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[MP3 + Interview] Joel. Feat. Arthur Lewis – Make It In America

DK11_Single8_Joel_Joel. feat. Arthur Lewis - Make It In America

Today’s feature interview from the This One Goes To Eleven… comp is a two-fer: Joel. (the Bronx-based hip-hop artist formerly known at MaG) has long been a fixture around these parts but Arthur Lewis, the featured artist on his amazing and heartfelt track fro the comp, “Make It In America” has also been a favorite here at The Kitchen even though his discography is shorter by comparison with Joel’s.

I had wanted to get a solo track from Arthur for the #DK11 album project but sadly, it didn’t work out. Luckily it turned out he was working with Joel. and one of the best tracks he submitted to me for consideration for the comp was one featuring Arthur so I jumped on it immediately. Find out how these two became connected in interviews I conducted separately with both of them (hit the jump to read Arthur’s interview and to hear & get a free download of “Far Side of Town” from his excellent, If We Were EP.)

DK: I’ve been a fan of yours since your $5 Cover EP on Kevin Nottingham’s Hipnott records. First questions are: how did you link up with him and who was G.C. & do you still work with him?

Joel: Well, first off, I appreciate that. The relationship with Kevin and the site started with my first project, Reaganomics. I had just gotten back from Florida, and was new to the whole music blogging and digital music scene. I uploaded it to a zip. file and sent it to KN.com. I had been doing a search of Hip-Hop music sites and his spoke to me the most. He posted the project immediately and we just built from there.

I became an active participant in the comments section of the site, and would enter any of the emcee sponsored contest the site would offer. G.C. was under the Hipnott roster. Kev thought we’d be a good fit, and he was right. G.C. had just released a beat tape. I chose some records off of that and recorded from there. I haven’t heard from G.C. in years, to be honest. We were actually supposed to get together to do another project with the site, but it never materialized. I hope he’s good.

DK: If you had to compare $5 cover, I Ain’t Goin’ Back To Retail!, The Freedom FreEP and the unreleased collection that DK co-presented w/ Refined Hype, MaG & the B-Sides, how would you say each differs from the others and which one was your favorite?

Joel: Man, it’s as different as middle school, high school, college, graduating and getting a job and a crib and a lady, ya’ know? Each project after the next was just showing the growth via the recording, the production, the lyrical content. All of it. You can hear the changes. I was learning myself and my craft on the fly. I didn’t have someone like a lot of these other cats did, who was already in the game or had been a recording artist before and had guidance in that aspect. And each project serves as a time capsule for me; a big ass journal. They’re all different colors of the rainbow, each reflective of exactly where I was in my space at the time.

To pick a favorite is so hard. But, if I had to pick one, it might have to be I Ain’t Goin’ Back to Retail! It served as the litmus test for me. I felt like I had a lot to say after leaving NYC for a spell. Also, it was so heavily influenced by Dilla’s Donuts. The sound of the project was all Dilla. And it kinda shaped where I knew I wanted to go as an artist. After Retail, I started feeling really comfortable in who I was, and wanted to be, as an artist.

DK: I Ain’t Going to Back Retail! might actually be my favorite of your albums too. Going back to play it to prepare for this interview, it still stands up as a great sounding record. I had a question about it though: does that title have a double meaning? The first being the sentiment of “I’m not going back to the crappy retail jobs” and the second, “I’m taking my music/art to directly the Internet and bypassing the traditional music retail channels” or is that me just reading too much into it?

Joel: Kinda. sorta lol. I wanted it to be symbolic of anyone feeling stuck in a role they never chose for themselves. You aren’t just a mom, or a writer, or an emcee or chef or actor. We assign these roles to ourselves but that’s not who WE are, you know? I wasn’t really thinking in regards to the actual way it was released, but in a way, the mindset was exactly that. No, this is a new era in music. We don’t have to follow the rules and guidelines and precedents of what it means to release music now. We can forgo it all and just do what we want.

