The annual Rock for Love festival (see Local Beat, page 29) has become a great showcase for local bands both established and new. One emerging artist Memphis music fans need to get more acquainted with — Cities Aviv — will perform at the festival Friday night, in a bill that also includes a couple of rock bands (Pezz and Angel Sluts) from Fat Sandwich Records, the local label that has released most of his recorded output so far.
The 22-year-old Cities Aviv — aka Gavin Mays — might be the most original and is certainly one of the most significant musicians to emerge on the Memphis music scene in the past year.
The Memphis native and Overton High School graduate's eccentric, individualistic take on hip-hop — captured this year on the debut album Digital Lows, the seven-inch single "Coastin'," and in a series of sharp live performances — is not only without local precedent but is novel — and increasingly noticed as such — on the wider rap/hip-hop scene.
Mays' path to the mic is quite different from other local rappers.
"I had Three 6 [Mafia] albums growing up, and my cousins had the more underground stuff. I thought it was cool, but I was never obsessed with it," Mays said last Friday night, just before an impromptu show at the Hi-Tone alongside fast friend and collaborator Tim "Royal'T" Love.
Instead, Mays seems to have spent his time listening to metal, punk, and alternative rock emanating from labels such as Def Jux. In the transition from high school to college — he spent a year studying journalism at the University of Memphis before deciding to focus fully on his music — Mays served as lead singer for the hardcore/metal band Copwatch.
"I had been rapping on the side, just for fun, but after [Copwatch] failed I decided to really pursue it," Mays says. "And I decided if I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way and just throw it off a cliff. Rearrange it and make it what I want it to be."
Mays' experience may unite punk/metal and hip-hop, but his music doesn't sound much like either — or at least what most people expect from those genres.
"Sometimes, I don't even like to think of it as hip-hop or rap," Mays says. "Just because the vocal stylings are rap, that doesn't make it rap music, just like someone yelling doesn't make it a punk song. When I started, I did know that I wanted to have the snap of punk and the introspection of hip-hop but also the depth and huge sound of noise music or whatever. But I wanted to feed all of that into my own little down-tempo, soulful way."
"I had to hit 'em with that modern-man sound," Mays raps on "Float On," which uses a slowed-down, spaced-out instrumental cover version of the indie-rock band Modest Mouse's same-named song, crafted by San Francisco act Blackbird Blackbird.
Mays may reference classic hip-hop acts such as LL Cool J and Pete Rock, but his "modern-man sound" incorporates electrobeats and jazz piano loops, video-game loops and bird noises, vocal snatches of Steely Dan and a booming beat lifted from Depeche Mode. (Memphis singer Marcella Rene Simien, of Fille Catatonique, provides crucial assistance on two tracks on Digital Lows.)
Some of these tracks are produced by Mays himself or other young, local collaborators, and some come from unknown producers Mays has met online, but the sound and feel is a uniform expression of Mays' personal aesthetic. One standout, the lovelorn "Meet Me on Montrose (Ex-Lovers Only)," is built around the unlikeliest of sources: a sample of mid-'70s soft-rock single "Oh Lori" from the Alessi Brothers. Proof, once again, that absolutely anything can be converted into hip-hop.
The musicality on Cities Aviv records strikes you even before the vocals do, but Mays surfs atop these tracks with a sure, declarative flow revealing a tricky, thoughtful persona. He occasionally lapses into the forced transgression of the roughly similar but more celebrated Odd Future collective, but the implied nihilism of titles such as "Die Young" and "Fuckeverybodyhere" are a little misleading. The former features the chorus exhortation of "C'mon and let's die young," but the verses have a more positive generational bent, responding to seemingly limited options with a plan that posits "dying young" as slang for being reborn: "Choose to make it your own/Vacate your home/Pack up a bag and take to the road."
On "Black Box," Mays expresses ambivalence about his hometown and gets political on his own terms, pulling back to acknowledge — charmingly — "I'm 21, this is the realest shit I ever wrote." At all times, he's his own man.
He's also a better live performer than most rap artists at his level of experience, a product, perhaps, of his rock-band background, where live-performance expectations are generally higher. Onstage, Mays is more patient and coherent than most young rappers but manages to slow down without sacrificing intensity. And his recent partnership with veteran local DJ Luke "Redeye Jedi" Sexton — who knows how to augment backing tracks in real time — has only added to Mays' live presence.
Along the way, this unusual artist is forging connections — bringing together punk and hip-hop fans — that, while not new generally, are relatively novel for Memphis, a diversity on display last Friday night at the Hi-Tone, where young punks and older hip-hop heads mingled around the bar and a young, racially diverse crowd did the electric slide while DJs spun soul and funk records early on.
"I feel like it's a convergence of people that come out to the shows," Mays says. "I don't try to cater to anybody. I just make whatever I'm digging or feeling, but it's cool to see who picks it up."
And now Mays, who has played only one out-of-town show as Cities Aviv — in Oxford, which did not, by his own admission, go well — is starting to get attention outside Memphis. Write-ups in Pitchfork and Spin have spurred more national and international orders, according to Fat Sandwich owner Dan Drinkard. Next month, Mays, Drinkard, and other local cohorts will travel north for the first Cities Aviv show in New York at the Brooklyn venue Glasslands. Later in the month, he'll perform at a "Grammy GPS" showcase back in Memphis.
"I just want to keep it fresh and not make it into anything it's not," Mays says. "A lot of early tracks just kind of came together. Now I'm really dealing with more concept and trying to draw these ideas out."
In the meantime, he continues to advance his own music and praise other young local artists around him — hip-hop collaborators such as Royal'T and Preauxx and rock bands such as Bake Sale, Magic Kids, and Sex Cults. "The scene is popping right now," Mays says.
And he's one of the biggest reasons why.