By Dave Herrera | July 28, 2016
The Lique is the best band in Las Vegas.
That's the critical consensus right now.
In a thriving scene that's absolutely swelling with talent and set to explode, that's a hefty assertion, but plenty of prominent people in the city agree.
Last week, Vegas Seven, one of the city's two respected alt-weekly publications, bestowed Best Band honors on the jazz-driven rap group, validating an earlier assessment by the Las Vegas Weekly, which featured the act on its cover this past January as one of ten acts to watch this year.
Other outlets have praised the quintet, including one rep from a local radio station who tweeted: "This is the real deal" about the band's new album, and another station that touted the Lique's new "Batman" video by offering: "If you're not yet listening to Las Vegas' own @theliqueband, here's another reason you should be."
But it's not just the press that's paying attention. So are fans and promoters.
This past spring, folks packed the Sayers Club at the SLS casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip for a series of shows during the outfit's rare mini-residency. And this fall, the Lique is slated to perform at Life Is Beautiful, the three-day music festival in downtown Las Vegas, along with acts like Mumford & Sons, J. Cole, Major Lazer, the Lumineers, G-Eazy, Jane's Addiction and more.
Impressively, the Lique earned all this acclaim and attention in a year and a half. The group only started playing together in February of last year, and frontman Rasar Amani had only moved to Las Vegas just a year prior.
Originally a Sacramento-based rapper, Amani had achieved some success in the Northern California scene, releasing nine albums on his own, before moving to the Las Vegas. The move was prompted by a friend of his named Butterscotch.
An exceptionally talented fellow Sacramento artist who Amani had performed and collaborated with previously, she moved to Vegas to take part in "Vegas Nocturne," a nightclub variety show on the Strip. Shortly after getting settled in town, Butterscotch reached out to Amani and set him up with a chance to join the production.
He started out as an usher, "mopping up floors and picking up ping-pong balls in a weird, yellow-tailored suit" at the show, and he worked his way up to become the nightlife emcee, whose job involved engaging the audience, dancing and taking selfies with the crowd.
The show eventually closed, and when it did, Amani was contemplating a move to the East Coast. That's when he met guitarist Sean Carbone and co-founded the Lique. The outfit quickly made its mark on the strength of a highly energetic live show.
On stage, the act is carried by the charisma of Amani and the exemplary musicianship of Carbone and his other bandmates, bassist Nick Schmitt, keyboardist Jason Corpuz and drummer Jeremy Klewicki, who all met while attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
According to Amani, everything came together swiftly from the very first time the members convened. It was "like we had been playing together for years," he says.
The band just released its debut album, Democracy Manifest, and not only does the record live up to the expectations set by its live show, but it allows for a better absorption of Amani's lyrics.
Whether he's being contemplative on smooth ballads like "Billie's Holiday," or stern on tracks like "Democrashy Manifesht," or irreverent on tunes like "Walk Into My Office" and "The Suits," Amani is always thought-provoking.
As the Lique prepares to tour more frequently and starts picking up steam outside of the Silver State (Afropunk just shared the band's new video), we caught up with Amani on his way to a show in Reno and spoke to him about the band, and he gave us some insights into the new album and what inspired some of the songs. Keep reading for excerpts from that conversation.
The Trusted Ear: The Lique formed in February 2015. The guys all went to UNLV, from what I understand. How did you meet them?
Rasar Amani: There's a major connecting factor [in our story]. He's actually also featured on our album. Gentleman's name is Rahmaan Phillip. He's a major connecting factor. Basically, after the show, I started going on the open-mic scene around Vegas. I'd done the open-mic circuit years before. So I was just kind of doing it for fun, but I found Cameron Calloway, and he gave me a reason to keep coming back.
And Rahmaan was another person I met on the open-mic scene. I guess he also went to UNLV. Rahmaan calls me, and he's like, "Hey, man, there's this friend of mine. His name is Sean Carbone, and I don't know, bro. He's a really good guitar player. He loves jazz, and he wants to start a hip-hop band. I think you guys should talk, bro."
It was literally just me and Sean meeting up at UNLV. He had the whole thing in mind. I was on my way out. I was trying to move to New York. My lease was about to be up. I was done with Vegas. The show was over. So I was checked out. Sean and I had been talking, and he actually thought I might not do the thing [want to start a band]. It looked like my head was elsewhere.
But we grooved, and it happened so fast after that. I had guys in mind. I was like, "I know a bass ... " He's like, "No. I know a dude who plays bass. I know a guy who plays drums." Sean was very specific about what he wanted. Within a few weeks, we had a show, and things took off from there.
I'm quite flabbergasted, taken aback and astonished by these gentlemen. It's been a real treat. One thing I noticed when we first came together — before Jason Corpuz, our keyboardist joined, it was just Nick, Jeremy, Sean and I — just the thing that always really stood out to me ... I think I had already sent a track, and we'd listened to it. They had just brushed up on it, like they got it, and immediately, we just slayed it so comfortably.
