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“We are teamwork”
The return of Sankofa
By J Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
I've mulled around the music scene in Fort Wayne for a few years now. I barely stuck a toe in the waters, as it were, but from a distance I feel I've seen genuine greatness come from the Fort. It seems to be this microcosm of musical minds not willing to let anyone write their narrative but themselves. Pushing through the "local artist" name badge and saying the hell with it. Dive bars and pizza joints become the Orpheum and the Chicago Theater. There's a pride in hailing from the Fort, but it doesn't define these guys and gals. It's a starting point in their creativity. It's a place to call home when you're not.
One of these Fort Wayne artists is Stephen Bryden, aka rapper Sankofa. I've known of Stephen for years, but only at a distance. Hearing bits of his work over these years I've only come away in awe. He's a hell of a rapper and a hell of a writer. He's written about everything from his life, to the irreparable damage Mike Pence has done to the state of Indiana(a great music video came of this as well), to Bravas hot dogs. His Bandcamp page tells the tale of a man with the urge to create. Bryden has an extensive collection of LPs, singles, and EPs to his name, and after a bit of a hiatus and an inspired performance at this year's Middle Waves Music Festival, Sankofa has returned with the excellent Ink From Rust.
With the album release show coming up at the Brass Rail on March 11th, I sat down to talk with Stephen about the return of Sankofa, the new album, the release show, and the beauty of collaboration. But first, we talked about his recent performance at Down The Line.
J. Hubner: So tell about Down The Line. How did you get involved? Was INXS your choice?
Stephen Bryden: Jared at the Embassy had spoken to me about the possibility of playing 2016’s Down The Line and it had not come to pass. During our conversation, I’d half-jokingly suggested INXS, as I’d long been a fan of Kick and realized (after singing karaoke at Nate Utesch’s wedding — thanks Aaron Butts for the reminder) that my vocal range was fairly similar to that of Michael Hutchence and "Never Tear Us Apart" is a classic song.
J. Hubner: There were no rap artists you wanted to cover?
Stephen Bryden: I was loathe to cover a rap group because it would go against the code of biting which had made me reluctant to actively pursue an earlier Down the Line role. The expectations for each performer was 25 minutes of cover songs and one original song to last not longer than 5 minutes. Honestly, I was on the fence about performing, until I realized that if I worked with Jared Andrews on keyboard (being that Kick was primarily synth and drum machine driven) it could prove to make for an interesting performance. Jared’s a good guy and we’ve done a handful of shows on the same bill.
When Jared of the Embassy gave the go ahead, I got back to Jared Andrews and began rehearsing. The true selling point for my participation was that 1 original song. I realized I could perform a new song from Ink From Rust that would leave quite an impression. Oftentimes, I plan and rarely does the outcome match my projection. This outcome smashed whatever bar had been set. Before we began rehearsal, I’d sent Jared Andrews the playlist and he asked about “Kid Gloves,” as he couldn’t find it in INXS’s catalog. I explained to him that’s the song which will make our participation in the evening worth it. Once I told him the focus, he was intrigued and — best as I can tell — as excited as me.
J. Hubner: So how did the audience take to the INXS set?
Stephen Bryden: The Down the Line crowd was quite participatory and loose during the INXS portion, then the botoxed moms kind of looked blankly while still dancing as my original song commenced. It was then that Sankofa and not some funny guy trying to sing INXS songs showed up. I know my live shows are lyrically dense, which made the ending of the song a perfect closure. The people who had laughed with me up until that point then split into those excited to realize what I was doing versus the people who voted for Trump. The song closes on a remarkably simple joke I’m overly proud of having made up:
Orange you glad I didn’t say Trump?
J. Hubner: So, how did that go over?
Stephen Bryden: To say portions of the audience were furious is an understatement. I had been invited to play my biggest show ever in the heart of Indiana and here I was dissecting number 45. Bambi came backstage after our set and said people in the audience were furious. She feared for our well-being. Mitch Fraizer (our backstage plus one) made it a point to remove his backstage pass which said “Sankofa.” Jared’s friend texted him that he overheard people calling us names which would not be fit to print. Someone I knew in attendance that night said the people in front of her began flipping off the stage.
