The Neverending Jam of Johnny Popcorn: The Story Behind MAD Dragon Records’ Latest Act
For some artists, it’s difficult to move on to a whole new style of music and spending years living and breathing another. But that’s exactly the decision former MC and Philadelphia Producer, Hezekiah, made when he and collaborator, Tone Whitfield, founded the magic bullet of genre blenders with Johnny Popcorn. What started as the two collaborators working on music for friend and Grammy Award-winning artist, Bilal, eventually snowballed into one of Philadelphia’s most eclectic and vivacious rising acts. Since they debuted in 2012, the band’s identity has slowly evolved and solidified into a collective unit generating wild, yet innovative music that combines elements of hip-hop, R&B, Pop, and Rock into one thrilling package. Comprised of Hezekiah (vocals/production), Marjani Coral (vocals), Lloyd Alexander (guitars/production), Freshie (bass), and Clayton Crothers, Johnny Popcorn has faced some recent struggles, Johnny Popcorn has returned to release it’s newest record through Drexel University’s student-run record label, MAD Dragon Records. Despite a brush with some recent health struggles, the band has remained adamantly committed to performing and creating music with each other. I was invited to visit the band at Hezekiah’s longtime studio just outside of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus to talk about the band’s origins, their soon to be announced new record, and the obstacles they’ve overcome as band.
Trebel Music: Can you go into a little more detail about how Johnny Popcorn first came together?
Hezekiah: Tony Whitfield and I did a lot of work together with Bilal, we were always a crew with him and Steve McKee. The name, Johnny Popcorn, came from a joke that we told at an open mic with Rich Medina. We would joke around at open mic and write names on open mic lists just to hear Rich read them out loud and fuck with him. The one time we wrote in Johnny Popcorn and when he read it everyone laughed and that’s when me and Tony decided that’d be the name of our band whenever we started it. It wasn’t till five years later where we had a bunch of music that hadn’t been placed. It was me singing and writing songs for Bilal and other people, and it was a bunch of music that just sounded a lot like a complete album. Ton and I were like, “Yo, this is Johnny Popcorn!” and that’s how this first started.
Marjani Coral: I just did a couple of songs with Hez before they did The Crow. It was a compilation of songs that he had and I just did the main one, “The Next Episode” “Hello To The Bad Guy” and some other ones. It was all over, honestly, we did a bunch of songs together. Tone was like, “You should incorporate her into the sound!” and Hezekiah was totally against it *laughs*
H: I was like “No!” *laughs*
MC: He was totally, totally, toootally against it, but then we did a random show with Steve and Tone at North Star Bar. After that, I was living in DC commuting back and forth, so it wasn’t until about 2012-2013 when Hez hit me saying “Alright, let’s do Johnny Popcorn for real.”
H: I was so bored and tired of touring with the Hip-hop thing. Lloyd was with Tone, Steve and me on some jam sessions.
Lloyd Alexander: Yeah, I was really trying to dig heavy into the music scene. The one time was Hezekiah had this jam session at this place called Elena’s Soul at 49th and Baltimore. It burnt down, R.I.P, on my birthday Christmas Eve. Anyway, that’s the place where I got a good example of what Hezekiah does. I had heard his name so many times, but I had never seen him doing what he does. You know how you hear about people and you ask “What does he do? He’s on the album but did he produce it? Did he write it?” I didn’t know *Laughs*.
TM: That created a nice bit of mystique, I’m sure.
LA: Yeah! *laughs* But, coming from that jam session we all exchanged information and just the need for musicians. We really turned into a solid band. Every band needs musicians, but when you get actual, good solid pieces in your band, you don’t want to let them go. Especially if they’re contributing to the music and I didn’t really want to go anywhere else. The gigs stayed consistent, we stayed consistent, and we’re still here doing it now.
Clayton Cruthers: I joined the group August of last year. Hez and I have been neighbors for literally 3 years now.
H: Our porches are literally connected. *All laugh*
CC: Yes! *laughs* I’d go home and we’d see each other going in and out of our houses. This went on for about two years before anything really happened in terms of the band. When I first moved here, talked about music and exchanged info but something happened with my phone and I lost his number. Then I saw Hez at Sitting In at the Kimmel Center. He was hosting the show and I heard there was a jam session after, so I got up there and started playing. He was like, “Hey man, you sound real good! Hopefully my band has some openings and you can come sit in.” And I told him, “I don’t want to sit in, I want to play!” It turned into a real opportunity. He hit me up, I came, auditioned, and it felt real good. It felt like I found somewhere that I wanted to be, making original and different music. Ever since then I’ve been praying I can take time off work to do more with it.
H: It came down to Clayton or this guy who only played the cymbals. She ain’t playing any drums or anything, it was just cymbals *all laugh*
CC: I don’t know anything about that. I had nothing to do with that!
ROP: Hez, you’ve mentioned the frustration that led to your decision to leave Hip-hop behind. Is that still something you think you could find yourself coming back to?