From the moment it dropped, it was like we had been playing together for years. I have rarely, if ever, seen that. There are a lot of people you can groove with, but what I noticed, talking about musicality, they're so familiar with their instruments, that they're not straining to get their point across. And that is something that I highly admire about all of them.
And then when we brought ... we wanted keys. I was really adamant about keys. I loved what we had as a trio, but I was like, man, I think that would change it. They had Jason in mind from the beginning. We didn't think we could get him because of his schedule, but it worked out anyway, and he ended up joining and just opened up so many things for us. He continues to just really shine and show why he was the perfect fifth member for us.
I had this catalog that I brought in. When we had no original songs as a band, we just played my jams. Then we were also playing certain covers. Our first show, I think we played "Walk Into My Office." The shorter version was from one of my previous works [based on a beat created by New Orleans producer AdamBomb]. And then we played ... We've always been playing "One Reason." But then we loved [J.] Dilla [aka James Yancey], so we also played "Fall in Love."
We came together, and we decided we were going to be a jazz-based hip-hop band. It isn't the most poppin' thing right now. We're not mumbling and doing singular, repetitive bullshit — although "Batman" was purposely kind of like a nod to that.
That came through. Especially the line where you say, "Dumbing it down to find some common ground/The emperor is naked, but he's wearing a crown."
Yeah. That idea actually came from our bassist, Nick Schmitt. The way that song came about was we were in rehearsal, and a lot of times we'll just come together and most of the musicians come through with a groove. I'll come down and I'll bring an idea, but it's more like the musicians come through and have music, and then we just groove on it and lay down something really rough. And then I take it back and see if I can come up with something. So he had a groove, and he just happened to be wearing a Batman shirt. It's literally as simple as that.
As a joke, kind of like just thinking about little kids saying stuff, I was like "Batman, Batman," but just joking. I don't think Nick was so hot on it — he was not hot on it — but I was like, "Yo, that's a thing." We hadn't really established that we were going to be a layered band at that level. We didn't know our content was going to be that deep at that point. He was like, "Alright, if we're going to do it, it has to be this way."
The original concept behind it — that line ["Dumbing it down to find some common ground"] — was actually the whole concept, how there are many people that are brilliant in so many different ways, more perceptive, and in order to fit in — because there's this anti-intellectualism in many respects — it's kind of like how we laugh off ... You know when people say something they really mean, they're like, "I don't know"? They know what they meant.
I think where Nick was coming from was that we needed to express kind of that pull, between hiding your strengths, to an extent, just to not make other people uncomfortable, but then how you can potentially do a disservice to others if you hold back your gifts too much. But I didn't even see any of that at first. I just wanted to say "Batman," to be honest with you. [laughs]
"Walk Into My Office" is the same spoken word piece that you recited at TEDx in 2013. Was that inspired by a true story?
Definitely inspired by a series of true stories. It's kind of based on my observation, a fascination I've had with the entertainment industry and a lot of the deals that I've seen that have just gone sour. Personally, I've had a few brushes with the industry, television, and things like that, that did or did not work out.
Basically, I had an opportunity to be on a TV show, and they kind of followed me throughout the year. I was going to do something with MTV. They reached out to me, actually. It was a very agonizing experience, because it was going to be like a life-changing thing.
But I just wasn't enough, and they had to go through all these producers and all this stuff. It was just, like, no matter what, they [the producers] wanted what I had, but they wanted me to change it up for them. It was like, "Be yourself, but totally change it." Like, "Be more upbeat, but be more laid back." You know? Like, "Be raw, but smooth it out." It was really confusing.
What was the role? Was it a reality show?
Yeah, they wanted me to be one of the mentors on "Made." I really haven't talked about this too much. But, yeah, they got a hold of one of my CDs back then, and they wanted me to do it, and I got turned down three or four times. But they were asking me, so it was very confusing. They were just ... I have talks with people ... people make all these promises. There's just some things I've noticed from knowing people in the industry. They'll do anything to take you away from what you intend to do.
I've noticed that's kind of a recurring theme in "Suits," the next song, where you talk about "appease and please the suits." You make reference in a line that I thought was simple, yet profound, about the idea of the people who don't create making the most money. Those two songs kind of seem to be conjoined. It's almost like you're continuing the conversation in the second song. Is that as intended, and is that why they're sequenced that way on the record?
Completely so. "Suits" is definitely the unofficial sequel. It's like an epilogue, in many ways. "Walk Into My Office" was originally, at least the lyrics — there's an older version, where it's only two-and-a-half minutes — but it's nowhere near as detailed and involved with all the musicians that we brought in. We had a whole four-string quartet. We had a whole choir come in. It turned into a completely different, theatrical, Meatloaf-inspired production [laughs].
