This week’s ‘First Look Friday’ subjects, Hardwork Movement, thrive in the legacy of hip-hop in Philly, while developing a sound that pushes the culture to new heights.
Imagine what a group would sound like if they had D’Angelo’s soulful sound, a mixture of West Coast and Atlanta cadences, ‘90s East Coast flair, The Roots’ precision and timing with a millennial’s perspective. Well, you don’t have to dream too long because that idea is live and in the flesh. Allow us to present to the Okayplayer universe, Philadelphia’s own Hardwork Movement.
First Look Friday: Meet DUCKWRTH, The Punk Funkateer With A Neptunes-Soaked Sound
This nine-piece band consisting of three MCs (Sterling Duns, RB Ricks, Rick Banks); a lead vocalist who is also wicked on the cello (Jeremy Keys); two trumpet players (Marty Gottlieb-Hollis, Becca Graham); a flutist who also has some impressively wicked vocals (Dani Gershkoff); a bass guitarist (Jeremy Prouty) and a fantastically dope drummer to tie it all together (Angel Ocana) — and you have the future of this Illadelph sound bred-and-created for a next generation audience.
First Look Friday: The Gold Setting Embodies That Good Vibration
Despite being labeled solely as a hip-hop group, Hardwork Movement is more than just what meets the ears and eyes. Being left-of-center works for them as they cross genres, embrace neo-soul and indie influences, while presenting their improvisational skills to audiences up-and-down the East Coast from Philadelphia to Brooklyn and D.C. With an upcoming album in the works, we decided to jump start First Look Friday by presenting an act that is worthy of your attention and ticket purchases. Find out more about Hardwork Movement, who influenced their sound, what obstacles they’ve overcame to get here and watch an exclusive video of “Living Legends,” highlighting their performance skills below. Enjoy!
Okayplayer: To music snobs the world over, you are making an impact. What is it that those in music game are seeing and hearing that the rest of the world has yet to discover?
Sterling Duns: There’s a lot going on in the world and there are a lot of beautiful, amazing artists using their creativity to speak truth to power, to inspire others, to shine a light and give energy to the hopes and dreams they have for the future. We like to think of ourselves as part of this wave. I don’t feel like we are saying anything brand new through our music in regards to the things that we speak about. I do think we are unique in that we are committed to telling our story, the Hardwork Movement story, authentically and unapologetically, with clarity, veracity, dopeness, and love. We want more of the world to hear that.
OKP: For those who have a passion for music, they honed their skills and practiced their craft. Who are your most cherished influences in music and why?
Rick Banks: Well first, being from Philly, the Gamble & Huff sound from Philly International Records is in our blood. I’m very passionate about restoring Philly’s place in the music scene to what it once was. Secondly, though, artists that aren’t afraid to make statements while making good music really push me. From the Marvin Gayes and Stevie Wonders, to MCs like Yasiin Bey, Black Thought, Talib Kweli, Common, Kendrick [Lamar], J. Cole.
Sonically, I think our influences are far more varied, taking into account the differences in all of our musical backgrounds.
RB Ricks: Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Lauryn Hill and Kanye West would be my most cherished influences in music. My parents would always have the Michael, Marvin and Marley playing in the car and radio growing up and for a long time that was the only music I knew outside of gospel. In middle school, Lauryn Hill released the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and I remember getting my older sister the CD for Christmas and that was life changing.
I did not understand all of the lyrics at the time but, I felt the emotion in her voice which was powerful enough. In high school, my sophomore year, Kanye West, dropped College Dropout and the sound was just so different and refreshing. At that time, I was struggling to find out who I was as a young man and Kanye, was the complete opposite of stereotypical hip-hop but at the same time, so hip-hop. He made kids that were different have swag.
OKP: Can you talk about how your life was while developing as an artist? How did you react to your first bits of press?
Jeremy Keys: Wow man it’s really been a ride for us. We’ve been doing this Hardwork thing for about five years now since some of us were fresh out of college. Life has placed us through so many changes in the past five years, but we always come back to the music to give us a sense of peace. We used to record mixtapes in Duns’ mama’s crib, sometimes recording early in the morning before work or late at night man. Some of our best sounds came out of those sessions. We all had bills to pay as well so it’s always been a balancing act between work and music.
