Local hip-hop artist Shannon Swords is due to release a new record, Depth, on Heirship Records on November 2nd. It’s his first full-length in six years, and in that time Swords’ recorded sound has moved from a more traditional, sampled hip-hop to rapping over a full rock band, a sound found in abundance on Depth.
Depth officially drops this Saturday, which is also when Swords has a release party for the album at Cowboy Monkey. We talked with him about Depth, the Champaign-Urbana scene, and the importance of friends to get you through tough times.
Smile Politely: How long have you been doing this?
Shannon Swords: About ten years or so. I think I started rhyming when I was 17, 18, so I’ve been doing music for about ten years, playing out for about six or seven. I started out going to Cowboy Monkey’s open mic when I was freshly 21; it was the first bar I could get into.
SP: You grew up here?
Swords: I’m from Colorado originally, but I’ve lived here since I was six or seven.
SP: Do you have a day job?
Swords: Oh, yeah, I have thousands of day jobs. I’m a cook over at the [Common Ground] Food Co-op—one of the senior cooks there—and I do CNA work for an older couple.
SP: Your last full-length was in 2007?
Swords: Yeah, Jameson Dreams. That was my coming-of-age album. I’d been recording since I was 19 so all the songs off of there were a good four or five year span of time, and personally I don’t like records like that. You can’t really make a concept, you can’t make a meaning, you come from a lot of different places in your own head… [Depth is] about a year and a half in the making, and a lot of that was recorded in maybe four or five months’ span of time.
SP: I like the more instrumental, organic sound on [Depth]. It gives it a totally different feel from Jameson Dreams.
Swords: This is the first time I’ve done my own beats. It is produced and emceed by me for the most part, and the other thing that makes this one cool is… all of my friends playing on it. My pop does keyboard tracks and percussion tracks all over the thing. My longtime collaborator, Michael Ambrose, who does the guitar track on “Yellow Jacket,” I came up rapping with him.
It was really cool because when I started out I was in a really rough patch of my life and that’s where the name Depth comes from, it’s your lowest point, and the one thing that was really cool about doing the whole record… was that when you’re in straits like that, all your friends get your back. All your family gets your back. And that’s signified by every single performance on that record, from the guy who plays the trumpet to the people I made friends with in the process of making the record.
It’s really cool to be able to marry those two styles: the quantized production, computer shit with the live instrument recordings—and the whole thing has been a journey. Toward the end of the recording process I had been playing a lot so my voice was more calloused, so I was able to hit stuff I was never able to hit, like quick, multiple rhymes.
SP: Some of the tracks seem pretty dark.
Swords: One of the biggest problems I have with my own style of music is I’m really personal, and this is my way of interactions with people too; I’m not really much for small talk other than talking about how shitty the weather is. I get really personal, and that’s the thing about this record. It’s a very personal album for me.
SP: You talked about being in a certain mindset when you’re recording. What do you do when you perform?
Swords: When I perform anything I’m just in battle mode. I show up, I drink the three beers that I can feasibly come off performing decently with, and the two shots which are there for courage. But honestly, whenever I sing any song I do try to put myself in the mindset of what the words really mean, and it’s usually more of a hard edge, like “fuck you, pay me, I’m here, you need to listen to me because of this.” And sometimes that transfers into the voice and people really like it, and other times it’s too aggressive, it’s too personal. I don’t make party rap. I wish I could. [Laughs] Desperately. I’d have millions of dollars by now.
SP: Talk to me a little bit about the scene [in Champaign-Urbana]. It seems like there’s a handful of people here who do a lot of collaboration and they all know each other.
Swords: I’d say the scene has a lot of unity these days. It didn’t always used to be like that… I’ve been trying to market this record more as a marriage between rock and rap music, kind of in the sense that I’m a white dude and I’m from here and I grew up listening to the Who and the Rolling Stones, and I also listened to Run-DMC and Biggie and Tupac and the Beastie Boys and I wanted to successfully put those two styles together, and the place where you do that is to go holler at the musicians in the rock bands and get in their shows.
Hip-hop has taken a turn back around: Jay Moses, Klevah; Larry Gates putting out a new record—that was really cool. And I feel like one of the problems we’ve had in the scene over the years has been a complete lack of unity, especially in hip-hop, because hip-hop is abrasive to no end, the whole battle rap thing, that’s really in people’s actual minds.
SP: How have the audiences [at rock shows] been responding to you?
Swords: Generally it works out perfectly, and if it doesn’t work out perfectly then they just go outside. I feel like the more this scene builds the more fun we need to have doing stuff like that, and the more intermingling we need to do, so the bills aren’t stacked, like just a bunch of punk bands, because I think that gets boring from the listener’s perspective… Especially when they get to a certain age when they have an open mind.
SP: Where have you been recording?
Swords: Home. For the most part, really everything off of this record has been recorded at home, and then the whole thing I took to Caleb Means, who plays in Wicked Walls, and he did the final mixdown and we got it mastered.
SP: So the album officially comes out on the 2nd of November?
Swords: It’s gonna be released digitally on the 2nd, and then I think the following Tuesday it’s gonna be at Exile [on Main Street] and probably Record Swap as well. I think actually if you were to check out my Bandcamp page maybe on Friday around 2:30 p.m. it’d probably be up there—for free.
SP: Have you been playing these songs live for a while?
Swords: Yeah, that’s kind of the practice we’ve been doing, is doing the gigs and doing the practice… You can check me out on WEFT sessions this coming Monday [Editor’s note: this session took place on Monday, October 28, but this interview took place prior to that date]. I’m gonna kind of take my listeners on a trip through time: I’m gonna play some really old stuff, like back in the DJ/emcee thing, and then bring the band out and do some of the cuts off the record. And then maybe some other stuff.
SP: Does WEFT do a lot of stuff with the local hip-hop community?
Swords: Honestly, the weird part about this town is that hip-hop, particularly the DJ/emcee thing, isn’t particularly interesting to a lot of the older people who do stuff like professional videos or radio or stuff like that, and particularly in the art side of hip hop which is what I represent. WEFT and the Parkland station are one of the few places where you can really get a decent amount of exposure because they’re open to that sort of thing.
You can check out Swords at his Depth release show this coming Saturday, November 2nd at Cowboy Monkey. He’ll be performing with special guests The Shady Perrys as his backing band, plus DJ Belly, Pauly Walnuts, Secondary Modern and Jarrell Young & Misfit Music to support. Show starts at 10 p.m.