On their milestone 10th album, Tucson hip-hop trailblazers Jivin Scientists stretch the boundaries of their sound even as they push toward a more cohesive thematic focus.
Written and recorded over a creatively restless three years, Thirsty finds MC Runt, Phen and Nate Soundsmith centered on their ongoing artistic search, the evolution in the Jivin Scientists' musical voice and the parallels between music and life.
"The image that we wanted to create is being shipwrecked, afloat on the sea," says Runt, aka James Owens. "The funny thing is you'll die of thirst surrounded by all this water."
The water--and that thirst--is spread across the album as an extended metaphor. After 15 years, Jivin Scientists are far from the point where they embarked, and even though the group has earned a slowly growing respect, they've remained largely underground in their own town, even as friends have tasted bigger success. Thirsty, says Runt, is about their commitment, their persistence, their dedication to their music.
"Every time we put an album out, a lot of our sound is that idea," Runt says. "We've been doing music for so long and we've been overlooked so much, but if we weren't overlooked all those times, we wouldn't have gotten to where we're at."
The album begins with the short instrumental "Salt Water," the sound of waves giving over to an acoustic guitar as the track flows into the title track, which lays out the themes of the album.
"It's about being adrift, in both personal relationships, friendships, within the music industry, in our art. I think we did a good job of diving into those ideas," Runt says. "Peppered throughout the album is a bit of a darker look, but there are a lot of hopeful things too. When you're lost, you have to have hope. We're aware that anything's possible, so we're going to continue to keep holding on."
The musical core of Thirsty came from experimenting with new gear to push for a more organic sound, says Phen, aka Ryan Troncoso.
"Sound-wise, it's a little bit different than all of our other stuff and different than most hip-hop coming out of Tucson. We have more of a mellow sound," Phen says. "We touched it on our last album a little bit, but this time almost every song has live instrumentation behind it. It's not just making beats on the computer."
Whether drums, bass, Fender Rhodes electric piano or any of the growing collection of analog synthesizers and drum machines Jivin Scientists have collected over the years, the sound starts in the studio rather than on a computer.
"We've always been doing that, digging for a warm, crazy, different sound," Phen says. "We come up on different instruments, so it's just whatever we've found. Branching out comes from coming upon a new piece of gear and being excited to hear the sounds it makes and going from there. Every instrument has a different sound so I just play with it until I can manipulate it into something I'd use and from there start layering."
As a songwriter, Runt says he gets more of a feeling from the music produced by those vintage instruments than just computer-generated beats.
"We have made the conscious decision to move in the direction of that sound. It's more because the way we approach making the music. We just love that analog sound that's eerie and haunting. It gives me direction and something to write about," Runt says. "When we were getting into making music, we started it as people who dug through records trying to find rare stuff. It's the idea within that culture of taking these long forgotten artists and breathing new life into them. That really carried over into how we built our studio and started cultivating our sound.
"With us, we're never trying to fit a particular mold. We gave up on trying to be a commercial success 10 years ago and it was the best thing that happened to us because now there's no limits," Runt says.
Jivin Scientists have largely stuck to the same formula over 15 years as far as album releases, building up momentum with a big, guest-studded show.
"We're still very independent, but the whole idea we've learned over the years we get our best results is putting in a good couple months of promotion, having people talk about the album before it comes out, having a big release show as a celebration for the project," Runt says. "The big difference now between what we've done in the past is we have it down to a science."
That promotion for Thirsty included a live acoustic set last month, part of a Kickstarter drive to fund a series of music videos, directed by Concept Flux Media of Albuquerque.
"We're still fairly new to shooting bigger production videos, so we've turned a lot of that over to him. He's a longtime friend and we trust his creativity," Runt says. "We preview him the songs and he's been listening to everything for a year and formulating some ideas of what he's liking and ideas for a story."
The successful Kickstarter will fund a series of four videos, which will be compiled into one longer video that tells an overall story
"The music videos this time are really going to be a step forward for us. I'm excited to see him pull a different narrative out of the songs I wrote, to see what kind of story he tells," Runt says. "With this new album, we're trying to find a way to share it with more people than before."
Thirsty features guest spots from more artists than ever, with Aceyalone, Jabee, Lando Chill and Qwazaar all contributing verses.
"In the past we've never had a lot of features," Runt says. "With us growing and getting to this point in our career, we've been fortunate to meet people who respect what we do and want to work with us. We've built those relationships over 10 albums and I don't feel I have to prove anything else as a writer to have them on songs with me. And Phen as a producer, people seek him out to do projects, so it's just a part of our growth.
"This album we spent three years creating and you carry that with you every day. You keep your head down working so long you forget how far you've come, but this is a big milestone for us and we're super excited to share to share our 10th album with everybody."