After taking a break a couple years ago, we refocused and put out our mixtape Good Problems which was all recorded at Duns’ mom’s house. That’s when things went to another level. I reached out to some contacts I heard of at a local Philly radio station (WXPN) with one of our songs “Shine”. We didn’t think anything of it until they listened to it and really dug it and blasted the track all over social media and their blog. From there, we put together the live band for a show we had at Kung Fu Necktie.
Man that experience was crazy! It was our first show with the band and we weren’t sure how many people were going to come out. I remember the venue had two rooms. Downstairs was the big room that could hold over a 100 but it was reserved for another act, so we took the upstairs room that could hold like 50 people. Turns out that over 100 people came out to see us play and show us love while downstairs only had about 20 people there. It was insane, way over capacity! From there things took off.
OKP: With incidents involving people of color, police and racist occurring almost on a daily basis around the globe — how can your music help to relieve the trauma that is being experienced by the masses?
SD: Through our music we try to hold out the vision for the world that we want to see. Always. We have to march towards that vision, and fight for that vision, and be a beacon for each other, showing each other what’s possible. And we have to give ourselves time to feel what is going on, too. That is part of the healing. We can’t forget to be human. And we also have super powers, all of us. We try to lift people with our music. We have some heavy songs, we have some celebratory songs. We want you to feel it all. And everything always leads back to community. Back to the collective. Back to radical love and an unshakeable belief that we will make it. We will not only survive, but thrive in the future.
OKP: What have been the most definitive obstacles that you’ve overcome in your career thus far?
JK: I think this rings true for me because there was a time where I was out of the group. When we first started doing this thing, I just didn’t take it seriously. There were so many doubts and fears about whether or not we could really do this thing man. I started missing practices, not showing up on tracks and Duns stepped to me and was like, ‘I think you need time away from the group to figure things out.’ I took about a year off and the group became a little stagnate. That time away really showed me how big a role music plays in my life. I missed it and slowly but surely worked with Duns to start creating things again.
That time in our lives propelled us towards making Good Problems and we came back full force to put together this nine-piece band. There’s always times when you doubt how far you can go, but taking action can throw that stuff to the wayside. I came back stronger and we made this push. I think another obstacle is people are always going to doubt you or want to put you in a box. People always tell us what we are and what we’re not. ‘You guys remind me of The Roots’ is one we get a lot.
It’s beautiful to have those comparisons but at the end of the day we just want to be ourselves. I think it can be hard to define a sound and image when people always want you to be something else. Thankfully, we have a big group to help us block out the noise and keep it moving.
OKP: Can you also talk about the importance of the music industry scene as how you’ve experienced it? How do you see it evolving in the next five years?
RB: The biggest change I’ve seen is the heavy focus on curation. Music is consumed so differently now than it was even just five years ago, and the focus on just strong tracks versus projects has changed how people are creating now. I see that trend growing and see artists starting to collaborate even more as this trend towards streaming playlist curation continues.
OKP: What are some things that you’ve learned about yourself that comes out in your music?
RR: Confidence. Being on stage and performing in front of an audience used to be terrifying at times. When I rhyme, my lyrics come straight from my heart so it’s important for me to mean what I say and say what mean. I talk a lot about things that are going on in my life and sometimes it’s not easy sharing those feelings to the world. My mission is to touch your soul whenever I get on the microphone and that means I need to bring the best version of myself every time I have the opportunity.
OKP: What were some moments from your recent travels that will forever stick with you? Why?
SD: We recently went on tour down south and performed in a weekly cypher session in Durham, N.C. with a dope human named Pierce Freelon and some awesome young folks from an afrofuturist digital makerspace called Blackspace. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. Hip-hop at its core. We created a liberatory rap cypher where folks of all backgrounds shared space, brought the lyricism, brought their stories, brought their essence. We didn’t know each other before the cypher, but by the end, the depth of which we were able to see each other, honor each other’s humanity, was unbelievable. It was hip-hop.
