21 - St. Louis, MO - Firebird#
Nov. 22 - Indianapolis, IN - Hi-Fi#
Nov. 24 - Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue#
Nov. 25 - Sioux Falls, SD - Icon Event Hall & Lounge#
* = with deM atlaS
# = with ProbCause