Sirius Bender is pacing around the studio. It’s 10:35 pm and he is exactly 35 minutes behind schedule. The tracks that he has come to Mr. Small's Studio to master are not transferring from his laptop to the studio computer, and Sirius is lamenting the fact that he didn’t email them to Vince, the audio engineer, the night prior. With every minute that passes, more dollar bills slip through Sirius’ fingers; studio time equals cash directly from his pocket. Luna, Sirius’ music manager, collaborator, and friend, has taken over his laptop to solve the problem while he quietly panics. Vince, unfazed by the technical difficulty, chats with Lamont, a hip-hop hopeful himself, who lounges on a leather couch and picks the audio engineer’s brain about the industry. Though the group gathers at Mr. Smalls Studio tonight to master Sirius’ EP, each individual member holds their own musical ambitions; they bolster one another with the collaboration and support essential for survival as young artists.
You might not know that Sirius was a rapper upon first meeting him, but you would guess that he is an artist of some sort. He’s soft-spoken, but intentional and forceful with his words. His frenetic pacing about the studio is unusual; normally Sirius exudes relaxation, amicability, and a catlike self-sufficiency. Art is inscribed upon his body; tattoos blend in with his dark skin upon first glance, but once you get closer, the puzzle pieces that hug the right side of his neck, the Courage the Cowardly Dog cartoon on his forearm, and the emblematic peace-sign and headphone insignia on the inside of his wrist reveal themselves, among other cryptic illustrations. Sirius’ well-proportioned face is adorned with a simple, silver nose ring and a small, black stud that sits above his lips like a Marilyn Monroe-style mole.
Sirius isn’t in hip hop to make millions. He said, “Being an independent artist, no one is paying me to do these things. I have work, I have a social life. I’m a 23 year old guy. Music is my passion, but at the same time, it’s my job… and I’m in the middle of that.” Like many young, independent artists, it is passion and the inexplicable drive to make music that motivates Sirius to stay up all night recording music at home and then spend the cash he earns working at the IGA Grocery in Oakland on precious studio time. The music doesn’t compel him solely. He says, “Hip hop isn’t just rapping. There’s singers, there’s people who specifically song-write, play instruments… The fashion of it, the art of it. Hip hop is a culture and I want to be part of that, so here I am. Being a hip hop artist.”
Also inherent to hip hop culture is the push and pull of competition versus collaboration. Though he’s a young artist, Sirius has felt himself buffeted by these tides already. He describes the dissolution of his previous hip hop crew with a sports analogy: “We were in constant competition with each other. We all wanted to be the best. It was the play-offs all the time. At almost all times. Even within the group.”
Sirius formed his previous group, B3D, with a few hip hop devotees that he met in college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. The group pegged him as a rapper before they knew him and before Sirius was even a big fan of hip hop, himself. Sirius tells the story of his induction:
“They were like, ‘Are you a rapper?’ I was like, ‘No, do I look like a rapper? I’m just standing here.’ I started hanging out with them often and we started writing raps. They knew I’d get hooked. I think that’s what was supposed to happen.”
After B3D released their first album in fall of 2012, they attracted small recognition from Gorilla Productions, based in Cleveland, but the group fell apart before really taking off, due to competition and personal differences.
Sirius is an independent artist in the wake of B3D’s break-up, but he doesn’t wish to remain alone. He said, “My motto that I used to preach is, ‘no man is a movement.’ The production company that I want to start, I want it to be a movement of artists. Not one specific goal, but just a movement. The first step in me doing everything that I need to do starts with finding the other pieces to play the game. I’m just waiting to come across the people for it.” Though he describes himself as an independent artist, Sirius’ work is impossible without collaboration; his music is intimately interconnected with the fellow artists and friends he supports, and those who do the same for him.
Case in point: tonight Sirius is at Mr. Smalls Studio to master his first full independent EP, The Great Escape. Mastering is a stage of post-production that puts the final touches on each track to give the final product optimal sound. Vince and Sirius work through each track (finally, they managed to transfer the songs onto the studio computers). The increasing depth of each track is apparent as they play the song over and over, making small adjustments each time. It appears that this phase of the process for Sirius involves, mostly, sitting, stressed, and sharing his vision with Vince, who manipulates the many dials and monitors at the studio’s giant desk.
Luna provides assistance and organization for Sirius, yet he helps her along, also; in a quiet moment, she mentions a song she’s been working on. “I couldn’t get the words down, so Sirius ghost-wrote the vocals for me. I’ve been practicing, but can’t get it down.... I can’t hit some notes to belt it out.”
Sirius, distractedly, mentions that he wants to get into ghost writing professionally. Luna and Lamont joke, “Are you going to ghost write for Drake?” Underscoring the banter is the struggle; an aspiring rapper can’t just rap. Any aspiring artist can’t just art. Creativity, resourcefulness, and multiplicity are essential to survival.
This is why Lamont accompanies Sirius to Mr. Smalls’ tonight; he wants to jump-start his own hip hop career, but is also thinking about audio engineering. In his first year of college, Lamont is concerned about how best to balance his artistic interests with financial smarts: “Sirius has been really helpful in helping me get started with rapping and setting up a SoundCloud account, though I already have a following from high school, where I acted. I’ve been thinking about audio engineering, too, for a living.”
Despite its unique challenges, hip hop culture provides a community and an environment that Sirius wouldn’t trade. He said, “It’s fun being a word prophet. Just wandering the streets and wherever you go… With hip hop it’s all about what you say and how you say it. Being an orator. Like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Hitler, even. Just saying what you say, what you feel. And for people to feel it back. That’s… something that’s not in every genre. This great guitar player, great drummer, great bassist, great… kazoo player. With hip hop it’s what you say and how you say it. People feel that when you feel it. It’s about delivery. It’s about charisma.”
For Sirius, this reciprocity and personality is what distinguishes rap from other genres of music. Overcoming shyness has been his biggest challenge; perhaps that’s why he has constructed The Great Escape as a personal introduction to the world. Rather than creating party-friendly tracks, he has assembled a collection of songs that offer insight into his mindset. “I didn’t want my first step into the music scene to be what everyone else is doing… I wanted my first step into the light to be: sit down and get to know who I am, in my mind and as a person. I put so much of myself into it. It’s a portrait.”
Though the The Great Escape is meant to be a personal look into Sirius' psyche, his biggest musical influences are also audible in his EP. There’s Kid Cudi, who is known for his deep, philosophical lyrics and spacey, hypnotic beats. There’s the electronic mastery of the Gorillaz, and the smooth defiance of Lupe Fiasco. Sirius even includes an homage to pop-punk with two tracks that fall under the pop-punk umbrella more-so than rap. He says, “I’m obsessed with the concepts of sleep and death, that whole ‘sleep is the cousin of death’ thing. That’s a recurring theme in my music. It has a very hypnotic, dream effect in a a lot of things I do.”
For Sirius Bender, music is a vital creative outlet. “Experiencing life as a counter-culture, there’s a lot to be pissed off about. It’s fun to be able to vent that.”