Return of the Action Figure
It's been a long time since we last heard from Michael Boyer II a.k.a. Knowdaverbs, a.k.a. Verbs. His third album, Unlocked, dropped back in 2003 and though four years have passed, it may seem like even longer given all that he's done in the meantime.
Besides several trips to South Africa to encourage and reach out to African youth, Verbs has created a program called The Train Station which teaches teens the basics of the hip-hop culture. He's also been working on an independent release. His fourth proper release, titled The Groundwork Theory, is due out on 18 September 2007. And if that's not enough, Verbs is also engaged to be married.
I was able to catch up with Verbs recently while working on an article for HM Magazine. Below is that conversation.
So how have you been?
Good man. Everything has been pretty good. Can't complain.
That's good to hear. You've been kind of quiet lately, but I haven't been able to find any dirt on you.
(laughs) That's always good.
I'm usually pretty good at finding it.
That's always good, man. If you are finding dirt, that kind of hinders a ministry somewhere along the way.
Well, I've been looking for good or bad dirt. You've been off the radar for a little bit. You're either as clean as a whistle or you are really good at hiding stuff.
Good PR people to make stuff disappear
Yeah, I guess all that promo stuff you did for the Action Figure was closer to reality than you thought. . .
Yeah, right. Keep it stealth, man. Keep it stealth.
Alright. So what have you been up to? It's been a while since Unlocked came out.
Yes. Actually a lot. Well, shortly after [Unlocked released] - I guess it was probably less than a year after the album came out - I actually ended up parting ways with Gotee [Records]. I was just really trying to go back and refocus and recalibrate, to make sure what the next step should be. So I just kind of geared down a little bit to change it up. I was still out traveling and doing a few shows here and there, but not necessarily recording in terms of a project. Really, it's just that life happens. You get exposed to more things and you want to do other things as well. So just trying to keep it all balanced out and making sure I wasn't making records just to make records. [Not] just because I had a deal to do it. So I did a little bit of traveling as well over in Africa, South Africa, stuff like that, man. Nothing too grandiose or anything, but I've always been making music and writing music in the mean time, because it's a hobby of mine.
What kind of stuff did you do over in South Africa?
Over in South Africa most of the time we'd link up with different high schools or middle schools to do assemblies at the school. The organization that I work with - actually the church that I was working with out there - they have a team that kind of adopts a school. The school kind of gives them an open door to come in and encourage the kids about life issues, like dealing with AIDS, school work or whatever it might be. Just to encourage them. So we kind of link up with them and go in and do an assembly. A lot of times we end up talking to them about purpose and destiny. Some of the schools out there it's kind of limited as to what you can actually say, but other schools are pretty much wide open because of the state of desperation. [The school approves] whatever you've got to encourage them - they want to make sure they hear it. So I was doing quite a bit of that and doing workshops as well. We developed this little program to teach kids between the ages of 12 and 20 how to write and we teach them some breakdancing moves, DJing skills and graffiti art, just to try to give them a creative channel. It's something to focus on to keep them out of trouble and to see whatever talents they have, that God might have placed in them, that they don't necessarily know about. We try to help them out.
That's the Train Station, right? That's something you do over there as well?
Yeah, yeah. The Train Station. Right.
So how do those work?
Basically. . . Actually, we've done three of them over there - one was in Botswana and again, it's just going to a school. Most of the time it's in the school setting and I normally teach what I call the "Rhyme Lab" where I just try to get kids to develop an idea or a song or a verse based on a concept. I sit down. I teach them. I give them a few techniques of writing. Then I kind of leave it up to them to take it where they want and figure out if we can actually build a song within the time we've got together. So we help them write a song. They've got to choose their own beat and then actually go up and perform it when we are done writing it. It's kind of like the whole. . . they basically form a group while we are together and we just teach them like few writing techniques, such as how to find the rhythm of the beat, how they can use similes and metaphors and how to take an idea or a theme and break it down and do verses off of that. Pretty much the same things goes with the graffiti class, the DJ class and the B-Boying class. We assume that they know nothing of any of these art forms. We try to start at ground zero, just to kind of familiarize them with the basics. Hopefully from there they'll say, "Okay, I've got these few pieces of the puzzle that I can put together on my own." Then from there, they'll hopefully try to go and practice it and develop it from there.
Cool. So what kind of outcome have you seen from that?
"Storms are going to come. . . but what you are building your life on at this point right now determines whether or not your house is going to stand in that."
