GET FAMILIAR: Pro (GOOD WTHR / The Aztext)

 L to R: Pro, Learic. Photo by Brent Harrewyn.

L to R: Pro, Learic. Photo by Brent Harrewyn.

Pro is a hard-working, genuine Vermonter. He's a busy dad, a career man, and doomed to rap for the rest of his life because he truly loves the artform. His rapid, precise flow gained acclaim with The Aztext, one of the more successful rap groups BTV has ever seen, alongside emcee Learic and DJ Big Kat.

With the AZT on ice and Learic on a solo streak that's taken out of Vermont and back again, Pro's been pouring his heart into GOOD WTHR, his new group with emcee Kin. Formed in the aftermath of DJ BP aka Ryan Morin's passing, they are honoring their friend and delivering an incredible run of new material so far in 2018. We caught up to talk shop, reminisce on what is now ancient history, and take a look ahead.

VTHH: What was your first introduction to hip hop? Who were you idolizing early on?

PRO: I credit House of Pain’s “Jump Around” for being the track that really helped me fall in love with hip hop. I remember where I was when I first heard it (my cousin’s house in Hamilton, NY) and that it only took me a few listens to feel like I had it memorized. Once I heard those drums, Everlasts' energy and that patented Muggs scream…I was hooked.

In no particular order, my favorite rappers early on were Everlast, B Real, Method Man and Nas.  I was the nerd that followed MCs wherever they appeared, so if Nas showed up as a feature, for example – I’d buy the album. That helped me uncover a ton of new music and rapidly expanded my horizons.

VTHH: Were you part of any rap crews before Aztext came together?

PRO: No. I recorded a lot of music as a solo artist (Prolific) and did several shows as such.  Many of the producers who contributed to The Aztext albums started as producers for my solo projects.

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VTHH: How did you wind up connecting with Learic and Big Kat?

PRO: I met Big Kat when I was 17. He was releasing mixtapes in Burlington that were almost exclusively Dance Hall remixes over hip hop beats. I was a fan and we started recording tracks together under the label Big Kat Productions. Big Kat was also the DJ at all of my solo shows.

Learic and I became friends in high school, and spent a lot of our time freestyling together. In fact, the first track that I ever recorded in a professional studio was with Grandtheft (of Team Canada) in Montreal. Learic was visiting from Brooklyn, so naturally he was a feature.

Years later, we were both opening for The Loyalists as solo artists and we performed that one track together. After the show a handful of people asked if we were a group, and they were all disappointed to find out we weren’t.  

As impulsive as it sounds, that night we decided to re-locate to Burlington (him from NYC and me from Rhode Island) to get a spot in Burlington and start working on an album together. Our group was originally going to be called Abbott and Costello.

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VTHH: What were the biggest lessons you learned from your debut LP, Haven't You Heard? Do you have any hard-won advice for young heads working on their first album?

PRO: I learned a ton following the release of Haven’t You Heard?, although this many years later it’s hard to say when I fully learned and implemented each lesson!

Just because you record a track, doesn’t mean it has to be on the album. I’ll keep you in suspense, but suffice it to say that if we were to re-release Haven’t You Heard? today, it would not have been 16 tracks.

You only get one shot at a first impression, so make it a good one.  There is no rush, aside from the excitement of sharing your music. Temper that excitement and take your time - especially during the recording process.

Don’t buy features. In addition to doing very little to legitimize your project, it can actually have the opposite effect. Spend that same money on proper mixing, mastering and most importantly, promotion.

VTHH: That is surprising to hear now, especially since The Aztext landed so many top notch features. When The Sacred Document dropped, I remember everyone being stunned with how legit that LP was. What was the process behind that album? Where were you recording then?

PRO: Me and Learic were roommates through the production of both Haven’t You Heard? and The Sacred Document, and we worked out of an in-home studio.

So the process for both records was very similar, except that everyone involved was that much more practiced in their craft. We were blessed with a network of incredible producers, too. That really worked in our favor because when producer A heard the beat Producer B sent us… their inner need to compete meant they had to send us something even better!

As far as songwriting, me and Learic work at much different speeds when it comes to writing verses. So, we’d almost always start writing the concept and hook collaboratively, and once those components were nailed down, we could go away and write on verses at our own pace.

VTHH: The Aztext managed to have a big impact in Europe, which is wild. Did you guys strategically aim to do that or was it mostly happy accidents?

PRO: I’d say it was a combination of the two, because it started as a happy accident and became more intentional.  We were establishing ourselves as a group at the height of the MySpace boom. And while I will forever be torn on how much MySpace helped vs. hurt, it did turn music into a global community.  We started getting beats emailed to us from all over the world, and if it was dope, we used it! Some of those producers went on to put out albums of their own that they pushed heavily in their countries, which expanded our listenership a great deal.

We were doing a lot of shows back then and many of the bigger artists we opened for gave us the same advice: Tour in Europe.  They’d go on and on about how that classic underground hip hop sound was more appreciated outside of North America, and thought we’d fit in nicely.  So, we weren’t blind to the opportunity that existed, but what drove us initially was really dope music. Then, that turned into friendships and trusted collaboration partners.

