words by Eamon Whalen
Four of the six members of ZULUZULUU –– MMYYKK, DJ Just Nine, Greg Grease and Proper-T –– sip hot lavender tea in the July heat in the living room of the south Minneapolis duplex where Just Nine and MMYYKK reside. They’ve been a loose band for almost three years (they still are fairly loose, their guitarist BIG BOUNCE and producer Trelly-Mo live in Oakland and Charlotte, respectively), but have never talked about their origins, until now, in the midst of the summer of the release of their debut project, What’s The Price.
"I've pinpointed the moment when shit formulated. I've pinpointed the Voltron moment," says Grease, who raps, produces and plays the 404 drum machine while singing backup during their live show. Grease motions over the collection of monitors, synths, and keyboards that’s between him and MMYYKK, who plays the synths and talkbox, sings and occasionally pulls out an alto saxophone during ZULUZULUU live shows.
"It was when your shit went on fire and you moved here,” says Grease to MMYYKK. “That’s when we really locked in. That’s when ZULUZULUU happened." In April 2015, Fisher’s apartment burned down in a fire that nearly cleared an entire city block on Broadway avenue on the city’s north side. The fire also burned down the offices of the Black empowerment non-profit Neighborhoods Organizing For Change and rumors of foul play were abound after the fire was ruled an arson. In the aftermath Fisher moved into Just Nine’s duplex, where Grease was also living at the time.
"Damn," says Just Nine. "That means ZULUZULUU was born out of a fire."
It should come as no surprise then, that a group that almost literally rose from the ashes can balance life’s joyful highs and painful lows with ease. Take "Let It Go," the group’s first song recorded in early 2014 with no notions of becoming a band. The song explored the travails of being a part of the Black community, but as the song title states, resistance goes hand-in-hand with catharsis through song and dance. For ZULUZULUU, exorcising demons and catching a groove on the dance floor aren’t mutually exclusive.
Throughout “What’s The Price,” they put forth deep reflections on blackness, from the everyday existential and material fear for the safety of one’s mind and body, to the celebration of the fellowship of Pan-African consciousness. On the project’s title track, after MMYYKK laments the terrorism of the police state, the thoughtful, coarsely voiced Grease and his cousin, lead vocalist Proper-T offer the following mantra: “We say melinate to elevate/celebrate, we hella straight.”
They aren’t attempting to fill in the blanks of everything, either. The project kicks off with the winking ambiguity of a cover of Syreeta Wright "Black Maybe," that scoffs at the idea of black people, or anyone for that matter, allowing themselves to be pinned down to superficial signifiers. The group is, in their own words, chalk full of “enigma niggas,” bringing with them an eclectic mix of different genres, influences and backgrounds.
ZULUZULUU is the culmination of almost a decade or more worth of collaboration between it’s members. Grease, who began as a self-taught drummer, played in Punk-Rock and Funk bands with Surber during and after both of them spent a stint in North Carolina during high school. Proper-T, who was also living in North Carolina during his formative years, had been writing songs over his own rudimentary beats since his early teens. Grease grew enamored with his drum machine and when he returned to the Twin Cities, began pumping out beats of his own. He soon met Just-Nine, and along with three others, formed the rap group The Usual Suspects. Some years later, Grease took to rapping on the solo tip, building his name with the support of three full length projects that featured production from Proper-T, Trelly-Mo (also a cousin) and a live show where he’d be backed by Just Nine. Though wholly different, Grease’s solo work is perhaps the most easily traceable sonic roots of ZULUZULUU.
In ZULUZULUU, MMYYKK serves as both the catalyst for the group’s formation, and the one outlier. He was born and raised in southern California and played bass, guitar, alto saxophone and piano throughout his childhood and adolescence. He moved to Minneapolis to study production at the Institute of Production Recording. While in school, MMYYKK formed the rap duo Midwest Konnect with a classmate, gaining respect from peers around the scene as the new kids in town. Among his admirers was Grease, who commissioned MMYYKK to shoot a music video for him. Not long thereafter they began to collaborate on music, and Grease’s eclectic, soulful sound and pro-Black message gelled naturally with MMYYKK.
Unapologetic Afro-centricity is ingrained in the group’s aesthetic. They’ve said in another interview they chose their name because it’s “black power stacked on top of black power.” On the cover art of the album and while performing live, the group is decked out in African garb from head to toe, a sartorial nod to the multi-century echo of Black expression. To be Black and proud in Minnesota –– home of some of the nation’s worst racial disparities, where racism is often cloaked in a smile and a comment on the weather –– makes their music and aesthetic all the more glaring. That they can carry this weight while creating an uplifting party vibe every time they perform makes them that much more compelling, important and inspirational. ZULUZULUU is a conscientious release valve.
