Local hip-hop band frontman talks real politics


Hip-hop upstarts Junkyard Empire have come quite a ways in just the past few years. In December 2006, they played a double-bill with Tickle Fight at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. Tickle Fight went on first and when they finished their set, the place cleared out like someone had lit a stink bomb. Junkyard Empire played to family, friends and a few stragglers.

This September, they headlined before an enthusiastic audience at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, and that was on the heels of having signed a label deal with area-based Media Roots Music just before playing a set of gigs in Cuba.

The personnel is band leader Christopher Cox (trombone, keys) Bryan Berry (guitar), Dan Choma (bass, piano) and Graham O’Brien (drums), who provide an avant-garde fusion of jazz, rock and funk with frontman Brihanu rocking the mic and writing the lyrics.

At that 2006 gig, sitting in a booth and staring a hole in the table, Brihanu was shy, nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. At the Cedar Cultural Center, he was well at ease, even expansive, engaging a small, raptly attentive throng in the lobby while waiting to hit the stage.

If you appreciate the work of Twin Cities masters like Truthmaze and Toki Wright, Brihanu’s (B) hand at the craft is right up your alley, mincing no words as he holds forth with caustic commentary. He has done it now for three CDs with Junkyard Empire: Reclaim Freedom, Rise of the Wretched and the newly released Rebellion Politik.

MSR: What started you writing?

B: I started writing lyrics in college. I always was a fan of hip hop since I was a child, but I never tried to rhyme until I was about 18. I don’t think it was one event that made me start writing; it was just something that I sat down and did one day.

MSR: Who were your first influences?

B: RUN-DMC, KRS-1, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Rakim and many others.

MSR: What inspires you?

B: I’m inspired by a lot of things. Usually I get inspired by music. I listen to instrumentals or grooves that the guys in the band lay down, and the words just come to me. Sometimes I get inspired [by] other MCs’ rhymes. Sometimes specific events that provoke some thought or anger. “Conflict” on our new EP was inspired by the heavy fighting in Gaza back in December 2008. I knew we needed to write a song that would address the horror that Israel was perpetrating there.

MSR: What’s new with Junkyard Empire?

B: We [recently] released Rebellion Politik. We just came back from our first international trip [to] Cuba for 10 days and played five shows to a very receptive audience. We are planning to hit the road with Guante and e.g. bailey of TruRoots on a national tour called Verbal Graffiti. We have also started to work with activists and speakers at our shows. For instance, we had journalist Dahr Jamail as a guest speaker at our [CD] release show.

MSR: How was that trip to Cuba?

B: Indescribable. We were able to see and learn so much there. It was an honor for us to perform for Cubans, who are very much into hip-hop culture. They have a deep understanding about what [it] means and not the glitz and glam we try to pawn off as hip hop here in America. They use hip hop as a tool to help organize the youth and continue their progressive movement. We met with people from all over the country and talked about politics and social conditions.

The Cuban people have a love for life we don’t see very often in the U.S.
There’s poverty, but they make sure everyone is taken care of. We didn’t see begging or homelessness on the level that exists here in the wealthiest country on Earth. We saw the effects of the embargo we impose on Cubans. That embargo may be the cruelest example of American foreign policy. Cuba poses no threat to the U.S., but we are continuing to cripple their economy in what amounts to economic terrorism in my mind.

MSR: Any thoughts of a solo project?

B: No, I love playing with Junkyard Empire.

MSR: A book?

B: I talked to our label about putting out a book. There are plans [for] a book with lyrics and essays about social justice and modern politics. I’m working on my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. Hopefully, I’ll be publishing some articles very soon.

MSR: You happy with the label?

B: So far, Media Roots has been awesome. Marc Nicholas, the founder, has an excellent understanding of where Junkyard Empire can fit in the music industry.

He also understands our music and politics. So, we won’t be selling our souls. Things are starting to fall into place. I’m very happy right now.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-recorder.com.