I am not them: Big Piph on his "living album" 

Little Rock rapper soon to release an interactive app, too.

click to enlarge I AM NOT THEM: Rapper-activist Big Piph recently release a "living album," "I Am Not Them: the Legacy Project." In early July, he'll put out an interactive app.
  • I AM NOT THEM: Rapper-activist Big Piph recently release a "living album," "I Am Not Them: the Legacy Project." In early July, he'll put out an interactive app.

Rapper and activist Big Piph, known to some as Chane "Epiphany" Morrow, has spent the last couple of years building on his experiences in Morocco, Equatorial Guinea and Algeria with his organization Global Kids Arkansas. He released "I Am Not Them: The Legacy Project," an album organized into three thematic acts, on June 17. He will follow that release with a corresponding app for iOS and Google Play, a sort of virtual forum for creative discourse about topics related to the album's content. We talked with Piph about "The Legacy Project" (as well as Disneyland, Greek choruses and Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton") on the cusp of the album's release.

There are sonic surprises at every turn here and a barrage of truly creative sounds underpinning the bits that are spoken. There's an ever-present balance, though — it's never overwhelming. Where was the album mixed, and who mixed it?

I'm glad that you think so. It was mixed at Moonrize Studios by Ferocious of Ferocious Productions and G-Sizz of Moonrize Productions. They've been longtime collaborators.

A good deal of those creative sounds come from the guitar — it often sounds like it's underwater, or being heard through a prism. Is Lucas [Murray] responsible for all the guitar work? Can you speak a little as to why he's your guy?

Although he and I have become good friends, the primary reason "Cool Hand" is the go-to guy is because he's real dope at what he does. Talent and skill trump friendship when creating on projects for me. (Luckily, I usually get to combine all three, though.) He was referred to me by Max Farrell to be in my band after my guitarist was leaving back about 6 to 7 years ago. Since then, we've grown musically together and he's my first call when a guitar is needed. I will note that, on certain tracks, some of his playing was altered in post-production.

Some of this singing is so good it hurts, and you hit us with some absolutely tortured, gorgeous harmonies right out of the gate. Who are these folks?

Sincerely happy that you feel that way. As I noted in "Hey, Hey, Hey," I would sing if I could, but I can't, so I don't. Instead, I write (most) singing parts, give a reference to the artists and then get in the studio with them and usually get Ferocious to record (as he stands tall with any vocal arranger I've witnessed). Then, it once again becomes a collaborative effort to reach the vision. A major exception is on the first song — Joshua Asante from Amasa Hines came in to bless the track. A good friend and possibly even a better artist. (Or maybe it's the other way around.) With all that said, I feel I really create "soul" music. Given such, you're supposed to feel it.

A sense of family — blood-relation or otherwise — pulses through the album. You editorialize your mom into a list of historical heroes. You reference your sense of responsibility to your three godchildren, and the times when you've felt conflicted about whether to have children yourself, or adopt. There's a particular song, called "Why Should I Care," which lets two very different versions of a story about a custody battle unfold. To the listener, there's a real truth in this ambiguity, like, these are the two versions each person is probably telling their friends, and the truth is somewhere in there. (And then, there's the unspoken implication that the kid is putting together her own version, right?)

I have an adventurous love/hate relationship with people, and a deep sense of requirement to a few. I aim to love everyone (even though I'm still figuring out what that means) and let that be seen in my actions, but that doesn't always work out, as they're also what drive me to frequent points of solitude. Missteps granted, in the end I always rep on the side of a quest towards love because it helps keep me sane and gives my anger a target to focus on.

As for "Why Should I Care," the concept is actually two separate real stories. My personal tale is the first. It tends to be more general because I couldn't delve heavily into the subject due to people involved. As a result, Duke Stigall (the second emcee) is way more in depth; he shared a situation from his life.

On a related note, you've developed some pretty substantive relationships with kids — Morocco, Equatorial Guinea. Here in the states, too? Can you talk a little about Global Kids-Arkansas, and your experiences with the younger folks on our planet?

I've now been able to travel abroad and domestically holding workshops and working with people (specifically youth) in efforts to break down barriers and build communities. The current "simple" plan is to provide paradigm-shifting events for young folks with ambition, but lacking the means, and then provide them with the resources and opportunities to build. We tend to search for youth from underserved communities to do so and our two main channels are jUSt and/or Global Kids-Arkansas. The former one does Books & Bagels, partnered with the [Hillary Rodham Clinton] Children's Library, and the latter sends youth from underserved communities abroad for learning and social services projects. Ten percent of the purchased proceeds from the app go to support these efforts.

