Inside Josh Blake’s Hip-Hop LP, ‘Unemployment Benefits’ [B.Getz on L4LM]

The Grammy-nominated Josh Blake, a.k.a. Robot to his old-school fans, is sometimes feted as the unofficial musical mayor of Asheville, NC. He’s a founding member of the groundbreaking live hip-hop crew, Granola Funk Express, who blazed a fiery, renegade path for well over a dozen years. Often playing bombastic Phish aftershows in cities large and small around the country, Blake and his posse are largely responsible for introducing the sprawling jam band diaspora to the tenets of underground hip-hop and themes of elevated consciousness. Revisiting that artistic vein, Blake drives the lane with the just-released Unemployment Benefits, a 13-track studio album that’s a piping platter of heatrocks, brimming with banger after banger of boom-bap rap songs.

Josh Blake is a seasoned musician, producer, emcee, sound engineer, and industry entrepreneur, boasting an abundance of wide-ranging experience across generations and genres. Born and raised in Sunnyvale, CA just beyond the Bay Area, Josh now calls Asheville his hometown, ever since setting down roots there in 1997. As a guitarist, singer-songwriter, and bandleader, he has recorded and performed on a wide variety of stages around the country over the past 25 years, playing everything from hip-hop to funk, reggae, bluegrass, acoustic and rock. Yet, at his artistic core, he remains a dedicated rap producer with a knack for crafting hot beats.

Josh Blake has been an integral force incubating the music scene in Asheville, beginning with the shape-shifting GFE movement, and later as co-founder of weekly residency, Asheville’s Tuesday Night Funk Jam, the long-standing vibrant staple of the Asheville Music Hall. In addition, with help from several friends, Blake launched IamAVL, a community-based web channel that live-streams and archives local concerts in order to preserve and promote the arts within a community. When not homeschooling his kids, Josh currently (Covid-permitting) spends his time working out of Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville, where he is regularly sought out for freelance engineering and production work.

While self-quarantining in the wake of the pandemic, Josh Blake transformed into Robot-mode and set about lacing up an instrumental beat tape. These humble beginnings swiftly took on new forms, and before too long he hollered at a gang of homies to kick down contributions to what became Unemployment Benefits.

Special guests that dot the record include OG GFE squadron Agent 23, Foulmouth Jerk, Adam Strange, and Deep Banana Blackout percussionist Johnny Durkin, who put in work with GFE for years. Fellow Ashevillians Spaceman Jones, Simon Thomas George, C. Shreve The Professor and Jamar Woods (keys, The Fritz) each throw down some sizzlin’ skills. Reaching beyond his sleepy hippie mountain town, Robot re-linked with longtime GFE affiliate (and former 5-time MTV Blaze Battle Champion) Breez Evahflowin’; the hungry emcee slides through with customary lyrical authority.

What began as a cut-and-paste beat tape has blossomed into a cogent, cohesive, comprehensive body of work. Unemployment Benefits is at once a record of the moment and a joyride in the wayback machine to a simpler time. The musical soundscapes, lyrical cadences, and overall ethos are a snapshot of mid/late-’90s backpack rap. It’s bubbling with lo-fi, sample-based, classically-styled rap production underscored by live instrumentation that snaps, crackles, and bangs. The prime cuts are peppered with a searing smattering of dexterous rapping aligned with the essence of the art form. Sonically calling out toward the iconic boom-bap blueprints laid down by New York’s Native Tongues crew, the funkadelic Organized Noize in Atlanta, RZA Shaolin cinematics, and rough n’ rugged Rawkus Records reppin’ the East Coast at large, Unemployment Benefits digs deep in the crates in search of the main source.

Josh Blake – Unemployment Benefits, Vol. 1 – Full Album

Live For Live Music’s B.Getz caught up with Josh Blake via telephone at his home in Asheville, where Josh was preparing to release the album in the last week of October. The producer/emcee/multi-instrumentalist reflected on the motivations, inspirations and vibrations that gave birth to Unemployment Benefits. Read a transcript of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to the B.Getz’s full, long-form interview with Josh Blake on Episode 31 of The Upful LIFE Podcast.

