Mid-Michigan melodies in hip-hop, metal, folk and electronic

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This project portrays in videos and words artists in four musical genres and how mid-Michigan music scenes sustain them.

By Paige Bolen and Marina Csomor
Ingham County staff writers

Ingham County isn’t just some obscure site; Ingham County is on the map.

As home to the Capitol, Lansing is known as a location full of lawmakers. The grand, domed building and bustling department heads impress with their dignity. This is where important state decisions are made.

East Lansing holds the state’s pioneering land-grant university. Students studying and faculty researching at Michigan State University perpetuate a free flow of ideas and discussions. This is where the next generation of problem-solvers is trained.

Although Ingham County has a reputation, this is not a place well known for more than the academic or diplomatic. This is not where sculptors plan to erect monuments or where architects dream up their masterpieces.

And this is not where many musicians make music.

But for those who have composed lyrics and performed material locally, Ingham County matters. They are not based in legendary dream-come-true cities Los Angeles or New York City, but these artists still are attempting to make music a career in the middle of the Mitten.

For some of these performers, although mid-Michigan is not their final destination, they still have learned invaluable lessons locally. Lansing rapper James Gardin, who goes by P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. when performing, said he knows he must transition to a bigger market to take his career to the next level. But without his experience in the local music scene, he never would have gotten his start.

“I’ve been here so long,” Gardin said. “I think at first it was because I was scared — just be honest, making the jump is scary. But I think I needed to be here because if I would have left earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready. And now I feel like I am ready.”

Others wouldn’t dream of leaving. Damon Tate, guitarist and vocalist of Lansing-based metal band Of Virtue, admits it’s tough being a musician trying to make it in Michigan. But that hasn’t discouraged him or his bandmates.

“We’re not going to move anywhere,” Tate said. “We’re from here. This is what we represent. We represent everything that goes on in Lansing, Michigan, and Michigan in general, so it’s like that is part of our core ethos as a band. If we were to take it anywhere else, it just wouldn’t be the same.”

Andy Lynch, a member of the Lansing Electronic Artist Kollective, said he prefers producing his sounds in mid-Michigan. Because the people making music in the area are few and far between, he knows those who choose to create here truly have a passion.

“Being a college town, there’s a lot of turnover and a natural tendency for people who get their start in the local scene here to move on when their time in town is done, but for art and music, there is always an amazing amount of local talent in the Lansing and East Lansing area,” Lynch said. “The people that do music here do it because they can’t live without it.”

And although the state’s music scene often goes unrecognized, there still is a talented community of musicians to connect with in state, said Bethany Foote, a member of Lansing folk group Gifts or Creatures.

“We’re pretty sold on Michigan,” Foote said. “Partly, just because our families, but also our love for the state and for the friends and the community we’ve connected with.”

Hip-hop: P.H.I.L.T.H.Y.

Local rapper James Gardin, who performs as P.H.I.L.T.H.Y., is a unifying force.

As a member of the BLAT! Pack, a Michigan collective of hip-hop artists, Gardin can be found promoting not only his own rhymes but also the rhymes of his friends. He will introduce his fellow entertainers, encourage the crowd to sing along during friends’ performances and accompany other artists on their tracks. He always is there for support.

And at his shows, Gardin encourages members of his audience to keep their fists raised strong and high. Dozens of arms can be seen pumping up and down to his beats, audience members moving together.

Whether among artists or audience, Gardin is a hip-hop artist who inspires solidarity.

Gardin said he got his start making music at the age of 9 when he wrote a rap for a local contest about staying drug-free. Then, in middle school, a mentor from Big Brothers Big Sisters taught him how to play guitar, inspiring dreams of forming his own rock band, before the movie “8 Mile” encouraged him to again explore the world of hip-hop.

For the then-shy Gardin, music was a way to speak up.

