INTERVIEW: 1200 Talks Their Origin, Reps Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and Speaks About Jumanji!

1200 is a man on a mission. The alias of Jecory Arthur, 1200 is an ambitious hip-hop project that treats the genre with the kind of seriousness usually reserved for symphonic composition. A music school grad, Arthur and company came onto the scene strong, playing a particularly well-received set at Poorcastle that I know got my dude Phil all rowdied up to hear more. Recently, 1200 released an EP, the elegant and optimistic Symphony I, which we’re including below for your listening pleasure. I sat down to talk with Arthur about his music, collaboration, and the loss of Robin Williams.

Never Nervous: The name 1200 is certainly ambiguous, at least from an outside perspective. What’s that all about?

1200: When I was 12 years old, I bought a digital recording mixer called the Korg D-1200. I spent all of my time after school teaching myself how to record and produce. My friend Torey (whom I began rapping with) said I was on it so much that I should just call myself that.

NN: Are you 1200 people formed like Voltron as one, or a time traveler from the year 1200?

1200: Hahaha! I love the idea of forming. As of late, I have really found a specific sound that I enjoy. The production is often minimal; so minimal that I have been experimenting with sampling composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. So there are moments in the music where you might hear just an organ chord, or just my vocals, or just anything we feel like highlighting for the audience. Our sound is unique because of the people who are blended in it. Nick B plays guitar and keyboard for live shows. He can produce any sound you want, and manipulate it in any way with his midi keyboard and creative mind. His guitar playing is some of my favorite. Jazmyn Aria is our soprano vocalist. You may have heard her in Kentucky’s premier opera organization, the Kentucky Opera. She has been in that group since she was high school. Tyler Dippold is our baritone vocalist. He has been performing with The Cardinal Singers. That’s literally the best choir in the world. They have competed in South Korea, Vietnam, and so many other places. You have me. You know what I do. I have a classical background as well, which I hope to incorporate into the show soon. Lastly, but definitely not least, you have DJ Deuce. He is our glue for any show. He is in charge of any transition that happens between vocals, instruments, and the instrumental tracks that we use. All together we form what is known as 1200. It’s so unique. No hip hop act has opera singers. No hip hop act is rapping about what I am.

NN: Is this your first time performing, or were you in different bands/acts before?

1200: My first time performing live outside of high school was with Jack Holiday and the Westerners. I used to rap on various songs they played. I appreciate that opportunity more than anything because it really helped me develop myself as a performer. The first time I played with my own group was when my friend Lourenço Vasconcellos asked me to rap on his graduate recital. He gathered up instrumentalists from UofL’s jazz department and arranged this beautiful piece called “Hippy Hoppy.” Before his recital, he asked if I wanted to play a gig. I agreed to, with no hesitation. We played at The Rudyard Kipling for about twenty people and it was received so well that we decided to keep playing even after Lourenço moved back to Brazil. We called ourselves Citizens United because the band had so many different nationalities in it. Now it consists of bassist Jose Oreta, percussionist Meg Samples, keyboardist/guitarist/trumpeter Joey Theiman, and saxophonist Graeme Gardiner. I’m still in Citizens United, and we just recently started recording an album with Nicholas Layman over at Goldsmith Studios. I had my first real 1200 performance the same night I had my first Monolith performance. Monolith is a cross-genre group that was really just a side project for some of the Jack Holiday members. However, it evolved into something bigger. Monolith consists of organist Joe Hanna, guitarist Zach Groves, percussionist Coty Johnson, and vocalist Daniel Jackson. At the time, 1200 was just me and my friend Rames as a deejay. We had random instrumentalists fill in, but it was not the sound I wanted. That first show was at Tim Faulkner Gallery, back when it was on Frankfort Avenue. That was over summer break just last year. When Nick B came back to school that fall, we linked back up with Monolith to do a show. Nick B served as the deejay, and as the instrumentalist. That was a mess to have. It just wasn’t possible to do all of the things I really wanted with only two people. When the spring semester hit, I had asked one of my best friends, Deuce, if he was interested in deejaying. He was all for it. We had been friends for about six years at that point and collaborated many times already. Me, Nick B, and DJ Deuce played a show at Mag Bar on February 15th, 2013. It went so well that Simon Banks, the booking agent there, asked us to come back and headline a show. We set something up with Bird Zoo and Skull Avalanche. We played again and though it went well, I still wanted to experiment with our sound. I already knew TDip and he said he was down long ways before. I heard Jazmyn sing at a vocal area and immediately wanted to work with her. I linked the five of us up, and the rest is history.