Live For Live Music: For fans who know you as a guitarist, Tuesday Night Funk Jam, JBOT, or your acoustic album, this release must feel out of left field. But for those who remember Granola Funk, it feels like you’re coming home, in a way. What was the approach or intention for Unemployment Benefits?

Josh Blake: I suffer from musical schizophrenia. It’s kind of a beautiful and also cursed condition. My last album was all singer-songwriter, all acoustic, and this is much different. I don’t expect that people would really necessarily be able to identify with me as an artist that produces hip-hop music, unless they took way more time with it than I would expect them to… You know what I mean? But this one for sure is all about trying to capture that feel of old school hip hop.

The real true inspiration for it initially, when I thought that it would be something that would have emcees involved, were the Lyricist Lounge albums that came out a long time ago. I loved those records, and so I wanted to make something that’s kind of like that vibe.

Live For Live Music: I totally get the lineage. Really cinematic hip hop, very musical, but also hard as hell, with intention. Minimalist, bangin’. From a production standpoint, what are some of the producers or eras that inspired you to make sound art like this?

Josh Blake: Organized Noize is one of my favorites, that’s all the earlier OutKast stuff…

Live For Live Music: I hear a little Goodie Mob vibe in a couple of tracks too, especially “One Step Forward” with Ryan “RnB” Barber.

Josh Blake: Yeah. That’s in there. Then, De La Soul. De La was one of my first favorites too, and they have a very organic kind of thing going on, with Prince Paul on the production end. And of course, J Dilla is a huge influence and inspiration for me.

Live For Live Music: What’s your production process all about? Samples versus live instrumentation, et cetera?

Josh Blake: For this record, I definitely leaned heavily on samples, but there’s a lot of live instrumentation also. And I think that’s one of the things about the Organized Noize crew that I was attracted to. You could tell there were instruments involved. And I have a lot of great musicians surrounding me, you know what I mean? That’s kind of a blessing.

Really, a lot of the samples came from either listening while I was with my son, when we’d do homeschool, or just me digging around. I guess that’s the modern day “crate dig”, looking for streaming services and searching random sites, and just seeing what’s out there. I have this app which I highly recommend, called ‘Radiooooo’. It shows you a map of the world and you can choose any country or region, and then choose a year or a decade, and just listen to music from that time and region. So I could go to Thailand from the 1960s, and I would put that on while I was doing homeschool with my son, and I’d just listen.

Live For Live Music: Word. Creative multi-tasking, virtual and international.

Josh Blake: Exactly. And then if I heard something that I thought would be cool if I chopped that up, I would go and screenshot it, and then go dig around for it until I could pull something to sample from. And then from there, it’s drums on those samples. I will sometimes add basslines, I have a MIDI-keyboard hooked up. I’m digging around for other sounds, tuning the samples, and maybe turn it into a melodic thing. And then, after that, maybe some extra keys on top of it, or percussion.

Live For Live Music: So many dope cuts on Unemployment Benefits. Off top, I gotta say Mike Live kills his track, dude comes so nice with it. Tell me about him and that collaboration. The way the beat rides out at the end is so ill, like you’re leaving room for other emcees to get busy.

Josh Blake: First of all, he’s a badass and one of the greatest stage presence performers I’ve ever performed with as an MC. He really has it down, with crowd control and everything. An incredible lyricist and super nice dude. He used to live in Asheville, now lives in Charleston, but he started an Asheville cipher back in the day, which he references in that verse, down at Pritchard Park.

When he sent me his vocals, I was like, “okay, cool, he’s just getting some ideas down.” So I hit him up, “Are you working on a chorus or is there going to be more verses?” He’s like, “Oh no, man. Let’s make this track like a cipher. Let’s make it play out… so it’s like I’m starting a cipher.”

On the actual album credits, that’s what it says, exactly. You hit the nail on the head because it says, MC: Mike Live, additional MC, you! And it’s very much there for the listener to take a ride on if they’d want to. That’s the vision behind it, at least that he had initially.

Granola Funk Express LIVE – Club Mertonome 

[Video: Leonard Osterberg]

Live For Live Music: In some ways, with the emcees, and Johnny Durkin, and even Breeze Evahflowin’, Unemployment Benefits is like a quasi-GFE Reunion.

