At first glance, Marty Hillard doesn’t really seem like the type of guy to take on a moniker that calls to mind images of primal, aggressive beasts. But then again, that’s the point.
The 32 year old rapper behind Ebony Tusks sits across the table from me at a Pie Five pizzeria in Westport during a break in shows at Kansas City’s Middle of the Map Festival. Hillard, in a black band shirt, round frame glasses and dreadlocks, idly nibbles at a piece of pizza and gazes wistfully out of the front windows. “I think that originally, the goal was that I wanted to have a name that was visceral, something really immediate.”
Hillard, who started writing raps at the age of eleven after watching VHS tapes of his older brother’s hip-hop performances, is a student of many styles and genres. Starting out in a band called The Original in high school (which blended rap and funk a la Incubus and Limp Bizkit), he moved on to writing folk music after the band dissolved and remained relatively uninterested in rap until around 2007. “Posturing in hip-hop was at an all time high then,” says Hillard, who felt that most rappers during that period – with the exception of artists like Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch – were only concerned with projecting an image and caused him to struggle with the concept of realness.
“I used to go to rap shows and have panic attacks,” Hillard admits, “I just didn’t feel like I fit in. Like, am I not wearing the right clothes or what?” That all started to change around the time The Cool Kids’ Bake Sale EP came out, which Marty at least partially credits as the catalyst to the birth of Ebony and the reason why he fell back in love with hip-hop. For him, the duo’s underground success stemmed from the afirmation that being cool meant being yourself and that it was okay being a nerd. “I felt like listening to The Cool Kids, I was in on the joke. I would say if there’s any group that’s had more influence on Ebony Tusks, it would be them for sure.”
Molded by the new wave of conscious rap prevalent by the late 2000s, Ebony Tusks hit the stage in the fall of 2010 and with a brand of hip-hop heavily influenced by elements of post-hardcore, instrumentalists like Explosions in the Sky and electronic music producers such as Andy Stott. I’ve heard the spoken word style of Saul Williams mentioned in comparisons to Ebony, and it makes sense given Hillard’s sometimes blunt delivery and that idea is reinforced by performances that often include bouts of impassioned freestyles inspired by slam poetry. Perceptions aside, Hillard’s lyrical content is incredibly cerebral; It’s the kind of music that you really have to listen to a few times to pick apart the many turns of phrase before uncovering the true message behind the music in the same way you would with Aesop Rock.
When we start getting deeper into the topic of influences, Marty’s Midwestern sensibility starts becoming increasingly evident. He believes that the financial recession of 2008 is what got people to start looking inward and relating to music that prioritized the philosophy that it’s better to give than get. “It’s about determining what value is, what worth is,” Hillard says. “A lot of artists have begun to invest in themselves and have found new and creative ways to project what their value is to others and give people an opportunity to find value in that for themselves.”
“I used to go to rap shows and have panic attacks,” Hillard admits, “I just didn’t feel like I fit in. Like, am I not wearing the right clothes or what?”
The subject of music services like Spotify was eventually brought up, and I can see a wry, knowing smile creep across Marty’s face. “I definitely have my own opinion on streaming services,” he says. Hillard admits that he feels contrary to free streaming services because, in addition to the small percentage of revenue the actual artists recieve, it projects a dollar value on the work that artists produce and can negatively affect the way they see their own work and inherent value. And he should know; While he was a member of the now-defunct indie rock outfit Cowboy Indian Bear, the band’s album Does Anybody See You Out was well received by local music critics and had over 100,000 streams on Spotify within the first few months of its release. “Of course, we’ve never seen a check for it,” Hillard says, “And if there is one, I don’t know about it.”
He then poses the example of Amanda Palmer – the former lead singer of The Dresden Dolls – and her recent Kickstarter campaign which succeeded in raising $1.2 Million for her new album and subsequent tour. He says that her campaign reminded him of his experiences pressing his first records right out of high school, playing shows and asking for donations for the material he had recorded. “If you didn’t have cash, I would say ‘here, take this because I just want you to hear it and enjoy it.” For Hillard, going the extra mile to invest in fans rather than seeing them as a revenue stream forms a deeper connection that just selling records and going on tour. “Once you start thinking about the numbers, you’re focused on the wrong thing,” he says of Palmer’s critics. “You’re worried about how she’s building her sandcastle, meanwhile, she bought the beach and now you can’t have any sand.”