“When I found music and hip-hop — you create a new persona,” Gardin said. “So, I’m James, but P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. is this other guy that’s way more confident, and he tells a story and is really creative, and people enjoy what he does. . . . It’s like the Clark Kent/Superman thing.”

The 27-year-old Lansing resident has since turned music from a hobby into a career.

“He loves it because it’s creative,” said his mother, Diane Gardin, a Lansing resident.

Although he has held supplementary jobs in everything from telemarketing to coordinating programs at nonprofits, Gardin now just has one focus: his music. Gardin spends his days writing new material, answering emails, booking shows, connecting with bloggers and rehearsing for performances.

He makes music that listeners have described as similar to Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest and “Drake with a little more soul.” But more important to Gardin than his sound is his message.

“Music and social justice to me go hand in hand,” Gardin said. “I definitely want to make music. I want to entertain, but I also want to create change.”

Diane Gardin said it’s the meaning in her son’s music that makes people listen.

“They know that he’s singing from the heart, and he means what he’s saying,” Diane Gardin said. “He’s not saying words that don’t mean anything and words that are hurtful. He’s saying, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be OK.’”

Gardin has performed throughout the country, been featured on music blogs and opened for well-known artists including Grieves and Cool Kids. He ais proud to have spent three months in South Africa, spearheading a music program at an area center for children affected by HIV/AIDS. But Gardin said there is more he wants to accomplish.

“I’m OK with what I have right now,” Gardin said. “As for tomorrow, we’re going to work for more.”

Gardin is an artist who leads by example. He hopes his music will inspire connection between himself, the members of his audience and the world around them.

“I don’t want my music to be something that people just listen to and enjoy and go on about their day,” Gardin said. “If you don’t take anything from it, then I didn’t do my job. If nothing in your thoughts is challenged or changed, then I’m not doing anything except singing and dancing and that’s not enough for me.”

— Marina Csomor

Metal: Of Virtue

Damon Tate, who is a guitarist and vocalist in Lansing-based metal act Of Virtue, knows how to win over the people he meets. Usually it’s with his warm smile and relaxed demeanor that Tate is able to strike up friendships.

On stage, it’s a different story. Instead, it’s the energy and power he exudes while performing that captivate those around him. Tate can be seen pounding the strings of his guitar, head banging and his voice ringing out. Members of the audience run and jump and yell toward his band on stage. With faces red and eyes gleaming, they are buzzing with excitement to experience such a performance.

The music that inspires Tate and his bandmates in turn inspires their listeners.

Tate, a 24-year-old Lansing resident, said he has been playing music since the age of 3, when he was encouraged to take up violin. Music always has been part of his life, whether it be his playing the upright bass or performing in one of many former metal groups.

“It’s honestly one of the only things I love to do,” Tate said. “It’s been the one constant in my life that’s kept me motivated to do something positive.”

In 2008, after the breakup of his previous band, Tate and four other area artists gathered to form Of Virtue.

“I’ve been with Damon throughout most of the years I’ve been playing music — him and I have been playing together,” said 22-year-old Eaton Rapids resident Michael Valadez, who also is an Of Virtue guitarist. “This band just speaks emotionally and musically to what we both wanted to do.”

The act wanted to create a unique sound, which members describe as melodic with an underground edge.

“Within Michigan, I think the sound that we’re doing not a lot of other bands are doing,” Valadez said.

Tate said the band’s lyrics deal with issues of loss of friends and family members, addiction and doubting faith, as well as positive topics like embracing individuality.

“If there was one (message), it would be, be yourself — do your own thing,” Tate said. “Don’t let other people drag you down. If that’s the case, just try to remain positive.”

Of Virtue members meet for a few hours twice a week, using this time to rehearse and discuss performance plans and finances.

They released an EP in 2009 and a CD in 2011, and have toured throughout the country, performing in front of hundreds of people at local venues such as Mac’s Bar, 2700 E. Michigan Ave., in Lansing, and thousands at shows such as Detroit’s Warped Tour.

