Standing just outside of Erykah Badu’s backstage trailer in Austin, Texas, the faint aroma of incense perfumes passersby. After being ushered in, the source reveals itself. It's not scented candles in the air, though. Less than an hour after performing a short, but mind-blowing set at the Red Bull Thre3Style showcase at South by Southwest, Badu is coolly taking a few pulls from a black cherry clove. She’s taken off the high heels she was rocking on stage, slipped into a pair of Adidas sneaks, and she’s unwinding in a tattered black shirt and khaki long johns.
Erykah’s not alone in the hazy room, either. There’s a load of male band mates—fittingly dubbed The Cannabinoids. She hand-picked this collective of producers, DJs, and visual artists. Just a day earlier (March 16), they released The Beat Tape, Vol. 1. It’s a brief thumper, featuring just over 14 minutes of spacey instrumentals laced with soul samples and strung together with movie clips and superb scratching—a taste of things to come.
The Cannabinoids plan on releasing their debut album later this year. But for now, Erykah just wants to introduce Complex to her crew, give props to the Filipino who beefed up her DJ skills, and explain how she and her buds get high off music together.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
What is the vibe of the beat tape?
Rob Free: The beat tape is really just a session, a freestyle session. It’s one of the first ones that we did and we put it in the archives, a few years later, we listened to it and we were like, “Yo, this is fire, we need to release this and let the people know what we’ve been doing.” A lot of people have been asking what the Cannabinoids have been doing and this is what we’ve been doing so it’s a lot more from where that came from and we wanna let the people know really what we’re about and that’s an example of what we do.
A lot of people are going to think this is a new group. But you’ve worked with a lot of these guys for years, right? You shouted a lot of them out on stage tonight.
Erykah Badu: I couldn’t really figure out what we should’ve done or whatever. I wish we would’ve gotten a chance to do that. Rob Free, who just spoke on the beat tape, Rob Free and I started together years ago. SXSW is one of our first places. Jah Born’s also known as Cerebral Cortex and Gray Matter. They call me HU-210. He did “On and On.” Then we got RC Williams aka JHW-33. We’ll explain what those are, those are Cannabinoid names.
Where do they come from? Can I go to a website or something to get all of these names?
Erykah Badu: Yes you can. The Cannabinoids, the name came out, because the Cannabinoids are the receptors in marijuana that go to the brain and change the condition of thinking, smelling or hearing or taste or hunger—and we represent the synthetic Cannabinoids which means we are making music that affects the brain. We want the audience to feel the intensity of it and our theme is “Welcome to the Human Brain and the Science of Addiction.” We want them to become addicted to what we do, who they are, and how we become one living, breathing organism. We got together maybe five or six years ago. We been rocking like this for a long time.
We want them to become addicted to what we do, who they are, and how we become one living, breathing organism.
I saw you last year at Rock the Bells. This is the same group?
EB: Absolutely. RC Williams is from Dallas, Texas as well. We went to the same high school, Arts Magnet, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. RC started working with me, he became my MD, my musical director. We all started working together, him and Jah Born make beats together a lot. They shared a studio at one time. They produced “Jump Up In The Air and Stay There.” They produced “Danger” and “On and On.” We got so many things we put together. Right here across from me is, steady on the grind, Symbolyc One, also known as NABILONE. I met him when he was in his group, Strange Fruit Project.
Strange Fruit was one of the most amazing production—and produced—rap groups that came out of the United States of America and they happen to be from Waco, Texas. And they asked me to be on one of their songs, “Get Live” and we did a video at my theater, Black Forest Theatre. That’s kind of how we met and from there I developed the Cannabinoids. Maybe a couple years after that, but I kept that in mind, you know? I really wanted to sign him to Control Freaq Records but he was too big, I couldn’t pay, he was too big. [Laughs]
Can you talk about that first interactions you guys had? The chemistry was amazing from jump?
RC: Well actually, like, she didn’t mention but she called me out of the blue one day. This was before all the records I did. She called me out the blue and she told me that ?uestlove had passed my group’s CD along to her and we spoke for a long time on the phone and she was telling me about how amazing it was and ever since that day we kept in contact. She always called to check on me and whatever and we just developed a friendship. That’s one thing about all of us together, we’re all really the same individuals because we all share a lot of the same qualities, just our qualities, just our priorities. Just the simple stuff, like being polite to others, tripping out, and having fun. We all share that and that’s one of the main things.
You guys are releasing an album in the summertime?
EB: Hopefully in the summertime but it kind of looks like, maybe, last quarter.
How far along are you guys in the process?
EB: 80 percent. We’re just perfectionists which brings me to this man right here. This is Mike Schaaf. He’s one of the engineers. Everybody in here is an engineer. All of us. So we’re all working for him. We all mix, we’re all producers. These are not musicians, these are producers. RC is a musician. Symbolyc One is a musician. For the most part, we’re producers and that’s what we do live on stage, live production. So we brought Mike Schaaf in at the end of the Cannabinoids beat tape because Mike Schaaf is an extraordinary mixer from Detroit!
Mike Chav: It’s actually really dope from a creative standpoint to see this happening because this is not something I’ve ever seen done before. This is a group of multiple DJs and producers and people that are very in tune with music but very adept to technology. They play like they’re a band. They play like they’re a jazz band. To be in the Cannabinoids you have to have chops like you’re in a jazz band. They play together, all these DJs mix and sample and loop together on the fly. It is not something your average, ordinary producer can do. It’s pretty technologically advanced. I think this is the new face of musicians of our era so it’s kind of, for me, as a fan and as someone seeing something develop, it’s crazy to kind of witness it because I think it’s kind of new. They’re all dope. Erykah is obviously dope. Everybody brings something to the table and when you hear some of their kings like “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Fuck You,” you hear this certain cohesiveness that comes together and it feels like something I’ve never heard before. I’m kind of honored to be involved like helping with the project.
