Clear Soul Forces album, Detroit Revolution(s), is out now and can be found at clearsoulforces.bandcamp.com.
Talking to Detroit rap troupe Clear Soul Forces is a fascinating experience from the very beginning. The four men — L.A.Z., Ilajide, E-Fav and Novellis — are so tuned in to each other, so used to each other's vocal flow, that a simple conversation quickly becomes something resembling free form poetry. They probably don't even know it, so natural is the chemistry. They might be reading this and thinking, "What the fuck is this dude talking about?" But it's true, and that effortless ability to bounce off each other is what has put them in the public's eye, and it's why they just might be the next hip-hop troupe from Detroit to break out, following in the footsteps of groups Slum Village and D12.
The guys tell me how they all met and assembled into a group, like-minded souls who found in each other the perfect partners to help create an outlet for their inner-city frustrations. It was a meeting with Royce da 5'9 — in the Music Broker recording studios — that set them on their present course.
"We were all pitching in to cut back on studio time and shit. We weren't even a group yet," Novellis says. "We were just doing shit together and we all respected each other's work so far. We weren't in anyone else's circles at the time, so we were all hanging around with each other. Royce was in the studio that night, and I heard about it, and I went and asked him if he could come check out some of our tracks that we were laying down. He came to check that shit out like in an hour or so. As soon as we got him in the room, I just picked up my machine and just started playing that shit, and they all started rapping, all fucking night. We thought that we was going to be all that then. We thought we'd be friends [with Royce], we'd be crew, we'd be laying down tracks."
In fact, the reality would be far less glamorous. Novellis recalls that after they finally recorded some tracks as group, they sought out Royce when he was playing with Trick Trick at one of the downtown Pontiac clubs. They'd hope to deliver the music to him. Instead they hung around outside "fucking freezing" in the cold and too broke to get in — other than by swapping sweaters to fool security and slip in one at a time.
The band came to our attention recently by way of Sound & Vision, a collection of Web documentaries put together by Red Bull's Soundstage about struggles making music and basically getting by in Detroit. It manages to retain some of the feel-good factor of those Chrysler ads, but it also keeps things real and shows some of the harder hit areas around town. As a result, it feels like a genuine, honest product. We see the guys as urban musicians with a hard side, but also as family men, artists and community supporters. L.A.Z. says that the documentary happened through a stroke of good fortune.
"Me and Ilajide were roommates and our Internet was off," he says. "This is like last summer. I used to walk around Midtown, the area that we stayed in, and I would bum Wi-Fi off of places. I found somebody who worked for SonicBids and LinkedIn. I found them on Twitter and sent them a link to our music. They listened to it, but never wrote me back. They hit us back in October, and told us that Red Bull was starting something. They liked our music, and had sent it along to Red Bull, and they wanted to work with us. A week later, a camera crew was out here and they were filming us. Honestly, we just wanted to show people what it was like here."
There's a fantastic, though rather sad and poignant scene where the grandmother of L.A.Z. is telling the camera that she hopes her grandson becomes successful enough to get out of town. L.A.Z. feels that the filmmakers pushed that scene a little too much.
"I feel like that whole little segment of the documentary is overblown," he says. "That's my own personal opinion, not the group's. I mean the message was overblown. My grandmother is gonna feel how she's gonna feel, because I'm her grandson. When she thinks of Detroit, all she thinks is gunshots, violence, are they gonna kill my grandson?, you gotta get out of here. That's what she thinks, that's not how I feel. I think you can achieve anywhere you at. It might be harder. You might have to overcome more obstacles but that doesn't mean it's impossible. There are so many great people that come from this city. It's constantly swept under the rug. People sleep on it because it's not glamorous."
Clear Soul Forces released its debut album, Detroit Revolution(s), in March, following two EPs. It is an accomplished piece of work. The production is solid, the rhymes are tight and the subject matter, centering on the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives (much like the documentary) is sharp and well-executed.
Speaking of the debut, Novellis adds: A lot of people have been downloading it on Bandcamp. It's crazy because we did the 'name your own price' thing. It's dope because people can get it for free but they're paying for it. Free will. They just wanna support good music."
L.A.Z. continues. "We've been through so much. We're proud of ourselves. Our album is incredible, and I'm real proud that we were able to turn that product out. It was rough, but once we hit some inspiration, we banged the whole thing out in like a month. Ilajide is a fucking genius. I've seen this guy go from not knowing a damn thing to knowing everything. That's crazy. I've seen everybody grow but he's impressed me the most in how he's mastered the technical side of shit, along with becoming an amazing rapper like everybody else."
Finally, I ask the guys how far their ambitions stretch. Where do they see themselves in a decade?
"I think we all have visions that go beyond being rappers," says Novellis. "We'd all still like to be doing something with music, but I think rap is like our tool right now that will get us where we want to get. I know, individually, we all have aspirations other than being rappers. I wanna be a songwriter. I'd love to make a living off of doing that. I'd like to be writing songs and not have to be relying on doing shows and putting out albums against my will. The sky's the limit for what we can do, and 10 years from now I'd like people to look at us as a group and hold us with the same respect as Outkast and Tribe Called Quest. That's what we're trying to do."
"We already had our own studio in a basement, but I want a big studio where real music is made and we can hang out, owned by Clear Soul Forces, that we can run a business out of too," continues Ilajide. "I'm dreaming of that, of getting my hands on all the keyboards in the world and shit. Have them all in one room. That shit's dope."