Exhaling smoke from a freshly rolled spliff and staring through the storm door window in the three-bedroom Chapel Hill home of drummer and hip-hop producer Apple Juice Kid, Suede Heron rolls into a handclapping clamor. Suede—known to the hip-hop faithful as Geechie Suede, half of the hip-hop duo Camp Lo—enthusiastically relates a seemingly mundane story about returning a borrowed vacuum cleaner to a neighbor in 2006.
Well, it's not that mundane: The returned vacuum led the New York expatriate to the extraordinary, or to Apple Juice Kid. Now, together as the duo Freebass 808, they've started to build the universe Suede's always imagined—something bigger than hip-hop, bigger than himself, bigger than this crowded house. On its magnetic debut EP, MoonBass, Suede and Kid get far into their own world.
"It might be even better than a drug high," says Suede, taking another toke.
This neighbor, see, knew about a concert where a local R&B sweetheart named Yahzarah was performing. Suede knew Yahzarah from her solo work and time with Durham's Little Brother, so he went to the show and, for the second time, met Apple Juice Kid, one of her producers. Apple Juice's drum-drunk sound had impressed Suede some years ago while he was guest-judging a beat battle—where producers try to better one another's best new beats in a bracketed tournament format—at North Carolina Central University. This time, Suede, who'd moved to the area to be closer to Camp Lo's producer, asked Apple Juice if he wanted to work together.
"When I first met Suede, I didn't have the idea that we would make a group. I was just excited to meet someone that was established in the industry [and] that would provide an opportunity for me to get my music heard," remembers Apple Juice Kid, a well-built 32-year-old white guy with glasses and spiky or slicked hair. Actually named Stephen Levitin, he earned his memorable nickname after winning a drum contest sponsored by Premium Apple Juice at age 12. "It wasn't until we started hanging out a few more times that we realized that we had a lot in common."
Sitting in front of two large, expensive Technic speakers, both partially cloaked by a green blanket, Apple Juice watches Suede as he leans near the front door. When they're together, Apple Juice lends Suede extra attention, as if constantly acknowledging the good fortune of his position. An award-winning drummer and a longtime producer in area acts like Sankofa, AppleJuice Orchestra and The Remix Project, Apple Juice was simply a fan of Suede's much more famous group, Camp Lo, a dozen years ago.
Camp Lo introduced a new, self-made slang to the rap world with its 1997 debut LP, the instant classic Uptown Saturday Night. Raleigh producer Ski Beats produced that record. Best known for producing Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents II" mega-single, Ski once had another beat reserved for Jay-Z. But Camp Lo took it and turned it into the song "Luchini (AKA This Is It)," which the duo used to launch their whole enterprise.
And what an enterprise it was: Alongside his Camp Lo co-founder, confidante and co-rhymer, Sonny Cheeba, Suede became one of hip-hop's best slick-talking playboys ever. Back before it was every rapper's priority to portray himself as the best-dressed wordsmith in the class, Suede and Cheeba were sharply dressed dudes, two slick cats out of a 21st-century adaptation of a Chester Himes or Donald Goines novel. If the outfits didn't command your attention, then Camp Lo's Cooley High-perbolic poetic flutters about diamond heists, sarsaparilla and Lola Falana did.
"Chee [Sonny Cheeba] is the one that brought the vintage thing to me. I was intrigued by it and I thought that it was perfect for what we—two cats from the Bronx—were doing," says Suede, also 32, "but I always had that other side of me which was that cosmic, futuristic, spiritual, junky, love-lust side of me, and I wanted to express that."
That is, Suede wanted to rap about something bigger than his fashion. He wanted to rap about his own self-made universe, which he realized during a collaboration with a lesser known outfit named Three Legged Turtle on the song "Illusion."
"It gave me a glimpse of what I really wanted to do," remembers Suede.
Finding the right engine to power that unfurnished preoccupation with sci-fly other-worldliness was difficult, though. It took 10 years for Suede to meet someone like Apple Juice Kid, someone who could provide the imaginative soundscape he needed to deliver his extraterrestrial sweet-nothings—thoughts of space ponies, android garments, margaritas at the cosmic cantina.
"I come from the school of music where Mark Ronson and Danger Mouse and people like that really influence me, so I'm always thinking of some left-field twisted angle to make something happen," says Apple Juice Kid, deservedly comparing the band to Gnarls Barkley's imaginative odyssey. "So, when the idea floated about us doing something, I felt like there were already some inroads of something like this being done before, but not in this way."
After several impromptu "magical sessions," as Suede puts it, the duo Freebass 808 was born. Slipping into the ambiguous, customized language he's developed over the years, Suede describes Freebass 808 as having a "martian marshmallow" effect on the ear. With only a few years of hands-on producing experience under all of those beat-battle championships, it seemed possible that Apple Juice wouldn't have been able to follow Suede's unorthodox manner. Known for wild runs of non sequiturs and lothario lines that echo other free-associative emcees like Ghostface Killah, would Suede give Apple Juice clue enough to know what in the hell he was rhyming about? It wasn't the first language barrier for Apple Juice, though.
"I've traveled to a lot of different countries, and I've learned several different languages. I've learned pidgin English in West Africa, so a Camp Lo culture and language?" he says, pausing. "Initially, I didn't really know what was going on, but eventually I got to the point where I love the way Suede approaches music, both the abstract and the creative quality that he brings to the table."
As Freebass 808, the pair goes by Suede Heron and Apple Crack, both names they are now thinking about changing because—while they like the idea of "music as a drug"—they say they'd rather be known as spirit lifters, not drug pushers. With MoonBass, they take us high: On the sci-funk, music-praising anthem "Ultimate Bliss," Suede asks in the chorus, "What would you live for?/ What you love for?/ What is your ultimate bliss?" This brand of transient inquisition is how Freebass traps its listeners into becoming its, well, users. Or on the track "Many Moons," they even add vocalist and android-dreamer Janelle Monáe to act as the ethereal tour guide inside of Apple Heron's drum-fueled conquest. Knowing that he and Suede had created a treasure chest deserving of cinematic treatment, Apple Juice reached out to a Web designer and filmmaker named Battalion Armour to provide video footage to accompany each song on MoonBass.
Despite allusions to hard drugs in Freebass 808's name and the somewhat psychedelic content, Apple Juice Kid is as much of a straitlaced health nut as one can be. He doesn't do drugs and—among the many cultural artifacts that crowd the interior of his home/studio, which looks more like a museum than a living space—a set of pull-up bars hang on the wall between two bedrooms. Suede's beefy physique suggests that those bars have come in handy during the time that he spends in Apple Juice's home when he's not in New York.
Oh yeah, New York: Suede has often been returning north to work on Camp Lo's third LP, A Piece of the Action. Follwing a new deal with a major label, the renewed project temporarily stalled Freebass 808. But now, with fresh music ready, the two groups are finally working in concert.
"Camp Lo got this major record deal and we purposefully put a pause on 808, so in some ways I feel like we're getting what we deserve," says Apple Juice, suggesting that Freebass 808 will indirectly benefit from Camp Lo's improved situation. Indeed, Suede and Apple Juice have formed a creative partnership that extends all the way from their latest collaboration, a clothing line called Halos and Vines, to managing and producing a few acts of their own. Still, they like to keep the process casual.
"Most of the time, it's just me and Apple Juice talking back and forth in the house. I remember, I was just standing at the door one day looking out at the clouds one day. I just yelled back at Apple, 'Yo, we sky-ocean kids,'" says Suede, reverting back to his own esoteric analogies. "And that's how the song 'Sky Ocean' came to be."
A happy accident in the big musical vacuum, if you will.