But with "Suits," it was almost like an epilogue or a bonus feature. The concept, really looking at the album, is like the journey — if I can skip ahead on the whole album. The idea was like you start off with this underground, raw, jazzy, earthy group that's just sticking to their guns, and we're getting all ethereal.
The whole idea is us being true to ourselves. And then we get pitched at, and we're not for it. But then it's also like this big joke, like eventually, everyone sells out one way or another anyway. And that's like the perfect thing, of course. We go from this group that's challenging the norms, and then, ultimately, we sell out, and we totally own it. And that's also, I think, what some people expect from us. We've had some success recently, and I think it's like a self-aware wink or nod that we know what we're expected to do.
I really appreciate that you caught that. I would also say that that line, "appease and please the suits," is a bit of homage to James Brown — it's all about "pass the peas." The real thing: Somebody that we know, they were trying to hook us up with something, and they basically were like, "I don't know if we can do this. I've just got to appease the suits. I don't know if we can do this." That was a real quote. We spoke about this as a band, and that was kind of the joke, like, "What if we just said, 'appease and please the suits?'" And that's where we started. It wasn't necessarily supposed to be recorded.
Your lyrics are very incisive. What are the social issues and other things that have shaped your ideology?
I definitely have to give ultimate props to my parents, specifically, my mom. My mom is actually a communications professor. Even though it seems like kind of an obvious thing that I'm a big talker, I didn't see it that way. She's been teaching public speaking, but also her major was in communication, and she had a minor in Pan-Africanism. So you can imagine how that shaped my life. Public speaking, group communication, interpersonal — all these things — my life has just always been surrounded by that, and I was always encouraged to speak up and express myself.
It also got me in trouble in school — not because I was hurting anybody, but I talked too much. I would defy authority, but respectfully. They didn't know how to deal with a child that could call them on their bullshit, basically. Not that I was always right, but I was like, "Well, no. You just said this." All they know is how am I going to get this eight year old to shut up. But either way, I was like, "Yeah, but what's the logic here?"
In "Democrashy Manifesht," a lot of those things come from a deep hurt, a deep anger, a deep disillusionment, that, obviously, I think more people are picking up on it recently. Inherently, I'm more of a happy person, but I learned a little too much at one point, and then it just kind of spoiled the way of the world for me.
I still believe that there are really good people and that there's opportunities for progress socially, but I'd say around 19 years old, a ton of life changes occurred, and I learned about everything from, like, the banking systems to Federal Reserve, things about wars.
Around that time, Katrina had happened — "Never forget FEMA waited five days/ Katrina blew up in our faces/They fled to the arena" — I actually tuned out. I actually didn't watch TV that whole time, but I was hearing all the updates. It irked me how inhumane it was that they didn't send any help for five days.
Things like that just get swept under the rug as just another news story. But all these people were displaced down in the Wards, and how there was a deep corporate interest, basically, like it's happening in many other places, to gentrify that area.
After seeing When the Levees Broke [A Requiem in Four Acts, the Spike Lee documentary], certain books that I read, certain people exposed my eyes ... even one of the documentaries we were talking about on this road trip [the band was en route to Reno, Nevada for a show at the time], Fahrenheit 911, was a major eye-opener for me about our relationship to our foreign policy and some of the domestic things we do that are not in the best interest of everybody. So I'd say a lot of it comes from that.
The easiest correlation that folks draw is to the Roots, and that's because you're a live hip-hop band. But, honestly, aesthetically, it reminds me more of Guru — a convergence of Guru and that movement — with the stuff Flying Lotus has been doing with Brainfeeder's with Kamasi Washington and Thundercat. It seems to share that same sort of creative space.
We're all major fans of Kamasi. The Epic blew us away. It's kind of overwhelming. He's a musician's musician, as are all the people rolling with him — Terrace Martin and everybody that's gotten involved with him. I saw Kamasi last year, and in short, it was the first time I ever had an out-of-body experience. I definitely saw colors, lost where I was. It was one of those things where I had this message in my head like: "This is the music I want to hear when I die," and the other thing was, "If I were to die right now, I'd be okay."
And Guru, for me, is one of my deepest influences. The year I started rapping, I was listening to a ton of Gang Starr. Him and Premo are ... I was late to the Jazzmatazz series. I was aware of it, but I didn't get heavy into it until later. But Guru, one of the things I deeply respect about him — well, there are so many things — but he always had a message. He was always a very serious MC, and I've always been drawn to artists and musicians who take what they do very seriously.
That's what I've noticed about these guys: The whole band is ... we like to have a lot of fun, and we have a ton of inside jokes and everything, and make countless references throughout the record. But ultimately, we sit with it, and it means a lot. When we build stuff, it's the kind of stuff that moves you and changes you.
At the same time, when I look back at Guru, he did some things that were funny. It's just that he was almost monotone. We're all huge fans of MF Doom, and he almost never changes his inflections, but he shows his range of emotions, almost akin to Guru in that way.