The 21st century brought with it many technological advances, including affordable consumer grade recording gear and exponential access to a global audience via the internet, all of which have led to sweeping changes within the hip-hop game. Luggage is among the names to emerge victorious from the chaos, and rightfully so. After almost three silent years, Kevin ‘Oxen’ Johnson and Ben ‘BenFM’ Bateman have returned with a seasoned sound and a hedonistic philosophy, quickly establishing themselves as the willing representatives for loud music, good times, and chemical consumption within the streets of RVA. Luggage is about to unleash both their most mature and most irresponsible record to date, appropriately titled Sex, Drugs and Rap.
With production credits from notable producers such as Chadrach (Divine Profitz), Bobby LaBeat (Audio Ammo), and Loot Merchant, the rhythms are what ultimately set this record apart from the competition. Second only to the instrumentals are the themes. With standout lyrics like “We don’t have to do nothing but die, make rap, get high,” and song titles like “Listen To The Chemicals,” their “party like a rock star” attitude is obvious and consistent throughout the project. Inspired by psychedelic hangovers, wanton women and Daniel Quinn novels, they also attempt to reach beyond traditional hip-hop borders. Remaining true to their roots, Luggage keeps it simple, with choruses that bring their energy from the stage to the studio.
I ran into Kevin several months ago at an RVA Magazine release party out in the front of Belly Timber Tavern. When I asked if he still rapped, his reply was a downcast “yeah.” He told me he felt like the scene was getting too young for him. While most people run from the possibility of ever having to face failure, it’s refreshing to find a thirty-year-old rapper willing to go against the odds for one last hurrah, in hopes of making all dreams into reality. However, as the rap game grows older, so do the legends, and lets not forget that Jay-Z was nearly thirty before his career began to take off.
Sex, Drugs and Rap is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is convoluted. On the surface, it’s exactly what it claims to be. At its core, though, beneath the dope beats, clever ad-libs, and witty punchlines, there lives a testament to acquiring wisdom while never letting go of that reckless youthfulness we all have festering within us. It’s a voyage through the crowded streets, sold-out shows, and VIP sections that inhabit the minds of two madmen. The message is simple: live, love, laugh, and let go of those things that inhibit most of us from enjoying life day-to-day.
Kevin: Let’s take it to the beginning. In high school, this guy K-Boogie was one year above me, and he gave me a tape he had recorded, I guess on a boombox, with a beat playing. They were all jacked beats, but he put a little insert in the tape. It was like Hieroglyphics and Black Moon beats from back in the day. I remember thinking: this is the coolest shit. The only person in the school making rap music gave me a tape. From there, I was always rapping. Thought I was good at it. Tried graffiti a couple times, was horrible at it. I was surrounded by so many people that could do so much cool shit artistically. I had to pick out one thing that I could do, stand out, and be better than anyone else who tries to do it. The whole thing we’re doing now… the music is there, its almost second nature at this point. We know we can make dope music. That’s something that we don’t have to think about as much anymore. If it was just about music Ben and I wouldn’t be friends.
You don’t think you could have that kind of chemistry in something else, like a business venture that doesn’t have hip-hop or art?
Ben: It could be anything, We know how to deal with each other’s bullshit. So at the end of the day, we’ve got a lot of that to deal with.
Ben, you’re an artist. If you had to choose between drawing and rapping, what would you do?
Ben: Damn, that’s like would you rather be blind or deaf?
Do you believe that between art versus rhyme, one could be more lucrative than the other?
Ben: There’s definitely equal opportunity in both of those worlds. You have people making millions of dollars on either [side]. Certain people who are good enough at what they do. Who wouldn’t want to be one of those people?
Which of the two do you feel is more saturated with people? Which could you be more successful in?
Ben: I guess with art, there is more of a market. If you want to make your living as a rapper–I mean, how many people do that?
Kevin: We don’t even know how to do that.
Ben: Probably less than a thousand people don’t have a day job because they rap. But how many people don’t have a day job because they create art? Thousands upon thousands. I think that makes it way harder to be a rapper than an artist.
Kevin: But I guarantee it’s more fun being a rapper.
Ben: You get to throw TVs in the swimming pools at hotels.
