For decades, a significant number of Tucson musicians spanning all genres have achieved acclaim and (mostly moderate) commercial success beyond the Southwest. Howe Gelb, Isaiah Toothtaker, the Sand Rubies, the late Rainer Ptacek, Brian Lopez, and Machines of Loving Grace have all been celebrated nationally and, in some cases, internationally. But Cash Lansky and Marley B are positively flirting with the big time. With the January release of their album The Tonite Show on underground hip-hop figurehead Murs' vanity imprint, Label 316, the duo are unapologetically and admirably aiming to put their music, and Tucson, on the charts and national radar. But how did these two Tucson-based rappers, with a discography consisting of one proper album and a handful of mixtapes, find themselves in the cross hairs of a famous hip-hop artist's record label and bank account?
I met Cash Lansky, Marley B and their omnipresent manager and DJ, Javier "Rip Dee" Castillo, at their unlikely hangout spot, Old Chicago, a few days before they would leave on their first tour, opening for Murs. It was also a few hours before The Tonite Show debuted on iTunes and Lansky in particular was frequently checking his phone for opening sales figures. Marley B (born Marley Bertrand in 1989) is friendly, cordial, extroverted and sometimes distracted. Lansky (given name Dominic Harris, age 29) is also welcoming and polite, but seems to choose his words carefully and is somewhat reserved. Castillo, 28, oversaw the interview and occasionally attempted to control it. But the atmosphere remained amicable and mostly tension-free.
Lansky and Marley B's disparate mannerisms and personalities complement each other in conversation as they do on record. Despite these differences, they share a markedly similar background, personally and musically.
Marley B was "born here, St. Joe's in '89, but when I was about a year old my mom and I moved to Seattle," he recalls. "She was a single mother. When I turned 4 she and my stepdad got married and moved back to Tucson. So I've been out here since then. I've always been on the eastside, you know, a local kid. My mom was a musician—she played bass and sang. There was always music playing in my house so it was something instilled in me from when I was little. As I got older I fell in love with hip-hop. When I was 15, I started writing, listening to underground hip-hop, actually doing my research on different artists. I wrote for about five years but I really didn't tell anybody. When I got to be 20 and figured out college wasn't really for me, I (started performing)."
Lansky is originally from Pittsburgh, but was raised in Alaska by his mother. He arrived in Tucson in 1998. "I've been here for a while. This is home to me. This is where my heart lies, where I had kids at, where I got married, where I set my foundation. I spent about eight, nine years in Alaska. My mom had arthritis and the cold was messing with her bones, so she came to the hottest place on Earth," he explains. Like Marley B, he was introduced to music by a relative. "I had an older cousin in Alaska. He's musically a genius. I used to just watch him work and just write songs and play with the keyboard and drums. I was just fascinated by the work of it. He would take nothing and build it into something. It just hit me. But I was kind of like Marley at the same time. I would write raps but nobody would know because I didn't want people to look at me like, 'Yo, you suck!' I mean, it's a bad feeling. You're putting all your heart into it ... I wanted to work on it at the same time, to try to get better and better 'til I could come out and be able to show people I could do it ... I came down here, still wrote. My friend's brother was rapping and he would take us to the studio sometimes and I gave it a shot. And the first song sounded pretty good. It probably wasn't that good (laughs) but it wasn't that bad. So I just kept going at it and finally I was just like, 'This is what I'm supposed to do.' I got that feeling of 'This is my destiny and I'm gonna ride it out and see how far I can go with it.' This is maybe 2003, when I started really recording, putting songs out there, making mixtapes."
Though Lansky has had, until recently, a larger presence (likely due to his age) in local hip-hop circles than Marley, both recorded numerous solo mixtapes, mostly handed out to friends, and respectively honed their craft, with Lansky self-releasing his official debut album, Simplicity, last spring to significant critical acclaim. Marley had been working on his own full-length, though work on it stopped (for the time being, he says) when Murs came calling last year.
Castillo relocated from New Mexico to Tucson in the late 2000s, presumably for a career in the music industry. He says he likes rapping but began DJ-ing because "no one wanted to DJ for me. (I decided) I'll be my own DJ, shoot my own videos. In return I created my own record label, management company— Gldn Artist Group.
"It's never been as busy as it is now," he proudly states.
The three came together about a year ago when Lansky, already working with Castillo, had a chance meeting with Marley, who explains, "I grew up on a lot of Tucson hip-hop and I heard about Cash when I was 16. I always wanted to work with him. When I came into the scene around (age) 20, 21, I happened to catch up with him at a show. We linked up and started collaborating with a lot of songs. After I saw him and Rip Dee's presence and energy onstage, I just decided I wanted to be part of it."
