Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Music Spotlight: Eastern Sunz

by Joel DeVyldere
Eastern Sunz can hold a live show together —a fact that people on more than one continent can attest to. Through American and European tours, thousands of fans have heard the brilliance and seen the light while grooving to the beats of this socially conscious Eugene-based hip hop duo. 

“You can be heard or be herded like sheep, be the early bird or get murdered in your sleep,” Sunz front-man Courage related, as he broke it down for fans at the Wow Hall last month. But these fellows — Courage and TravisT— aren’t just your average bass-bumping, ‘hood-conscious emcees. Lyrics from the Eastern Sunz are permeated with an optimism uncharacteristic of their genre, a tempered realism that unassumingly reaches out for environmental justice and social equity with surprising clarity and liberal doses of sarcasm.

The Sunz take the game to a whole new level with Filthy Hippie Music, a record aware of its own quirks and eccentricities, and shamelessly self-described on the title track as “concise and relevant.” And they deliver. The six tracks on FHM deal with topics as different as poverty and deforestation in a cacophony of what is called on the album “street knowledge laced with academic concepts.” 

FHM drops March 23, at which point fans and skeptics alike will have the pleasure of hearing six of the sharpest, cleverest, and arguably most relevant tracks in the hip hop genre. The Sunz, who took home an Independent Music Award for last year’s Corroded Utopia, have really outdone themselves this time.

“I started rapping in third grade,” recalls front man Courage, whose real name is Aaron Harris. “I pretty much started rapping as soon as I heard rap music. I basically picked up the pen and started emulating it.”

Five albums later, after ten years together as a group, Oregon-raised Courage and TravisT are still making music. But there’s a lot more to them than just beats and rhymes. Both rappers are college graduates, and both are engaged in presenting listeners with an environmentally conscious societal critique.

“My academic career and my music career run parallel in a lot of ways. I think they have both informed each other, in terms of the direction that I’ve chosen to go in my life,” says Courage, who is studying urban planning and community development at the University of Oregon.

“Looking at community development is looking at societal equity issues, environmental issues, all the political and economic stuff that goes into the context of what creates a community. That ties into other environmental issues in terms of health, crop production, environmental equity and safety... and those are the themes of our music.”

“Make love, not war. Smoke weed, not tobacco,” begins the track entitled Threads, which projects an optimism on a life often muddied by complex systems of oppression. Controlled substance use is portrayed as positive throughout the Sunz’ music, while only abuse is depicted as negative.

So, how do you craft an album that features the voice of Bill O’Reilly and an entire track devoted to Beatles references?

“To me, creating hip hop music is like making a collage,” Courage explains. “It’s taking all these different components and putting them together... It’s like a dialectic. It’s kind of like this interesting synthesis of your collective life experiences and also the products from society, with the samples that we might grab.”

On the subject of influences, Courage starts talking up the Oakland-based rebel rap group The Coup. “They’re probably one of the first to warm me up to a lot of issues.” He sees himself as part of a long line of socially conscious emcees, a tradition that Courage aspires to continue: “Music is always entertainment, but I think that first and foremost we’ve definitely used it as a medium to convey concepts and ideas that we consider to be important and pressing.”

And, though they have met with some commercial success, Courage asserts that it’s not about all that. “We don’t do the commercial formula. We make the songs that we make ‘cause we think that they’re pertinent, and that they’ve got something to ‘em.”

These bike-riding, organic food-promoting hippie emcees can make some sick beats, butt the real magic is in the lyrics. “I think our shit’s hard,” Courage says. “It’s different. I mean, we’re talking truth.”

You can download Filthy Hippie Music from, starting Friday, March 23.

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