By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Last fall, Dem Southernfolkz's The Message came seemingly out of nowhere like a refreshing breeze, doing for the ears what that first breath of clean air does for the lungs after a long night in a smoky club. The heartfelt, positive rhymes over a blend of gospel, blues and rock sound nothing like the group's Dirty South rap contemporaries; even without knowing the backstory—that it was recorded during a whirlwind three-week period as one of the group's two Army veterans was being reprocessed to ship back to the Iraq war—it immediately stands out from the rest of the crowded hip-hop field as an incredible album.
But it's only because Thomas "Big B.E.N." Benjamin, Richard "Kinfolk Jack" Jackson and Nathan "Saturday Alridge" Wright IV are children of the '80s that Dem Southernfolkz makes hip-hop at all. In fact, the trio isn't even comfortable calling itself a hip-hop group at all, even if The Message is clearly a hip-hop album.
"We're not rappers," Jackson emphasizes, "we're musicians. I want to get that point across."
"If we came up in the '60s or '70s," Wright chimes in, "we'd have been the coldest soul group ever."
Actually, that makes sense. Like the great soul musicians of the past, these three grew up on gospel music. Benjamin was raised in South Carolina, deeply rooted in the church. Secular music was banned from his house, though this strict edict wasn't always obeyed.
His first worldly music purchase was Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back on cassette. One day, he snuck it home to his aunt's home and listened to it on a boombox in the back where he didn't think his aunt could hear. As soon as he heard footsteps, he punched the eject button—which sent the tape clattering across the floor. Whether or not his aunt recognized the music, she knew he was trying to hide something.
"I got in trouble for that," he says, cracking up.
In seventh grade, Benjamin started making rudimentary hip-hop beats on a component deck with a turntable and two tape players. His limited record collection and parents' restrictions didn't stop him, and he was particularly encouraged when a college-aged cousin complimented him on his work.
His hip-hop education was furthered as his family moved frequently: Along with living in South Carolina, he spent time in Massachusetts and New York, where he was exposed to East Coast hip-hop—a huge influence on his early hard, grimy beats. He stopped going to school at 16, hustling until he realized he needed to change something in his life.
Like Benjamin, Jackson grew up on gospel music. In fact, his parents were in a singing group called The Jackson Harmonizers. (Jackson jokes that the act was like "the Wu-Tang of gospel—too many lead singers.") When he was 6 or 7, his grandmother took him aside and told him he was going to do two things: 1) be a preacher and 2) do music. But it wasn't until he heard Tupac's "I Ain't Mad at Cha" at 16 or 17 that he paid hip-hop any mind.
"Since then, I've had the love for it," Jackson says.
But in his gang-ruled Little Rock, Arkansas, neighborhood, beefs between Vice Lords, Crips and two feuding Blood sets sent friend after friend to prison or the cemetery. For him, the Army looked as good an escape route as any.
"My recruiter took one look at me and said, 'You look like infantry,'" he says. "I was like, 'Nope!'"
Instead, Jackson discovered an option to become a chaplain's assistant, which would give him a $3,000 bonus. Thus, his grandmother's first prediction was true.
He, too, was stationed at Fort Hood. And, as it happened, his roommate was friends with Benjamin, whose room was across the hall. It was just one of the coincidences that has shaped the group: a remarkable chance meeting they all attribute to God's will, living proof that Dem Southernfolkz was meant to be.
But, even so, Benjamin wasn't impressed with Jackson at first.
"I thought he sounded like MC Hammer," he says, laughing.
Eventually, though, the two clicked and began collaborating in 2002 as Ben and Jack (thankfully, that name didn't stick for long). Together, they recorded an album of Dirty South rap called The Front Porch.
But Operation Iraqi Freedom put their music on hold. Benjamin's unit was based in the International Zone in downtown Baghdad, tasked with the extremely dangerous job of escorting government officials. Meanwhile, while Benjamin was gone, Jackson met Wright in Dallas at the 2005 Texas Summer Music Conference.
Wright grew up in an artistic family in East Plano, listening to his parents' jazz and blues and his older sister's Poison and Def Leppard records. He never listened to gangsta rap, but eventually discovered hip-hop that he could get into, like Smif-n-Wessun, Boot Camp Clik and De La Soul. Later, he got into indie-rock; and, more recently, he's more into Broken Social Scene, Spoon and Ra Ra Riot than hip-hop. Until he was 19, though, he was more serious about art than music. But while attending film school at Columbia College in Chicago, music became a respite from homework. After graduating in 2005, he moved back to the Dallas area.