Campus Celebrity – Culture Blue
If you’re an F&M student, chances are you’ve heard of Culture Blue. Their album, Red Letters, dropped on September 21, and their performance was the highlight of the Wildfire Music Festival. I was lucky enough to sit down with the two masterminds behind the music – Hannibal Robinson ’16 and Zach Ezickson ’17 – and learn more about them and their band. If you have yet to listen to their album, do yourself a favor and download it here (for free!): http://www.myredletters.com. Trust me, it’s worth it.
*Album cover by Jess Dowicz
What year are you?
Where are you from?
Hannibal: Prince George’s County, outside of DC
Zach: Originally I’m from Boston. Then, when I was 11, my family moved to London. I graduated high school there, came here, and now my family lives in DC.
What’s your major?
Hannibal: I want to create my own major combining Studio Art, Music, and African American Literature.
Zach: Intended Music and Film double major.
Are you involved with anything on campus?
Hannibal: Operation Hope. We go to the detention center once a week.
Zach: Phi Kappa Psi
What are your roles in the band?
Hannibal: I do vocals/rap.
Zach: Producer and trumpet player.
When did you first get into music?
Hannibal: I grew up playing the saxophone, and then I started writing poetry in the tenth grade.
Zach: I picked up the trumpet around 10 years old, and then started playing jazz trumpet a lot in high school. That’s also when I started producing. I’ve been through a lot of genres, but I only started doing hip hop in the past year, ever since I met Hannibal. Before that, I did some film scoring and writing for commercials.
How did you two meet?
Zach: We caught eyes from across the room.
H: I went to Zach’s Jazz Combo class and we ended up talking afterwards.
Z: I came in knowing I wanted to start a band, but didn’t know what kind of band it was going to be. I’d heard about Hannibal, and that was around the time I started getting into rap.
H: We were basically looking for the same thing.
How did you come up with the name “Culture Blue”?
Zach: There’s a line from an interview with Kanye West, “we culture,” and then we were sitting in a restaurant in New York. Do you remember that? With the waitress that was hitting on you?
H: We were at Potbelly’s in New York, and that’s when the name clicked.
Z: We were thinking about how significant the color blue is in jazz.
H: And rap, that’s culture. And the fact that I’m black and Zach’s Jewish, we’re bringing culture together. Combining different sounds.
Z: Yeah, it’s difficult bringing jazz and rap together.
Who writes the songs? The music?
Hannibal: Zach composes, and I write the lyrics.
Zach: A lot of people ask if we write together. Our process is unique because we work the best when we work together in the same room, so in a sense we feed off one another, but I don’t help him with the lyrics, and he doesn’t help me with the music.
H: A lot of the times, I’ll write something and record it, send it to Zach, and he’ll come up with the melody.
Z: Especially over the summer when we weren’t together, that’s how it worked. And then afterwards, once we have the basis, we comment on each other’s work and tweak it.
What is your writing process like? Are you able to just sit down and write, or do you have to feel inspired?
Hannibal: I just sit down and write. I just focus.
Zach: I have no idea. Stuff just comes to me at the most random times. I have no idea what sparks it.
H: A lot of times I’m in class and lyrics will come to me. I’ll write them down and then pretend like I’m going to the bathroom and record it on my phone, and then I’ll go back to it after class. But a lot of the times I just sit down and focus.
Z: It helps me a lot when I have inspiration, but that’s not always the case. It really helps when I have Hannibal’s verse, and that’ll give me inspiration. But sometimes I’ll write something and send it to Hannibal to write the verse. So, it goes both ways.
H: We’re not conditioned to write just one way.
What would you say this album is about?
Hannibal: It’s a story. Lyrically, I can tell you, it’s a story. I think it’s definitely my growth over the past three or four years.
Zach: You go back even further.
H: I go back to 2005. It’s just about my growth as an adolescent. I’m telling a lot of stories and making it all connect. And Zach makes it connect sonically. And that’s what Culture Blue is. It’s definitely a big story.
Z: It has the curve of a good story, with its ups and downs. We put a lot of thought into how the whole album flowed.
What’s your favorite track?
Hannibal: I don’t have a favorite. If I had a favorite track, I wouldn’t have been ready to release the album.
Zach: From a production standpoint… I don’t even know. I think, just so you can have an answer, Pink, just because of the process that went into the making of that song. The lyrics are about Hannibal’s mom going through cancer. We made it during the summer when I was in New York and he was in DC. He sent me his first verse and told me what it was about, and I just sat down and finished that song that night.
H: The interesting thing is, I wrote Pink in 2012. I was just waiting for the perfect instrumental.
What was the process of recording this album like?
Hannibal: It was so fun.
Zach: It was fun. It’s very unorthodox what we did, I think. We got a portable booth. It’s a little box that you put over the microphone. We recorded here, his dorm room, New College House, Cape Cod, the basement at Hannibal’s house in DC, the lofts…Because we’re in school and busy and traveling a lot, we had to take advantage of the time we had together. And there’s the whole thing about money. Studios are crazy expensive, but we did use one for all the live drums we have in the album. And to mix and match it, we used a studio.
What kind of feedback have you received?
Hannibal: All I heard was good stuff. I say that with humility. All I heard was good stuff.
Zach: It just makes me happy that people understand what we’re trying to do, which is rebirth the live hip hop feel, which is something that has been drowned by bad rap and bad hip hop and bad music in general.
H: It’s been drowned by the industry.
Z: It’s refreshing that people can just listen to the music and appreciate it for what it is.
Do you feel that Culture Blue has significantly changed your life?
Zach: Definitely since I met Hannibal, my life has changed a lot. Very shortly after we met, the whole thing, Red Letters, sparked very quickly. We had similar ideas and we had the same goals, so making the album came naturally. We got to work very quickly. I remember you saying you watched an interview and someone said it’s amazing how your life can change in a year, and it’s only been half a year for me.
H: It’s cool to have friends believe in you. I was talking to my girl’s mom, and she was saying, “I really think you’re onto something. Keep going!” But I was thinking that two years ago. It’s about believing in yourself.
Z: Believe in yourself until others start believing in you.
H: The chemistry’s there, and that’s why things happened so quickly for us. Since the album came out we’ve been building a fan base.
Z: Even before we released it we predicted what the feedback would be, and I think we were accurate. Now we’re just focused on playing as many shows as we can, and we are starting a new album.
H: I totally agree with Zach. You get what you expect.
What’s the next step for Culture Blue?
Hannibal: We’re performing at William and Mary’s Homecoming next Thursday (October 16).
Zach: We released a good album and people can hear it. It’s everywhere. And now we want to show people that we can make an album but we can also play a hell of a show.