GET FAMILIAR: Alabaster Samovars

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Alabaster Samovars debut LP is a remarkable artifact. The duo of producer Remington Iron and rapper The Marijuana Pot Man have nailed an aesthetic that’s all their own. The beats and bars are luxurious and absurd. After a long vetting process, I got to meet the team at a secure location and ask a few questions about one of the best 802 rap albums of the year.

VTHH: How did Alabaster Samovars come to be? What is the origin saga here?

The Marijuana Pot Man: In the long view, I guess it may have begun when my great-grandfather’s family fled the Bolsheviks by train, sustaining themselves precariously on a stolen barrel of caviar. The shorter timeline involves a mutual friend and a shitload of weed.

Remington Iron: A good friend of ours introduced us after becoming friends with Pot Man, knowing that I had a trove of beats and a need of a rapper.  At that point he had one grainy laptop recording uploaded to a personal account in some forgotten corner of the internet - I fell in love with his rapping instantly. In the ensuing weeks, he told me that he wanted to make an album. The only thing he knew for certain about the album at the time was that he wanted it to be called Alabaster Samovars. I, of course, agreed.

After the idea gestated for a couple of months, we spent a couple more months just painting the world - trawling internet radio stations for obscure samples, putting together decadent mood boards, and excitedly crafting the narrative of the album. Only after that went on for a month or two more did I begin making any beats for the project, and only after a year beyond that initial creative session did we begin recording any of it.

All told, it took over three years from that initial conversation to the completion and publication of Alabaster Samovars. Everything about the process and the product fit together beautifully; there was a lavishness of imagination that matched a sort of laissez-faire creative process; I don’t think it was the type of work that could have been pumped out in a week, which is less of a value judgment than it is a categorical aesthetic difference.

VTHH: Did you two hone your skills in silence and secrecy or is there a paper trail of other aliases you've left behind?

TMPM: I’ve listened to rap since I was 12 or 13 and dabbled accordingly, but only in an anonymous and fairly noncommittal way until some years ago when a couple of friends and I realized we were actually kind of good at it and began writing songs. Shoutout to Harangutan, with whom I recorded the loosie that put me on Remi’s radar (which, like everything else on his submarine, is housed in nephrite jade). I didn’t have a rap name for a long time, because I figured I’d think whatever I came up with was dumb a week later, so eventually I, uh, leaned into the punch. Luckily, my current handle is pretty rhymeable.

RI: As far as our specific collaborations are concerned, this is the first and only iteration as of yet. Personally, I came from a live music background, and only started making hip-hop beats in late 2013. As for other aliases - I do have a persona under which I make baile/disco house beats, and am putting together a strange little three-piece saxophone punk outfit right now. I would like to ultimately have an unveiling of the extended Remington Iron universe at some point, crossovers and all, but for now those connections are known only to me and a select few.

VTHH: Do you feel like the Burlington scene has been welcoming? Do you care?

TMPM: Although it’s a bit early to tell, we’ve had some positive reinforcement from the people who have heard our music, mostly within our social circle(s). I’d describe the average reaction as “nonplussed, but impressed.” Some people assume at first that we’re making “woke” rap, which is a misconception I always take great pleasure in correcting.

R.I. I don’t think it would be accurate to ascribe the incredible support we’ve had from our network of friends as coming from a greater Burlington scene. But on the one occasion we did perform in a basement for a crowd that included people who had no idea who we were, I feel that we were well-received. Time will tell.

I care to the extent that I consider Samovars to have been birthed at the very least by our shared experience of Burlington, and I suppose also my expectation of Burlington - if there’s any physical location with a concentration of people who would enjoy Samovars, Burlington is the place. On the whole, the future of Samovars in terms of any widespread listening audience ultimately exists on the internet, which is perhaps a more accurate assessment of the “birthplace” of the project.

VTHH: This next question is a bit philosophical. Given an infinite canvas to brag about, why do all rappers make the same cheap boasts? Is the performative culture of "balling" only a ploy to upsell cheap liquor? Can we trust rappers who don't know Scabal from Stowers?  

R.I. As long as we’re putting on the philosophy hat, I think we should problematize the question. Is the canvas infinite? In possibility, but perhaps not in plausibility. Genre, the anxiety of influence, all of that plays into the scope of what is considered acceptable, good, or pleasing. Everything from systemic factors (read: record labels’ need for profit) to the internal psychology of wanting your music to resonate forces a sort of regression to the center in terms of taste.

I think that’s the case with all art, and it answers the “same” part, but there’s a specific question in rap of why it can feel “cheap.” For one, performative balling is a real and necessary part of contemporary celebrity - it’s not just more accessible, it’s more economical to spill Ace on your Jordans than your bespoke Cleverleys. There’s the question of exposure - not everyone knows about or wants to know about the absolute upper echelons of luxury. Rap also has a funny thing with artistic integrity going on - it’s arguably more real to “sell out” because rap is so overtly and unabashedly about making money. From that angle there’s nothing wrong with gratuitous Ciroc references if they’re giving you a bag every time.

There’s really two things left to do with that sensation, which I’ve often shared. As a listener, I can only continue to engage in rap with good faith - to trust in creative reflexivity, the proof-positive autobiography that results in having written anything by virtue of the fact that you wrote it, and to continue to love rap for all that it is. As an artist, it’s an opportunity to explore the shape of “balling,” the meaning of things like conspicuous consumption under late capitalism, etc. That’s part of the lasting endurance of my love for Pot Man’s writing: it’s perfect pastiche. It addresses and plays with these concepts all while excelling at their deployment.

TMPM: At its foundation, it’s about what someone knows to aspire to; what they know is out there. Most backgrounds, most lifestyles, aren’t going to provide a person with the knowledge base that we put into Samovars, and that’s okay. Most don’t sit around eating Époisses and listening to Swellboy wax poetic about Tsarist ivory billiard balls. There’s an appeal to those more immediately legible tropes like bottles and models, too. It can be satisfying to throw on a song and hear those boxes being checked; those things denote membership within an in-group, right? Our in-group is just a little smaller.

Justin Boland