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VTHH: So that takes us to right around when the "Who Cares If We're Dope?" series was going, right? That was such a great run, and a consistently surprising one, too -- were you feeling boxed into boom-bap?

PRO: Who Cares if We’re Dope? remains my personal favorite Aztext release.  We were a few years removed from the self-imposed pressure of following up The Sacred Document and able to move at a more relaxed pace.

The project wasn’t necessarily a reaction to feeling boxed into boom-bap so much as it was us, trying to showcase the producer’s signature sound in tandem with our own.  For other projects, someone might send us 5 beats - of which we selected only the 1 or 2 that fit our sound.  During the mini-series, we wanted to respect and highlight the producer’s signature sound and stretch our comfort zone.  For example, Touchphonics is an established label owner and DJ in Drum & Bass, E Train’s sound had become slightly more west coast influenced after 10 years in the Bay, Dub Sonata was producing for a modern rock band called Like Diamonds, etc.

Learic and I both share an extremely deep love for music of all genres.  The concept of co-branding a project as The Aztext + The Producer meant an opportunity to work in genres we otherwise might not have explored on a solo Aztext record.  We never took it quite as far as we’d like, but that was the intention, and one I’d like to re-explore.

VTHH: How did the "I Make Records" video come together?

PRO: The ‘I Make Records’ video was truly a family affair.  It started with Touchphonics lacing us with that beat! Once that track was mixed, we were certain it needed a video.

Brent Harrewyn shot, directed and edited the video. Brent is a longtime friend of ours. When he was in college, Devon and I acted in several of his short films and he was always open to doing a video for us in return.  Years later, even though he was extremely busy and getting paid well outside of our price range, he was happy to help.

The dancers were a combination of The Rhythm Riderz Crew who we’ve always had a good relationship with and big respect for; and a local dance class courtesy of a friend/dance instructor Rose Bedard.  The shoot turned into a straight up dance party. It was such a great moment in time.

Once we had the producer, general concept and dancers, we just needed a location.  A friend of ours owned Rasputin’s and was happy to open the doors for us for a day… and who can forget Steez?! Fattie B was always something of a mentor to us. We spent a lot of time in Steez both as patrons, or just asking him questions over the years, so we were so excited to shoot in there.

VTHH: How has your songwriting process evolved over the years? Do you have any advice for young writers?

PRO: I’ve had two major evolutions in my songwriting process, and they both service as advice for young writers.

The first is that I do not work on songs that I don't connect with personally. I get sent a lot of beats and collaboration requests, and most of them are great, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a fit for me.  If I hear something and am moved emotionally, I write to it; if not, I politely decline.

The other thing that’s changed is that I’ve grown completely comfortable being me, and my writing reflects that. This is a lesson that I wish I had learned earlier when I burned a lot of useless energy wondering how others would react to a given song/verse.  As advice to young writers - anyone can write a dope punchline, but there is only one you.

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VTHH: That definitely shines through with the GOOD WTHR material. What do you think set you free? What changed?

PRO: I think it’s just a function of growing up.  I have an awesome wife and two beautiful children. When I am making music these days, I think of it as a journal that my children will ‘read’ years later, and am conscious of what lessons/takeaways I want to impart to them specifically.

That’s not to say that every track has to reveal some major life lesson, but it is to say that every lyric has to be rooted in my truth and defensible under that microscope.

My grandfather was an artist, a pianist and published author. When he was alive I loved asking him about his motivations for specific works, and now that he’s gone I appreciate speculating what drove his projects.  In the event my children (or theirs) share a similar curiosity in our family, they can analyze my music.

I also used my grandfather's art as a way to cope with his death. Here is a track that I made using sampled piano that he played (at age 89 with arthritis), audio from an interview I did with him, and me speaking words that he wrote in a poem called Maverick. So essentially, 100% his art to power my own artistic creation.

VTHH: Looking back, what are some of your favorite shows you've played?

PRO: There were so many that it’s really hard to choose, but here are two stand outs…

We opened up for Snoop twice in Killington.  The shows were wild on so many levels, but the craziest part was that the audience assumed we were on tour with Snoop. What that did to their psyche in terms of responding to our music was very powerful. When we said jump – they jumped. When we did a call and response – it came back at full volume.  For one night, we felt a glimpse into what it must feel like to be Atmosphere. The energy it provided was unforgettable.

The first time we performed with Brother Ali, he actually made his way out from back stage and stood front and center during our set. After the show, he was extremely complimentary of our energy and told us it was one of the better live shows he’d seen in a while.  A compliment that powerful would be huge coming from anyone, but when it comes from someone as talented (especially in the live show department) as Ali… it’s still surreal in retrospect.

VTHH: Do you have more projects on the way in 2018?

PRO: Yes.  GOOD WTHR will release a lot of music this year. We plan to release individual songs as singles opposed to saving up for an ‘album’ release, in addition to working on some focused EPs.  We just recorded our first track for a collab EP with SkySplitterInk.

Outside of that, Learic and I recorded an Aztext track over a ridiculous beat courtesy of Rico James.  Where we take it is still TBD (new album? single release?), but I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of The Aztext.

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Justin Boland