OKP: What was the first song that you ever wrote entitled? Can you talk about what it has come to symbolize since you’ve entered into the professional life?
SD: The first song that comes to mind is a song called “Birds in the House” that I wrote with my younger sister about an actual bird that got into our house through the roof. It was silly, but it was real. I had to be 11 or so, so she was 8. It was a shared experience. My sister is a talented singer, I’ve always been a lyricist, so we made a song about this moment we were both a witness to.
When I think about what that song symbolizes since admitting to myself that music is my vocation, my calling, I’ve learned that the most moving music I can make has to be about what I know. It has to be connected to how I make sense of the things that I have witnessed in my life. That’s the only thing that moves me. The only thing that I feel like moves the audience. I have to speak from my experiences, from my own thoughts and dreams, or else there is no joy in it for me. No connection.
OKP: How can your music speak truth to power in an age where people are so quickly digesting sounds and disposing of artists in a nanosecond?
RR: Although we are living in a streaming / digital age where the idea seems to be quantity over quality as a musician it’s important to trust your process. Fads and trends will come and go but, music with a message and a purpose will last forever. We believe in our sound, we believe in our message and we believe that when its real, its more meaningful.
JK: We’re also big on creating experiences for people. Sure you may rock with our single for a couple of weeks but you’ll always remember that time you saw Hardwork Movement live. For us, it’s about how can we bring our music to people in a special way that creates an experience. Whether that’s a pop-up show at a school or playing literally in your living room, we want to make you feel something and remember that moment forever.
Collaboration is uniquely a key to the success of certain creative individuals who wish to change the game. Who would you want to work with this year going into the next and why?
RB: We’d love to work with artists who are also committed to using their platform not just to entertain, but also to educate, inform, and inspire. A few names that come to mind would be Anderson .Paak, 9th Wonder and the Jamla team, Hiatus Kaiyote, Snarky Puppy. Obviously, working with The Roots would be incredible, as they’ve really laid out the blueprint for what we’re doing.
OKP: What is the overall message that Hardwork Movement is trying to present in their music?
SD: The overall message is to just be you. Be who you are, love who you are, and show love to those around you. Each of the nine of us are very different people. Our lives bump up against each other, naturally. But we’ve got so much love for each other, and we encourage each other to find our voice and to love who we are. We try to spread this message not only through our music, but in our very actions. In how we treat each other.
OKP: Can you break down the inspiration behind a song that you created but never put out?
RB: So I wrote a song called “Real Talk” back in late 2014 about my relationship with my father. At the time, I was considering a small solo project, but the song was really more therapeutic for me than anything. It detailed the different stages our relationship went through: growing up with him present, but not in the same household, to me growing independent to hide sadness, to us finally reconciling a bit as I became an adult. The song ended with the line “[…] and now it’s me who barely visits/ I just hope I have enough time left to fix it.” It really helped me work through all of the emotions I had so that we could repair things, and that ending gave me solace when he passed away just a year later.
OKP: How do you get over any anxiety before hitting the stage to perform live? What are some lessons or tips that you’ve learned from others about doing a stage show?
JK: Ah man it’s the people around us man. We have a ritual where the whole crew gets in a huddle before we go on-stage where someone will give a speech to get everyone in the right headspace. We all also have our rituals. Rick Banks and I do a little Rocky-esque boxing jawn. It’s also important to have some time to yourself to reflect and calm your nerves. It’s not about losing the nerves, it’s about repurposing that energy into your onstage persona. Feeling that confidence and all-or-nothing mentality. My mom sang Opera when I was growing up, so I learned from her the importance of warming up. She would warm up for what seemed like hours before she went on. It not only gets your voice ready but gets your mind-straight. It’s like Steph Curry shooting half court shots before the game. Get the reps in and get your face on.
OKP: If the reader’s learned one thing from this First Look Friday chat with Hardwork Movement — what would it be?
RB: We’ve love them to learn that hip-hop has room for everyone, and that there’s space for us all to share our voice and our message. If you’re looking to be the change you want to see in the world, and have a great soundtrack to support you doing it, check us out.