There's a lot of times. . . Actually what started it was. . . A lot of times when we are on the road, kids would be inquisitive and ask, "How do you write a song?" or "How do you make the records do this?" Again, it's just kind of a first step for kids going in that direction. A lot of kids might already write poetry - I've seen a lot of kids who write poetry or read a lot and try to put those thoughts down on paper. So we're just giving them another form to do it. Again, these kids might not even try to write anything at all, but they figure "Man, we just wrote a whole verse and it sounds decent." They'll be encouraged by that. The main thing is just to get them to see an ability they already have in them that they might not have been challenged to figure out otherwise. So I think a lot of kids are surprised that they even have the ability to do it.
Just give them a sense of accomplishment and they realize that they can do more?
Exactly. It's not even like maybe these kids will be recording artists. They might use those techniques and they might be something else. They might write books, be an author or whatever else. It might just lay that ground work for them and give them something to build on. Then having a finished project, they can say, "Wow, I did do that." It helps to kind of pull them into something else. Even the graffiti class is not like, "Yo, go mess up a bunch of walls." We try to take that and then turn it into graphic design which you can actually go out and get paid for, you know?
Definitely. Kind of like Puff Daddy's Making the Band but with noble intentions.
So the new album is called the Groundwork Theory. You have a three-song EP available now, The Groundwork EP. What is your theory about groundwork?
The Groundwork Theory... Really, it's something that is pretty much proven, but it's theory to those who haven't necessarily tried it and that's just examining what you are building your life on. The whole thing came out of Luke 6 where - you know the classic story of the man building his house on the rock versus the man who built his house on the sand. You know, when storms of life come and beat against the house, the one that built his house on the rock is the one that stood through the storm. The one on the sand fell, but the thing is, I mean, God didn't say that there is not going to be storms or that everything is going to be A-OK. Storms are going to come, you can count on that, but what you are building your life on at this point right now determines whether or not your house is going to stand in that. So again, I just wanted to go back to the basics of His walk as far as in Christ. We need to pay attention to what we are building on and what is really going to be firm enough to continue to build on. Not only that, but to allow God to build in us, you know. So we kind of threw 'Theory' in there because some people feel like life is falling apart, going to shambles. Until they actually try to really build something on a foundation of Christ, it's kind of known as a theory. Others who know it, know it as a fact.
Cool. So you have most of the album done now if I understand correctly.
We are done in the sense that there is a bit of songs, the titles and it probably won't take us long to actually finish it up. We are probably about 70% done, so yeah.
What can we expect from it?
You know what? It's kind of going a little bit more in the direction of. . . I mean, I always try to develop as far as skillwise or craftwise. Try to do something better than I did so at least I can see improvement with what I'm doing. So taking into account all of the other records from Syllabus to Unlocked and seeing what worked best and what didn't, I tried to keep consistent with what I've been doing as far as quality. But soundwise, man it's pretty much classic hip-hop. I wanted to be able to make a record that, whether you listen to it in September when it drops or if you pop it back in four years later, it still has quality to it. It's still relative. It sounds good for when you hear it. I was just shooting for longevity on it and I think that even trickles down to the selection of the beats and the tracks. I was really just trying to shoot for something, like I said, something that will last a while, that everybody can kind of sink their teeth into, from young to. . . young adult, I guess.
The not-so young.
Right. Something for the whole family
Have there been any themes that have jumped out as very prevalent on the album?
That is probably the one thing it won't be as heavy on as maybe some of the other records have been. There's one song that I guess could be themed. It's called "The Future" or "Future." It's actually a song that I wrote to my wife-to-be, so it's another love song kind of thing, but it's just actually talking about building and preparing for the future, basically, as my wife and I are trying to build properly for that.
Are you currently engaged or is this. . .
I am yes.
So not as in, future - I haven't met her yet. . .
Right. Future as in future wife status, not necessarily just girlfriend or fiancÚ status.
Cool. Well congrats on the engagement.
Thank you very much.
That's a good thing. A good step to make for most people.
Yeah, it's been a long step. We've been engaged for like a year. She's actually from South Africa, so we've been trying to wait for this whole process to go through so she can finally get here.
Oh, did you meet her down there?
Yeah, I met her when I was out there right before we released the Unlocked album. I was out there for almost 6 months. That's when I first met her, but then in my travels going back we've kind of just been building through there.
Very cool. Now your experiences traveling all over the place and working with the youth in South Africa and just the stuff that you've seen over there has probably changed your perspective about a lot of things.
