Tools Crew Live: Approachable Minorities
* This video contains explicit content. *
As evidenced by their name, Approachable Minorities make strong social statements couched in playfully pointed language. The Ypsilanti hip-hop trio -- MCs Drew Denton and TJ Greggs with DJ Marcus McKinney -- released its debut album, Afro-American, in April 2016, and Denton’s solo LP, The Ascension Theory, arrived in December.
Approachable Minorities have worked hard to promote their music through a series of concerts under the name Northern Threat Entertainment, but the group is largely still a Washtenaw County phenomenon. But any label or manager looking to sign a talented and motivated group of artists who are ready to put in the work to promote their art would do well to turn 2017 into Approachable Minorities’ breakout year.
Impressed by the ensemble’s creativity and energy, we invited Approachable Minorities and their friend Cole Greve to check out a bunch Music Tools from the Ann Arbor District Library, learn how to use the gear, and come cut a Tools Crew Live video. The group re-created two cuts from Afro-American -- “Bodies” and “Bet” -- on the library’s gear and performed the songs at AADL’s downtown branch on June 9, 2017.
We spoke with Denton about the group’s history, the stories behind the songs, and the challenges and rewards of learning new music gear from scratch.
Q: How Approachable Minorities come to be?
A: The group Approachable Minorities is actually pretty recent and started as a joke! We've all known each other for 10-15 years and have been working together under various names -- Insane Industries+Spunky Smith, Ondemand, Northern Threat Entertainment -- but the idea of Approachable Minorities came about a year ago when a good friend of ours shaved his brightly colored beard and ditched his contacts for Coke-bottle lenses and came to the studio. None of us knew he had shaved the beard, so when he came in the room looking like tech support it kinda caught us all off-guard and Marcus cracked the joke, "Wow, man, you're looking like a real approachable minority right now!" and the phrase just kinda stuck.
This was right before the election heated up when a lot of brothers were getting shot by police. There was -- and still is -- a lot of racial tension in the air, and we just wanted to do something light hearted and fun that could still touch on some serious subjects. The whole ethos of the project is: "Anybody can end up a minority, just depending on what room they're in, so might as well be approachable? What's the sense of walking into a situation already hostile, before you even give people a chance?"
Q: Tell us the background and inspiration behind the songs "Bodies" and "Bet." And how did the former also end up on Drew's solo LP, The Ascension Theory?
A: “Bodies” is pretty much about corporate domination, racial division, and police brutality and trying to cope with all that. And “Bet” just comes from a term that people use a lot. When you say "bet" in response to something it's kinda like, "OK, yeah, lets do this," or can be used like "bet money" -- you will/won’t do something. The song is just me and Tj going back and forth talking shit, but also talking to the audience trying to point out pitfalls they may have in their own lives.
“Bodies” was originally supposed to only be on The Ascension Theory, but we ended up recording Afro-American and releasing it before The Ascension Theory was released, so it got put on both just because we thought the message was good and it was too dope to leave off of the Approachable Minorities project.
Q: Who are some of your favorite producers, MCs, and musicians?
A: Marcus: 12th Planet, Shiverz, Dan Jacobs, Tom Delong, Mark Hoppus.
Drew: Danny Brown, Bassnectar, Deftones, Gorillaz, The White Stripes, Jimi Hendrix, Flying Lotus.
TJ: Immortal Technique, Dr. Dre, Gang Starr, Mos Def.
Q: You re-created the songs using our gear. How were the songs originally created and what was it like trying to re-create them on unfamiliar gear? How did it change the songs?
A: I originally produced both the beats, with help from my friend/mentor MotorCityMello. Both were made in Ableton. Re-creating it took some time! When you're creating in the box (on the computer) the possibilities are endless and you have no time constraints. Getting the four of us all on the same page and able to perform in time with each other took a bit of work, but it was a lot of fun! We were able to keep the basic melody, tempo, and rhythms of the songs, but had to make some sacrifices in order to actually be able to perform them live.
Q: What was it like to have to crack open the manual and teach yourself the gear from scratch?
A: It took a good 10-20 hours of just reading manuals and watching tutorials to figure out how to use everything. All the Roland gear was pretty straightforward, though the Bass Line sequencer was a challenge to master at first and the Moog was a bitch and a half! It was worth the learning curve once we figured everything out, though, and we were real sad to have to give the gear back!
Q: What tips can you give music producers who might be intimidated to try our hands-on gear when they're used to working totally inside the computer?
A: Just try it! Take some time and learn more about your craft. Everything you learn to do on analog gear can be replicated digitally, but having the knobs/buttons actually make changes while you manipulate them live helps you learn. It goes from just pointing and clicking to actually playing an instrument, which can be a lot of fun in a group. Plus, all these things have been able to talk to each other digitally thru MIDI since the ’80s, so it’s not really like any of this is new. The more you learn the better off you'll be if you ever pull a job in an actual studio.
Music Tools on "Bodies" + "Bet":
➥ Roland TR-8 drum machine
➥ Roland TB-03 Bass Line
➥ Roland MX-1 mixer (not circulating yet)
➥ Moog Mother-32 semi-modular analog synthesizer (not circulating yet)
➥ Meatbox Subsynth filter pedal
➥ Shure SM58 microphone
Other Tools used to create the video:
➥ Chauvet DJ COLORband H9 USB lights (not circulating yet)
➥ Chauvet DJ Intimidator Spot Led 150 lights (not circulating yet)
➥ Chauvet DJ Rotosphere Q3 lights (not circulating yet)
➥ Go-Pro Camera Hero 4 (not circulating yet)
➥ Brain model
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
To contact Approachable Minorities, visit facebook.com/ApproachableMinorities. To hire Drew Denton for beats, visit northernthreat.bandcamp.com. To listen to the original versions of "Bodies" and "Bet," visit approachable-minorities.bandcamp.com.