In a time of civil unrest and social injustices, Sweet Honey In The Rock, formed by Berniece Johnson in Washington in 1973, presented a balm to heal the wounds that plagued Black America in the aftermath of the civil rights era. In the shadow of brutality, the avant garde genre-bending troupe remixed and extended music from across the Black diaspora, informing what it means to sing about freedom, to feel deeply about the soul, and to carry on the Black Radical tradition through music. Opening his Impact Mix with their rendition of ‘Ain' Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’, New York artist The 83rd has set the stage for an hour’s worth of commentary, joy, rage, and all the things in between. There’s a little Kendrick, a little Amiri Baraka, a little Moor Mother; deftly weaving archival recordings and music from across the better part of a century, he’s crafted a freedom song that reflects and looks forward. He names it appropriately: 'all i got are my tools to fight back'.
Much like Sweet Honey In the Rock, The 83rd aka ZION, prefers to let his feelings for his people guide his sound, rather than any one structure or genre. With a career spanning over 15 years, he’s put his ear to work in just about every branch of Black music. Starting off in Chicago as a church drummer, a rite of passage for rhythmically inclined Black men, he’s since found himself rooted in New York, working on his own productions as well as championing his community of radicals and dissenters with his label Sermon 3 Recordings, which celebrated its 4 year anniversary last August. Taking what he’s learned from years spent navigating the commercial music industry (he’s worked with Angel Haze, Alice Glass and Jamie XX to name a few) the producer-turned-radical-turned-professor, creates rhythms that channel his passion for liberation. A recent project, solitarysouls.net, led him deep into the history of mass Black incarceration, emerging with a sound piece documenting inmates in the deep south. His catalog also includes baile funk-inspired club flips, sentimental ambient songs, and experimental hip hop. Simply put, he uses everything he’s got.
Read on for some of the insightful musings from the two-hour conversation between The 83rd and Crystal Mioner as well as The 83rd's Impact mix.
What inspired the move from Chicago back to New York?
“I was working with Maurice (Joshua), I had multiple songs on the radio, and I had no money. One day, I had a part time job working at this gym and I had clocked out. I had been working all day and all night on these remixes and I had five dollars left to my name. Just enough to put money in my car, a Jeep Cherokee Sport, and drive to my house. I lived in low income housing with the homies. I put my last five dollars in, put my head on the wheel, and I’m on the radio. I’m like ‘ain’t this a bitch?’ How is everybody getting value from my art and I can’t even get home? I knew then that I had hit a wall in Chicago. Maurice was the only one still in the city that had a Grammy. Kanye had left, he was popping sh*t off with Jay. Common was out there too, Da Brat was down in Atlanta. We all knew each other from the city. As a young jit, I was good in Chicago, socially. I could get into clubs being under 21, I was making Mariach Carey remixes, but I couldn’t even support myself. I realized at a young age that the giants I was with, I would be in a cycle of not getting the full value of my worth monetarily. I told my partner, I was in a group called The Quest, me and my boy Brad, I told him I gotta go. So I came back to New York.”
What does it mean to be an experimental artist?
“You have this foundation of things that you learn, and for me, it’s just things that I’ve been really interested in where I’m like, what does that do and what does this do? Instead of trying to get it perfect, I’m recording myself while I’m being inquisitive and saying it’s perfect now, as I am right now. I’m a professor at the Clive Davis Institute and my students, I wanted to let them know, fuck everything you thought you knew. I was talking to this one shorty who has a deep bellowing voice, it’s beautiful, and I was like, that would sound great on a ribbon [microphone]. And a ribbon, you usually use on drums and she was like “you can do that on vocals? And I was like, "you can do whatever the fuck you want." And that’s what The 83rd stands for really. I took my name from the cops, the 83rd precinct. When I was younger in Bushwick, I was brutalized multiple times. I’m looking at this structure, this standardized thing, where I’m not bowing my knee to you, I’m not subjugated to you, my people, we are breaking these moulds. I reject that.”
What is the genesis of Sermon 3?
“It was another deal that didn’t happen, it was 2016. I’m just like, if I keep waiting on these deals, I’ll wait forever. I decided to build my own house and to install in real time, through my own acts, all of the things I wanted to see. The heart behind Sermon 3 is giving the people who these stories are about, giving us the mic, letting us control the narrative, being able to write our way to freedom. So, I stay in my lane. I don’t state stuff that I don’t know about but I’m part of a very intersectional community so I have the homies around me, and I let them tell their stories. We trust each other. We live out here, there’s no suits that go Uptown or to Staten Island. We’re all in the underground. It’s basically telling those stories through the label, through the song, but they also come out through the community. So a big part of the story is telling what’s going on in the revolution as we’re trying to all work towards a better day and tomorrow. Every part of that, sometimes it’s just being funny, sometimes it’s just dope artist’s you should know. To me, I took a page out of the things I had been through where, it’s like, this song is dope, I shouldn’t have to wait on this outlet, I can premiere this myself. We’re all in-house. We’re a source for news, music, and culture that we exist within ourselves.”
How do you find peace navigating a chaotic world?
“How do I balance the dire state of the revolution and what needs to happen and inner peace? It’s the audacity of hope. It’s the audacity of hope in realizing that when I try and bite off more than I can chew, I get overwhelmed. But when I say, and a friend told me this, that every time you converse, the term converse also means to turn with, to overthrow. We’re talking about turning this government over from capitalism, we’re talking about turning over the way we even look at each other in our own community, in the inner city… I find solace in having those conversations, I find peace in controlling what I can control. Doing it with my music, doing it with Sermon 3, doing it every day on the block... even though If I don’t see the liberation of mind, body, and soul completely in my lifetime, I can still have revolution in the way I treat my brothers and sisters.”
Sweet Honey In The Rock and James Horner - Ain' Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round
Odetta - Another Man Done Gone
Unknown - Black Americans Speak (1960's)
J. Cole - Be Free
Jorja Smith - By Any Means
Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar - Freedom
DEBT STALKER - NOXIOUS (The 83rd Black Power Edit)
Beyoncé - MY POWER (The 83rd Remix)
Black Panther Rally Chants - 1968
Fred Hampton on ABC News - 1969
Pick up a gun (The Black Power Mixtape)
Unknown - Black Americans Speak (1960's)
David Banner - Black Fists ft. Tito Lo
Aretha Franklin - Lift Every Voice and Sing (Black National Anthem)
Puff Daddy and Mase - Can't Nobody Hold Me Down
Baka Gbiné Women - Traditional Yelli
Ronald Reagan to Richard Nixon - Racial Slur Phone Recording
Killer Mike - Reagan
J. Samuel Williams Interview
Moor Mother - KBGK
Casanova - Run The Town
Kendrick Lamar - The Blacker The Berry
Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu - Countering The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys
Zulu Warrior Chant
Stokely Carmichael - Huey P. Newton Rally (1968)
DJ DWizz - Get Em (The 83rd Know Your Enemy Edit)
Amiri Baraka Interview (1972)
The 83rd - Still Black
OSHUN - i wake up/stay woke
Tashyra Prude Speaks
TOBE NWIGWE - MAKE IT HOME