How has that played into your music as well?
Again, I think any time you have the opportunity to travel outside the states, you get a broader scope of what God is doing across the globe. Among young people especially, young adults, and as an artist, I think it makes you, more sensitive to what you say or what you put out on a record or on a song. It makes you want to put something in that song that you know is going to generate some hope or something when somebody over in India hears it, you know what I mean? Just because of the reach and the power that music has. So it makes you be that much more responsible when you are creating music and writing songs. It's like, "Okay, if I've got 3 minutes and 50 seconds of this person's ear time, I want to give to them whatever I can that's going to help them in their life." That's kind of what it's done with me. I've been a lot more mindful of what I say on a record knowing that when I see a school, like in South Africa, and I see what they are listening to as far as music from the States, normally it's the stuff that makes it to the very top of the charts that makes it's way over there. I mean they are listening to Snoop or Eminem, 50 Cent or Pharrell. Whoever it is. But they think that is what the US is like. What they hear in the music or see on the video, that's their idea of us. They start to shape their ideaologies based on what they are hearing.
So we need to do something or say something to counteract that so they know that what they see in this video is pretty much fantasy. It's not what America is like. It's not even what African-American life is like. That is something that really shapes what a lot of kids think about black Americans over there because they have a lot of influence in Africa. But like I said, it just makes me more mindful of what I'm doing and then along those same lines, it's just amazing what God is doing on a global scale because the continuity of it. It's the same thing. What you are doing with young people here, He's trying to do over there as well.
Yeah. He really does have a master plan.
Yeah. Exactly. And you see that. It's more evident when you start to go to these other places and you see people who don't necessarily have all of the resources that we have and the surplus that we have, but yet still they are committed to living this life out, 'cause that is all they've got. It's just raw, uncut faith. That's what they're living off of. Here it's different because we've got everything at our disposal. We can use faith, but if we get nervous toward the end and it doesn't work, we can pull something out of a bag to kind of remedy the situation. Over there it's faith, that's it.
Right. So you started this label 1280 Music, right?
I didn't start it. I'm the first artist on the label, but the label was actually started by a guy named Phil Henry. He was actually working with Grits for a while on the road management side and then felt like he wanted to start his own label. I've know Phil for a couple of years, so he kind of approached me about doing a project. We sat down and talked about it and then we ended up doing it.
Cool. So how different is it recording and writing for a more independent outlet?
It's really a lot more work. You have your pros and cons about being signed to a major, but the fact is that you've got a budget. You've got other people doing stuff to help promote this project. On the start up - the indie label - you and whoever else you are working with end up taking on that same work load and trying to come up with the finances to do it. So it's definitely something that is cause for a lot more hussle on the front end to make it happen, but I think if it's one of those things that you feel called to do, something that you are supposed to be doing, you won't mind that work load because you know that there is a greater result at the end. So that is the main difference. You aren't working with the same resources that you have with a bigger label necessarily, but you've really got to work for everything. I think that it makes you appreciate what you are doing a little bit more.
You mentioned in the little blurb on your MySpace that your music is now devoid of label influence. Was that really a problem in the past?
I don't think necessarily label influence, I wouldn't say it. . . I guess I wouldn't put it like that. What I would say is that obviously, like everything - any other industry - the music industry, especially the Christian music industry, is an industry that exists to make money. So there is a target group and they market whatever products they have to that group because they know they'll buy the products. So I think it is possible for an artist to feel like, "Okay. This is how it is. I need to have a song that sounds like this, because I know the radio will play it and hopefully that'll drive buyers to the store to pick up the record." I think that is just a part of plugging into that machine. It's kind of something that if you don't understand what it's centered around, you end up doing stuff that - not necessarily stuff that you wouldn't do, but it wouldn't necessarily be the thing that you would have done initially. But if you're trying to sell records, you've got to bend a little bit to really figure out what you need to do to sell records.
I was never in the situation where [the label said], "Well, we like what you did last time, but this is what we are really going for now." It was never like that. Again, if you had a label, you would make sure that the situation is as good as it can be for both parties. You see what other artists are doing to make it work, so it's easy to say, "Okay, if I can do this, I can at least get on radio." Maybe they can bite into it and then that generation will sell. I mean it's easy to do that, but on the other hand, you don't want to be so hard headed as an artist and be like, "No, I don't want to mess with that because that is my sound that is what I do." That might be the case, but you might not sell any records, either.
