The last time I wrote about the Outsiders — a collective of rappers, singers and producers at Stanford — I compared them to the Avengers. Producer faruhdey (Chris Russ ’14) had just released his colorful and eclectic solo debut, “SO(u)L,” which brought new collaborators into the studio alongside old friends; if not the best work the collective had produced at the time, it was unmistakably their biggest. “If the Outsiders have established themselves as Stanford’s hip-hop Avengers,” I wrote, “then ‘SO(u)L’ is their ‘Captain America: Civil War.’” At the time, I thought “SO(u)L” would be their breakthrough. Instead, my claim was prophetic for reasons that I didn’t intend: The Avengers quietly went dark after “Civil War,” and since the release of “SO(u)L,” so have the Outsiders. But their members have never stopped working.
Much like Iron Man, EAGLEBABEL (Tyler Brooks ’14) — one of the de facto leaders of the Outsiders—never stopped tinkering with his music in the interim. (I like to think of co-leader Eli Arbor, also known as Elliot Williams ’15, as his Captain America, the more introspective and haunted of the two. He hasn’t been as visible as EAGLEBABEL, but he’s been hard at work on new music too.) He recently hung out his shingle as a sound engineer, offering his skills behind the console to other artists. For his first major project, he was his own client, remixing, remastering, and reissuing his first two EPs.
Released in 2015, “Odes” was part of the first wave of the Outsiders’ projects alongside the collective’s “O/X1” and Jae’s (Janei Maynard ’16) “Eternal Summer” EP. “Odes” has seven songs, each of which corresponds to one of EAGLEBABEL’s musical idols. Of the three tracks that explicitly name their influence, “2D: Song for Noodle / Hardbody” is the only one that feels underwhelming. The instrumental, built on a sample from Gorillaz’ “El Mañana,” is downtempo and laid-back, but the decision to pair it with a Herbie Hancock voiceover rather than a rap verse makes for a bit of an anticlimactic finish to the EP. Hancock’s own tribute, “Herbie Smokin Zen (Manchild),” is much better, weaving jazzy piano vamps into crisp beats; the whole production sounds almost like it’s whizzing around your head as you’re listening to it. It’s one of two compositions aided by faruhdey, the other being the standout “Rap Like Dom.” While the instrumental sounds like a Dom Kennedy song — cooing vocals in the background, dramatic strings — EAGLEBABEL raps in a meaner, quicker flow, shouting out homies and heroes alike.
The EP’s other four tracks don’t wear their influences as openly on their sleeve, giving EAGLEBABEL more room to outline his own style. “02” is a lush production with lyrical references to the rappers that EAGLEBABEL aspires to be like (Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco and Ty Dolla $ign, to name a few). “Tryin,” a post-mortem of a relationship, is an absolutely devastating slow burn of a song; it might be EAGLEBABEL’s single greatest track to date. EAGLEBABEL swings between wounded bellowing (“I ain’t tryna get back with you, I just wanna let you know I give a fuck about you / And I ain’t never stop”) and tender crooning (“If I ever said that I loved you I would be lyin’ / So yeah that makes two / But why does it feel like I got the blame for tryin?”) The EP’s momentum is stalled somewhat by its two middle tracks, “Jerry” and “Build You a Name,” which sound like two very different exercises in minimalism. I actually like the former quite a bit, with its collage of abrasive elements — carnal lyrics, distorted vocals, skeletal percussion, rumbling bass—reminding me of what Kanye West was doing on “Yeezus.” The latter, on the other hand, sounds like EAGLEBABEL rapping over a sample of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music.”
If “Odes” saw EAGLEBABEL try on a variety of different styles in a show of versatility, the follow-up, “Whea Yo Ghost At,” settles on one sound and sticks with it. It’s EAGLEBABEL’s foray into footwork, a Chicago-born genre that marries the city’s history of house music with street dance. With its four tracks clocking in at 14 minutes, “Whea Yo Ghost At” is a brisk listen, aided by its quick tempos, though not a breezy one—it’s barbed and angular. If this is your first time listening to footwork, you’ll notice that this is physical music in the same way that hardcore punk is; it’s hard to listen to it and stay still.
“Whea Yo Ghost At” also features some of EAGLEBABEL’s best rapping, with lyrics that elliptically reflect life and death in his hometown of Chicago. “If you comin’ here at all on a stat / Tryna call it Chiraq / You ain’t talkin’ to Black folk,” EAGLEBABEL raps on the kinetic “Vertical People.” On the next track, “Idea,” he laments how “six feet deep in the ghetto […] young people die too fast, too soon, too Black to be news.” These lyrics are sudden and affecting and they hit the listener like punches. (EAGLEBABEL turned it in as his senior capstone project last year, and I can only hope he got an A.) Whether EAGLEBABEL will continue to incorporate footwork on his future projects remains to be seen, but as it is, “Whea Yo Ghost At” is a successful and promising genre experiment.
Now, the whole point of a remastering job is to enhance the listening experience, and after listening to these reissues, I can say that there are slight changes to the production. Pay close attention to EAGLEBABEL’s vocals on “Tryin” and you’ll hear that they’ve been made softer by a slight echo, which throws the distorted shouting on the hook into starker relief than before. There’s still a prominent piano in “02,” but it’s been muffled and moved into the background, giving EAGLEBABEL’s vocals more space. A similar treatment is applied to “Idea,” smoothing out the individual components of the instrumental so they blend together better. None of these changes will leap out at you if you’re familiar with the original mixes—and if you aren’t, it won’t even matter — but they’re subtle improvements that reaffirm that EAGLEBABEL knows what he’s doing behind the mixing desk.
Brooks has been a musician at Stanford for about as long as he’s been a student. Before he became EAGLEBABEL, Brooks was one-third of the Chicago Collective, a trio of Stanford students whose work blended soul and jazz; he and his frequent collaborator Jessica Lá Rel (Jessica Anderson ’14) just finished a residency in Oakland. He’s had a hand in nearly a dozen musical projects, if not more, in the eight years that he’s been a part of the Stanford community. I’ve only been following him for less than half that time, but it’s been an honor to watch this artist — my friend — grow more confident and ambitious in his abilities as a musician and performer. Godspeed.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.