Meanwhile, both Marley and Lansky had been actively courting Murs (who already had deep ties to Tucson's hip-hop community) independently of each other. "I used to always see Murs around," Lansky says. "I was playing a show and I see Murs come in during my last song. I gave it my all. After I performed, Murs performed, and then I talked to him for a bit. He said my set was dope. I followed him on Twitter, talked to him here and there."
Marley's approach was more aggressive. "When I first heard that Murs lived out here I didn't believe it. ... My old boxing trainer ended up training him. I asked him if I could talk to Murs and Murs said, 'By all means, send him in.' I went in there and we just sat and talked for an hour. I asked him what kind of pointers he would give to a starting rapper. Two years later, 2012, he was at a concert I was at and he was in the crowd. After the show he came up to me and said, 'Yo, Marley B, what's up? I'm a fan.' I was in shock. We kept in touch with emails and I'd send him tracks; he'd give me pointers here and there. About eight or nine months ago he told me he was putting together a label and he wanted to put out an album with me. Murs has his eye on hip-hop, and if you're doing something and you're talented, he's gonna see you doing it, just like any other artist would. It just fell into place; it was meant to be."
Lansky adds, "Murs said to me right after I dropped Simplicity, 'I want you to do an album with Marley. How do you feel about that?'" Castillo cuts Lansky off, saying, "Actually, I think Murs had approached them individually, with the idea of putting together a label and wanting them to be on it. But he had contacted me before he had contacted them about committing to it. I contacted Cash and Marley. The idea was to have them each drop a record. I think they were the first artists to be contacted. Murs offered me a job to do label stuff and to be his assistant."
Castillo's statement struck me as odd: It's unusual in the music industry for a manager who represents an artist to represent the record label the artist is contractually bound to. By definition, it's a conflict of interest. The murky turn our conversation had taken was rendered more confusing when neither Murs nor Label 316 responded to several emails asking to confirm Castillo's role with the label.
Castillo continued: "I run the record label—of course Murs makes all the decisions—but I do everything that needs to be done. I'm very much a part of the record label."
Whatever the truth is, Marley B and Cash Lansky were featured on Murs' Label 316 posse track and label introduction "S.O.S.," which was released in December.
Recording sessions for The Tonite Show commenced last September after Castillo sifted through "30 or 40 beats" that Oakland, Calif.-based producer DJ Fresh sent him, according to Lansky. Marley and Lansky laid down their vocal tracks late at night at Lansky's home studio, with one song being recorded in Hollywood by Marley's friend Kyle Erwin, who also is credited with mixing and mastering the album. Marley explains that "the recording was fairly easy. When you become a rapper and start performing ... you better be ready to record, you better come prepared, and you better know what you're talking about and how you're gonna lay it down. We were knocking the songs out in 20 minutes."
The record is split evenly between Cash Lansky and Marley B solo showcases, with an additional three songs—"Cool Out," "Stadium," and "All Time High"—that they perform together. Murs makes his sole appearance on The Tonite Show on "All Time High." Lyrically, Lansky and Marley share the theme of the everyday struggles of you, me and them. Where they part company is in their perspective on those struggles. Generally, Marley reaches a solution in celebration over adversity, in an exuberant catch-me-if-you-can delivery that complements Lansky's more introspective soul searching and lackadaisical flow. Lansky explains that with his music and personal life, his attitude is to emphasize the positive aspects of life, a trait he says came from his mother and grandmother. The Tonite Show is a rousing and endlessly listenable album, placed squarely where concessions to the pop demographic meet an audience more interested in content than an excuse to show off the car stereo. Lansky's "Lord Knows I Try," and Marley's "Slow-Mo" are definite highlights, but the record's pinnacle is the opening collaboration, "Cool Out," which is the aural equivalent of being electrocuted, if electrocution was a pleasurable experience. In fact, The Tonite Show's subsequent songs could be seen as explorations of the various implications posed by "Cool Out." From "The Late Show" through the psychological crash of "Come To an End" and the triumphs depicted in "Stadium" and "All Time High," which conclude the record, this is the sound of two rappers who know they've been given the chance they've always dreamed of, and are doing their best to knock it out of the park.
Lansky says "14, maybe 15 tracks" were completed by December, of which 10 were chosen by Castillo for the final release. "It really wasn't about our favorite (songs)," he says referring to which tracks made the cut. "It was about marketability; it was about the flow of the record. It's about putting together an album that had consistency in every facet. (The songs that were left off) will probably be released as well. Some of them I just did not like ... see, Cash likes to sing, and I was not enjoying it." "My manager doesn't enjoy it," Lansky notes drily. "So he always knocks it whether it sounds good or not."