“We’ve been blessed to just play in front of as many people as possible,” Tate said. “Touring a lot and meeting great people and great bands.”

But their passion for making music has called for sacrifice.

“You will not have a normal life being in a band,” Tate said. “We’ve had to sacrifice relationships — girlfriends — because they don’t understand time is of the essence. There’s a lot of people in the music industry that won’t listen. You have to knock on their door — knock it down.”

Like the rest of his bandmates, Tate has to supplement his income with other employment. He works with insurance in Lansing, but he hopes to one day call music his only career.

“I like being able to be creative and live an abstract lifestyle and just do what I like to do — be me — and music is that outlet for me,” Tate said. “If I can make a living out of it, which I plan to, then that’s the course of it.”

Valadez says Of Virtue’s members can achieve such success based in mid-Michigan.

“Where you come from, it has a small part to do with if you get big or not,” Valadez said. “I mean, bands get big off living in little Podunk towns no one knows about, you know? So I think if we work hard enough, we can do it.”

— Marina Csomor

Folk: Gifts or Creatures

A little vintage sofa sits in the Footes’ living room. Antique suitcases line the couch, a record player sits in the corner, a Wurlitzer piano is to the right and a drum set is perfectly in the middle of the living room. As soon as the green tea was ready, everyone would sit down and chat.

The Footes love to entertain in their home, which is a perfect representation of them.

“Gifts or Creatures was kind of launched after we were married,” Brandon Foote said. “We were married in August of 2009, and Gifts or Creatures kind of took flight that fall.”

Gifts or Creatures is the musical pursuit of husband and wife duo Brandon and Bethany Foote. Together they create a unique collection of music celebrating antique America.

“We started playing music together because, at that point, he didn’t have a configuration, and it had always been a part of his life,” Bethany Foote said. “He actually bought the Wurlitzer piano for me as a wedding present, so when we moved in, he’s like, ‘You have to have something to play!’ That’s my instrument. I kind of grew up playing piano.”

“Even the name, Gifts or Creatures, is a pretty big moniker for how quirky we are,” Brandon Foote said.

For the first six months, the couple wrote songs and played a few shows. They recorded their album, “Pilot House,” in January 2010.

They also are part of a collective called Earthwork Music that encourages the creation of original music in the state of Michigan.

“They essentially foster a lot of people,” Brandon Foote said. “It’s not necessarily a label. It kind of has some attributes of a record label where we release an album and so on, and we advocate a lot, not only doing the music thing but working with other people and helping the community-type stuff.”

Earthwork Music is based near Bay City, Mich., but people involved in the Earthwork community are scattered throughout the state.

“We’re actually probably one of the few that do things full time, other than the music,” Bethany Foote said. “A lot of people that are on Earthwork do music full time. So I think part of that has to do with why we’re in Lansing.”

When not playing music, Bethany Foote is a preschool teacher and Brandon Foote works as a sales specialist at Elderly Instruments, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing, where he has worked for more than 12 years.

They have jobs, but their work isn’t the only thing that keeps them around.

“Our families are here, we kind of grew up close to the area, and (we have) jobs, so we’re kind of settled here because of that,” Bethany Foote said. “At this point, I think we’re open to other cities in Michigan, but we’re pretty sold on Michigan and the friends and community we’ve met through being involved with Earthwork.”

With a bachelor of science from Central Michigan University in environmental education and earth science, Brandon Foote definitely can make a connection between the couple’s love for Michigan and for the environment in general.

“Our society is a pretty complex place, and the Earth is pretty complex right now,” Brandon Foote said. “It’s a pretty wild place to live in, and I just think the caretaking that’s neglected of this planet is overlooked.”

“I think that’s why we’re so passionate with Earthwork because they are all about the environment and sustainable living, and so are we,” Bethany Foote said.

Gifts or Creatures are active environmentalists and passionate musicians. Their love for the environment is evident in their name and every show.

