Collectively the members of Native Sun have more than 20 years of professional and music performing experience. With the impending release of their debut, Step into the Light, the trio is ready to show Indianapolis, and beyond, what they’re all about.
It’s a Sunday afternoon when bassist Brandon Meeks, drummer Richard “Sleepy” Floyd and emcee Bobby Young convene at the Music Garage on the Northeast side for rehearsals. It’s a space they’ve been utilizing since 2006, almost as long as they spent writing Step into the Light. That latter fact, they say, was by design.
“Had we come out with a project four or five years ago, there may have been some joints in there people could’ve felt,” Young says. “But if you could compare it to where we are now, there would be no comparison. The maturity on the record comes through.”
It gave them the time they needed to hone their production skills and create the choicest beats they could — all of which populate Step into the Light. The title track seamlessly integrates part of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” while a spoken-word segment by Tariq Aamir underscores “Fresh Heir.” Each member contributes to the creative process.
“Whatever sounds best is what we roll with,” Young says. “It’s not, 'You get this many beats.’ It’s whatever works best for the group. That’s been our mentality from day one.”
Meeks and Sleepy combine for one funky, bottom-heavy rhythm. Just the fact they use live instrumentation makes Native Sun something of an anomaly among hip-hop acts.
“When we started nobody was doing it except one other band,” Sleepy says.
Young likes rapping over live instruments because it offers more energy than just two turntables and a microphone.
“Sleepy and Brandon can pick up on cues from the crowd or whatever I’m doing and accentuate it,” he says. And if people are really feeling it, we can extend whatever song we’re playing on the fly. We have the autonomy to do whatever we want. That makes me feel more energized than I would just performing a track.”
It’s been Young’s goal from the beginning for Native Sun to be considered more than just hip-hop.
“I always tell people the greatest compliment I’ve ever received, as far as Native Sun is concerned, is 'I don’t know what to call it’,” he says. “To me that’s a compliment, because if you can’t characterize it you can’t put it in a box. That allows us to be free.”
Meeks and Sleepy have played music since they were children. Originally from Gary, Meeks started on classical guitar at age 9, switching to bass when he joined his high school’s jazz band. After studying graphic design in Chicago, he moved to Indianapolis looking for work.
That’s when he met Sleepy. A Kokomo native, Sleepy (who got his nickname from his high school baseball coach after snoozing through a study hall and even detention despite not having it) got into drums as early as age 3 after watching others play in church.
“Back in the ’80s they made drum sets with paper heads,” Sleepy says. “I don’t know how they figured they’d make those last. My grandma bought mine for me for Christmas, and I busted them the same day. So I just turned all my toys into drums.”
He met Meeks through a Martin Luther King Jr. Day church concert that his cousin organized. Meeks’ brother-in-law, a saxophone player, was the headliner. Sleepy filled in on drums. The two became fast friends and started regularly playing jazz gigs together around Indy.
Young was late to the emcee game, even though he grew up loving hip-hop. An older cousin who worked as a DJ introduced him to the likes of Public Enemy and Redman.
“Lyrically, there were things I wasn’t supposed to be listening to, but just the art form really intrigued me,” Young says.
He wanted to try rhyming himself, but always lacked the confidence. As a student at Indiana University, he often hung out with a group of guys he also went to high school with, who had their own hip-hop group. They were always spontaneously starting freestyle battles, a concept popularized at the time by the Eminem movie “8 Mile.”
“That just made me more comfortable with it,” Young says. “I always knew I had the ability, but it was just about doing it.”
Sleepy met Young while also attending IU.
“I walked in on him at a party,” he says. “He was freestyling to some beats. We ended up kickin’ it for a long time down there.”
They played occasional gigs as Native Sun after everyone returned to Indianapolis. It didn’t become serious until 2007, when work on Step into the Light commenced. In the meantime Meeks and Sleepy have become “first-call cats” when backing musicians are needed around the city. Last year Native Sun was recruited to play behind Slum Village’s Elzhi for a local gig and also served as openers.
“We’re trying to use that as leverage to push what Native Sun does,” Sleepy says.
They feel like they’ve earned the respect of the local music community. Beyond that, however, lies a persistent apathy about how the Circle City compares to other music scenes.
“It’s like playing basketball at IU,” Young says of being a professional musician in Indianapolis. “You can pretty much be assured you won’t make it to the [NBA], but you’ll get the fundamentals down.”
Native Sun doesn’t look at that as an obstacle though — more like a challenge. Their attitude is, why not us? Better yet, why can’t Indianapolis be on the hip-hop map? Young doesn’t disparage any artist who’s left here for better opportunities, but he figures if Native Sun can’t make any noise in their hometown, what makes them think they’ll make any waves on a national scale.
That’s why the Step into the Light is permeated with piety toward Naptown and hip-hop in general. On “Circle City Renaissance,” Young raps, “Damn, Naptown got its own sound / Damn, Naptown got its own style / I know my people ain’t heard this in a while / It’s the Circle City renaissance, starts right now.”
Young conscientiously works to keep his lyrics positive.
“That’s how I try to live my life,” he says. “It’s very easy to be negative, but my attitude is the good Lord saw fit to wake me this morning, so the day’s already started good. There are a lot of people who didn’t wake up this morning for whatever reason.”
Now that their debut is ready for mass consumption, its creators have made Native Sun their focus.
“I’ve stopped playing with like 10 bands to focus on moving this project forward,” says Meeks, who adds as hired hands they could have a gig every night if they wanted. But after a while, it feels like something that’s not leading to anything.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re on tour, but we haven’t actually gone outside (Interstate) 465. We’re trying to allow ourselves time to focus on building this project now.”
Same with Sleepy. He considers his dues paid and is ready for more.
“We kind of removed ourselves from the scene in order to build it up, if that makes sense,” he says about the extended process behind Step into the Light.
The goal is for Native Sun to tour nationally. To help make that happen, they’re working on collaborating with like-minded acts in other major cities to play shows together both there and here. They hope it helps their hometown too.
“The more we build up Indianapolis, the more attention that will draw from other cities,” Meeks says.
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