"Bones and hip hop have become such a big part of my experience here at Cal that I feel like our raps are just the rhetoric of that experience." Ben Grenrock and Dave Lee - otherwise known as bedRock and Bones McQueen - are the two UC Berkeley seniors who make up West Rhetoric, a rap group with incredible lyrics and boundless talent. Their first mixtape, "Morbid Trophies," dropped on April 15, and their second one, "Thirsty," is set to come out by May 9. West Rhetoric might be new on the scene, but they are already taking Berkeley by storm.
I saw West Rhetoric at Cloyne, the Berkeley student cooperative, during their music festival "Clochella." It was starting to get cold outside, and people were beginning to migrate into the house; I went inside because according to my friends, these two amazing rappers were about to go on. I was intrigued. Then when Ben and Bones went up, I was awestruck. Their styles were clearly different: Ben was faster and more intricate, while Bones was more deliberate and rhythmic. Together they attained an astounding fusion, a synergy if you will, and I felt locked, my feet glued to the floor and my eyes glued to them.
They performed for about an hour, and as they did the room got more and more crowded. Everyone was dancing, letting the rhythm flow through them as they lost themselves in the stuffy, smoke-filled room. The environment truly lent itself to their type of music; it was intimate and loud, exhilarating and stirring. Ben and Bones were able to get in spectators' faces, enthralling the audience, and the house vibrated with the sound of their words and beats. I saw many different musical acts that day, but their particular brand of entertainment remained wedged in my mind.
The two friends met in a spoken word poetry class in Berkeley in September 2012, after Ben came back from a six-month trip to South America. "I felt like if there was anyone in the class I would be friends with, it would be him," Ben told me over coffee at Caffe Strada on a hot Tuesday afternoon. "We started having cigarettes together in the Barrows courtyard after class, and I was surprised at how quickly he was down to talk about being really depressed, and some really dark s***. I thought that was awesome."
One day at his house, Bones started freestyling for Ben, and Ben was blown away. Bones then encouraged Ben to start rapping with him, and helped him become more comfortable with it. "Fifty percent is practice but the rest is being confident enough to know you can do it," Ben said. "The second you start questioning yourself, you suck."
They first rapped together at spoken word society CalSLAM's first open mic of the semester in the fall, and then at Cloyne the same night. The two ended up getting a show before they'd recorded anything, at Ben's friend's house party in Los Angeles. "West Rhetoric at that point consisted of us writing verses and sitting in my car at two in the morning, putting them together over beats that we liked," Ben said. They had to think of a name before they played the show, and during the drive to LA they came up with "West Rhetoric" together. "To me, [the name West Rhetoric] seems very timeless and classic, and it's just so memorable," Bones said.
In the fall, after they started playing more shows, they decided that it would be helpful to have tracks recorded, so they began pulling beats off of Youtube for "Morbid Trophies."
"Most of the time we'll individually find a beat that we like and write something to it and then show it to each other," Bones said. "Then we put in movie clips or think of little narratives to put in to give it more structure." Ben added, "Consciously knowing that we'd be called stupid hipsters, there are two samples from Wes Anderson movies on that mixtape, one in 'Killtone' and one in 'Backbone.'"
They recorded it all in Bones' room, which Ben calls "the antithesis of what a studio should be," and made it work. They then asked a fellow Berkeley student and rapper, Omar Khan, to mix their music for them. The mixtape finally came out in April, with seven songs and a total of 28 minutes.
Both Ben and Bones have experience with poetry, especially spoken word, but they find that their rapping is an entirely different sphere. "I've really felt that there are parts of me that I would be too afraid to show on [the CalSLAM] stage, both for fear of offending people and for fear of someone taking what I'm saying as something that defined me," Ben said. "Poetry has a certain weight that rap doesn't; it's way easier for people to put it as a tattoo across your chest."
West Rhetoric has played shows at Cloyne, Casa Zimbabwe (another Berkeley co-operative), The Depot at San Francisco State, a house show at Garces in San Francisco, and at the Korean American Students Association culture show (of which Bones said, "That was for me, for my roots, you know?"). Bones said that a significant moment happened for him at the KASA culture show when Ben jumped off the stage and took the mic as far as it could go. "For me, there had always been this divide between things you're allowed to do and things you aren't allowed to do," Bones said. "I realized that's why I like rapping so much, because you can do those things, and the more crazy you get, the more down people are."