Kevin: Led Zeppelin style. Every time we get a hotel, Zeppelin is mentioned.
So speaking of that, you guys know about Van Halen and the brown M&M’s? [On their concert rider, Van Halen would always request a bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones removed–ed.] What would be on your rider?
Ben: You gotta do the brown M&M’s. I always heard that story as being a example of weird crazy kooky OCD rockstars…
Kevin: …but it’s not, you know.
Ben: Because if you see brown M&M’s, then maybe my flamethrowers are pointed in the wrong direction too. It’s a test of how closely they can follow [directions], because you don’t know these people. You can just go into town and be like, “You better have all this shit done,” because some of it’s important.
What kind of stuff do you throw in there?
Ben: Packs of socks. New socks. So the whole time you were on tour, you just throw your dirty socks out.
Kevin: My idea of a rider as a joke is the Dave Chappelle show, when he’s doing the Puffy, Making The Band skit, and he’s like, “Go get me some Cambodian breast milk.” It’s like, why make people do that? People are human beings, so I wouldn’t ask for anything, I don’t think, but who knows? The more money I give to the rider, the more drugs I start doing. And the more famous I think I am, the more crazy I get. I think me and Ben are on that path.
Obviously you feel that the market in Richmond is ready for Luggage. How do you feel about the market outside of Richmond?
Kevin: Even better. I think the mid-Atlantic and Northeast are definitely the market for Luggage.
Ben: That’s the thing about Richmond. There are so many haters in Richmond. If you can make it work here, and stay afloat in Richmond, anywhere else you go, you’ll be straight. Because it won’t be as bad as here.
Kevin: The only thing holding us back is us, and now we’re realizing its time to take this shit seriously. The other night I had a good friend over, and I let him hear the whole album. He just looked at me and was like, “Dude, what the fuck, why aren’t you guys already signed?” The name of the album that we didn’t drop was Sign-Us Pressure. It’s a thirteen song album. But I’m so fucking glad we didn’t drop it. The music we made when we were doing Speak Easy Luggage was inspired by this new sound that we were getting into. We had Casey Tomlin from VCR making our beats, but Sign-Us Pressure was just me and Ben being frustrated about not getting the immediate success from the Speak Easy album, so we just put it together. [We were] so uninspired. It was kind of rushed, the lyrics weren’t as good, we were just pissed. And we never dropped it.
Do you think it was almost Freudian, that you created this album that you feel was contrived, that was basically calling out the record labels, and you didn’t drop it?
Kevin: We never really talked about it before. I just realized right now that it’s kind of funny that it never really came out.
Ben: I feel like in retrospect, looking back and listening to those songs now, I’d do things differently. I could do things better. But at the time we were doing all that shit, we loved it.
Kevin: Day By Day had a huge influence during that [time]. They did a whole lot for us. We definitely wouldn’t be where we’re at if it wasn’t for Dave Stewart and Will Carsola. Sign-Us Pressure was coming off of the success from the Day by Day Teenagers from Marz video, and I think we wanted to continue the buzz. It just took too long. Right now it’s the complete opposite. We have everything, we’re shooting videos, we’re making all this gear, doing mad shows, parties. We’re doing what’s called a monthly shuffle, at the Nile once a month. We play with a punk rock band, or rock ‘n’ roll band.
Ben: Something that would contrast with us.
Do you think a crossover show with two different genres would have worked back in 2004?
Kevin: It did. It’s how we came up.
Ben: The Strike Anywhere show we played back in the day was a great show. At the time that was the most people we had ever performed in front of. It was fun, because it wasn’t something they’d normally [see]. I love it. Genres are getting mixed up more. Remember when “Hey Ya” came out, and Nelly was making country music? [Music is] going more and more in that direction, which I love, and which I think is very important to our survival as a species.
How does technology influence your music now?
Ben: My new iPhone just gives me so much access to music. I can lay in my bed and be like, “I want to listen to flamenco today.” I don’t need to have a friend who knows all the best flamenco artists to put me onto. I can just type it in. The more music that gets into me, the better music comes out of me.
What are you guys listening to most? What do you feel most influenced Sex, Drugs, and Rap?