J. Hubner: So it sounds like it went over better than you ever could've imagined.
Stephen Bryden: Andy Kaufman 101 and man did it feel glorious. The Sankofa facebook page has a post from an amazingly incensed gentleman whose furor I screen capped then posted to Instagram for posterity.
J. Hubner: With a gig like that under your belt you could pretty much retire happily from music altogether, but you seem to just be getting started. Tell me about your new album Ink From Rust. Has fatherhood played a part in the inspiration?
Stephen Bryden: Fatherhood inspired the realization that if I didn’t take whatever shreds of time were available to me when inspiration yet lived, that this album would never get completed. Honestly, it took a lot of planning. I spoke to Bambi about shooting a video, got a timeframe for when to shoot it, how long to edit it, when to release it and then leave a month before the release show (this after confirming at date for the Brass Rail). This process is essentially a Rube Goldberg machine leading up to March 11th. I’ve compared said process to the building of old war planes — a lot of people had a hand in making key components, but very few were aware of the entire project (be that the warplane or this album).
J. Hubner: Let's get into the nuts and bolts. Where did you record? Are these a new batch of tunes or are they ones that have been incubating for some time?
Stephen Bryden: I recorded at Temple Studios. Tom is a great guy with whom I’d worked before having home recording facilities and, upon selling off my gear to “retire” (yep, my wife Jenn and former collaborator El Keter told me I wasn’t done), I had been asked by a former collaborator in Switzerland about doing a track.
Post Middle Waves, I was amped to create new works, as I’ve been performing the same songs for so long and I truly felt there were pieces I wished to share with energy provided by the electricity of what Middle Waves represented to a city I love. There are a couple songs I’d been holding onto fragments, never to see the light of a sound booth, in particular 32 Kennebec’s two lines “I only said I loved you, I never claimed to care,” and “You’re the first person to teach me that a smile could lie.” As for timetable, I was making headway on two projects (both temporarily sidelined for Ink From Rust to develop) when Greg Locke mentioned he’d be willing to do artwork if I was to make another album. I had confided in him (I like to keep things pretty secretive) about my other two projects and lamented that I’d already lined up artists for those pieces. Within 24 hours of my grieving, a producer from Detroit named John Stone had liked a track I recorded to a beat he’d sent me whose recording I’d piggybacked on the Switzerland session. I’d played with John’s group, The Prime Eights, twice — once at the Berlin and the second time at the Brass Rail. John said he enjoyed the song and would be willing to produce an album for me. Well, timing being what it was, I said YES and relayed the same word to Greg. From that point, John sent me beats, I worked many words to them until I had what I felt to be fitting pieces for each beat. John envisioned 10 tracks, whereas I foresaw a 5-6 song output. I told him if he sent me beats and I was inspired, there would be more songs. He sent me a file containing 30 something beats and I went to town. All but the first song (Ras Kass) which started Ink From Rust were recorded in one marathon four hour session.
J. Hubner: Can you explain the name 'Ink From Rust'?
Stephen Bryden: It came from the realization I had not created in ages and thus my pen was out of use. It’s a simple way of saying I’ve been absent from the creative process for a long time.
J. Hubner: "Crimson Feather" is the first single and video. It's a powerful song, man. Can you tell me a little about it?
Stephen Bryden: It’s essentially my “what if” song, where the hook is about why didn’t I follow those paths and see where they could take my music? It’s fairly boilerplate artistic self-flagellation, but it rings true. My mind state making that song was closest to that of my earlier works with production team Suspended Animators (ognihs and Manic Depressive) on an EP called SA-2. Very dense material.
J. Hubner: Bambi Guthrie did a great job on the video.
Stephen Bryden: Bambi did an incredible job with the video and she is one of a near countless amount of people who helped make this project possible.
J. Hubner: So what you're saying is you got by with a little help from your friends.
Stephen Bryden: I’m a rapper, I have a voice. I don’t make beats, I don’t shoot videos, I can’t draw very well, I don’t know how to make graphics on a computer. The last song on Ink From Rust (creatively enough called “Ink From Rust”) is my attempt to recall as many names of people who helped me get to this point. I am one person and the amount of people who made what is considered to be my music expands way beyond some guy currently answering your questions. It brings me great joy and no small measure of humility to realize how fortunate I am to have so many talented friends who are willing to help bring my visions to life. My oldest son Arthur once said “we are teamwork” (naturally, I was helping him pick up his toys) and I have adopted that as a motto of sorts. The people in the “Crimson Feather” video showed up having absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was when they arrived that I explained I’d returned to making music and wanted them to be in a video I was shooting that day. The video was originally slated to be released February 11, but once I was invited to Down the Line, I pushed it back until the following day. Turns out, that was a tremendous call.
