Rap's raconteur: TJ Reynolds combines whimsy and wisdom

TJ Reynolds and his collaborators previewed tracks from Sugar on the Tongue last month at the Earth House.

Over the past decade, TJ Reynolds has emerged as one of the most community-minded figures on Indianapolis' underground music and arts scene.

He's a socially conscious hip-hop standard bearer whose rhyme skills and organizing abilities have made him a go-to collaborator for a broad range of recording and performance projects. His music and poetry outreach efforts have brought inspiration to our city's most disadvantaged children.

He's built his reputation as a member of the Undefeatable Beats, the Philosophy and the (Re)Collective Company, among other groups, but what he hasn't done until now is present his own unfiltered vision as an artist. He's doing that this week with two launch parties for his first solo album, Sugar on the Tongue.

Three years in the making, the 18-cut collection blends the deeply personal with the overtly political and the intentionally goofy. It's a playful conceptual smorgasbord in the tradition of De La Soul or the Beastie Boys — carefully sequenced, each number flowing into the next, packed with ear-tickling samples from likely and unlikely sources.

Some of the tunes have been performed locally, and some of Reynolds' longtime collaborators are among the musicians on the recording and in the current lineup of his band, the Freehand Orchestra. Still, he senses that he's opened a fresh chapter in his life and career. (Editor's note: And Reynolds has written a few chapters for NUVO as an occasional contributor to the music section.)

"It doesn't feel like the culmination; it feels like a new beginning in a way," he says. "Songwriting has been a continual learning process for me. It comes down to the question, if the whole world stopped to listen to you, what would you have to say? I just wanted to have a complete statement that represented my serious side, my conscious side, my struggle and my sense of humor. I think having that balance is what can open people up and grab their attention."

Growing up

Neatly bearded and bespectacled, with an almost priestly demeanor, Anthony Joseph Reynolds doesn't immediately come across as a rap hero. But give him a mike and a beat, and you've got a party.

The Broad Ripple High School grad says his parents encouraged creative expression. His father, Tony, now retired after a career as a public employee, collected jazz on vinyl and classical on reel-to-reel.

"My dad always played music in the house," says Reynolds, 32. "He has a great record collection that I've sampled from."

His mother, Lucy, who has worked as a teacher and in the private sector, had creative leanings of her own.

"She would find ways of expressing herself," Reynolds says. "I think she's an artist who didn't get to see that side totally blossom."

The family heritage includes white, black and Puerto Rican lineage. As a child, Reynolds remembers being called "Spic" and "Rico Suave," but he tried to learn and grow from the experience.

"When it happened to my brother, he beat the dude's ass. I just stopped and thought about it: What made that guy say that? Words are only as powerful as the meaning you give them," he says. "I didn't look at (my heritage) as a negative. I looked at it as a positive, to already feel comfortable in different cultural groups. I could just wander back and forth as I felt. You don't realize you're different until somebody teaches you that."

Visual art was a passion for Reynolds from early on. After high school, he spent nearly two years at Herron School of Art & Design, but gradually he grew frustrated with what he saw as the limitations of the medium.

"It's too easy to look at art and not get the message, not let it envelop you," he says.

In seeking a new direction, music was a logical choice. Hip hop had been the soundtrack of Reynolds' adolescence, starting when a neighbor gave him a cassette dupe of NWA's Straight Outta Compton.

"To be in junior high and to hear people expressing themselves so freely was inspiring to me," says Reynolds, who soon discovered Erik B & Rakim and then a Tribe Called Quest. "The group that really got me was Arrested Development. I liked the mesh of organic elements and sampled elements. I liked their ability to put a message in a catchy song. I liked their live show, their presentation. They had a whole movement of people — DJs and musicians and dancers."

That kitchen-sink approach to performance has been reflected in Reynolds' work ever since.

'The Mind'

Reynolds was among the founders of United States of Mind, a local cultural collective that saw its heyday during the first half of the decade. The group's headquarters, a storefront at 40th Street and Boulevard Place, was the setting for many a freewheeling event, most incorporating some combination of poetry, traditional West African hand drumming, hip hop, breakdancing and other forms of expression. People of all ages and backgrounds were welcome, with Reynolds often playing the role of host/director/manager.

The USOM house band of sorts was the Undefeatable Beats, an extended ensemble that incorporated all those elements and more, including vocalists Kate Lamont and Sarah Grain, now known as singer-songwriters in their own right. Reynolds, who sometimes uses the stage name "Toe Jam," was one of the group's MCs, along with Ike "Bambu" Boyd and Adam "Spread" Eaglesfield. As the larger band dissolved, the three rappers began performing on their own as the Philosophy, releasing an album in 2006. Although they no longer perform regularly, Boyd and Eaglesfield make appearances on Reynolds' new album, and a follow-up Philosophy EP is in the works.

