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."
Dem Southernfolkz perform Friday, February 27, at Liquid Lounge.
"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.
He joined the Army in 2000, bringing his music gear with him to Fort Hood in Killeen. There, his room became a hangout for music lovers, who'd freestyle over his beats or just listen.
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.
Jackson was impressed with him, but Wright wasn't sure how he'd fit into the group or how he could add to the then-duo's sound. Eventually, though, he crumbled and was convinced to help his new friends re-record their The Front Porch record.
"We almost kidnapped him," Jackson says.
"It was meant to be," Benjamin says. "We had a lot of people who came and went, but with Nate, it just clicked. We knew it was God's design, the way our music came out so pure."
Jackson introduced Wright to a friend who eventually became their manager, Daniel "Weav" Weaver. As they chatted, Weaver and Wright noted interesting coincidences in their family backgrounds.
"Y'all gonna be cousins," Jackson joked as the two rattled off family members. Finally, Wright broke off the conversation to call his grandmother, who confirmed it. They were cousins. It was another sign to the group's members: This was meant to be.
And yet, despite all their work, they lacked the funds to stay in the music game. So Benjamin took a gig in Iraq as a security administration contractor. While there in 2007, he got a dreaded e-mail from the Army.
"I had one year left [of inactive duty] that they could activate me [for], but I didn't think they would," he says. "I was being called from Iraq...to Iraq!"
He came back to Dallas for reprocessing, with precious little time to re-record The Front Porch.
All of a sudden, though, the group's songs about candy cars and drinking seemed childish.
"None of us were in that headspace anymore," Wright says.
After coming up with 10 or 11 new songs, the trio scrapped the re-recording idea and chose to make a new album.
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They reached out to Nappy Roots' Skinny DeVille for a guest verse on the song "The Message" (the song for which the album was eventually named), and also to Royce Da 5'9", who was running a buy-a-verse-for-a-grand promotion. And although both collabos began as business transactions, the two national stars became friends and fans of Dem Southernfolkz after hearing the music. A talented church friend of Jackson, Terrance Young, provided much of the album's impressive instrumentation, with Benjamin and Wright adding some of the keyboard and guitar parts. The gritty saxophone parts came courtesy of musician Jeff Aycock.
More than a year later, much has changed. Sergeant Thomas Benjamin's final tour in Iraq ended in November, as did his Army commitment. After four years in Uncle Sam's ham-handed attempt to liberate the Iraqi people, he's now the one who feels liberated.
As for the group, Benjamin and Jackson are mastering drums and bass to complement Wright's live guitar work as a hip-hop power trio. They want to keep pushing the 2008 version of The Message, but plan to re-record it and add a few songs before a national release later this year.
At least, that's their plan. But remember what happened last time they tried to re-record an album...