Ben similarly reflected on a meaningful moment for him at the Garces show on 4/20 this year. They had generally been performing at shows where the audience knew them and their music, but this was the first time that they were able to watch strangers get into their music. "Even though the stuff we write is pretty wordy, this made me feel like people can still feel it and vibe off of it even if it's just in the moment and they're not sitting there and dissecting it," Ben said. "I also like it when we can get right in people's faces. It just feels like there's a lot more give-and-take between the audience and the performer."
West Rhetoric is unique not only because of its Berkeley base and feel, but also because of its gritty, real lyrics. They are entirely unpretentious, and their music is truly an expression of themselves. "The thing that I like about Bones' and my rapping most is that we are so unapologetically us," Ben said. Their lyrics are also poetic and often poignant: in "Backbone," Ben says, "I'd explain it if I only knew how / But it's buried deep in the soil past the point that words can plow."
For the past couple months, West Rhetoric has been feeling a time crunch. On May 17, Ben is leaving to teach English in Prague, but he and Bones made it their goal to put out three mixtapes before that date. "Thirsty" is coming out soon, and their third one is in the works. "It's just been really intense trying to rush, getting it as good as possible to put out," Ben said. Bones is staying at Berkeley for another semester and living in a cooperative, and is planning on releasing more stuff and "bringing Ben back from Prague." Ben chuckled and said, "I might be leaving but you're going to bring me back!"
Odds and Ends from the interview:
Ben: Low End Theory in LA. It's small, it's grungy, it's dark; it's not showy or frilly at all. It's packed with people who are really there to dance and listen. You can see unknown acts going up but people are still hanging onto every word.
Bones: I want a megadome or something, or the White House!
Ben: Slug, Jonwayne, Aesop Rock, Busdriver, Shad, Earl Sweatshirt, math rock, and Destroyer. Slug is my favorite rapper because I've never heard any other musician, rapper, or even any artist in any medium make their art such a blatant display of themselves.
Bones: Eminem, Big L, Nas, Lauryn Hill, MF DOOM, and those rappers that are always so consistently technical while still being really confident and aware of themselves, while also being really innovative. It needs to be equal parts musical, lyrical, and also relatable. If you can achieve some sort of equilibrium while still being unique that's really impressive.
Favorite thing to do after a show
Ben: Smoke a cigarette, hug each other
Bones: Yeah smoke a cigarette, hug and reflect. Afterwards I usually think, "I should've done that one thing!" and I get down on myself...
Ben: I just have to pull you back...
Bones: Oh you know the best thing to do after playing a show? Getting another show!
Ben: That is the best thing to do!
Favorite from the mixtape
Bones: The last one, "Death Blades."
Ben: "Plate Tectonics." Bones has always pushed me and told me over and over again: use less words, try and rap slower, see how it feels, it'll be good. That was one of the only ones where I managed to do it. It feels so good to spit and not be as worried about landing things, because I can get myself in a corner. That beat is a Jonwayne beat and I love that song.
Bones: Your verse is awesome in that! So good.
Song of the week
Bones: Molasses ft. RZA by Earl Sweatshirt.
Ben: Pigeons by Earl Sweatshirt, and Ocean Death by Baths.
Favorite place in Berkeley
Bones: Places that remind me that I'm not at home anymore. I'm from Maryland and I hated that place. My favorite place is Pollos on Shattuck and Addison, it's a hamburger place. The guys there are really nice, they're like, "Hey Dave, have a cup of coffee!" I just sit there and read, and it makes me feel like this is my home, just little things like that.
Ben: I love writing in Doe Library, but it sucks not being able to spit the things I'm writing literally out loud. There's also a place behind the Claremont Hotel, you just pull off the road and there's a huge crazy view of the whole East Bay and San Francisco. A bunch of cars go up there and park, and people are f****** in the cars, smoking weed, and the cops don't really go up there and mess with you. We've had some of our best freestyling for hours up there, it's a really beautiful spot. It reminds me a lot of home because that's what everybody in LA does, just go up to a place with a good view.
To download "Morbid Trophies" go to: westrhetoric.bandcamp.com/releases
For more updates on upcoming albums and shows, like West Rhetoric on Facebook at: facebook.com/westrhetoric