The connection between African drumming and hip-hop has continued to fascinate Reynolds. Their basic framework is the same, he says: A repetitive loop creates the foundation for rhythmic play by the main voice, whether human or drum. The need for an almost mechanical precision in the rhythm bed, he says, is what makes it especially challenging to perform hip hop with live instruments.

"So many groups that attempt to play hip hop fall short, because very few musicians have that discipline," he says.

To study the notion further, Reynolds applied and last year received one of the Arts Council of Indianapolis' coveted $10,000 Creative Renewal Arts Fellowships. (He claims to be the only hip-hop artist in the program's 10-year history.) He used the Lilly Endowment-funded grant to travel to France, home of many African immigrants who still practice and teach their homeland drum traditions. The two-year project will culminate later this year in the form of another album.

"I want to treat hip hop as high art," he says, "and if I bring that attitude, people can start to see it."

Another project that grew out of USOM — "the Mind," as insiders still call it — was Reynolds' marriage. He and his wife, teacher and artist Sarah Zuckerman, met there at a poetry slam, began working on creative projects together, and gradually became a couple and then a family, with sons Julius, 11, whom Sarah brought to the relationship, and Xavier, 2.

Their story is not unique, Reynolds says.

"There are about 20 'Mind babies,' from couples who met there," he estimates. "I don't know if they were conceived there, but it's not out of the question."

Finally, an album

Though best known as a poet and rapper, Reynolds has been honing his composition skills since 2001, when he began collecting sound samples and crafting beats at home with a digital workstation. By the time he decided to put an album together, he had more than 1,000 beats and 100 generally complete songs in the can. He pared the list to 20 and began a long, painstaking process of fleshing out the album with live recordings at engineer Roger Baker's Toyland studio, visiting once a week with a long list of local musicians, DJs, rappers and singers.

As his wife points out, even Reynolds' solo debut showcases his ability to work with other artists, capitalize on their various strengths and maintain friendly relationships even through the challenging process of creating together.

"A lot of people burn bridges, but he's a bridge builder," Zuckerman says. "He still loves to incorporate all the talent he sees around him, and he has this fantastic pool of artists."

On the instrumental side, the contributors include hand drummers Helger Oomkes and Blaise Zekalo; percussionists Tim Williams and Joseph Lehner; kit drummer Devon Ashley; DJ J-Rhyme; trumpeter Hubert Glover; and guitarists Baker, Gareth Somers, Chris Hunt and Eastside Larry (aka Sean McGary). Reynolds also uses samples from other friends' recordings.

The title song, "Sugar on the Tongue," originated as a freestyle shoutout to preferred brands of candy, but Reynolds came to view the phrase as a metaphor for one of his strongly held beliefs about hip hop: To deliver a message, one must also entertain. To borrow from Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar — humor, surprise, warmth — helps the medicine go down.

"Sugar on the Tongue":

"I've been very purposeful about that," he says. "You're there to communicate. You're there to find commonality."

Along with the diversity and density of Reynolds' sample-happy composing style — with its lush strings and sound effects — one of the album's sweeteners is its use of soulful female vocals to accompany the harder-edged male rhymes, often with equal prominence. Most are provided by Reynolds' younger sister, New York-based actress-director Teresa Reynolds, as well as by Grain and Zuckerman.

Another example is the over-the-top whimsy of a track titled "Humpback." Over a slow handclap beat and sampled whale sounds, Reynolds and Eaglesfield trade PG-rated sex boast rhymes from the standpoint of a large aquatic mammal ("Got mermaids on my jock like I'm Moby Dick"). Used as a single to tease the upcoming album, it comes complete with a no-budget DIY video featuring comical green-screen effects and a large group of costumed friends dancing and lip-synching on a beach at Eagle Creek Park. The two MCs are dressed in enormous whale costumes that Reynolds and Zuckerman constructed from papier-mache and other recycled materials.

Zuckerman, who teaches art at Key Learning Community, recalls the origin of the idea: "One day we were just sitting around and he said, 'I want some whales.'"

"It's really silly," Reynolds admits. "We wanted to see what happens when you take a ridiculous idea to the extreme."

Representing the album's more serious side is the trilogy that forms its centerpiece, an environmentally minded apocalyptic warning about Mother Nature's pending revenge on the human race. "The Calm Before" is a spooky recitation over sparse tribal percussion. It collides against "Storm Is Coming," which continues the theme as an R&B song. The package wraps on a positive note with "Nothing in Particular," a meditation about falling leaves and new growth, accompanied by jazzy bass, piano and saxophone samples.

"Storm is Coming":

"It's kind of approaching the same subject matter from a different perspective," Reynolds explains. "I actually wrote them separately and then realized later they were part of the same song."

Up close and personal

The album opens with a more conventional rap number, "A Miserable Intro," which begins with applause and an orchestral fanfare sampled from a well-known musical theater soundtrack. The lyrics are a self-congratulatory recitation of the protagonist's rhyme skills.

"That's the most straight-up, boasting hip hop" on the album, Reynolds acknowledges. "It's almost like I wanted to get that out of the way."