NN: Tell us about your collaborators. Who all do you work with? How do you all work together?

1200: I have so many collaborators that I will just name a few. As I said earlier, I started rapping with a friend named Torey. We’ve known each other since kindergarten. Growing up I made a lot of music with my cousins Jordan Jetson and G. Stone. They are my favorite rappers in Louisville. Yes, I’m bias. I worked with them until I linked up with Jack Holiday and the Westerners. Around the same time I was making random tracks with DJ Deuce. I met Nick B shortly after and started working on my debut album. I have a friend in LA named Hwang aka Supreme D. He is a young and talented producer. I have a friend up in Boston named Grand Kaiser who does most of the design and graphics for my team. He is also a talented musician. Kaiser did the graphic series for my debut album, SYMPHONY I. Jazmyn Aria, TDip, and I have been working together for the least amount of time, but I assure you that nothing but great things will come from our collaborations. I’ve also been working on music with Arty Madorsky (South Carolina) and Island Keys (Germany). There’s plenty more but those are my favorites, in terms of musicians. My creative collective is known as The United Legion of DOOM. That consists of musicians, artists, designers, and producers. We make dope stuff.

NN: How do you write? I’m fascinated by the concept that lyrics/vocals could ever inform the beat. Does it? What comes first?

1200: I can only really create in the middle of the night. For some reason, that’s when my creativity is most alive. Usually the ideas come first, followed by the words, then the music; but the process can happen in any order. I will keep my creative secrets for now.

NN: How did you get involved with Poorcastle? What was that show like?

1200: Monolith was supposed to play at Poorcastle, but our guitar player had an unfortunate emergency. I asked Joe Hanna if he would mention 1200 when he contacted the festival to cancel. He did, and the next thing you know I was in contact with Shaina Wagner who put us on. I told my group about the festival and DJ Deuce didn’t seem to like the idea at first. There were no other hip hop acts on the bill, and that seemed like a suicide mission for us. However, I was confident that our sound would be received well. We hit the stage at 7:15 PM after the Uncommon Houseflies. I treated it like any other set we had played. I honestly tried not to focus on the crowd because I didn’t want to be disappointed if they weren’t receiving it well. During OZ, I stopped the normal form of the song to do a mosh pit at the end. That was a spur-of-the-moment thing that went over rather well. After we performed, we spent the next three hours talking to people who said they loved us. Most of the audience said we were their favorite group. It was such an assuring thing because that was not our typical crowd, but they showed us more love than any crowd we had ever seen. I honestly don’t think you could take any band on that bill and put them in the middle of a show in West Louisville and have the same reception. We broke the wall of limitations that night for our genre and since that day I have thought beyond hip hop. I want to play more mixed shows. I want to play a bill with the Deloreans. No one only listens to one genre anymore. It’s 2014. If you pick up someone’s music library, they will have at least ten different genres of music in it. Louisville is advancing, and I believe the musicians of today, will be the first wave of musicians that really help push the culture. Scott Whitehouse from Jack Holiday and the Westerners told me that a long time ago. Seeing it happen right before my eyes is wild. I feel involved.

NN: What can you tell us about the track “OZ?” Is it the title track off your debut album, or just the first? Where was it recorded? What is it about?

1200: OZ was the first single off my debut album. Nick B and I started working on the instrumental in his dorm room back in spring 2012. We finished the song completely a few months later, but I just decided to release it July 2014. The song is about social, political, and economical issues. I compare reality to fantasy words. I rap slow. I rap fast. I just have fun, speaking on some real issues.

NN: Along with the new album, I understand there is an adjoining video. What was that process like, in making a video?

1200: There is a video for OZ in the works. There are actually two versions. One was shot in December 2012, by Christian Bornstein. The other is a montage I created that uses some imagery that I’ve gathered over the past few years. I recently reached out to Tate Chmielewski over at Stera Films. I plan to work with him within the next few months to shoot a short film for another song on the album titled King Arthur.

NN: Do you produce any of your own stuff? Can you play any instruments?

1200: I produce most of my work. I’m actually a classical musician. I just graduated from UofL with a Bachelor of Music Education. Because I was an education major, I had to be trained on string, brass and woodwind instruments. My primary instrument is percussion. That includes all classical stuff like concert snare, timpani, marimba, etc. It also includes world percussion. Being a classical musician has granted me some dope opportunities. I got to perform in Switzerland last year with the University Wind Symphony. I’ve traveled all over the states to perform as well. So yes, I can play instruments. Hahaha!

NN: Are you comfortable in the studio? What about before a live set? How do you psyche yourself up for either?