J. Hubner: Speaking of tremendous things, Ink From Rust's album release show is March 11th at the Brass Rail. What do you have planned for that momentous occasion?
Stephen Bryden: The CD drops 3/11. The digital release will occur a week later. I want people to be there, to experience the joy and moment of what will be an incredible night of music with friends. If you want the shirts I’m debuting that night, show up. If you want to buy a CD with all the fun stuff, show up. If you want to see me pour my guts out on stage and do my damndest to put on one hell of a show, show up. Far as merch, I will have packs-CD, poster, magnet, pen, sticker for $13. My long time friends Sub-Surface are playing and that alone is worth the $6 admission. wolfbearhawk is a band comprised of my friends (many of whom were in I, Wombat, whose last album I still play the life out of) and I wanted to include them on the bill to kick off the night. The Prime Eights will be coming in from Detroit and then I get to play. I’m not trying to be coy, but I’ve got stuff planned to make this a decidedly memorable evening. The day of the show there will be a listening party at Bravas from 11-2 with an event-specific menu item and a coloring contest. The winner of that contest will get a tee shirt. I plan on having a limited number of CDs available for sale there for folk who may not be able to later get to the Rail.
J. Hubner: I wanted to ask you about "#doubledownondumb", a track you released over the summer in response to former Governor Mike Pence's obliteration of Indiana's educational system and gutting of Glenda Ritz' ability to do her job. How did that (great)track come about? I'm sure with you being an educator (and parent) yourself this hit especially close to home.
Stephen Bryden: That song wrote itself. During my “retirement,” only Bravas, NeighborLink and the idiocy of Pence could get me to find studio facilities (usually Nate Utesch’s basement). The song had been gestating for a long time, but the original producer (Geno) is a guy who loves collecting vintage gear — at one point he had a mixing board autographed by the RZA-more than he does completing songs. He’d produced my Sarah Palin song “Lipstick Fangs” years prior; Geno made a beat snippet and I looped it. Geno had been sitting on my Pence track vocals for an excruciating length of time and when it seemed like Pence was going to be Trump’s veep pick, I got the vocals over to ognihs and he came through with a beat in about as short an order as Bambi made the subsequent video.
J. Hubner: I imagine you probably have been influenced by all kinds of music and art in general, but when did hip hop make its mark on you?
Stephen Bryden: Morris Minor and the Majors’ Stutter Rap. Just like most true stories, it’s fairly embarrassing. That was the first vinyl I bought (K-Mart, 7”, I believe it was 1987). They were a spoof group who were modeling the track after The Beastie Boys (admittedly, not at that point serious artists themselves). Stutter Rap was my gateway drug, leading up to a Walkman birthday gift with Run DMC’s Tougher than Leather and the DOC’s No One Can Do It Better its first two tapes.
J. Hubner: If you had to pick just one album that made the biggest impression on you, what album would that be? What was it about that record that affected you so much?
Stephen Bryden: My cop out answer is the biggest influence on my perspective of music is my mom-her constant dancing to however many records and tapes she would play. She loved and still loves music, it gives her life. Motown, Beatles, Stones, Spirit, Iron Butterfly, the West Side Story soundtrack, Dragon, Simon & Garfunkel… She lived music and that passion made an impression on me. I have found that the music I loved as a high schooler and college student still holds great emotional sway with me to this day.
Stephen Bryden, aka Sankofa, is the real deal. A down to earth dude that puts 100% of himself in everything he does. Head out to the Brass Rail March 11th and check out what will surely be one of the best shows of the year in Fort Wayne. If you want the good stuff(t-shirts, CDs, magnets, pens, stickers) then get to the Brass Rail that night and reap your rewards. Hit up Bravas from 11-2 on the 11th for a listening party and goodies created just for that day. Keep up with Sankofa at https://www.facebook.com/sankofafw/, and get acquainted with the tunes at https://sankofa.bandcamp.com/.