Weirdos unite: astralblak and the MN music head

Photo by Tamika Garscia Two members of Minneapolis funk-soul band astralblak: MMYYK (l) and Greg Grease

“People in Minneapolis are just a bunch of weirdos,” says the DJ.

DJ Just Nine affectionately, through the speaker of a cell phone near the center of a massive table in astralblak’s studio, thus describes one incarnation of the Minnesota music fan. 

At a certain show in a certain part of the metro, even a DJ well-versed in getting crowds to dance and have a good time will peer out into a sea of still bodies and blank faces. Minnesotans have a varied, eclectic music palette, but they can be cold when greeted with the unfamiliar. 

Sometimes it’s easier to just spin the hits, said the DJ, as astralblak members Greg Grease and MMYYK, and their record label head Jon Jon Scott, sat around the table and the phone nodding. 

No matter what the Minnesota music fan is doing when they get there, one thing endearingly stands out: Minnesotans show up. Build it, perform it, and they will come. Things may get weird, but they’ll care enough to show up and feel that precarious live-music thrill. 

Take the head-banging iteration, offered Grease, seen at a local beer festival where astralblak, a neo-funk-soul-rap synth-pop collective, sang to the Midwestern crowd about cops killing Black people.

Grease, the group’s primary rapper and co-songwriter (they all write) whose legal name is Greg Johnson, his dreads freshly cut off, says he’s often focused on ripping a great performance. But his mind can also race: “They’re having a good time. Am I mad at this? Is this whack? Or is this a good thing? Am I spreading a message? Or, like, what’s happening right now?”

Grease channels the passions that might prompt him to “rant and rage” through his bars. “My lyrics are my therapy,” he says, his way to deal without being angry. That includes both his ideas and feelings about things like Blackness that may be awkward for White audiences, but also to range deeper into thoughts that bare his soul, to the foundations of who he is. 

MMYYK says that good energy, their lyrics and intentions, are still received even if it’s first through the body. The band’s source of stylish synths and airy, heavenly vocals, whose mama named him Mychal Fisher and who sports long dreads with a few dyed strands held together to fall from the top of his head like a bouquet, sits opposite Grease.

The other members of astralblak, Proper-T and Elliot, are elsewhere on this sunny, sweaty, early afternoon in July at the band’s studio off Larpenteur Avenue in Lauderdale. 

Genres of music and people

Formerly known as ZULUZULUU, astralblak have two stellar, probing, yet utterly smooth projects, 2016 EP What’s the Price and a 2018 album Seeds. In March they released the single “Funksters Prayer,” an ode to big-band funk — replete with call-and-response singing and synthesizer breakdowns  —  but replacing the horn section with a spate of MMYYK’s mesmerizing synths. 

Some of its members, like Grease and Proper-T, spent formative years in Minnesota; others like MMYYK didn’t really grow up in the Midwest. Some, like Elliot, don’t even live in Minnesota now (he lives in California).

Photo by Tamika Garscia MMYYK

Nonetheless, the group came together in Minneapolis and are the clear vanguard, the present representative for the Minneapolis sound, for the region’s funky, weirdo musical legacy. 

It’s hard being Black in Minnesota, being a Black musician in the state and the Twin Cities, said Grease and MMYYK. But it’s hard to be those things anywhere in the country. Stereotypes of the Black musician, of a few types of rap being the focal expression, are hard to break free from anywhere in the U.S.

There are fewer Black people in the Twin Cities than in many other places, as Grease noted, which can make it hard to find a community of a specific kind of Blackness and few “genres of Black people” for non-Blacks to get to know. Still, people keep coming to astralblak’s eccentric, hip-grooving art-concerts.

The Minnesotan finally becomes accustomed to something — which can be anything, even the weirdest thing — and then fully support it in the fullest way of turning off on-demand and buying tickets. And astralblak can be some weirdos, daringly dicing different genres and styles to create their unique blend that at once sounds experimental, yet has a richness that classically resonates. 

“On Our Way” from What’s the Price? starts as synth fantasy withMMYYK, the synth-man, setting up a tingling counterbalance between a lethargic, guttural synth, airy synths and high-pitched strings. Then, centering the dissonance so it orbits around him, the dynamic vocalist Proper-T effortlessly transports the outer space synth journey to a rainy streets-scene of a lover’s quarrel outside a lounge joint, the jazzy hum spilling out from the swinging door. 

astralblak also has the ability to bring that funk right up to the present. “Money,” from Seeds, has a nasty baseline perfect for ’70s era, soprano stank-funk-signing ’till Grease puts on his rapper hat and rides the synth-tinged baseline like a time traveler popping onto a country road in a hovercraft. 

At the Walker Art Center’s “Sound for Silents 2019” on Aug. 15, astralblak will perform scores they made for silent films as the movie screens. Their compositions will have elements of their poppy funk-soul, but will also be as experimental as they can make it, said the group.  

The band has enjoyed cultivating a following of weirdo Minnesota music lovers for their weirdo music. astralblak’s one main suggestion: Let’s start working on making the many venue spaces comfortable for all Black people, including the stereotypes, the weirdos and all the rest. 

vSound for Silents 2019: Film + Music on the Walker Hillside is Aug. 15 and free, starting with a DJ and food trucks at 7 pm, and the screening and performance at 8:30 pm at the Walker Art Center located at 725 Vineland Place in Minneapolis.