Castillo says of The Tonite Show, "I think these guys really captured the feeling of the Southwest. When I hear Marley on the record, he's tackling real issues. ... We're in the poorest part of the country and we make the smallest amount of money. But we have sunshine 360 days out of the year. Metaphorically and literally (the record says that) these are the things that we bank on and these are the small victories that get us through the day.
"That's kind of the goal with music that I try to inspire these gentlemen to make. I want their music to be listenable; not to be so confusing that only the backpacker (underground hip-hop fan) can get what they're talking about. But I don't want it to be cheesy. Of course they have the freedom to make any music they want to make, but I think that something we keep in mind as a unit is that if you want to make a living off of it, then there are certain avenues that you might have to explore. And I think they hit it on this record. You have your backpacker songs, anthems, love songs. It's a great combination, but to not have those things in mind—to have your album be listenable—is a mistake on a lot of artists' parts. If you want to do this because you want to put out something that's profitable, then you find a way to get there.
"The idea behind putting these guys out at the same time was that ... we want to release their solo records as well, but at the same time, to put them together, there's a better chance of a buzz. (Murs) wanted to set them up with a well-known producer who could possibly give them a boost on a national scale as opposed to getting someone local who might have a great sound but not be known nationally."
Was this album put together with commercial success in mind?
Lansky: Definitely. It was, like, "You guys built something in little old Tucson. Now let's see what you can do."
Castillo: That's a weird question because I don't think ... are there albums not put together with commercial success in mind?
Yes, most certainly.
Castillo: I think it's an "accidental" commercial album.
How much control did you have over the project?
Castillo: I chose the 10 songs (that ended up on the album) with Murs. That's all I'll say.
Did you approve the beats before Cash and Marley heard them?
Castillo: Some of them I wouldn't have even chose for them. I would have been, like, "You're crazy." But they turned the beat into a different feeling and made it their own. They gave it that Marley B twist on it; they gave it that Cash Lansky twist on it. They gave it that "Life may be shitty, but I'm having a blast" feeling. But, yeah, I heard all the beats before they did.
Were you in the studio with them while they were recording?
Marley B: Occasionally. He was there for "Stadium."
Castillo: I wrote the melody and the hook for that song, by the way. Before I gave my input on the recordings, I wanted to hear it just to see what they did. For me to go back, I'd say that maybe we could've done it this way or that way. But I liked the way most of it came out. For the most part, they kind of knocked things out themselves and I liked the way it came out.
How are presales going right now?
Castillo: They're well. They're doing well.
Could you expand on that?
Castillo: Uh, no. I'll leave it ambiguous.
Lansky: We've had a lot of love from hip-hop blogs like HiphopDX.com.
Castillo: Tucson has definitely got behind this project.
Cash and Marley, do each of you have an independent contract with Label 316?
Castillo: It's just one contract for the both of them—one record, one contract. ... It's almost like Murs taking you under his wing. Putting money behind it, like a co-sign. It gets us more attention.
Did Murs pay for the recording of the album?
Lansky: As far as the production goes, yeah. He gave us beats.
Castillo: It's basically—it's homies. To answer your question, yes, I guess. But he goes about things that might be a little bit different. We kind of go off of what he has lined up for us.
Besides the tour, is there a cycle of publicity planned for the next few months?
Can you expand on that?
Castillo: Uh, no. There's a couple of things lined up. I like to keep things under wraps due to the nature of this small town. There's a lot of things I keep from Cash and Marley.
Lansky and Marley perk up when the topic of their upcoming 10-date tour with Murs comes up. "Touring is so awesome," Lansky says. "But I'll tell you, when I'm on tour I miss the fuck out of my wife and kids. But I know I'm out there for a purpose. I have something I need to do to make sure that it will bring a better life for them. That's my main focus in life: that my kids will have a better life than me."
"This is gonna be my first state-to-state tour," Marley adds. "But we did a little leg in California. We went to L.A., played House of Blues with Murs, and San Diego. We went up to San Jose and San Francisco. I'm just excited to hit the road."
As for the potential success of The Tonite Show, Marley says that "Tucson's been wanting this for a while, to get behind someone who can be on a national scale. If one of us makes it out of Tucson, we all make it. Tucson has talented rappers. People tell us we should move (to a bigger city). But this is our base. This is where we were raised." Countering Marley's brashness, Lansky explains, "Everybody wants the title of 'I wanna be the first one to make it out of here.' I never cared about that; that was the least of my problems. I just wanted to be someone who was known for making good music out of Tucson, someone the town could be proud of."