Equal Xchange’s Rain Elfvin shares the loveFormer Crew Jones rapper Rain Elfvin (aka "Ray the Wolf") is ready to make this year’s Homegrown another memorable one.
Rain Elfvin is ready to make this year’s Homegrown another memorable one. Not only did his live-band hip-hop group Equal Xchange finally put out a record — albeit an extremely limited-edition one — with the late “Cool Brad” Rozman, but the former Crew Jones member also has a handful of new tracks already lined up for the annual music festival.
Alas, that was just one of the many music-to-rap-fans’-ears gems he shared with us last week for this exclusive Q-and-A:
Budgeteer: First of all, can you tell us a little about your background?
Elfvin: My parents aren’t from Minnesota — I was born in Ohio — but I do consider myself a Minnesotan. I lived in several towns in the Grand Rapids area, then in Minneapolis during my middle school years and Grand Marais during high school. Duluth feels as much like home as anywhere.
How did you get into hip-hop?
I first got into it as a 12-year-old kid who was thrust into the Minneapolis public school system.
The other kids liked rap music, so I started listening to it too. I was always a creative child, so I began writing my own raps.
I got heavily into punk rock when I was 15, right around the time I moved to my mom’s house in Grand Marais. I gave up rap and got an electric guitar. Four years later, in 2000, Sean (Elmquist, aka Mic Trout) and Ben (Larson, aka Burly Burlesque) moved to Grand Marais for the summer. We met and formed what would become Crew Jones. They introduced me to underground hip-hop.
They had been rapping together for awhile and I had a drum machine and previous rapping experience, so we started making songs — lots and lots of songs.
Who have been some of your influences? Have you always preferred the live band sound, a la Heiruspecs or the Roots?
Honestly, I don’t listen to a lot of rap music anymore. I have owned my share of hip-hop albums over the years. Atmosphere has been a huge influence on my music. My favorite rap albums of all time are (the Beastie Boys’) “Paul’s Boutique,” “De La Soul is Dead” and Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint.”
I have no preference for a live band sound as far as hip-hop is concerned. I feel that it helps my own performance because I can kind of hide in the band a little more.
If it was just me and a DJ, I would have to be more interesting. Watching musicians play is fun. Watching a guy is less fun.
Is your solo disc “Five Bucks” available anywhere these days? And, as I haven’t heard it, how would you describe the progression made between that and the Equal Xchange disc?
I printed 150 copies of “Five Bucks” and only 100 copies of the EX disc. I am totally out of both aside from a copy of each that I keep for my son if he ever cares to own them. “Who’s Beach” (Crew Jones’ 2003 album) is in that stack too. I was planning on getting a lot more of the EX disc made in the first place, 300 or so, but then Brad passed away and I wasn’t sure we would be able to sell any copies if we wouldn’t be doing any more shows. I didn’t want to get stuck with hundreds of CDs sitting in my closet. I would like to get it reprinted.
The band is the primary difference between the sound of the two records. The song “All on You” is on both “Five Bucks” and the EX album. It is very stripped-down, like an old-school rap song, the first time around. Then it is filled out and rocked out the second time, with the cello even.
Going back to Crew Jones, what prompted you to part ways?
My son was born in late 2004. My life and lifestyle obviously changed a lot around this time. I didn’t have as much time to devote to Crew Jones.
Plus, they were starting to go off in the direction of their live performances that you would see now: lots of improvisation. I’m more of a structured-song kind of guy.
Even when we were a group I was constantly making my own stuff and “releasing” my own albums — which meant I would make 10 new songs, put them on a CD and play them for those guys. They were my biggest fans and I was their biggest fan.
We always had a little bit of friendly competition going on.
I quit Crew Jones in April of 2005 and seriously thought I would stop doing rap music forever. We actually tried working on a new album together in 2008, and it was coming along too until the computer crashed that everything was recorded on. That’s a little-known fact.
How would you sum up the local hip-hop scene?
I have always admired the ambition of Kritical Kontact. I think Bliss (David Kittelson) is a very talented rapper. I have wanted to do a song with him, but it just hasn’t happened.
Another local hip-hop act to check out is Ckastle Danger. They are from Grand Marais as well. The MC is this guy Patrick Knight, who I know through my little brother. Patrick is a skilled and entertaining rapper and he has a good DJ. They are one of those “fun without the full band” kind of rap groups like I was talking about. We played with them at Beaner’s this last summer and they were awesome!
Since the EX disc was one of the last to feature the talents of “Cool Brad,” I would regret not bringing him up: What did he bring to the group, and what was he like working with?
Brad was my drum machine for a couple of years. I would bring a new song to practice and he would know exactly what to do with it. He didn’t like hip-hop much, but he was such an incredible drummer and percussionist, he just liked to play.
Jesse, “Kokes” and Brad gelled so well together. Something is missing now, but we are trying to keep doing our thing. Brad would have wanted us to.
The last time we played together was in Brainerd on May 15. We drove back to Duluth together in the middle of the night, Kokes, Aaron (Hoffmeister, EX’s former sax player), Brad and me. Occasionally it would start snowing real hard for a quarter of a mile and then it would stop. They dropped me off at home and I never saw Brad again; he passed away a little over a week later. We skipped practice that week because we had just played a gig and I thought we could use a break. I wish we had practiced. He was a quiet man — some might say the same about me — but he could sure play the drums.
EX has quite an expansive sound for the hip-hop genre. Whose idea was it to bring in Kathy McTavish for “All on You”? The results are pretty impressive.
Kathy is a good friend of my mom’s. However, I got the idea from playing with her at Beaner’s.
Equal Xchange was doing a show with Crew Jones and, since there were only the two bands playing, I had told everyone that I knew that the show wasn’t starting until 9. At 8, the sound man came up to me and was like “OK, it’s 8, time to start.” We didn’t have another act or any intention of getting on the stage an hour early, but Kathy was there with her cello.
I asked her if she would mind being the opening act. She was cool with that, so she played. I even got up on the stage with her and did some old verses over what she was doing — not exactly improv, but something different for sure.
That is what put the idea in my head. She is quite a musician.
How long have the songs on the new disc been floating around? I swear I’ve heard people talking about “Weird” for a couple years now, and I remember enjoying it on one of the Homegrown comps.
Yeah, some of them are old. We meant to record an album sooner than we did, but we didn’t have the solid batch of songs I was looking for until about a year ago. “Weird” was written in late 2007. “Folk Music” was written a couple of weeks before we recorded. I am so glad we made it happen while Brad was still here.
Finally, what’s next for EX? Will you get to work on songwriting for another album right away, or will you take some time off?
We are playing Homegrown. It will be me, Kokes on the bass, Jesse on guitar and my sampler, Dr. Sample, providing the looped breakbeats. I made those guys record guitar and bass parts for demo versions of six new songs just yesterday. The plan is to play Homegrown with that lineup and then to pass the six-song demo off to Cars & Trucks drummer Mat Milinkovich and eventually take those songs into a studio.
I have been trying to talk Jesse into doing a split CD with these songs and songs from his own band, Atlas Mts. We’ll see what happens. Mat has played a couple of shows with us and seems to want to keep working with us, which is awesome!
NEWS TO USE
Equal Xchange will perform at 10:45 p.m. May 8 at the Rex Liquor Emporium (in the Fitger’s complex) for Homegrown. Malec, the DTs and Portraits for Judith are also on the bill at that venue that night. See www.duluthhomegrown.com for tickets.
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