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Heather Bellow
Jackson Whalan in front of SubStation Studios in Housatonic, Massachusetts.

Hip hop artist Jackson Whalan: Sensitive new age guy

By Tuesday, Apr 12, 2016 Arts & Entertainment

Housatonic — Berkshires-born hip hop artist and producer Jackson Whalan says its not always the big bad city that stokes his work, but rather being here, closer to nature, that helps him create, and that it’s whenever he’s “doing something else” that the rhymes and rhythms come calling.

Whalan, 24, moved back to Housatonic from Brooklyn, New York, where he first went to attend The New School, creating and performing at different venues and festivals both there and around the country. He studied abroad in India for three months and traveled, visiting temples, doing a silent retreat, and constantly gathering sounds with a field recorder.

Whalan at the Brick House, with saxophonist Tyler Gasek. Photo: Isabella Goldman

Whalan at the Brick House, doing S.N.A.G. with saxophonist Tyler Gasek. Photo: Isabella Goldman

His spirit and his love of the Berkshires drew him back, he says, and he is now creating what is fast becoming a movement right here in this little village, where he lives in a bohemian fantasy apartment above SubStation Studios, one of three recording studios in Housatonic.

It’s nearly 10 on a Thursday night when I get to the Brick House Pub for Whalan’s HOMEBASE show that includes musicians Jade Cicada and Ross Jenssen. The Pub, just down the street from SubStation, is packed. This isn’t my “usual jam,” as my 16-year-old might say, but I am game as I try to understand why so many cars are lined up on the dirt road behind the Pub, and why I am now parking illegally. Inside, people are still eating and every table is taken. As Whalan begins his track, I find some friends and use their table to stash my beer.

Girls are crouching near the stage, writing on slips of paper Whalan put in a bowl to trigger his improvisation. He fires off rhymes on the spot in performance art that might blow most people’s circuits. The little slips take him from love and other struggles into territory Whalan feels passionate about –– politics and local activism, namely General Electric’s feud with the Environmental Protection Agency over the company’s Housatonic River cleanup, in which it wants to create three Berkshire County dumps for its PCB (polychlorinated biphyenals) waste, one in Housatonic. Some of his most cherished themes, he tells me, are “social justice, nonviolence, and the real struggles of people.”

This is “freestyling, total improv, and it’s popping up as a new form,” Whalan says when I visit him at SubStation. “It’s making it about the audience.” He likes what it does for the audience and himself. “It keeps me on my toes and connects parts of my brain to others.”

 Whalan doing his S.N.A.G number.

Whalan at the Brickhouse in March. Photo: Isabella Goldman

The later it gets at the Brick House, the more crowded, and while it’s mostly twenty somethings, there’s an older crew as well. As he continues, Whalan is joined by sax player Tyler Gasek, and later, by Ian Stewart on trumpet. Whalan tells me his HOMEBASE shows have broken sales receipt records at the Brick House, leading to the owners’ no-brainer decision to host this event once a month, with Whalan at most of them. Whalan says he wants to start booking artists from a “wider radius” that will include New York, and says “the more successful this becomes, the more we can take care of other artists when they visit.”

Whalan says having grown up here, it’s “important to bring art and music back” after a time spent elsewhere. “The Berkshires is a place where creativity comes easy to a lot of people,” he adds. He says the challenges of living in New York City are important for the proximity to the music industry and lend a lot to the “urban-based focus on struggle.” But for actually creating the art he says the Berkshires can’t be beat. “Here the opposite — peace and quiet and the space to create — are influential in making art.”

Yet Whalan doesn’t think there’s any less inspiration up here in the country — just different. “We have PCBs and a huge heroin epidemic,” he says. “There’s no shortage of struggle to validate creating hip hop.”

