Interview: Jesse Boykins III & MeLo-X – ‘The Road to Zulu Guru’


by Andrea K. Castillo

Jesse Boykins III and MeLo-X are two musicians that walk the road less traveled by. Blending musical and sartorial influence from the many lands they travel to with their gift of music, Giant Step contributor Andrea Castillo caught up with the two a couple weeks before their first collaborative release, Zulu Guru, hit. Amongst our topics were the creative process of making the album, and how the guys would like their music to be received by the people. Zulu Guru is out today (stream on AOL).

Together you guys have embarked on a musical journey, and are releasing your first album together called Zulu Guru. Tell me about the road up until this point; I’m familiar with both of your musical stylings, and I want to know why you decided to do this together. What was the first conversation you had and said, “Oh, let’s do this thang!”

Jesse: We’re both Jamaican.

[Everyone laughs]

MeLo: First conversation, being Jamaican.

So was that your connection?

M: Yea, that was like the only reason why we did the album.

J: I don’t really know him besides that…

M: You know it’s funny, but we’ve always been talking about doing an album together, and I believe the first album we spoke about doing together was gonna be a reggae album.

J: Nah seriously, we said that.

M: We said, “Let’s do a reggae album”, so that’s how it kinda started. We need to do something together, and then we started bouncing ideas…

J: This album is reggae influenced

M: Most definitely, West Indian influenced.

J: …this is our reggae album. This is as reggae as we can get without getting weird.

Would you say this has been years in the making?

M: Yea, I’d definitely say that. Conceptually, yes, but actually working on it, not that long.

J: We took like nine months to do the project. We started around this time last year, so I guess a year. But the creative process of us doing the songs is pretty cool because I would like, call Melo with a concept and I would have a debate, and he doesn’t like it. I would call him back again, and we would get up together, and we’ll be vibing, and we write this crazy verse, then we record it. That’s pretty much what the process was with every song, nothing was forced. Everything was pretty organic. …it was a real[exchange].

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You said that there is a lot of reggae and West Indian influence. Besides that, separately, your music is very soulful, so where would you say genre-wise, if you could put all these influences in a box, what would they be?

J: I would call everything world soul. So basically, we travel, we are exposed to all of these different types of music, all these genres of music, so we take influence from all those things. And “soul” basically meaning it’s from the heart, we’re passionate about it. No one’s making us do this, but we do this because we love it. It’s called world soul, which means we can pretty much do whatever we want.

M: Stuff that I do with my remixes, I just call it experimental free music. Free to experiment with any genre, any sound, just very experimental in every thing we do.

Talk to me about “Black Orpheus”, the first single, the concept behind the song and why you named it that.

J: One of my favorite movies is “Black Orpheus”, and I really like the soundtrack of “Black Orpheus”. It was funny because I was watching the movie and I was in the Bay Area, I was living in Cali at the time, and I heard the melody [hums melody] and I was like, “Damn, that melody’s so dope!”. Afta-1 [the produce] had a track called “Samba” that he had released already, but when I heard it and sang the melody over it, I recorded it, and I sent it to him [Melo] and he didn’t like it. I was hurt, I was so hurt.
M: It’s not that I didn’t like it, it just didn’t hit me.

J: But he never saw the movie before, it’s a great film. I was so connected with it, and the words to the hook are “I played her heart strings, her songs now I sing, I took back the ring, and found a new queen”. And in this story, “Black Orpheus”, he’s a guitar player and singer; he’s a ladies man. He walks around playing guitar and singing, it’s around carnivale time. He has a fiancée at the time but he takes the ring back from her because he didn’t want to marry her any more, but this new girl came out of nowhere in town and they had this crazy connection.

What a love story.

M: It’s something that we never touched on creatively so it’s pretty cool.

J: Exactly, because sometimes you’re like “Stay true to your girl” and you’re put into a situation like “Damn, did this situation happen? This is crazy right now.” And we acknowledge that. I remember I was back in New York and after one week with us, we were playing the track, and I was like [to Melo]“Yo, how do you not like this?”. I was so mad! I brought the movie up on YouTube, we started watching it, and then Melo was like, “Ohhhhhhh!”.

M: As I was watching the movie I started writing to it on the spot; I wrote the whole thing on the spot.

J: Melo writing…he’s weird when he writes, he just walks off, walking back and forth. It looks crazy, like he’s talking to himself going through it.

M: Yea, I talk to myself and say “Oh yea, that’s hot!”.

J: Then he came back and spit this verse, and I was like, “Alright”.

M: And then we recorded a video and put it on YouTube that same night; it was real spontaneous.

J: Before we even recorded it [in studio].

M: People knew the song before it was even released. So we knew it would be a good song to start with.

J: I wanted that to be the first single because it was the first song that we did together.

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You guys travel a lot, and I’m on Tumblr because it’s a fun place to be, right? I saw your photos from Equatorial Guinea. Explain this movement, the “Romantic Movement”, I’m so intrigued by it. Tell me about the collective and how you work together and do these things together. Why did you decide to combine and have this movement?

