Yo of BLKHRTS
The Pirate Signal’s frontman goes traditional hip-hop with side project
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No matter how you slice it, Yonnas Abraham’s been a busy dude. The producer/emcee—who shortened his stage name to Yo late last year—has a solo album in the pipes. He dropped a full-length, No Weak Heart Shall Prosper, from his long-running hip-hop act, The Pirate Signal, before trashing the lineup and rebuilding it as a live band. He’s also at the heart of BLKHRTS, alongside emcees Karma and FOE. The act wrapped up its debut EP, BLK S BTFL, as 2010 was winding down. With BLKHRTS celebrating the release of the EP Saturday, Jan. 8 at Glob—the new-look Pirate Signal is also on the bill—A.V. Club spoke with Yo about juggling three hip-hop acts in a town that’s still not perfectly friendly toward hip-hop.
A.V. Club: Was the goal of BLKHRTS to give you a more traditional hip-hop outlet as opposed to the genre-defying sounds of The Pirate Signal?
Yonnas Abraham: The goal at first, because I thought that they are both tremendous vocalists, was to try to make songs [with FOE and Karma], like in my mind like the Three Tenors kind of thing, show off-y for rap purposes, but also to push the limits of our abilities with flow and dynamics and stuff. A lot of it was really high-energy stuff. On the EP, it is all rapping and stuff, but there are different shapes and forms for the beats rather than snare on the two and the four [beat] like normal hip-hop beats. I tried to make the beats more challenging in order to bring out the real technical aspects of all of our rapping abilities.
AVC: You’ve made no secret of your respect for FOE and Karma’s abilities on the mic. Did you ever feel pressure to deliver production that lived up to the respect you have for your fellow emcees?
YA: I definitely felt like I didn’t want to waste it. I wanted to make something that was really a good calling card for all of us individually to take, to use. I think one of the primary goals is, because we’re all solo artists, that this would help all our individual solo endeavors. It would be another thing to put in the résumé, another project to say, “We completed that.” We’d be proud to show it to anybody as an example of our abilities.
AVC: Did you find it tough to step up your game, production-wise, to reach that level?
YA: I guess there was a while in the very beginning where I was making stuff that just wasn’t good enough. As recently as November, I started to write a lot of stuff, beat-wise, where I was, “Oh, this is great. This is going to work.” So I think it was about getting to that headspace where I was writing at the level I wanted to be writing at. Once I got there, it came out pretty quickly, actually. There’s some real catchy hip-hop and some more difficult stuff. Even the more difficult stuff, we tried to put the strongest hooks and some traditionally good songwriting into it.
AVC: The Pirate Signal’s been very good at drawing fans from the Warped Tour crowd and indie-rock circles as well as traditional hip-hop fans. Do you think you’ll be able to continue that with BLKHRTS?
YA: I definitely think [BLKHRTS] has the same energy. It still maintains a certain edginess in the production values, or just in the production style, that appealed to fans of other genres. From all the shows we’ve done, a lot of times I’ve brought out BLKHRTS. A lot of times, it’s been a highlight. I know a lot of people who like BLKHRTS stuff more than The Pirate Signal, frankly. Maybe it’s the different voices, or maybe it’s a better blend of my indie rock or other genre leanings with real hard rap, or the fact that Karma and FOE are such great emcees. Three are better than one, I guess.
AVC: Despite your crossover success in the past, do you ever feel like the hip-hop community is segregated, either in audiences or press coverage, from a lot of the other segments of the Denver underground?
YA: A little bit. To what degree is it voyeurism or what degree is it just artistic tourism? Like, “Oh, I’ll just go check out this hip-hop act.” Then [writers] might not give it the same credence or artistic value that they might give to an indie-rock band because to them, inherently, indie rock is just a more valuable art form. I think that’s very Denver-ized. Outside of the city, especially in much more metropolitan areas, critics of indie rock take hip-hop very seriously and vice versa. In this community, the writers are very stratified. Only recently, I’ve seen people specialize in hip-hop. Before, there were the ones who loved hip-hop and far and wide, the rest seemed like they were forced to go to rap shows to write about them, which is really sad to me. Until we take ourselves seriously, until people who are from here start to give credence to stuff from here, it will be very hard for the rest of the world to do that.