H: It’s like this. What you really should never do is read critics or certain thing, because every album I progressed and they would say “Oh but I like this album.” or “Oh you don’t do that sound anymore. It doesn’t sound like this album” and I’m like, “Yeah because I’m doing this now.” Then, I move on to the next album and suddenly they’d like the one that came before it! Every time I progressed it felt like I kept getting this delayed response. Years later, like now, I have people who want beats that sound like my second or third album. It’s crazy. Hip-hop is just backpackers. They don’t like you to grow. They say they want something new, but they don’t nothing new. They just want it how they want it, when they want it. So I just got sick of that. I’d be in New York and we’d be killing the joint with my horn section, I got my DJ, I’m rhyming and doing what I do, and someone would yell “We want that real Hip-hop shit!” And I just said fuck this, I got sick of that and was just done. I decided that if I’m gonna go left, I’m just gonna go left all the way and do Johnny Popcorn.
Trebel: It seemed like, at the time, you were really busy and wearing a lot of different hats. Did Johnny Popcorn allow you to surrender that and focus more on collaborating?
H: It’s natural. I was working with Lloyd, Clayton, and Chuck Treece the other day and we were just cranking stuff out!
Lloyd: *In excited squeek* I’m geeking!
Trebel: Is that what makes the sound so hard to pin down? Because of the constant experimentation?
CC: We talked about this! That’s the good thing about the music we put out: we have something we can give to each crowd, everybody who comes can find some part of the show they really like. They’ll be like “Oh this is my style of music” and then they’ll hear something new and will respond to that too, even if it’s something they never listened to before. That’s because of the feel we bring to the table. That’s one thing that I appreciated when I first joined the band. Everyone has their own voice, but we all sound good as a collective. We all have our own thing. Outside of this, Hez still produces, Marjani still sings with other people, Lloyd and Freshie both play with numerous people. We bring all that collective energy here, but that’s what makes songs like “Emancipation” “Go! Go! Go” then we have songs like “The Fall” and “Put Your Computer to Sleep.” That’s one thing that is beautiful about this group here.
Trebel: Was there ever a fear that it wouldn’t all fit together?
MC: I don’t think I was ever worried
CC: I wasn’t concerned either.
H: I know I was! *all Laugh* Remember I said that? I had said I hate albums that don’t have a story or aren’t consistent.
MC: I mean, I do feel that this album is very eclectic, but so are we. I was actually speaking to someone about us and how we all look like different characters. They told me, “I love that you all look different.” And it’s true, we all kind of look like superheroes. We all have our own style, we all have our own musical backgrounds and things that we like-
LA: Inflatable muscles.. *all laugh*
MC: Inflatable muscles! You can definitely hear that in the music.
CC: I definitely think that the album tells a story. There are stories within the story. That’s the good thing about any album or any type of music. You got bands with this album that tells a story about being in college, but we got an album that talks about being in love, being on the opposite side of love, it talks about trying that feeling of “I don’t want to be loved anymore” and coping with that, but then it talks about being free from that and enjoying life anyway.
MC: It’s motivation. To me this album has very motivational “Believe in yourself”, “You can do it” positive affirmation kind of feeling to it.
H: [Quoting Totem Pole Track “Coming Home”] “Still running/I’m gonna do it/Lighters up/I’m coming home to you.” Just doing that journey.
CC: That song does make me think about running.
Trebel: What was the inspiration behind ‘Totem Pole?’ What started the sessions behind it?
H: It was Tone Whitfield, he came down to this studio one night after he got done working with Bilal and he was like, “Yo, whatcha doin down here? Let me play you some of my new beats!” He told me to pick whatever I wanted, so I picked 10 or so beats and, two days later, I was like “Here’s the list of the beats I picked the other day. Can you email it them to me?” and he says, “I didn’t give you no beats!” He didn’t remember any of it. After a couple of days of buggin’ him and sending some voice recordings of me scatting to the tracks he was like, “Oh yeah that is kinda nice.” One of them was “Do What You Wanna Do” it already had that first verse that I had freestyled. So, that’s how Totem Pole first started.
Trebel: How did you you learn to work with each other in the studio as a group?
LA: Well, I think that, thanks mostly the need for new material and the fact that we work well together, any of the ideas that anyone brings to the table automatically has respect. We don’t look at anyone like “Hey Hezekiah is the creator, leave it up to him.” No we don’t do that. I’ve been in bands like that where all creativity and control was with one person and you end up with just one sound, which isn’t really appealing to many people. Unless, you know, you’re an awesome writer like Herbie Hancock or Radiohead. Other than that, we need all levels of openness before we start to weed out what we don’t really want or what we want to save for later. Because nothing is ever really thrown out, even a bad idea. We just sort of laugh at them and hold them for something later. It’s like what J. Dilla does where he would play you the track for maybe fifteen seconds, then give you the greatest beat of your life for ten seconds and then that’s it. *all laugh* And you’re sitting there like “What?! Where’s the rest of it?! Skip to 4.17! Go to 4.17!” And the greatest shit of your life is right there. That’s how it is with us. We play the regular songs and shit like that, but, at the end of rehearsals or when we’re just jamming around, that’s when the real good stuff comes in. That’s when the good stuff really comes in.
H: That’s where we get most of it. I swear Lloyd is gonna produce 90% of the next album.