Dan Smith, Marty’s producer and DJ, walks into Pie Five about halfway through the conversation and I recognize him from one of the shows where I first saw Marty perform in college. “I used to have different DJs,” Marty says, smiling with his partner in crime, “Dan was just more fun and more attentive than the friends who kept subbing in; Homie love, man.” As it turns out, the show where I caught Marty’s performance was part of a series of events that the two had established with the express purpose of showcasing local talent called lowercase Kansas.
“We were trying to to get people together that maybe didn’t know each other who live a few hours away,” says Dan. The events, which started back in the fall of 2013, has seen a vast array of local talent – in both music and physical media – come to put their work on display in venues around Lawrence and Kansas City. In fact, the lowercase series has been so successful that they’ve been able to pull in talent from as far as Minnesota with Doomtree’s Mike Mictlan. Whereas the semiregular lowercaseevents have brought midwestern favorites like Heartfelt Anarchy, Greg Enemy, Stik Figga, D/Will and Steddy P (to which Marty expresses a thoroughly Midwestern ‘gaaah-llyyyy, so good’) to a larger stage, the real beauty is in a subset of events put on by the lowercase crew called BarsUp, where members of the audience become the artists.
“You’re worried about how she’s building her sandcastle, meanwhile, she bought the beach and now you can’t have any sand.”
“An open mike night still has the dichotomy of the performers and the audience and there’s a very clear line in the sand,” says Dan. “With BarsUp, it always feels like an ‘us’ thing.” Inspired by a visit to a New York bodega where session musicians were spontaneously joined by emcees on stage, Marty decided to start the BarsUp events as a way to create a low-pressure atmosphere where the lowercasefaithful could interact without judgement in whatever way they want. Along with Geese, the group’s sound and lighting orchestrator – who joined us at the table for the last part of the conversation – Dan and Marty play facilitators and occasional performers at this new type of event. “When we did one at Mills [Record Company], I got a third of the way through a verse I had written, but there was so much love; It was positive feedback,” Marty says. “At BarsUp, please do fuck up. It’s the only way you’re gonna get better.”
It’s an odd thing to hear an artist who’s shared the stage with national acts like The Cool Kids and clipping. talking so candidly on not making a big deal over messing up in front of his fans, but that’s just the kind of guy Marty is. We talk briefly about the ideas of success and failure and how Killer Mike and El-P only found their rampant, mainstream appeal by teaming up together as Run The Jewels after years of underground notoriety as solo artists. “Why does the conversation with artists have to begin and end with success?” Hillard speculates. He then juxtapositions the RTJ story against Wale’s tendency to respond so fervently to criticism. “It hurts me that he’s performing at such an elite level, but fans reach out to him on Twitter with shade and he bothers to dignify that with a response,” says Hillard. “This generation is seeing a rapper who is so successful and yet so insecure, and people need a Killer Mike. You never hear him complain that nobody listened to Pledge; You never hear any bitterness in El-P’s lyrics about album sales.”
“Why does the conversation with artists have to begin and end with success?” Hillard speculates.
As it stands, Ebony Tusks as a whole – and as individuals – are satisfied with who and where they are as artists, even with all the added responsibilities of normal life. With Hillard’s newborn baby and wife in Topeka, Dan in Lawrence and Nathan (Geese) in Gardner, Ebony Tusks has a lot on their plate that isn’t necessarily related to music. But despite all their other responsibilities and the physical distance between them, the group still collaborates on new material. “If you’re a creative person and you enjoy making music, you’re gonna find new hurdles to jump over,” Marty says. “And our fans are willing to meet us halfway.”
As I make my way to the Riot Room patio to get a good vantage point for the show, I decide to go check out the merch booth, and true to his word, Hillard has stuck by the ‘donations only’ model. I give the guy working behind it the only cash I had on hand and get a shirt, sticker and pin and start to strike up a conversation with him about some of the acts he’d seen at the festival before I start to hear cheering and turn around.
“We’re Ebony Tusks and we’re a hardcore band from Lawrence, Kansas,” Hillard yells from the stage. And then I’m just lost, like everyone else, in the cacophony.
Original piece can be found on theauxjack.com.