EB: Thank you. Mike Schaaf is not a member of the Cannabinoids, but he is the engineer He did that with New Amerykah Part One and Two, so that’s when I really got into my digital phase. A1, he’s the lone Asian. He’s not Asian though. What are you?
A1: I’m Filipino.
EB: He’s Filipino. Like Manny [Pacquiano], A1 is a DJ. A1 and I met when I used to just come to the clubs and I heard him spin. I was a DJ since high school but I was not a digital DJ, I used records and crates and things. A1 is the person who taught me how to use Serato. And I mean dudes don’t teach you how to use Serato, DJs feel like if you wanna do it, you gotta learn, read the manual. He taught me because he knew that I was breastfeeding and washing dishes and going to elementary school. He felt like I needed to know and he showed me things that other DJs would not show you because now I’m messing with his money and we’re both in doubt. [Laughs] But he did that anyway. One thing about A1 DJing is his catalog. He shares his catalog. He shares his music with me. He’s one of the best blenders I’ve ever heard. Just amazing and impeccable taste and that’s important for DJs.
DJs don’t share...
EB: Jazzy Jeff didn’t show me shit! Questlove was like, “Hell no!”
What made you want to teach her how to DJ?
A1: Just looking in her eyes and I knew she really wanted to learn and I don’t know, it just felt right at the time.
Around what time?
A1: A year or two ago.
EB: Two years.
A1: I started out showing her the basics and then she just practiced and practiced and she was a fast learner and I just felt really comfortable showing her what I know as far as tricks and blending or whatever and gave her a hard drive of music for her to practice on and that’s pretty much it.
So for someone who hasn’t heard your album, and you guys are 80 percent done, what can they expect sound-wise? Is this going to sound like an Erykah Badu project?
EB: Erykah Badu projects don’t even sound like Erykah Badu projects. I don’t even have one album that sounds like another one of my albums. I don’t think I have one song that this sounds like. It’s very impromptu. That sound will be determined by what we’re all doing, what Schaaf does and it’s a moment by moment creation.
Rob Free: Erykah is such a genius that she’s brought out the genius in us. She’s encouraged us to sing and we’re like, “Okay, wow, we can sing.” She’s finding new ways to contribute to this whole project. It’s like that kind of thing continues to evolve the band.
EB: Where’s Picnic? Picnic, also known as Marinol. He was on stage with us. He’s a producer. He was in a group called EPT. Me and Picnic happen to have the same birthday and we just really gelled very well. We’re just kind of mirrors of each other. He’s a couple years younger than I am or something like that, but we just gelled very well. I thought about him because he carries a lot of really good energy, creative energy in the group. We’re also missing DJ Big Texas, also known as SR141716. He’s also a Cannabinoid receptor. Each Cannabinoid receptor has a specific job that it does in the brain when a person takes in the cannabis plant... [Big Texas walks in] We were just talking about you. That’s another one of the DJs in the group. We have a member that’s not here, Delta 9 [Cleon Edwards]. He actually plays electronic drums on stage with us. He keeps the time... But THC what it does in the brain is it changes the stomach’s method. It makes you hungry. HU-210 measures how sleepy you get or how much sleep anecdote is in a certain cannabis.
Jah Born: Also, hand-eye coordination, which plays into my personality as well because I’m a visual artist as well—and that hand-eye coordination is there.
EB: These people are not just producers or musicians in a way, they all do some form or different kind of obscure or abstract, sometimes controversial art. Rob Free, for example, went to the Art Institute of Chicago, he also went to the Arts Magnet high school. He’s my cousin, he was a senior when I was a freshman. I idolized him. He’s a visual artist. He was a B-boy. He was an MC. He was a producer. He constructed some of the most beautiful structures I had ever seen, some of the most beautiful charcoal and pencil drawings I had ever seen, paintings, these are things that he does. RC is also the MD of my regular band, he’s the director so he has an organized kind of mind. Big Texas is a DJ, too. I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as a DJ as him, he also drives 18-wheelers; he’s starting his own company. He puts out a mixtape—shit, every day. A1 does all our videos. He’s a videographer. He’s a photographer. The rest of them really can’t do nothing else. [Laughs.]
How much research or time did you guys put into the greater meaning behind the Cannabinoids?
EB: It’s conceptual. It was one of my dreams, the concept that I had. I called each person individually and asked them if they wanted to be part of it.
This is really your dream team.
EB: Yeah. And not only did they say yes, each person contributed their spirit and their energy to it. The lowest common denominator is compassion. It’s trust. It’s God. It’s light. It’s love. We all have that in common. We all do. Me and Jah Born, we go so far back. Our religion is Cannabinoids. Some of us have different faiths and follow different kinds of ways and call God different names. However, we see this little seed that we planted blossoming more and more every day and as it blossoms between us all, it also grows in our heart. We’re connected by visible umbilical cords and it’s just like, they feel something, I feel something. My next step is adding another chick.
I was about to ask what it’s like being the only woman with a crew of men.
EB: I don’t know, I don’t even think about it. I just don’t know no chick who this good in Dallas. I’m sure there are some that have been born by now.
So you might add to the group?
EB: Well I can tell you what my vision is. When I thought about Cannabinoids as a collective, I didn’t see myself being a part of it for the whole time. I saw myself like The Cannabinoids featuring Erykah Badu. Then it’s Cannabinoids featuring Nas. And that’s how I saw it. That is the vision that we have. This mixtape is their creation, I’m on it, but it’s their creation, really. It’s what they brought to Dallas so it’s really about them and how they keep me motivated more than anything.