LA: I happens that way! I never like to toot my own horn, but when Hez was coming up with the songs like “Emancipation” or “Go! Go! Go!” these were ideas that I responded to and said, “Hey let’s record it! Throw in some guitars, some bass, some percussion, throw some vocals on it.”
H: Then it ended up being “Take that song off the album, and take that off.” *All laugh*
LA: It just happens that quickly! We really don’t put too much pressure on what we allow to be in our creative atmosphere. We can go from death metal to R&B to Reggae.
Trebel: Death Reggae?
LA: Yeah! Freshie brings the Punk, Grunge, and actually Reggae. I just think our only problem is if we were to try to categorize ourselves, we’d have to come up with a new one.
CC: That sounds right to me. Our categorization would be based on whatever song we were putting out. Some grouping can be all R&B, the next one can be Pop, Alternative…
H: Everything: Alternative/Hip-hop, Alternative/Blues, Alternative/Rock…
Trebel: Hezekiah, you were recently in the hospital recovering from an aneurysm. How has your recovery been?
H: Yeah, it was from me working too hard and… trying to wear all the hats. I was in the studio, I had just finished a session, left, another session was coming up so I could either lay on the couch here and go to sleep or go outside and jump rope *laughs*. I decided to go outside. Then I felt like my brain locked. Long story short, I’m in the hospital, I get out of the hospital, and I was down for a bit. I couldn’t really talk or walk that well. That was a few weeks, and then I went into recovery in Delaware at my mom’s place… It’s been Shitty, but I’m back on my feet! *Laughs*. That was real crazy, I still get headaches, memory skips and a little stutter and delay, but I’m doing good.
MC: I will say that what could have happened, like where he is and the horror stories…
H: I coulda slept and not woke up!
MC: Yeah, exactly so we’re really blessed and really fortunate to still have him. Just watching him go through that was really hard for me, I know it was hard for Lloyd, it was hard for all of us seeing him like that. But the fact that he knew who everyone was, he still had his memory and his motor skills were still intact is truly a blessing. I feel like that was definitely a wake up call.
H: Yeah, it was definitely a wake up call. I had to slow down.
JC: Because it seems like people are always telling him to that he’s doing too much and needed to stop! *laughs* But, now he realizes
H: I gotta chill the fuck out *all laugh*
Trebel: It’s been sometime since then, though. You even performed at two festivals in the same day back in May!
LA: That wasn’t even approved by Hez’s mother. *all laugh* She was on our asses. So we had a double festival appearance in one day. And you know with festivals: there’s always a lot of parking, a lot of walking around, you’re out in the elements. So I was just worried period. We had show at South Street Music Festival and then we had to make a two hour drive to Washington DC to do another festival. Everybody was full of worry and stuff like that, but, really, what kept us going, what kept Hezekiah going, is just the will to be onstage. You know, I’ve read so many time about people who were down with medical things, depression, that lack of will to get out and do anything is what killed them. They just wanna sit there and die. I think, for me, the whole slow down thing is kinda of backwards to me. I think the more you push yourself and the more you stay active in your mind. You don’t have to push yourself physically. *all laugh* Let me straighten that out, you don’t have to push yourself physically. But, just the will and his desire to get back on stage, his body was just like, “Alright, let me catch up.” You know? Cause his mind was already there. So that’s what gave me the trust to believe him. And he would come to me and whisper, “Yo I’m not feeling too good” and I just told alright, we’re not gonna make a big deal about it. Let’s just sit down, get some water, and do whatever you gotta do. Nothing but respect for him for hopping back. I know how it is. I remember our first tour we went on, my leg damn near fell off. I have cellulitis and, basically, my right leg was outta use. So I’m skipping and hopping and doing anything I can to get out there. We travelled and, after a while, it was like, “Fuck it.” That first tour I did on one leg and I didn’t care, I just took some painkillers and had a beer or two, you know, let’s do the show! I wasn’t worrying about the pain, that I couldn’t go anywhere during soundcheck or anything like that. I was kinda stuck, but I wanted to be there! I just think the will carried us through and it still is.
H: The second show was crazy.
MC: I think the second show in DC was one of the best shows for this lineup for Johnny Popcorn. Easily in our top 3. The Funk Festival in DC, though, I got such a rush because all those people were so drunk and were just screaming “WAAA!” like, they were just excited to see us and we’re just standing there thinking, “Well, alright!” *laughs*
CC: It was really inspirational. Hez was just coming back… Like we saw him in the hospital, he was just laying there, and then all of a sudden he was back up! It made us feel like “Damn, we gotta step up.” Marjani was living it up, Lloyd and Freshie were all over the stage, and it really pushed us.
H: Yeah, I stood still the whole show. I’m still emotional about it because I’m usually the running around onstage then suddenly these guys are up there running around me *laughs* That DC show, the band stepped up. Lloyd was in front of the crowd, Freshie was up, Clayton is back there looking the fool like, “Look at me!” It was crazy. I did something. That’s the positive. So now, that’s us on stage. Everyone acts out.
Featuring image courtesy of Corrine McAndrews
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