Ben: Something I don’t know all the words to. I want to listen to new music. I want to listen to new things. I want to spread out more. If I’m at the bar and Liquid Swords comes on, of course I’m the first dude wilding out, probably spilling drinks on people. But on my time, I want to listen to new things.
Kevin: If I listen to a rapper that I like a lot, the next time I’m in the studio I find myself somewhat mimicking [them]. I seriously don’t fucking listen to other rappers anymore. It’s hard for me to do it. The shit I listen to will blow your mind. I woke up this morning and put T-Rex in for awhile, then the Best Of The Smiths album. Or if I have my Hank III CD sitting around, I’ll listen to that shit. Guaranteed, it won’t be rap music unless it was classic, or something so dumbed down–I would listen to some Gucci Mane, or some shit like that.
Kevin, you spent some time in Oakland. How was that?
Kevin: Well, this was when Ben and I were estranged for a couple years. We had just been through too much. We’d see each other out and be like like what’s up, but we had other shit going on. So I made the Brains For Breakfast album with Chadrach. It was a whole concept album that I had made. I was so happy and proud of it. I got a wooden stamp made, and stamped all the CDs on the outside. I went out [to Oakland] and just lived for nine months; went to the bars with CDs and met people. People would buy me a drink for a CD. It was like passing out flyers. I just didn’t really know how to push it. I was out in Cali just having fun. You know, girls, sex, drugs, and rap. But rap was just a CD I was giving out to people. And now, it’s like I’m trying. This shit is going to happen. When it comes to rapping, it takes time.
Ben: Getting organized and on top of things on a day to day basis is just not in our skill set. Let’s put this out there: if you make Luggage money, and if you sell our music on the internet, we’ll give you some of it. We are irresponsible dudes. If you want to manage our iTunes…
You guys are hiring a babysitter.
Ben: We’re not looking for a babysitter. We’re a little more high class than that.
Kevin: If our meals, hotel rooms, and party supplies get paid for, you can have the rest.
You guys worked on a compilation album with a bunch of people in Central Virginia called When Does A Story Become… Legend. Tell us about that.
Kevin: That album has the first song Ben and I made together in four years.
Ben: Legend reunited Luggage.
Kevin: It was all for charity. All for Chadrach and his family. He made every single beat on it.
Ben: That kind of compilation of Virginia artists–there are people from Roanoke, Lynchburg–that’s needed to happen for so long. The shit is so good. Every song, everyone on there. There’s such a range of different styles that all sound at perfectly at home on these beats. It’s a good fucking album.
Obviously you guys rely on other people at times. So who are those people?
Ben: Number one: Swerve 360. This dude is our DJ at shows. He’s hosting a show, getting everyone riled up, he’s our hype man, he records us at his house, he’s an engineer.
Kevin: He does all the cuts on our albums.
Ben: If you are having a party and you want to have a good time, give him a fucking microphone.
He’s kind of like the hip hop landmark of Richmond.
Ben: Put that motherfucker in a square dance. Give him a microphone, they’ll be loving his ass. One man party, and produces beats too. And raps. That’s why we don’t want him on the album, because he’ll outshine us.
Sum up Sex, Drugs and Rap. What can the readers expect?
Kevin: They can expect to take a journey with us. We’re not trying to change your mind or anything. We’re not preaching to you. We’re just telling you what we see in our mind’s eye. We’re going to explain to people what it’s like to be on certain levels of psychosis, of psychedelics, any kind of benders or vices you have. Basically if you are straight edge and you’re thinking about selling out, I will give you a Luggage album and you can [decide] if you want to turn out like us. A lot of sex, a lot of drugs, and a whole lot of rap music. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last fucking ten years.
So it gives the listener the ability to live vicariously through you guys over the last ten years?
Ben: And it’s an invitation to come join in our reckless bohemian rapper lifestyle. The biggest thing about the title is that’s what they would say in the sixties: it’s all sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And I’m a hippie, dude. I love everybody. My world peace motherfuckers movement is getting hashtag #worldpeacemotherfuckers on my tweet tweet. And that’s part of it too, man. At the end of the day we’re all alive and we’re all here now, and we have to party together.
Words by Dan Anderson
Images by Thomas Fields