DK: Your music often has a very political slant, e.g. “Miss Neuroleans” on $5 and even “Make It In America” which is also a very emotionally personal at the same time. Do you find it challenging to make that kind of music in a market place that seems to largely eschew it?

Joel: Not at all. I don’t pay attention to the market, or mainstream radio or the like. For me, it’s just more important to speak from a place of my truth, ya’ know? What I feel, what I’m seeing and experiencing. For me, I HAVE to speak about the things I speak about because they affect me. So Katrina is a part of my world. Ferguson is a part of my world. Vulnerability and death and living in the hood are all a part of my world. To ignore those parts would be me ignoring myself, and that’s never an option.

DK: OK. Jumping to the featured guest performer, Arthur Lewis on your track, “Make It In America”, I had actually approached Arthur separately about contributing his own track to the album but circumstances didn’t allow for it. Luckily he was on a couple tracks from your forthcoming album which I took as a good sign that we were all on the same creative page and you were gracious enough to offer one of them up for the comp. How did you link up with Arthur and can you talk about the creative process behind making “Make It In America?”

Joel: So Arthur is a good friend of mine. We perform a lot together in NYC, mainly with the Melting Pot, a group of very talented artists and musicians who come together at Pianos every month and just play our music for folks. I actually found Arthur’s music about 4 years ago on BamaLoveSoul.com. Listened to the project and just knew I was going to, and needed to, work with him. Found his contact info on Myspace, went to see him perform with the original members of The Melting Pot and it’s been magic ever since.

With “Make It In America,” as with a majority of the music, I don’t really have a concept in mind. The hook will come first. If it doesn’t I leave the record be. I had the beat from the homie, Kuddie Fresh. And the melody came, and followed that with the lyrics. Arthur was the only person I could imagine singing on that record. He came in to the studio and just did what he does. He added extra harmonies and that was that.

DK: That forthcoming album is called Songs For Charles, right? Can you talk about it in terms of where you are creatively now versus on your previous releases and what people can expect from it?

Joel: I’m just trying to be as honest and as forthcoming with myself and my art as possible. I spent time being afraid of being myself in totality because I wasn’t sure if it would be received well. Once I let that notion go, I felt more alive. And Songs For Charles sprang from that. Me still finding and nurturing this new voice of mine I’ve found.

Folks can expect me to be candid, to be a little more detailed about my past growing up. They should expect me to take some risks. I wanted to challenge myself more so than I have in the past with this project. Also, my homie, Joe Rogers executive produced the project, and he did a really great job of pushing and me trying to find the real emotion behind some of the tracks. We went real old-school with the recording. A lot of times I wouldn’t even be punching in verses and hooks; we’d go straight-through for a whole take. It helped keep some of the authenticity of the music intact. Overall, it was just a beautiful experience. I’m excited for folks to hear it.

DK: I asked the other two BX representers on the comp this question too: There are 2 other Bronx NY artist, Mickey Factz and Noah Vinson, on the album which I’m happy but bummed about at the same time since I was a Brooklyn head when I lived in NY and there’s no BK artist on it. Do you know those guys and what does being from BX mean to you as a hip-hop artist and as a person?

Joel: Well, Mickey I’m aware of. The BX is everything. It inhabits the art. I grew up Creston Ave. I saw things that I don’t think the average kid growing doesn’t get to. I learned a lot from the Bronx. It’s shaped all of my art: theater, poetry, music. I think there’s a certain difference in artists that come from the Bronx. Our stories are similar to those from other boroughs, but different in so many ways. Every borough has a story, but our pride is different because the Bronx is often considered the “forgotten borough”. My goal is to help create a new image of the Bronx, through art and community participation.

DK: Final question: you used to go by MaG™ but now you go by your given name, Joel. Why the change?