Though they’re self-admittedly channeling centuries of ancestral expression, the one genre you can comfortably pin on ZULUZULUU is funk. This sonic aesthetic is partly a family tradition. Grease, Proper-T and Surber all claim heavy influence from a shared uncle of Grease and Proper-T's who played the keyboard and saxophone in a late 80s band called Mind and Matter alongside the iconic producer Jimmy Jam. Jimmy Jam and partner Terry Lewis are the primary arbiters of the Minneapolis Sound, the synth-forward analog funk of the late-70s and 80s that ZULUZULUU can reasonably claim to be the heirs of. While in full embrace of the “funk” title, the group has had an interesting history with how genres and labels intersect with identity.
"At the end of the day, back in the day, we weren't a funk band," says Grease still standing, pacing a bit, recalling the days playing in a band with Surber in North Carolina, his zest for music palpable in his body language. "We played rock and roll,” he says. Yet, when their band would perform, they were categorized as funk. "We came out like we some black rock niggas. We'd come in and play our shit," says Grease, who then imitates a white person reacting to their music –– “Wow! They are funky!" Funk has an umbrella term for Black bands undermines the fact that rock, like jazz, country, the blues, techno, and just about every iteration of American music, has it’s roots in Black expression. This reality was, and still is, often swept under the rug as White musicians repackage, resell and surpass their Black counterparts –– think Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, or James Brown and Mick Jagger, or Chicago House, Detroit techno and mainstream EDM.
There is one musician who fundamentally changed how racial identity and music are conceived in America, and who looms large over ZULUZULUU, both geographically and spiritually. Grease sees reasons to attach the group to the tradition of Prince. "Lately, we have been trying to stay away from the computer," says Grease, adding that the band, led in this area primarily by MMYYKK, have been working on synths, playing live instruments and working on the kind of basic hardware you would find in the late 80s, during Prince’s era.
Prince was also a pioneer of sexuality without shame, particularly a Black male sexuality that embraced carefree flamboyance. ZULUZULUU follows this tradition, presenting primal sexual desire as necessary and vital. On “What’s The Price,” sex and romanticism is neither saccharine or twisted into braggadocious machismo. "It’s natural. It’s sex and love,” says Proper-T sitting on the ground with his back against the wall, cupping a mug of tea. “I feel like even if someone would say that [their music] it is quote unquote 'crass,' is not crass. It’s a very natural part of life.” In “On Our Way,” Proper-T’s voice enters like a seductive fog, curling over the curbs on an easy late night stroll. Then, on “Bicycle Seat,” he’s in the midst of the next morning, waking with the sun (Oh how the sun has blessed you) with nothing but love and passion to share. “There are levels to this shit,” says Proper-T. “You may look from far away and see a beautiful sight. But when you get closer, when she's in your space, you’re noticing the deeper things. It takes a little patience and a little openness," he says.
During their live show, Proper-T is reminiscent of a cabaret or lounge singer, plucked out of a sleepy midtown hole where it is perpetually past midnight. Though he’s got the chops and charisma, he’s not completely comfortable playing the frontman yet. "I’m not done learning how to sing at all," says Proper-T. "That’s probably going to take, like, until I die. Not just how to sing, but when to use power." Moving forward, the group sees a more even rotation of vocalists.
As they say, they are all growing into their voices, and with MMYYKK's burgeoning, beautifully haunting voice and Surber's own songwriting, they say that listeners should plan on more vocal contributions from both. They write their lyrics together, anyway, so who is singing or doing what will just depend on what feels right. That’s why, says Grease, there was not much rapping on the EP, simply because it felt right, but the next project may have more or may have less. These guys only seem to care about their expression, which in the digital world we live in, means not as much self-promotion as one would expect from a band of their quality and magnitude.
Before the release of “What’s The Price?” the band has been, relative to many of their peers, conspicuously quiet online. For months after the release of "Let It Go," as listeners interests were piqued, the band put zero music out. The only way to hear any news about the band, let alone new music, for two years, was to see them live. "For us," says Grease, "it’s more about tinkering on the drum machine and keyboard. No shade to people who do [have a large social media presence]. Some people are really good at it. Personally, I just think I'm not really good at the promotional side." The group wasn't building a mystique or making a principled stand, they’re just truly, solely focused on their music.
What comes naturally, even easily for these guys help many through the hardest times. Something as simple as a smile or a little jig, can, at times, while watching police and citizens clash, can seem difficult or even selfish. ZULUZULUU aims for the ability to –– after hearing all the news, after marching in the streets, after talking and reading –– provide a time to dance when the day is done. And they’re not sugarcoating anything. They don't aim to blind or simply distract but, like most great protest music, ask more questions than they answer, implicitly remixing the famous W.E.B Dubois quote: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Instead, they ask, “what’s the price?”