Josh Blake: Yeah, I mean, GFE hasn’t really ever gone away, it’s just definitely relatively dormant. It was not one of those situations where the band broke up and is done doing things. Cactus is one of my longtime collaborators and musical partnerships. He originally told me he might not have time to participate in this project, because he was so busy, but once I sent him his beat he sent me it back completely finished in less than 48 hours. He said, “You can’t send me a beat that dope and expect me not to hit it, it’s like rap crack to me!”

In fact, as we’re talking right now, Cactus is back in Asheville, unloading his truck. He just moved back here.

Live For Live Music: I heard. I saw it on social that he was leaving Grass Valley. Sad day for the Sierra Nevada foothills, but a huge return to Asheville’s music scene. He will be welcomed back in the bosom I am sure!

Josh Blake: Right. And Cricket, who was our bass player for like a dozen years or something, he’s back in town a year and a half ago. It’s possible, we definitely talk about, let’s make some more GFE recordings.

Live For Live Music: Granola Funk is a prolific crew, and you’ve extrapolated in many directions.

Josh Blake: Obviously Cactus, he’s always busy. Myself, I stay very musically busy. So it wasn’t weird. It’s almost just like walking next door, you know what I mean? (Foul MouthJerk and Tomm (Adam Strange), they’ve been here (in Asheville) for the whole time I have, so we still hang out. Jerk will have me back him up live, for a CD release party for his solo album, so we still cook here.

I’m not great at remembering all these kinds of things, but it feels like this is the first album that these three GFE MCs are all on, maybe since the last one we put out as a band. I know Jerk has put some stuff out, Cactus and Tomm too, but I don’t know if there’s one with all the cats on it.

Live For Live Music: But with your chemistry, and history, I bet it’s like, old hat. Riding a bike.

Josh Blake: And it feels really good man. On this record, each one of them is so themselves, with the track they chose, you know what I mean? And the way that it comes off… the way that their rhymes lean into the particular style of the beat… when I’m making music with those guys, it feels very much like I’m at home. And they were all really excited to do it, too. It just takes somebody—really I guess, in this case, me—motivating, moving and making it happen.

Live For Live Music: Jerk is just beastin’ on “Belief Itself”. Which is par for the course, dude has been an animal on the mic since the ’90s!

Josh Blake: He became a sounding board for a lot of this album, if I had questions or ideas rolling around I needed somebody to talk to about them. In classic FMJ fashion, he destroyed this track with so many images and metaphors you have to listen to it several times to even scratch the surface.

Josh Blake ft. Agent 23 – “Benefits”

[Video: Josh Blake]

Live For Live Music: One of the left-field cuts is “justUS”. Kind of a future-bass vibe, also has a Timbaland-feel at times. Kind of a departure, sonically. What’s the 411 on that dope female vocalist/emcee, Virtuous?

Josh Blake: It was an honor to work with Virtuous on this record, I actually had never worked with her before. I became a fan after seeing her videos at Music Video Asheville. I decided to reach out and see if she was interested in collaborating, and luckily for me she was. I asked Simon to send me some random keyboard stuff. He sent me about 45 seconds which I ended up cutting up and looping and turning into the basis for this song.

Live For Live Music: What’s the story on “All My Peoples”? You went dolo on the mic.

Josh Blake: I really loved this beat, so I decided I would lace it myself! I wanted to put something out that would speak to people in the music industry right now who are struggling with all the changes we are dealing with because of the pandemic.

Live For Live Music: Obviously, the current circumstances, with the pandemic, and the social climate, financial situation, all that, plays into artists’ creativity and availability.

Josh Blake: Yeah, the fact that there was so much downtime, everybody being at home, we had some extra time on our hands to come up with rhymes and verses. That’s a good way to escape the mental cage that we had to be in for a while there, especially with people not having shows to do. This album is 100% a benefit of us, as musical creators, having less to do than we normally would. In that sense, this album is a direct reflection of us being unemployed.