Joel: My momma gave me the name Joel. Joel Leon. There is meaning behind the name. And she’s always been in my ear “this is the name I gave you. It’s special. Use it.” And around late 2012, I read an article about Mos Def going back to his given name, Yasiin Bey. And it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to go out to non-musical events with my musical friends and introduce myself as anyone other than Joel, which is what I had been doing in the past, except for real close friends and family. It just felt silly. So with the release of Freedom, in January I came out for a performance and said “some folks call me MaG. Ya’ll can call me Joel”. It felt freeing. The moment just felt right. I’m very much the “do what feels right intuitively” type. So, deciding to let go of the MaG name felt like real “freedom”, so to speak. So now, it’s Joel. Just me.

DK: Thanks for your time, Joel. It’s been an honor to have you be a part of this project.

Haven’t heard “Make It In America” yet? Here it goes:

Song credits
Written by Joel L. Daniels
Produced by Trey Hemingway
Audio mastering by Echosound Studiolab
Art by Tiffany Pilgrim for Tiffany Pilgrim Art Direction & Graphic Design

Follow Joel. Online
: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Haven’t played the This One Goes To Eleven… album yet? GO HERE and while you’re doing that, hit the jump to read the interview with Arthur.

Arthur Lewis promo shot

DK: First off I had to ask Joel about his name change so I’m gonna ask you about your name: looking at your website, are you really actually Arthur Lewis IV?

Arthur: Yep! My grandfather was Arthur O Lewis Jr., one of the founding figures of the field of Utopian Studies.

DK: If I remember this correctly, I discovered your music by accident when Mec Jagger reached out to put me up on Muhsinha who was just coming out at the time. While I was on her website, I saw your EP, clicked play out of curiosity and was blown away (maybe more so than I was by Muhsinha, lol) and If We Were became one of my favorite releases of that year. Can you talk about making that EP and what the music on it means to you now looking back 6 years later?

Arthur: It took forever. I wrote, recorded, mixed, and eventually “mastered” the whole thing by myself at home, and it drove me nuts. It was basically one mid-20’s creative existential crisis after another. Yeesh. I actually blogged about the process in detail for a couple months. Yyou can see that at on my website HERE and HERE.

Basically, I started recording what was supposed to be a full-length album called, Waiting in 2005, but I kept pushing back the release date. After two or three years of this, Mec convinced me that I needed to just put out *something*. I’d been trying to make this grand perfect statement, and my expectations were just too high for me to ever actually meet them. So we cut it in half and put out “If We Were”. I’ve still got the unfinished project files from the other EP, In The Days, which will probably never see the light of the day. Well, I might finish the title track someday.

Looking back, I still love that music, and I don’t think I’ve done anything that I’m more proud of, but it also feels immature. I had a lot to prove when I was making that album, and it shows. Sometimes I’ll listen to it and just keep pointing out: “Oh, that was just me trying to be this person, or that person.” “Far Side of Town?” Thom Yorke and Prince. “Silly Pop Song?” Justin Timberlake and Thicke. “La Da Da Dee?” D’Angelo – “Untitled.” Like, just that one song. And the whole thing was really just me trying to do Stevie Wonder‘s Music of My Mind. The feel of that album (actually all that messy solo Stevie stuff) is so warm and personal and perfect, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop trying to capture it.

DK: Makes sense. The EP has a really organic, warm feel and your voice has a sort of spiritual gravitas to it but many of the lyrics or song topics (“Silly Pop Song” and “La Da Da Dee”) are actually quite whimsical. Thematically wise, at least. Can you speak on that dichotomy from your pov?

Arthur: You know, I think that’s just how people are. To me, “spiritual gravitas and whimsy” sounds like a great definition of being in love. Or of writing music, or raising kids, or doing anything really meaningful. You’ve got to have all of it to capture the jumble of human experience.

That said, I also have trouble with lyrics. I get there eventually, and people seem to like what I write, but I just don’t have the same connection to the craft of expressing emotion with words as I do to melody and chords and rhythm. Writing music is free and easy, but writing lyrics is work. A lot of my songs show up as these fully-formed musical creatures with a certain vibe and identity to them, and then I’ll spend months or even years struggling to plug in words. It all comes from real emotional experience, but sometimes you can see how I glued the pieces together.

