Rap duo Speak N Eye tops the list of working musicians.
Hailing from Winston-Salem, Speak N Eye has successfully built a scene in a town lacking in much hip hop. The duo’s latest record, Cypher at the Gates of Dawn, which comes out on Baltimore-based Cold Rhymes Records on June 18 from, pushes their sound to new depths.
The duo is made up of brothers Aaron and Joshua Brookshire, who perform under the monikers MCN Eye and Unspeakable. Since 2011, the pair has put out eight records and EPs, with their last effort released in early 2016. For the past year, the duo worked side by side with producer and mentor, Height Keech.
“This project started about a year ago with our main man/mentor Height Keech sending us loops to pick through, just really awesome cuts to use as skeletons,” Aaron Brookshire said in an email to Triad City Beat. “We took these loops into the studio with Grant Livesay behind the boards and basically just went in over these samples and sent them back to Height to build around.”
Cypher at the Gates of Dawn keeps Speak N Eye’s raw, punk-rock approach to hip hop, but with a new level of professional sound and maturity.
The album opens with the track “Winston Freaks.” The song blends a unique melding of ’60s surf-pop percussion, complete with tambourine and wailing harmonica, with heavy-hitting vocals, reminiscent of early Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang. And while such a mixture might at first sound bizarre, the Speak N Eye creates a dark web of layered tones, bringing together several unrelated sounds to create something completely different, much like a psychedelic, hip-hop ode to Tom Waits.
“As far as writing, we have a strange process,” Brookshire said. “Sometimes we hold onto songs, like we have hard drives full of unreleased stuff and ideas to use for later or we will resurrect ideas, but this entire project was a fresh start for us. We wrote all of the songs over two Sundays and were in the studio right after we wrote them.”
The proximity of the writing to the laying down of tracks fits with the overarching concept of their time spent in Winston-Salem, which the album explores.
Songs like “In the Hills” find their lifeblood from driving backbeats, with smoothly laid verses that call to mind acts like early Mos Def and Outkast. The tracks “In the Hills” and “Rock Rock” are where they find their center, keeping the rhythm at the backbone of the songs, each of them alternating effortlessly between verses.[pullquote]To pre-order Cypher at the Gates of Dawn, visit speakneye.bandcamp.com.[/pullquote]
Speak N Eye are certainly veterans having been performing and recording since 2010, and they are familiar with all aspects of writing an album. But with Cypher, the concept which runs throughout came to them a little differently.
“We wanted to make an album that wholly represented the city that supports us,” Brookshire said. “[A city that] helped us and hip hop grow in it. Winston is such an amazing place and it has a truly unique music and arts scene. We book a lot of out-of-town acts on tour and the sentiment is usually like,‘Yo y’all wild.’ I feel like that sort of always was a thing to be proud of, to be freaky, dig? Why not make an anthem?”
Beyond simply using the city as a metaphor and title of a few tracks, the album also features Winston-Salem rappers including Grant Livesay, OG Spliff, among East Coast acts such as Height Keech, P.T. Burnem and Darko the Super, many of whom will perform with Speak N Eye at the album release in June at Monstercade in Winston-Salem.
“Something me and my brother learned while making this album is that collaboration is a give-and-take thing,” Brookshire said. “All the MCs on this record just destroy, each one without hesitation, [they] knew what to do and went in hard. The music end was a little different, sometimes you have to make these artistic decisions with a producer. In this case, one of our best pals, that can sometimes seem ugly at first, but when you take a step back, it can really sharpen the sword.”