Groundbreaking hip-hop project The Theorizt releases ‘Samurai Love Songs’
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Few local bands can lay claim to the sort of original sound created by The Theorizt.
East Tennessee has a healthy hip-hop scene, most of it off-the-radar, and Blount County rappers like Mr. Mack, Hollywood and Ready are a part of that community. But the guys in The Theorizt are something else entirely.
“When you think about the Knoxville music scene, there are a lot of styles, but a lot of the hip-hop is what I call ‘trap’ music,” Theorizt vocalist and producer Jarius Bush told The Daily Times this week. “It’s that gangsta thing, that hood thing, and even though it doesn’t necessarily glorify the life, it exhibits it. There’s a big differentiation between us and those artists. And I think the live elements set us apart. The only thing we compare to is The Roots.
“There’s an honesty in the lyrics, a clear direction to the songs. I believe we have a preface to a song other than being flashy. A lot of hip-hop is based on braggadocio — I’m this, I’m that — but that’s not really the image we’re putting across.”
That particular image is a ferocious one: Bush, dripping with sweat, swapping rhymes with Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods; band co-founder Mike Miller, on guitar and in the pocket, leaning back into a groove so urgent it blows toward the crowd like a hot wind; electric guitarist Nick Burkhalter, laying down cover fire for scattershot rhythms that add complexity to the band’s tracks; rhythm section Jason Wells on percussion and John Augustus on bass, anchoring the whole thing with steady beats more dependable than anything computer-generated.
This is more than hip-hop supported by live instruments, more than a group of musicians bringing a couple of rappers on board to add a little color to the musical mix. This is a full-fledged unit of finely tuned warriors, bound by a common vision and determined to share it with all those who take the time to listen.
“This project really pushes that,” Bush said. “This music is so emotionally driven. A song may start one way within the first four bars, but in the next eight bars it might turn into a whole new composition. We really change the tone of the song quickly. When it comes to production, we’re kind of schizophrenic.”
If so, madness never sounded so sweet as it does on “Samurai Love Songs,” the first full-length release by The Theorizt that will be celebrated this weekend by a show at The Pilot Light in Knoxville’s Old City. It’s the culmination of a two-and-a-half year journey that began on the first day of Americorps orientation for Bush and Miller.
The former grew up in the projects of Knoxville; the latter was a refugee from Boston who came south in search of something different. Bush cut his teeth on his parents’ tastes for soul; later on, he got hooked on the intellectual hip-hop of groups like A Tribe Called Quest. Miller grew up partial to his dad’s taste for classic rock and childhood memories of going to the Lowell Folk Festival, the largest free folk festival in the country.
“The first day in orientation, we started talking about music and music venues we could go to,” Bush said.
At the time, Bush was in the hip-hop collective Loose Leaf with Woods, himself a veteran of the group Fluid Engineerz, which emerged as one of East Tennessee’s few socially conscious hip-hop acts early last decade. As their friendship grew, Miller found himself drawn to Bush’s rhymes on an artistic level.
“Most people think of hip-hop as looped and just rhyming for the sake of rhyming, but Jarius was really writing songs,” Miller said. “That really attracted me, and when we started talking about doing tracks together, I knew we could make songs with movement and make them dynamic.”
It didn’t hurt that both Bush and Miller were proficient in production work, and that Miller had experience as a live musician. Sampling never interested him, so when he suggested adding his own “voice” to Bush’s rhymes via live instrumentation, the two men realized how well the formula might work. Before long, Woods was asked to contribute to their burgeoning project, and soon he came on board as a member.
The group began with “The Escape EP,” a small-scale project that showed a lot of promise; the guys followed up with “The Sword Bearer Mixtape,” which built on that promise. “Samurai Love Songs” finds the band at the peak of its abilities, a brilliant blend of music and rhymes that showcases just how deep the East Tennessee musical talent pool really is.
“We finally got all the elements together,” Bush said. “‘Samurai Love Songs’ is us finding our niche, our sound, our purpose. Right now, we’re one with our craft, and that’s what makes this project so prevalent.”
“When we first met, I remember the first song we made — ‘We Move’ — and all I remember from that time was being real giddy about the song,” Miller added. “But it wasn’t actually the song; it was more like the potential it showed us, that potential being ‘Samurai Love Songs’ and us being able to tell a story, illustrate it with music and have it be completely us and our voices.”