1200: I have been in studios since age 10. As I said earlier, at age 12, I bought one. So I basically grew up in them. No one would know this, but I get nervous before every live performance. I remember when I was in 6th grade band, and I had my first concert. I was so nervous before that I was sweating. I don’t sweat anymore, but I do get a really sick feeling before going on stage. For some reason, the moment I step foot on a stage, the feeling goes away.

NN: Relative to that, how important is it to know what a song is about? Is there a good or bad interpretation of something? Do you feel differently as an artist than as listener? Can there be a definitive vision? I’m looking at you George Lucas.

1200: It is important to know what a song is about to me just because a song is my chapter. An album is a book to me. Nothing frustrates me more than to read a paragraph in some random book I was assigned to read, and not comprehend any of the material. When I hear a song, I want to understand it. On the flip side, I also enjoy music that makes you think comprehensively. I recently just got into programme music. Programme music is a type of music that is supposed to extract an extra-musical narrative. In Switzerland, we played a piece titled Music For Prague, by Karel Husa. Husa wrote that piece to memorialize the events of the Prague Spring reform in Czechoslovakia. Every movement in the piece is a moment in time. Every instrument represents a different aspect of that time period. The snare drum parts represent the soldiers marching. The chimes represent the church bells. The trombones imitate the air raid sirens. The oboes represent Morse code. The piccolo represents a bird, which represents freedom. The whole piece is one big metaphorical narrative. That is my favorite kind of music, so I try to embody that when I create. There’s a live song we play titled RAMBO, and to the average listener it may just sound like another trigger-happy, drug slinging rap song. However, that is so wrong. The song is another metaphor like OZ. It draws parallels between war and life in the hood. There are gun shots throughout it to represent violence. There’s loud bass throughout to represent how overwhelming the lows of life are. There’s a section where just organ plays to represent a funeral recession. The singing you hear represents cries and mourning. Each and every lyric is hard hitting and heart felt realness. I rap from the perspective of people who believe in evil. I rap from the perspective of the people you see on the news. I rap from the perspective of the people that most people fear. Those are the people I grew up around. In a way, I am those people, but I escaped the evils.

NN: As I write this, I’m a little bummed about Robin Williams. What was your favorite movie of his and why?

1200: Robin Williams was a legend. My favorite movie of his was Jumanji. I was three when it first came. I don’t remember seeing it for the first time, but I watch it at least once a year randomly. Robin Williams’ situation was very unfortunate. You never know what people are going through. My first live rap performance ever was at my high school talent show. After I performed, my friend Mariah went on. She had been working on a hip hop song too. It was more of a parody, but I appreciated her for who she was. She was a string player in our high school orchestra. A few months later she committed suicide. It was mind boggling to me that I was just in the talent show with her, laughing, and rapping, then she was gone. I know life gets tough, but I believe the bad times are there so we can have good times later.

NN: What non-musical things are getting you riled up lately? Any good reads or things to watch worth repping?

1200: It’s funny you ask that. I am probably the most boring person outside of music. I really don’t do anything besides compose, perform, and teach music. Even when I go see films, I’m constantly thinking about the sounds I hear, and how they enhance the film or hinder it. So yeah, I’m boring outside of music. Yikes.

NN: Last up, what have you been listening to lately, and why should we?

1200: I’ve been listening to the same four records non-stop. The first is Nick B’s debut Transcendence, which he released recently. You should listen to that because it features some great Louisville talent, including myself. The whole album is about transcending through difficult times in life and coming out stronger than before. If you need inspiration, listen to that. The second is Decisions by the Brandon Coleman Quartet. Brandon used to play guitar in the original Citizens United. He released that album in September 2013, but for some reason, I’ve been revisiting it a lot lately. You should listen to that because it is everything you love about jazz, plus more. There’s a song on that record called Geometory. It’s so funky that when you listen you will bop your head and make a face like something stinks. I do it all the time. The third is a recording of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic. I have that on vinyl and it is 1870s Romanticism at its finest. An old friend got that record for me. Tchaikovsky is my favorite composer of all time. I played this symphony quite a few times when I was in the University Symphony Orchestra. The fourth record I’ve been listening to is a guilty pleasure of mine – G Herbo’s Welcome To Fazoland. It’s his debut mixtape and it is Chicago drill music at its finest. If you don’t like hearing rap songs about killing people, selling dope, and making money, don’t listen to that. My album is probably a healthy blend of all of the things I’ve been listening to, minus the jazz stuff. You will get a taste of some jazz  on the Citizens United record. For now, enjoy SYMPHONY I. Executive produced by me; graphic series by Grand Kaiser.