"It's just amazing what God is doing on a global scale because the continuity of it."
You can be doing it on the street. That's cool it just always seemed like you had a fair amount of freedom with Gotee.
I definitely did. I think for the most part just maturing as a person - not only artistically, but spiritually. Like now, at this point, I couldn't make like a record like Syllabus just because those are songs I wrote back when I was 19 to 20. So it's going to be a little bit different at 30, you know what I mean?
Plus hip-hop is constantly changing, as far as the sound.
It is. That's always a good thing.
You know, there are some artists that just seem to be doing the same thing over and over again and it just drives me nuts.
Yeah. If it sold last time, they are hoping it's going to sell again.
Yeah. I'm like, haven't you heard groups like Gnarls Barkley who are taking it somewhere else?
Exactly. That's the thing too, man. You got to. It's almost like when you have a boy band or a pop group. They are going to be hot for a minute and sell millions of records because they target an age group. Once that age group starts to grow up, then they are not going to be able to keep making the same music and expect the same people are going to buy it. They're just not there. They are grown now and they aren't going to listen to the same stuff they listened to when they were a teen. So it's like, as an artist trying to figure out who you are, trying to grow with it as well. It's important I think just to establish a solid base of people who are going to buy your music.
Yeah. Then as an artist, if you are like 35 and you're marketing to teenagers everybody is like, "What's wrong with you?"
Eleven or Twelve year olds. Yeah, man. I think on our side it looks. . . I mean, everything just kind of seems cool, but at the same time it's like. . . I think it gets to a point where you are like, "Man, what am I doing? My fan base is kids." Which is not bad. I'm sure in your song you can offer some sort of wisdom and help them out with their life, but at the same time it could be an awkward, awkward situation.
Yeah. Alright, so if you had a message to share that would be broadcast throughout the hip-hop community, what would you advise?
The hip-hop community as a whole?
Yeah, as a whole.
Man I would just encourage people. Especially people who are emcees and consider themselves rappers or whatever to just be mindful about what we putting out there on records and what we write in songs knowing that somebody else's life is going to be affected by that. Just be mindful. Just like the Word talks about. James teaches about being held to a stricter judgement because they've taken on that responsibility to tell somebody or direct somebody. It's like, to me it's almost the same thing for a rapper or an artist putting material on a record that somebody else is going to listen to. You have a platform to speak and they are going to listen to that. They are going to take that in and try to digest it. So to me, I feel like because of the words we speak, we are held to a stricter judgement. Whatever we say on a record, people are really going to expect us to actually be living that out. Especially as Christian emcees. I don't think the same standard is held for mainstream rappers. I mean, they can say whatever if it sounds cool and people don't really expect that you've shot that many people. But on the Christian side, it's like, you better at least be doing what you say you be doing otherwise you seem like a fraud. And you end up, I think as people are watching you, you can end up affecting them as well. So just being mindful of what we are speaking out I think would be my encouragement to the community. Not only that, but to continue to depend on God for creativity to do things. Keep it fancy in that sense as well - artistically, spiritually and all of that. I think we offer something to culture at large that not everybody else is able to give.
cool. Well, Nas is saying hip-hop is dead so. . .
(laughs) The thing is though, 'cause I saw another magazine cover - I think Little Wayne was on it, either Vibe or XXL magazine - where he had a shirt on that said "I Am Hip-Hop" or something like that. I can't remember, but it's interesting now because it's almost like people are just saying that hip-hop is just the music part of it. Really, you've still got the three other aspects of it. So a lot of this back and forth between Nas and Young Jeezy is all about rap, when really it's like, unless you do all four you can't really say that you are hip-hop, because you only rap, you know what I mean?
Yeah, that's right.
But again, you can go over to France and Korea and you can go to South Africa or anywhere else and it's like there are huge communities of B-Boys all over the place. Or go up to Skandinavia and Amsterdam there are a bunch of graffiti artists. So I think we just fed ourselves with so much commercial hip-hop that over the course, you are going to. . . if you eat broccoli for 5 months, you are going to get sick of broccoli and start to look for something else. I think that is where a lot of commercial stuff is now. People are trying to go back to the stuff that is actually peace and quality.
Cool. Well alright man, thanks for taking some time out of your schedule to talk to me.
Definitely, man. No problemo.
For more information, visit Verbs7.com (outdated) - MySpace - 1280 Music (MySpace)
Buy The Groundwork Theory (9/18/07) at: ChristianBook.com or Amazon.com