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Jeremy Bryan is a rapper. Greg Marshall is an emcee and lyricist. Dave Olson is a beatmaker and producer. Together, they form Milwaukee's The Figureheads, a hip-hop tour de force.
I sat down with Bryan, Marshall, and Olson before their show on Wednesday, July 1 and talked to them about music, life, and philosophy. Then I took in their live show. Here's what transpired:
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you all meet?
Jeremy Bryan: Greg and I met in college, UW-Milwaukee. He was in a choir class with a mutual friend of ours who mentioned, "Hey, I know someone else that emcees and raps. You should hang out with this other guy, Greg." So I gave Greg a call, just out of the blue, and said "Hey, I heard you're going to a hip hop show in Madison." I'm like, "I'm going to come with you if that's alright?" So I just invited myself to go with him to Madison. We had a blast just freestyling. I introduced him to philosophers like Kierkegaard and others.
Greg Marshall: I introduced him to hip-hop, and he introduced me to dead writers.
JB: That sparked a friendship around hip-hop music, philosophy, theology, all kinds of stuff that we were thinking about at the time ... and education. What if we could make albums that were also books that teachers could use? We started dream about this stuff in 2000. Dave and I met in the Minneapolis area.
OMC: Does your music cater to a particular dynamic?
GM: This is a funny place to ask that. Earlier in the day, it's all families. Later in the day, it's drunk adults. We have the ability to cater our music to any crowd. We keep it versatile. We keep it fresh.
Dave Olson: I think our music stays pretty consistent. It's not like we're like, oh, now we're gonna play folk music or something cheesy. I feel like even though it's tailored to who's standing in front of us, it still comes from the same place.
OMC: What adjectives would you use to describe what you do?
GM: I always liked the metaphor of starting fires. When you experience our show, the hope is that whatever age you are, that the music sparks a little fire in you. I think we're firestarters in that regard.
OMC: How did you come up with the name for the band?
JB: I was walking around in Madison. I'm an English major and so figures of speech are what I'm obsessed with, storytelling and communicating uniquely. Figureheads also has this pioneering quality to it.
OMC: What do you do when you're not performing in your band?
DO: I really just love creating things and producing things, so I'm always looking for opportunities to do that.
JB: Greg's good at fundraising, so he's helped sustain us over the years. Dave and I would probably still be making some really weird music and working other weird jobs. We invited Greg into the mix, and he bright us out into this broader space.
GM: My role at CI Design is chief storyteller. I tell stories and produce experiences with them. I help businesses or individuals figure out what their story is.
OMC: Any place you haven't been that you hope to get to?
GM: For me, it's more online than a city. Taking this huge library of awesome music and making it more available to people and actually letting them know it exists outside of just the people we perform in front of. That's a huge future goal for us.
OMC: What's the future look like for the Figureheads?
JB: Well, we're all sort of mature now. We're on our way.
We've got kids. We've got our families to take care of. We've got these amazing wives. For me, it means taking a backseat right now. But it will involve music.
GM: I want to take everything I've learned about – storytelling, messaging, marketing, branding – and apply it all to the music that we created when we didn't know anything about that stuff.
DO: I want to be such a good producer. I want to step to the next plateau. At the same time, I also sort of want to level out my life, my family life and my work life.
A short while later, it was showtime. After a quick microphone check, the band provided an energetic, funky first song with the refrain of "When the clouds are gone and the sun is out; everybody rock to the funky sound," which the small but lively crowd did, despite the wind chill off the lake.
The next few offerings kept the beats tight, the rhymes flowing and the mood positive. Songs like "The Spark" with a guest verse from James Polk about finding inspiration and overcoming obstacles got the crowd into it. "Gotta Believe" kept the energy flowing, and Bryan's "It's hard to dream out here in Milwaukee" comment before "Broken Hearts" rang true, urging those who may feel so inclined to crush dreams to "quit meddling where you don't belong."
Next was some freestyling, courtesy of three words suggested by the crowed. Working with "tree huggers," "peanuts," and "hope," Olson – the Figureheads' resident "track smith, creating the diamonds of rhythm," according to Bryan – provided an impromptu backbeat overlaid with the "hip, hop, hip, hop; don't, stop, don't, stop" refrain to the crowd's approval.
The set peaked with "Specks of Light,"' a track that's received some airtime on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and showcases lyrics reminding us that humanity has more in common than we take the time to realize. Next was the "The Grind," which acknowledged life's challenges and the philosophy that if we work together any task can be more enjoyable, while the final number offered a freestyle featuring student Khalia who reminded the crowd that "We're gonna make it: me, myself, and I."
The Figureheads have two more performances scheduled for the Summerfest at the Kohl's Captivation Station, one on Thursday, July 2 at 4:30 p.m. and another on Sunday, July 5 at 5 p.m.