Cracking the trippy hip-hop code with Speak N’ Eye
The title of the new Speak N’ Eye album, Cypher At the Gates of Dawn, does a pretty effective job of signaling what this Winston-Salem-based two-piece is up to. This is psychedelic hip-hop, drenched in effects, studded with obscure samples, and as versed in the Wu-Tang Clan as they are in Pink Floyd. The opening track, “Winston Freaks,” is a shout-out to Camel City, with a garage-rock loop and a repeating barked-out refrain of “336.”
The record comes out on June 18 on Baltimore’s Cold Rhymes Records, and the duo will have a release party at Monstercade in Winston-Salem on June 20. I spoke with one half of Speak N’ Eye, Emceein Eye (aka Aaron Brookshire) earlier this week.
“I just wanted to make a song where everybody can blast it out of their cars,” said Brookshire, of “Winston Freaks” and their hometown pride. “You want to represent the city that helped you grow or took you in.”
Brookshire, 27, and his brother Joshua — who raps under the name Unspeakable — started Speak N’ Eye after playing in D.I.Y. punk and noise bands in Greenville, North Carolina. “There were a lot of crazy, weird art projects,” Brookshire said.
He moved to Winston around 10 years ago and started work figuring how to make, release and perform music without a full-scale band to assist him. His brother followed not long after.
Since landing in the Triad, Speak N’ Eye have been steadily releasing densely referential records, EPs and solo projects, some with homemade backing tracks and some with heavily sampled beats. Their first release, More Light Through … , sounds like lo-fi indie rock, with rapping over skeletal acoustic guitar riffs. “Invitation to Love,” the first real song on their debut, quotes Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey.” Then, on “Souvenir,” off of 2015’s Bubblin’ Crude, they’re quoting Run DMC. Musically, Speak N’ Eye moves from “Funky Drummer” samples to overdriven drones, heavy Bonhamistic beats that evoke Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys, dubbed-out hall-of-mirrors echoes and Last Poets-style conga grooves. Another track, “Guns of Winston,” off of 2013’s Diggin’ Hard, is a play on the classic Clash song “Guns of Brixton.”
One minute, the aggressive textures might bring to mind Death Grips, the next minute the Brookshires sound like they’re lifting a boogie stomp from John Lee Hooker or from an Exile On Main Street outtake. Speak N’ Eye sometimes suggest a connection to the paranoid rap-tinged apocalyptic indie rock of Holy Sons as well, with a thread of darkness, conspiracy and 21st-century unease running through the music. It’s not all bad vibes, though. Fans of exuberant, delirious, and hard-to-peg hip-hop of Biz Markie, Beck and even Digital Underground, will find things to appreciate about Speak N’ Eye.
They’re all over the map, but that just means they’ve got a big worldview and they keep moving.
“The middle of our catalog is really sample-heavy,” Brookshire said. “We spent a lot of time doing things like finding the illest Paul McCartney sample.”
Speak N’ Eye never seem to mind if their tracks get woozy with rippling patterns reverberating out into space, warping one’s sense of distance and time. (Another recurring theme seems to be “hitting the Calumet,” referring both to the ceremonial peace pipe of the Native Americans and slang for smoking weed.)
The new record is produced and mixed by Baltimore underground hip-hop artist Height Keech. Local MCs OG Spliff and Grant Livesay make guest appearances on the record as well, as do others from outside the region. Though still thoroughly psychedelic, Cypher At the Gates of Dawn might be a little more rooted in beats and grooves. Brookshire said the recording of Cypher At the Gates of Dawn was a little like an elaborate sonic chain letter, with loops and snippets of repeated backing tracks bounced to them from Height Keech. The Brookshires would then rap over those initial ideas, and other collaborators would add additional verses. Then Height Keech would slice and dice, construct beats, building up and carving away the musical backdrop to give more shape and dynamics to the music.
In another little bit of local pride, the second track is called “The Dash,” with what sounds like a slinky guitar line from some vintage Southeast Asian psych-rock nugget. Then, on “Jaws,” there’s a line about hanging “at Little Richard’s in Clemmons,” which, as locals know, is a reference to pulled pork, not to pompadoured rock ‘n’ roll royalty.
Speak N’ Eye seem to have moved into the infectious shout-along phase of their writing. It’s another way of showing respect for the old school. Their flow has that steady syncopated eighth-note stress, with a little swagger and bombast.
“We’ve matured a little bit,” Brookshire said. “These beats and these rhymes sound a little more professional.”
Hip-hop fans know that the “cypher” in the new record’s title refers to the iconic, informal circle or rappers, dancers, and DJs that form to make the music and riff off of each other’s energy. The title, in typical Speak N’ Eye style, is also a play on Pink Floyd’s classic 1967 record title Piper At the Gates of Dawn.
That giddy mashup aesthetic is part of what Speak N’ Eye is about, with a readiness to tinker with combinations and connections, stitching odds and ends together to see what comes of it, toying with mystical symbolism and an absurdist, slightly baked, junkheap collage vibe.
“Cypher is a circle or a code, a secret code,” said Brookshire, by way of explanation. “A lot of our stuff has a lot of magic occult references to it. A cypher, when you’re smoking weed, is also the circle of homies smoking weed. The acronym for Cypher At the Gates of Dawn is CATGOD, and we thought that was funny.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Speak N’ Eye at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Wednesday, June 20 at 9 p.m. 336-893-8951. Other performance dates include June 15 at Shiners in Greensboro, June 16 in Asheville for the “All Go West Festival” and June 19 at Bull City Ciderworks in Lexington.