In fact, I’ve got an iTunes playlist of about 250 musical ideas that still need words, 30 of which I like as much as or more than anything I’ve released. I’ve been exploring the wild world of co-writing recently, but incredibly busy perfectionist that I am, it’s been slow-going.

DK: I’m curious, besides Stevie and some of the artists you referenced earlier, who are your musical inspirations, past and present or who are you listening to when you’re kicking back nowadays?

Arthur: My favorite thing happening in music right now is Emily King and has been for maybe 3 years now! She and (King producer/guitarist/co-writer,) J. Most are doing such powerful work in terms of writing and production, and everyone in the band is just fantastic. I first saw her perform in 2010 with a drum-less trio, and that one gig completely changed my outlook on the way I was performing my own music.

The inspirations I used to list were: Prince, Jeff Buckley, D’Angelo, Kurt Elling, Steely Dan, and Rufus Wainwright. I’d leave off Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson, because their music is so deeply ingrained, I forget that it’s there. These days, I’m taking a lot of inspiration from Keith Jarrett and Bobby McFerrin. And I just discovered Kim Burrell last week – oh, man.

DK: I had wanted you to contribute a solo track of your own to the album but circumstances didn’t allow for it but luckily you were actually on a track from Joel’s album. How did you link up with him and can you talk about the creative process behind making “Make It In America?”

Arthur: I’ve been playing this monthly gig called The Melting Pot for 4 years now at Pianos on the Lower East Side. These days, I play keys with the group, and do some songs of my own, but back when we started, I was just a background singer. So, imagine my surprise when I walk in right before the gig one day, maybe 3 months in, and this dude starts waving at me, acting like we’re old friends, and calling out “Arthur Lewis! Arthur Lewis!” I’ve never seen him before in my life, but he and his friends spend the whole night shouting me out from the audience!

As it turns out, he’s our opening act (which I missed), his name is MaG, and he recently discovered my music on BamaLoveSoul. Thankfully, it turns out he’s a fantastic MC. Over time, he becomes a regular performer with the group, I start bringing my keys and playing behind everybody, and all of a sudden we’re in a band together!

Four years later, he’s one of my best friends (although I still haven’t gotten used to calling him Joel), and we’ve been talking about recording together forever. So when he asked me to show up in the studio, I did. It was all his track; he wrote the words and the melody. He just played me his version of the chorus, and I redid it my own way.

DK: It’s been a while since If We Were. Can you talk about what you’ve been working on since it’s release and when we can expect some new music from you?

Arthur: Whew, that was a long time ago. In my own career since then, I’ve been mostly focusing on what I want to do as a live performer – I fronted a band called Arthur and the Geniuses for a few years, and I tried playing guitar with a drum-less trio for a while, but right now, I’m singing and playing piano.

Recently, I’ve been mixing my originals with improvisation. Before, during, and after my songs, I try to create these improvised musical landscapes, built on spontaneous melody and open space. There’s singing, but no words. It’s about taking the audience on a different journey every time. I’d love to someday be able to capture the spirit of a Keith Jarrett solo concert, where he just starts playing from nothing, and 20 minutes later, the room wakes up. And then he does it again.

I’ve got a couple new tunes on a compilation by This Is Not The Radio, a collective I play with often. That should be out in Fall 2014.

And finally, for the past 11 years, I’ve been playing keys and singing in a freestyle rap improv comedy group called Freestyle Love Supreme. We’re in the middle of shooting the 1st season of our new cable TV series, which starts airing on the Pivot network on October 17th.

Listen and download for FREE. “Far Side of Town”
(CLICK HERE to hear the whole EP):

Follow Arthur Lewis online: website | Facebook | twitter



  1. […] There are 2 other Bronx NY artist, Mickey Factz and Joel (fka MaG) on the album which I’m happy but bummed about at the same time since I was a Brooklyn head […]

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