J: In 2010 I went to London and shot a video with Dr. Woo called “Amorous”, and I had to do a write-up for it. When I did the write-up for it, the first line was “I am the reawakening of the Romantic Movement.” And then I thought about it, you can’t be a movement by yourself, that’s stupid, and all my friends are way cooler than I am anyway, so I can’t even take the credit for saying “I am the reawakening of the romantic movement”, cuz everyone in our group or everyone we hang around are all influenced by each other, we are all inspired by each other. We all share and want to grow together. We all care about this generation and the generation after us, and what they take in and how they look at art research, and art history and culture. We feel that is very important and lacking in music, especially in this generation now, especially listening to the radio. All of my friends, all of us in the Romantic Movement, are pretty in tune with culture, like current culture, but we are also very grounded in past culture and influences.

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So you’re prepping for the release of the album, it’s at the end of the month. There are two release dates, correct?

M: October 30 is the U.S. and November 5 is overseas.

For people in the U.S., specifically that of the New York area, when can we see you perform, or just tour in general?

J: Probably the top of next year.

M: A lot of stuff we have now is out of the country…we’re venturing out and hitting everybody before we come back home.

J: They’re asking for us more so than here.

Do you feel that fans of music overseas have a better ear maybe? And they see and hear these things that are “special” more so than those fans in America?

M: You know what, I wouldn’t say the fans, cuz we have fans here [in the U.S.] that love our music, are inspired by our music and hit us up, but when it comes to industry, the bookers, or writers or DJs, or radio, over here they go with the hype. Over there, they go with the good music, and if you have good music, they’re gonna play it; Gilles Peterson plays my stuff, DJ Semtex plays my stuff on BBC Radio, which is top radio, like Funk Flex playing it over here. The industry is different.

J: I feel like there is another aspect too. People from Europe and people not from here value music at a greater level than we do because we are so saturated here in the States. We don’t understand how lucky it is that we have the access that we have, we have the music that is being created and the good music that is being overlooked because of the hype; you know what I mean? But in Europe they’ll appreciate the music that is hyped too, it’s just valued as much as the music that is not hyped. It’s the quality that really matters.

So you’re spreading good music to the world? Would that be a good assessment?

J: That’s the point.

M: I think I would consider us both international because of where we’ve traveled and performed; we can see where the dollars are coming from, who’s responding. And when we go to these places and perform, we see who is coming out to the shows. I would definitely say we are international artists based in New York City.

What are you looking most forward to with the release of this album, besides spreading good music and traveling more? Is there something that you would want to see maybe within the youth? Would you hope that an album like yours could maybe enlighten younger people because they are just hearing the same sh*t all the time?

J: Yes, that’s basically what it is conceptually. A lot of the songs [on the album] are just me and Melo admitting to our mistakes, and being okay with that. And acknowledging that we f*ck up, especially as men, you know? …a lot of the songs are us shutting down our egos, which I feel doesn’t happen in music from the male perspective. Every guy that records a song is the “illest of all time”, “best rapper alive”…

M: “Best in bed”…

J: But that’s all bullsh*t, you know what I mean? At the end of the day we are all human beings; we don’t get what we want all the time.

It’s more vulnerable, you would say?

J: It’s definitely a more vulnerable album.

I didn’t expect that.

M: The idea of being a “Zulu Guru” is being a warrior and a teacher, and I feel like the way we approach our music is with that warrior spirit. We go on and we conquer these different lands with our music. We find the romantic quality in different areas of life and we express it. The album is basically that, it’s like one layer of a larger story that is about to happen. This album is like a statement…it’s like a seed being planted, and we watch it grow from there.

J: When I think of “Zulu Guru” I think of the balance of masculinity and femininity, and how a lot of men are ashamed to be feminine when the feminine is a part of you. It’s okay to be emotional, like the vulnerability you were speaking of, that’s another thing I think this album represents and I hope gets across to the listeners. It’s okay to be masculine and feminine, there’s a time for everything…if you make a mistake, just say you made a mistake and apologize. This is what happens, these are my past experiences, communication, and all these things that we are usually not known for; being open, admitting to wrongdoings, and things like that. These are things that usually don’t get touched on in music, but we pretty much touched on it with the album on a lot of songs.

One last question, what is “schwaza”?

J: We were in Berlin in January of 2011, and Dr. Woo went out and got some free clothes in the morning and he came back bragging. He kept saying “Schwaza yo. I got this new sh*t, schwaza”, and I’m looking at him like “My man, what the f*ck are you talking about? What is schwaza?”, he says “That’s swag in German”. So me and Josh from Street Etiquette walk around the tradeshow like “that’s schwaza!”, and everybody’s looking at us crazy, like “what does that mean?”, some German dude asked us. We say, “What do you mean? That’s swag in German!”, he says “That word doesn’t exist”. We had already been saying it for three days, so it was too late. When we got back here [the U.S.] we said, “F*ck it, let’s just say that sh*t.” My boy Kenji who runs this non-profit called Passport Life, he went on Urban Dictionary and published it. He called me one day and asked me what I would call the definition, I said that I feel it’s a term that acknowledges any amazing moment, something profound, but everything’s profound to us, like “This cereal is good as hell! Schwaza!”.

M: When there’s no other words to express the height of the moment, it’s just schwaza.