Story by Allie Volpe
In January, Philadelphia-based alternative hip-hop group Hardwork Movement released their debut LP, Good Problems, and like any musician reaching a milestone, they had a show to celebrate it. Jeremy Keys, the vocalist and cellist in the nine-piece (and one of the founding four members) invited fellow Philly musician Chill Moody, who he’d worked with prior during his day job in marketing.
“I think he came because he’s a really nice guy and we had a prior relationship,” Keys says with a chuckle.
The collective -- featuring Dwight Dunston (MC, guitar), Rob Ricketts (MC, DJ), Keenan Willis (MC, production), Trumpet, Arrangement: Marty Gottlieb-Hollis and Becca Graham (trumpet), Dani Gershkoff (flute, vocals), Jeremy Prouty (bass) and Angel Ocana (drums) -- took the stage at local venue Kung Fu Necktie to bring their old-school rhymes with live percussion and brass to life. Tracks like “Sun - Echoed” with subtle horn rings, piano flickers and methodical drumming resonating with heartfelt lyrics like “I want to be your everything / but I’ll settle for your anything.”
Since then, Chill has signed the band to his label #nicethingsMUSIC and the expanded lineup has become a staple with rich instrumentation backing the mindful raps. Exhibiting a grounded approach to hip-hop, harping on realistic and true-to-life anecdotes and less on bombast and pomp and circumstance, Hardwork Movement straddle the line between The Roots and Kendrick Lamar.
Before their performance at The Foundry in Philly for a Red Bull Sound Select showcase featuring RJD2 and Finding Novyon, Hardwork Movement joined us for a session in our warehouse space.
How did you all meet and form Hardwork Movement?
Dwight Dunston: We all know each other from different points in our lives. I went to high school with Keenan and Robert, and I went to college with Jeremy. I’ve known this crew from anywhere between 10 to 15 years or so. I knew Keenan was a producer. I had come back from being away at summer camp and really thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and feeling called to making music. I studied poetry and loved hip-hop and Keenan made beats so I connected with him and said “Hey, I would love to make a project, would you be into making a mixtape and would you want to rap on it?” Keenan and I met up at a corner bakery where he brought three or four of the hottest beats I heard that summer -- and subsequent summers he continued to bring the heat. We started recording songs in my momma’s living room and brought in Keys who I’ve always known had a beautiful voice, but he wasn’t signing back then too much, he’d done a lot of rapping in college. And then we brought in Rob to rap some, but when we started performing had been a DJ. Early, early, early on in Hardwork Movement, Rob would be DJing and every once in awhile would hop off DJing and spit a verse, but would DJ while Keenan, Keys and I would rap in some configuration. There were other people and other voices involved but this is the core four group that has been there from the very beginning which was 2012.
Jeremy Keys: Rob, Dwight and I were also in an indie-soul band fresh out of college and we were playing some smaller gigs for about a year. That connected us with the other musicians who are in our band now.
Did you bring in these other members because you felt there was something lacking?
JK: It kind of happened very organically. We started working on our last album called Good Problems, and we were hoping to put it out in early 2016 and play a big show. A part of that show was doing a cover of “Hotline Bling.” We had an idea to put together a live band just for that cover so all of the people in our group are people we have friendships with so we went to Marty who is our music director and trumpet player about putting together this dope group of amazing artists to make this cover pop off. We got together a bunch of people that we played with in the past and thought that this could transfer to some other songs as well and that’s how everything kicked off.
Do you think that new sound and direction seeped into the album that came out earlier this year?
Keenan Willis: I would say that album was the most cohesive project we had. It was the first time that we sat down and really focused on honing in on our sound and our message for the project. That started the direction and the live sound has really enhanced it and given it a little more punch, a little more relatability.
What kind of message did you want listeners to get from Good Problems?
KW: It’s a bit of a hopeful message. There’s talk of overcoming adversity, being the best version of yourself. A lot of it’s about love, which I think can be attributed to where a lot of us were in our personal lives. Even that message still is pretty universal, not necessarily that state of infatuation, but appreciating it and being conscious of it.
JK: It’s so easy in music in general to put on a facade, especially in hip-hop, to talk about things that aren’t exactly what you’re going through. It’s cool that we got to that point after doing this for a long time where we’re like, “Let’s be more open and vulnerable and be creative” with a lot of music that reflects where we were at that time. So dealing with issues of love and relationships and at the same time, talking about having this hopefulness and having to balance chasing your dreams and wanting to take things to the next level while also understanding that there’s a need to do the 9-5. It was a beautiful time where we could relate to what the other was going through and we had this collective experience that we could all speak on from our perspective.
What does it mean to be the first act signed to Chill Moody’s label, #nicethingsMUSIC?
KW: For me, it’s such a huge co-sign that we’re doing something right. Chill’s doing some incredible things for the city’s hip hop scene, so to have that interest from an artist that you respected and have been fans of ourselves is pretty incredible.
JK: It’s a sign that everybody in Philly is in it together and that we’re all here to raise up the city by raising each other up.
Obviously you have Philly acts like The Roots that you’re frequently compared to. Would that be a fair connection to make?
Rob Ricketts: I think so. We’ve drawn that comparison a lot this year, which is totally awesome. Those are people that we’ve been listening to for awhile and highly respect. Sometimes it is hard to draw into everything but I think we do a good job of listening to everyone in the group and bouncing ideas off of one another and making sure we’re keeping that message and having everything come together.
Do you think there’s strength in numbers?
RR: I would definitely say there’s strength in numbers, from Jeremy, our bass player to Angel, the drummer. A lot of people within the group have been soloists and have been within the Philadelphia music scene for years. The more like minds that we have together, the more powerful of a unit we have. That’s why we’ve been able to make so many positive strides this year. As individuals, I think we could all stand by ourselves if we needed to, but we draw our forces together and move together as a unit.
DD: How we interact with each other in the group, it embodies everything all the things about community and building each other up that we talk about in the music. Would I lie and say it wouldn’t be simpler if it were one person and a DJ back track? You could easily do that and be very successful. But within the conversations that we have and being mindful of all the different experiences and expertises in the room, we take time to listen to each other, to grow with each other and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sonically, the way that the instrumentation feeds off of the MC voices or the way that we vibe off of each other, that’s unbelievable. But it’s even deeper than that: we really embody the love, the unity, the community that we talk about in our music.
So what should people expect from the Red Bull Sound Select show?
JK: We really hang our hat on putting on a very high energy show. We want to make sure people are having a good time but we also want to make sure you take a second and think about things a little bit and make sure that message is coming across, building that community. And also having a good time.