But Whalan is not going to trap himself into any thematic boxes, it appears. His latest release, S.N.A.G. Sensitive New Age Guy, was recorded at SubStation and co-written by SubStation owner/producer/musician Robby Baier, mixed and mastered by Jade Cicada. It’s on his Raptivism EP that also features the Grammy-nominated cellist Dave Eggar, and includes artists with irresistable names like Rabbi Darkside and Space Jesus.

After donning some tribal-esque costume, he performs S.N.A.G, with its languorous beat, to an appreciative audience of Berkshire-ites at the Brick House who can darn well relate because we all both are and know the S.N.A.G.:

Hi, I’m a sensitive new age guy

Join my commune at open heart sky…

Our guy, however, hasn’t quite made it to the ashram, the song explains. He’s on his mother’s couch for now, the Ashmom. He’s working on it, though:

…the kickstarter page is getting ready

Plus I’m knitting medicine pouches for my Etsy…

There’s even a gong.

Autumn Doyle of Dalton-based Forever Autumn, SubStation owner Robby Baier, and Jackson Whalan, in the basement music studio. Photo: Heather Bellow

Autumn Doyle of Dalton-based Forever Autumn, SubStation owner Robby Baier, and Jackson Whalan, in the basement music studio. Photo: Heather Bellow

At SubStation, we find Baier, also a singer/songwriter who writes for TV and film, working with Autumn Doyle of Forever Autumn, a Dalton-based “acoustic doom” band. Baier says he loves hip hop, that “it opens a whole other genre to the studio.” Whalan’s work made its way, for instance, into organic acoustic music for a filmmaker working on In the Husk on the Akwesasne Reservation in New York. “It’s a perfect example of how we work together,” Baier says of Whalan, whom he began mentoring nine years ago through Railroad Street Youth Project around the time Whalan first realized, as “an angsty young boy looking for an outlet,” that he had to express this way, that this was his path.

Baier says “hip hop is everywhere,” and even some country music artists are doing it. Whalan has toured with other artists including Eggar, which he said was “very challenging and high-caliber” work as he was “swept into a whirlwind on the road,” touring with Eggar for a week doing “chamber rap.” Eggar is coming to the Brick House both to play with Whalan and do his own thing for the next HOMEBASE show on Friday, April 29.

Whalan sees the potential for a “musical hub” in Housatonic, and the goal is to keep having regular live events and to bring hip hop and electronic dance music from elsewhere around the country. He and Jade Cicada, Brian Ross and Jules Jensen helped start the Big Up Music Festival in Ghent, New York, and Whalan says that while it’s no longer running, it “created a web of musicians” that still work together and “bridge a bunch of genres.” He said many artists who performed there went on to become “famous.”

Whalan SNAGG'ing it Gasek. Photo: Isabella Goodman

Whalan and Gasek. Photo: Isabella Goodman

Which brings Whalan to the ever-present notion of “fame” that dogs every artist of every kind. I ask him what he wants. “My dream is to be a touring artist on larger stages around the world, but with the home base strong and flourishing.” He says he wants to “return here but still enjoy success,” and he says he simply loves “sharing music and creating extraordinary moments for people.”

And yet this is the strange new world of likes and followers on Soundcloud, Facebook—you name it—as one arbiter of an artist’s success, in a world where, with enough money, that social media system can be rigged. Whalan says Facebook is “democratic,” but can also be a “double edged sword” by drawing in fans, promoters and venues, while sometimes “ignoring talent.”

“People can buy likes,” he said. “It’s a harsh reality if you’re starting to make music.”

Baier walks in and thinks about it for a moment. “We want to get likes,” he says. “But what do likes really mean?”

“That attention becomes the new currency,” Whalan says, noting he’s seen plenty of Soundcloud likes where the statistics revealed the “likers” hadn’t even listened to his music.

And Baier points out that some radio stations have begun editing the longer classic rock songs to shorten them because “attention spans for songs are getting shorter.”

“The music industry is different than it was even five years ago,” Whalan says.

Ultimately, he says, fame is really a “byproduct of action,” of pulling people in to “your own little utopia that you create for yourself and others.”

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