“It’s a representation of this life, and there’s a lot of gifts, and there’s a lot of creatures, and they’re viewed as the gold tokens of this life, but there’s more than just what’s happening here,” Brandon Foote said. “It’s actually a Mother Teresa quote. She says, ‘I don’t want the gifts or creatures of this planet; I want the relationship that’s bigger than that.’”

— Paige Bolen

Electronic: Lansing Electronic Artist Kollective

When climbing the never-ending staircase at the entrance of The Loft, 414 E. Michigan Ave., in Lansing, music fans might not know what to expect. The only thing they know is they are about to be entertained by the Lansing Electronic Artist Kollective, or LEAK, a five-member group of electronic musicians.

When they finish their journey to the second floor, they may be greeted by two twenty-somethings, Roque Ybarra and Andy Lynch, fiddling with their iPhones as they eat their McDonald’s dinner on the go.

With electronic music pulsing in the background, they begin to talk over French fries and burgers. This is a common occurrence since LEAK began.

“Rob Perry and Jeff Hoisington had coffee at the Biggby on Grand River by Crunchy’s and hashed out the idea back in late 2009,” Lynch said. “The scene at the time was vibrant, but nobody was successfully throwing big electronic dance music parties at any of the venues in town. Jeff brought me in, and Rob brought Noah (DeSmit) in and that was the original lineup.”

Now, the group consists of five DJs: Ybarra, Lynch, Robert Perry, Jeff Hoisington and Michael McNamara, who is also known as BeatLoaf.

For most of the group members, their experience with music didn’t start with the formation of LEAK. Lynch and Ybarra both started their music careers at a young age with piano lessons.

“I was 5 years old, and I started taking piano lessons — my parents made me do it — and I remember hating it for the duration until I was old enough to quit,” Lynch said. “It’s one of those things where I am so grateful for that and to them for making me do it. I hate it, but it gives you such a strong musical foundation.”

Ybarra had similar feelings about his classical upbringing.

“I took piano lessons when I was younger, and I totally hated it,” Ybarra said. “I told my dad I wanted to quit and I thought he was wasting his money on lessons, and he listened to me. But like Andy said, I think it’s a foundation that’s really key.”

With their classical pasts behind them, Ybarra and Lynch transitioned to electronic music and DJing to get LEAK underway.

“We got together with Infinity Nightlife and threw our launch party and Club Xcel in downtown Lansing, and we had like 500 kids show up,” Lynch said. “The night went well, and we’ve built from there.”

With more than 1,320 fans on Facebook, LEAK definitely has been building.

The members of LEAK agree, there is something about a college town and building a fan base.

“On one hand, this is great because it allows for you to be able to reach a lot of people and meet so many amazing people and try so many different things,” McNamara said. “On the other hand, many of the great connections you make, (those people) move on to different stages of their lives.”

While they all realize this is inevitable in every college town, something about Lansing and the surrounding area make it a special scene.

“The solid base of the local artistic community combined with the continual influx of new ideas brought by the natural turnover of the student community make Lansing and East Lansing a great place to do art and music,” Lynch said.

LEAK’s members want to stay in Ingham County to continue to tap into their unique fanbase.

“I think we want to stay here because we have the kids here, and it’s a really good market to tap into for throwing good parties and exposing people to good music,” Ybarra said.

These venues also make for unforgettable live performances.

“I love nothing more then watching people’s worries and inhibitions fade away as they vibe out on the dance floor,” McNamara said.

While smaller, intimate shows, bringing in headliners and starting their own label are all talked about as plans LEAK has in the works, the group still finds the value and rich culture of where LEAK was born essential to keep going.

“It’s big enough where there’s stuff going on but small enough if you have an idea — a vision — you can push it,” Lynch said. “There’s stuff in place for it.”

“We’re all just here, working hard to create something real,” Ybarra said. “Something that matters.”

— Paige Bolen

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