Hip-hop producer and local favorite Burnell Washburn is breaking barriers and showing the nation that Utah is no slouch in the scene. He’ll be performing with his new group The Mountain Ears at the Salt Lake City EVE celebration on Dec. 30 at the Salt Palace. He’ll also be at the Urban Lounge on Jan. 27 with People Under the Stairs and Sweatshop Union. His resume is increasingly impressive, with nationwide tours and local performances opening for the likes of Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Grynch, DJ Sabzi and Geologic of Blue Scholars. He spoke with QSaltLake about the challenges he faced as a hip-hop artist in Utah and what the scene is like in the state.
When did you start writing music and lyrics? How did you know that’s what you wanted to do?
I was in the sixth grade when I wrote my first song – I had no idea it was considered a rap. It was an excellent way to let out some aggression toward my school principal. After that I didn’t write anything again until 10th grade when I became inspired by a creative-writing teacher. Seeing live slam-poets and hip-hop artists such as Buddy Wakefield, Sage Francis and Jared Paul really moved me. For the first time in my life I realized the impact that words can have and I was hooked.
You’ve developed a large following in Salt Lake City and are known as one of the premier hip-hop artists in the state. What’s the scene like in Salt Lake? Is it improving?
The hip-hop scene here is incredibly vibrant. Every day I meet another emcee, DJ or producer that blows me away with his or her craft. I am very proud to be part of the Utah hip-hop community. We are more than just friends or colleagues, we are family. We all come together to support each other and together we are constantly pushing the boundaries of the art scene in general. The scene is growing more rapidly than I ever imagined and with all this fresh talent emerging, there is no question that Utah will be producing some of the games top artists in the coming years.
The hardest part about getting established for me was just having a lack of experience and guidance. I had no idea how to record songs, perform, book shows or even count bars and format a song for that matter. On top of that, I didn’t know anybody who knew how to do those things. I was stuck learning it all from scratch. I found out about a few open-mic nights in town, so I started hitting those every week and eventually I bought a mic and recorded a little demo. I started giving out low-quality sample CDs like there was no tomorrow and built a little buzz around town. But that still didn’t prove to any venue owners or promoters that I was worthy of performing at their spots. It took a few years of rocking house parties, comedy clubs and open-mic nights to really get noticed and that’s when the real work started.
My skin color didn’t make much of a difference at all except when I first started rapping. Everyone made fun of me and said I was trying to act like I was black. To this day I still experience somewhat of a racial thing when I perform certain states in The South, but my physical appearance is almost always overlooked once I start playing my music.
Who are your biggest influences? Who’s on your iPod right now?
Lately I’ve been jamming a lot of types of music. Some favorites of mine include Brother Ali, John Denver, Common Market, Atmosphere, The Sounds, Living Legends, P-Funk, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Mac Lethal. My favorite local jams right now are Pat Maine’s latest project, The Nighttime Medicine EP and Learical Mindset and Sly’s new album, Love out Loud.
Your piano-laced tracks are reminiscent of a Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest-style hip hop. How would you describe your music to someone who’s never heard of you?
I don’t know, I’m bad with that. I usually just hand them a CD and tell them to listen for themselves or go download songs from my website, burnellwashburn.com.
I guess you could say that I’m on that positive tip. I don’t like dark sounding music too often, so I make it a habit to produce mostly positive happy songs. I like it when a song relates with me and makes me feel better about the situation, so I try to deliver the same energy in my tracks. I just try to keep it real. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s angry, but for the most part it always comes back to the light and remains positive. I guess if we were to compare my music to other artists, it might read “John Denver meets Slug.”
On the track “Apartment 22” you talk about your goal in staying true to the art form. Is that your goal as an artist?
I don’t necessarily see it as a goal; I see it more as a way of being. Any real artist will stay true to themselves and the art form, no matter what. That lyric you are referring to applies to a time when I was offered a record deal but I left the label because they wanted to control my content and tell me what I could and couldn’t talk about. That’s not how I will ever roll, so I bounced. No amount of money, fame or respect will ever be worth making something that isn’t you. People these days aren’t stupid; the masses are slowly becoming better at seeing through fake and appreciating the real.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Rib Cage Birds.” You talk about God and love and you seem touch on these themes frequently in other songs as well. Would you describe yourself as a socially conscience rapper?
Yes, I would consider myself a socially conscience rapper. As cliché as it sounds, that’s what you get classified as if you don’t rap about iced jewelry and fast women.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am currently working on several different projects including an entirely self-produced album coming out in April. I am also in the process of routing more tour dates with some of my friends Ecid, Abstract Rude, Musab and more. I recently started a live hip-hop band with two of my friends TSR and OptAmystical called The Mountain Ears. We’ll play classic Burnell songs along with tons of brand new genre-defying content that will explore all of our different musical backgrounds while staying rooted in hip hop. Our first performance as a band will be Dec. 30 at The Salt Palace for the EVE Festival.
My next show in Utah after that will be Jan. 27 at Urban Lounge with People Under the Stairs and Sweatshop Union.
I’m constantly working on new music with tons of talented artists so look forward to some new collaborations with Mac Lethal, Dumb Luck, Sly, Hip-E, Jnatural, Pat Maine and many more.
I also just recently started a company called Wasatch Renaissance. We offer many professional services including graphic design, photography, concert/tour promotion and booking, audio recording and mixing, apparel printing and much more. Friend us on Facebook to find out more.