You curated the album, which is a collage of dozens (hundreds?) of voices and perspectives — centered and grounded, I'd say, by your own voice. You're sort of like the Greek chorus, commenting on the moral questions in the stories/lives surrounding you. And, like a Greek chorus, you allow yourself some creative distance, but you're in that world, too. How would you describe your relationship to the actors in this play? Is it a play at all?

I like the Greek chorus comparison. As noted before, I see myself as a kind of conductor and orchestrator of it all. It's like I peeped "Hamilton" this year (doper than what I expected) and although Lin-Manuel [Miranda] is the centerpiece of the work, it took an entire team of folks to create the phenomenon, including Hamilton himself and the author of the book. So, although this is my album, it's a group work. The underlying flow is one from "Me" to "We," as I'm not the only "I" from "I AM NOT THEM."

I'll say this, though: Every story told was real. Every personal observation made was my own, and every feeling — high, low, fault or strength — expressed has been on my walk from the past few years.

Speaking of Greek, you and I talked about your sense of the album as an escape into an alternate universe, and you likened it unto entering the gates of Disneyland. I was reminded of the Greek idea of catharsis — that the spectator should leave the experience not having merely enjoyed it, but having been changed by it. Can you speak to that vision a little, and how the app factors into it?

I guess Disneyworld was mentioned from the perspective that I feel you leave whatever place you were to enter into a different realm. I'm good off of trynna to deliver the "happiness" and "thrills" that Disney does. On the cool, I see myself as a storyteller and world builder. I want folks to enter into the created experience and find ways that it resonates with their own story. However, after I made my album "Such Is Life" in 2011, I wanted to push myself (and others), so this app idea was born.

The app: It's an interactive app-based album made to engage, highlight and connect the users (or, as I call them, "FAM") through storytelling. I call it a "living album" for short. Basically, scheduled content in the form of music videos, contests, call-to-actions, text and social media-based aspects will come out through the app. It will be a centralized area to issue new, creative and connected album-related media in a dope fashion.

Some people have alluded to it being a possible solution to shortened lifespans of albums in the digital age, but it honestly started as what I would like to see, and have, as a fan. I then got the proper team and put that on steroids and refined it to create what I believe will be a truly unique experience. And it's completely worth the risk of download in that it's free on Google Play and Apple Store.

The music is still the heart and soul of it all, but there's much more now.

Your wordplay is concise, adventurous and at times so clever it's nerdy. (I'm thinking of the bit "Baby girl gettin' loose on the next Ali, cause cash is ruling everything," hinting at the word "Cassius." It damn near made me fall out of my chair.) And the dozens of times you rearrange sentence structure for the sake of a more innovative rhyme ("how could you say that not sucks?") or allude to a cliche without actually using it fully ("That camel back broke.") That said, I wonder who some of your favorites are, in terms of literary figures.

A proud Pine Bluff nerd I am, but I'm a rap dude at the end of the day. Plus, most of my favorites were all able to take a song in a particular direction while weaving in clever wordplay and turn of phrase. From Andre 3000 to "Reasonable Doubt" Jay to Nas to "Ridin' Dirty" Bun B; there were always layers to the rhyme.

You definitely show some love for The Bluff. Any Pine Bluff musicians on the album?

Uh, oh ... actually, I don't think so.

You speak boldly on the idea of a "post-racial America," among other things, and you manage to do so without it ever feeling preachy or self-righteous ("Claim a rebel heart, but is there Kool-Aid in my system?") There's something in that spirit of self-examination that people are really going to relate to on this album. (Or so I hope.)

I hope so, too.

There's so much positivity and light on this album, and in your overall message behind the definition of "them: The anti-growth, anti-giving, anti-greatness 'humans' who live amongst us." Being the messenger of this message is, no doubt, very rewarding, but it's exhausting that there are so many people blocking that idea of forward movement, some of them very, very powerful people. At one point, you say, "I'm tired of the fight. Good night." How do you identify, politically? Spiritually?

My personal fight is not greater nor lesser than anybody else's. I'm just trying to get my job well done.


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