When the levees break, brothers gonna work it out
How local hip-hop act The Lytics overcame adversity to create a masterpiece
If the first wavering, pleading bleat of trumpet doesn’t give it away, make no mistake, the next 52 minutes of The Lytics’ sophomore album is in many ways an explanation and apology for having been gone too long.
From a pair of flooded studios to getting kicked out of a third, and from running out of money to losing managers, the two-and-a-half year journey toward the release of They Told Me has been a hell of a ride for Winnipeg’s familial hip-hop unit.
“It was really hard – there were moments we felt like there was no way we could get it done,” emcee and member Andrew O. Sannie says during an interview ahead of the album’s release party at the Pyramid Cabaret this Friday, Nov. 9.
Since their 2009 debut unexpectedly landed them numerous tours and performances peppered across local and national festivals, The Lytics – rounded out by brothers Anthony “Ashy” Sannie and Alex “B-Flat” Sannie, along with cousin Mungala “Munga” Londe and friend DJ Lonnie Ce – were acutely aware of the pressure to deliver a follow up worth the hype.
Armed with a recording grant from FACTOR and a deal to release the album on Vancouver-based label Camobear, the group tapped Mark Penner (Moses Mayes, Cyclist) and Andrew Yankiwski (Precursor Productions) to help record the album.
In spring 2010, they returned to the Sannie family basement, where they recorded their eponymous EP, to begin pre-production.
That’s when the levees broke, so to speak – the first flood flood claiming their parents’ studio, and another claiming B-Flat’s St. Norbert home where they had quickly set up a replacement. The two floods happened a week apart.
By the time the band found and leased a studio above what is now Opera Ultralounge, drying up their resources and soundproofing the space in the process, it was Christmas.
For the next six months, they split their time there with Penner’s Space and Time Studios, laying down beats and shaping skeletons of more than 30 songs.
“The first record everybody worked on their own,” Sannie explains. “Someone would write a chorus or a hook, you’d put your verse on it, and the next time you came back, the song was done.
“This record we worked on things together. At first, nothing was being done. We were constantly fighting and had to really learn how to write together. Once we got over the learning curve, we were chugging.”
But the group soon found themselves studio-less once more.
On a tour out west with hip-hop artist and Camobear founder Josh Martinez, the group got a call they were being kicked out of their studio above Opera. Soon after, they were saying goodbye to Penner who was leaving Winnipeg for Vancouver.
“It felt like a curse. We just couldn’t get a break,” Sannie says. “It’s like playing a sport; as soon as you get comfortable with everything, your coach pulls you out. That’s how it felt.”
With FACTOR and eager fans still breathing expectation and anticipation down their necks, the band slumped into B-Flat’s apartment in Osborne Village in fall 2011, whittling down the 30 tracks to 13 until this past March.
“For two years we were telling people we were working on stuff. It got to the point where people were like, ‘Right, you haven’t done anything, have you?’” Sannie says.
“It was really tough to continue on. There were times we thought we’d just tell (FACTOR) we’d give them back the money. Then we’d sit down and listen to the pieces we had and say ‘Wow, this could be a really good record.’ It was hard to give up on it.”
The result is an introspective and expansive album rife with reflections on perseverance, confidence and humility in the face of adversity.
From the dreamy jazz-noir bliss of opener Dear World, to the sugary sweet pop march of lead single Stay Calm, to the relentless ‘70s swagger of Charles Bronson, They Told Me is a cross-section of genres laced with a lyricism that demands your attention.
With falsetto hooks, vibraphone runs, funk-rock keyboards and indie-rock distortion spread in between, The Lytics’ varied brand of youthful, enthusiastic hip-hop has every reason to land on iPod playlists across the country.
“There aren’t many people that only listen to rock these days or only listen to hip-hop,” Sannie says. “We’re influenced by everything so it’s going to come out in our music. I don’t think we can make music any other way. I don’t really know how to.”
Still, the politics and machinations of the music industry have left the group in a contemplative mood about the future, Sannie says, though he hints more videos, shows, and songs are still on the way.
“Everybody’s growing, things are changing. The last two years of my life have been defined by this record,” he says.
“Where we’re at right now, who knows how much longer we’ll be doing it? Everyone needs to evaluate where they’re at in life. If we are going to continue on, it’s largely going to depend on how we feel in the next couple of months.
“It doesn’t matter how good your music is, you need the right people hearing it, the right people talking about it and the people vouching for you,” he continues.
“Will that happen? No one really knows. You just have to do the best you can until you can’t do it anymore.
“We’re here for now, and that’s good enough.”
Published in Volume 67, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 7, 2012)