Live For Live Music:  Yeah. Certainly an appropriately-monikered album, and employs a sweet double entendre to boot. And that’s a good segue… to the fact that there’s an abundance of political content found in these lyrics, and in the motivation/situation that gave birth to this particular work of art. It’s definitely a record of the moment. How did you communicate that to your emcees, or did they just bring that fiery political material to the table on their own?

Josh Blake: Well initially, I was really just going to make it a beat tape. I was like, I’m going to make a beat a day and just grab a dozen of them, and put them out. But then I started to send things off to people, after a while. And as soon as I got some positive responses, I was like “okay, I got something here.”

So I put out a couple of deadlines in front of people, and then that deadline came and went. Definitely a handful of people have other beats of mine, who have stuff half-recorded, who didn’t make the cut on this particular record because at a certain point I had to say… I can’t put it out any later, it has to come out now because otherwise, topically, some of it becomes less relevant.

Live For Live Music: You noticed a lot of material that was coming in was current-events topical, and political?

Josh Blake: People are talking about things we’re going through now, or a few months ago, in some cases. And not that we’re not all still riding that same wave right now, but the fact that the lyrics came back so topically-heavy, and I think the album title and the overall landscape we’re all driving through right now kind of dictates that.

Live For Live Music:I appreciate when artists create in tune with their convictions, especially when it happens organically and feels authentic to the listener, to the fan. Something they can really unpack and dissect. This is certainly present throughout Unemployment Benefits.

Josh Blake: I think as an artist, everybody’s sensitive to what’s going on, expressing their feelings and their thoughts about what’s going on in the world around us. Through this record, it all kind of just came through heavily laced with content that’s relevant to where we’re at right now. That’s why I was like, “we got to put this out as quick as we can.”

Normal album cycle, publicist is like, “It’d be great to have three to six months to work this.” And with this record I was like, “Naw, this can’t come out next March, this is a now thing.” And it forced some decisions.

Live For Live Music: Such as?

Josh Blake: One of them being that this is all going to go on vinyl. And I knew there were limitations to vinyl, but having not pressed any of my stuff before I wasn’t fully aware of the process… I eventually was just like “This is done, it’s going to mastering.” and you need separate masters for vinyl and digital.

The tracklisting order, another decision. I listened to it one way for like a month or two, completely different than what ended up on the actual album. And I had a whole different vision for what’s going to be the last song… But once it got into the crunch of the vinyl… You have to put the songs on this side that’ll fit [laughs], you know what I mean?

Ironically, I like the order of it now, way better than the one that I had in my head. So yeah, a lot of the things in the process forced decisions that I think really lent to the strength of the record, and the way it comes across to the listener.

Live For Live Music: What, if any, input did your kids have in either your creative process, any lyrics, or the general direction of the record? What is their response? Do they gravitate more to the singer/songwriter stuff you do with your wife or are they about the hip hop? Do they care, do they even give a… or is it just their parents thing?

Josh Blake: Well, it’s a little bit of both. They care in a sense, they know that it’s this thing Dad’s doing. And they’re different ages, one of them is actually in college. He listens, but also he likes to clown, he likes to tease me about s–t. He’ll be like, “Oh, you think that’s a dope beat? Whatever, dad. You can let the melody go out a little longer.” He tries to f–k with me about it, it’s funny.

My kid who’s a senior in high school, I was like, “Yeah, I put that new record out this week.” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah. I listened to it. It was good, it was really good. It was different than what I expected, it was good.” And I was just surprised that he even listened to it on his own because this is s–t that they hear me doing around the house constantly. And so in a sense, it’s like one of those things where, when mom and dad do, it’s not cool or whatever.

But they like it, I guess. And then Levi, he’s our youngest, and he loves it, dude. He rolls around with me, listening to the beats. And when somebody puts lyrics on them, I’d be like, “Okay, this one has lyrics now.” He’d be like, “Ooh, I want to hear it.” He gets excited about it!

But Marisa (Blake), my wife, she’s the inspiration. I’ll be like, “Here’s a new one.” And I’ll play it and she’ll start dancing in the middle of the living room. And she says, “This one works!” If it would make her move, I’m like, “okay, this one works”, and then put that in the bag to send out to somebody.

As told to B.Getz.

For more information on Josh Blake, head here.