Other standouts include "Sincerity," a soft R&B love ballad, and "Anthem," a slow, smile-inducing march with gospel harmonies that give a big, unspecified finger to The Man with their single repeated lyric: "We ain't scared of none of that, we ain't scared of none of that shit you be talkin' on."


The album closes on its most tender and personal notes. "Hum Bling" explores the humbling experience of becoming a parent, written to son Xavier while he was still in the womb. Although the subject matter gets a bit close for comfort, with its references to biological processes, the sentiment is heartfelt and touching.

Reynolds has always been one to let it all hang out, his wife says.

"That filter of the public and the private just doesn't exist with him," Zuckerman says. "Most people aren't able to be that open with all their different worlds."

From Reynolds' perspective, opening one's self to examination is a great way to connect with an audience.

"Sometimes the most personal stuff, the most specific stuff, is the most relatable," he says.

The album's final cut, a hidden bonus track, is Reynolds' ode to Zuckerman, his partner in art and life. It recounts their relationship from its earliest days and ends in a direct proposal of marriage. In fact, he actually used the tune to propose to her before a live audience at the downtown venue Earth House. He practiced the lyrics for four months to insure against even the slightest glitch.

"I had no idea," says the bride, who had elderly relatives at her side as the tune unfolded. "He delivered it flawlessly. I couldn't say no."

The couple married last year, also at the Earth House, where other USOM veterans have carried on the legacy of their earlier venture.

Sugar on the Tongue will be available at Reynolds' upcoming shows — it's included with admission to Friday's launch party at Radio Radio — and later will be sold through Audio Recon, the locally based online music distributor.

As for the live performances, the current lineup of the Freehand Orchestra consists of longtime collaborators Lehner on drums and Grain on vocals and guitar; Ron "Poncho" Hedrick (Blackberry Jam) on bass; and keyboardist Mina Keohane, who was schooled in jazz composition at Boston's famed Berklee College of Music.

"She comes from such an academic world, I think for her to step into hip-hop is a fun challenge," Reynolds says.

Based on a recent rehearsal, the live band seems to bring new dimensions to the album material, including heavy funk and reggae elements. Reynolds is fine with that.

"I don't have much interest in just recreating the album tracks," he says.

For the kids

Along with his music, the parallel thread in Reynolds' life is his work with children. In the USOM days, he and other African drum players formed Positive Repercussions, a performance group that presented in-school and afterschool programs and encouraged kids to develop their own music and poetry.

"Kids still come up to me who remember that," he says. "I just love developing those relationships."

The Philosophy also has conducted school programs, and for a time Reynolds and Boyd taught poetry classes at the Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility. Currently, Reynolds is teaching music part-time at the Children's House, a private school on Indy's northwest side, and he has returned to Herron to pursue an art education degree.

"I've always thought of myself as a teacher, but I have to do this to get health insurance and stuff," he quips.

Although his album's quotient of salty language is mild for the hip-hop world, Reynolds plans to craft a "clean" version for his students to hear. One cut even features a rap by an elementary-age kid he recorded during a school visit, and he hopes to get some students involved in Sunday's all-ages show at Indy CD & Vinyl.

What does he want kids to take away from their encounters?

"I'm hoping that they can see some of the talent, that they don't get a chance to express, as valid, as worth investing in," he says. "To be successful in any art, it takes bravery to not hold yourself back, to not be afraid to fail, to invest all of yourself into something that has a chance of falling short. But that is the only path to success — to risk failure. That is what I want to inspire in my students, and it is an attitude that they can carry into any artistic discipline."

Selected lyrics:

The Calm Before:

In a righteous spurt, she put the dirt on red alert

phoned every plant through vibrations in the earth

readied the shores to attack formation

when the tidal waves run out, she's got more waiting

in the clouds

Where did we go wrong?

Crowds of fault lines prepare for their all-time worst

the young torrents will be raw and unrehearsed

she suggested to the snow flurries to go purely on aggression

strikes up a conversation with lightning as a secret weapon

Where did we go wrong?

Instructed all islands to pile into the ocean

she's the twisted mechanic who rigged the volcanic expulsions

her hands guide every landslide

taking all into account, it matters little when a man dies

Where did we go wrong?

Storm is Coming:

What, you ain't heard the forecast?

you better be moving your ass

put the petal to the floor fast

'cause it's some heavy stakes when the levee breaks

yet you dismiss it as a bunch of hippie bellyaches

Conservatives conserve the least

we murder peace

guess what? We disturbed the beast

the government ain't even starting to listen

monitor phone calls more than carbon emissions

Your conversation's on their headphones

as we're fed clones

'cause the ocean is becoming a massive dead zone

so who gives a buck if I've got some nice raps

when my voice is drowned out beneath melting ice caps

It ain't political, you can't ignore the vision

life on Earth will return to basic organisms

it's about damn time mankind finally lost it

Mother Nature doesn't like being accosted

So now a storm is coming ...

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