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ZuluZuluu's very-busy Greg Grease keeps momentum churning with new solo LP

Greg Grease

Greg Grease Ashley Sullivan

Down So Long, the upcoming album from Minneapolis rapper Greg Grease, builds on the momentum created by ZuluZuluu, the astral synth-funk collective he’s a member of.

After forming in 2013, Zulu released their anticipated debut album, What’s the Price, last June. Within six months, the group had established itself as one of the most championed new groups from the Twin Cities: City Pages named ZuluZuluu the top new music act in Minnesota, while What’s the Price was named the best Minnesota album of the year in the Star Tribune’s Twin Cities Critics Tally. The Zulu crew is also stacking up live dates, which will continue next month when they join Atmosphere’s 11-show Welcome to California tour.

So, Greg is having a busy summer, and now his solo career is back in full swing. Down So Long, out August 11 via Sound Verite Records, is the most impressive Grease record yet. Musically, it’s thick, funk-infused, and alive, with contributions from the likes of Psymun, Javier Santiago, and Miguel Hurtado, as well as Zulu’s Proper-T, Trelly Mo, and ∆RT P∆RTÉ.

At the center of the album is Greg the rapper, with a sense of lyrical purpose like indie-rap workhorse Oddisee, combined with the smoked-out languidity of someone like Curren$y. On the title track, Greg raps about wanting to climb up the ladder in life, implying the unique circumstances of doing so as a black person. Elsewhere, on “So What,” he writes of the conflict between expressing his everyday struggle in his lyrics while knowing that people ultimately listen to music as escape.

Ahead of his album announcement/listening party at Icehouse on Saturday, we sat down with Greg to talk Down So Long, everything ZuluZuluu, and his hip-hop roots.

City Pages: Is it safe to say this is one of the busiest periods in your life as an artist?

Greg Grease: Yeah, definitely. I got a lot of different things going on in my personal life too. It’s been the busiest I’ve ever been.

CP: Didn’t you get engaged recently?

GG: Yeah. That, and my parents moved to Florida; I moved them to Florida, so that was another thing. I’ve been doing a lot of shit.

CP: Were you surprised by all the acclaim and accolades for ZuluZuluu following What’s the Price? Did you expect to be playing shows and festivals at this frequent rate, a summer later?

GG: I hoped to; we definitely hoped to. But I think it has definitely exceeded our expectations. What I’ve learned making music for as long as I have is you can’t expect anything, so it’s definitely exceeded my expectations. But this is what we were aiming for -- to be on the road and play festivals.

CP: Zulu played the 80/35 festival in Des Moines earlier this month. How did that go?

GG: It was cool, it was crackin’. It’s always fun to be in a different place, a different state, doing a festival ‘cause it’s all people who don’t even know who you are, at least on our level we’re on now.

CP: Did the collaborative process of creating What’s the Price leave an impression on you in terms of different people’s approaches to making a record?

GG: Absolutely. And not even just the making of the album, but also performing with [ZuluZuluu]. Really, we just push each other, we continuously are pushing each other to take it to the next level. It’s that type of thing where it’s like I’m trying to keep raising the bar ‘cause they keep raising the bar. In terms of musicality, it’s doing a lot more, rather than just sitting around, making beats, and writing raps.

CP: What made you want to incorporate Dorothea Lange’s photography of black sharecroppers in the early 1900s into the artwork for Down So Long?

GG: I’m always into classic photography from the turn of the century, where it’s the beginning of the 1900s. I came across her photography some months ago. She went to a whole bunch of different sharecropper communities, and I was really inspired by those photographs. It’s like, “As you see here, we’ve been down.”

CP: Considering the recent impact of the racially charged lyricism of big rappers like Jay-Z, Kendrick, and J. Cole, do you feel we’re living in a unique time for artists who talk about race?

GG: As I’m sure you’re aware, I always have been talking about [race]. With those bigger artists talking about it, it’s definitely gonna encourage the listener to be more open to that type of content. But at the end of the day, famous people can do what famous people want to do and they’re still gonna be famous.

CP: What are the key ideas and themes of Down So Long to you?

GG: It’s just the same thing as all my other music: It’s my life. This is the timeline of my life from the last record. It’s a lot of interpersonal battles, the conflict of wanting to talk about what’s right but not wanting to be preachy and not wanting to go too hard on people. I have the track “So What” where it’s like, “Ain’t nobody tryna hear that shit.”

Even in talking to family members that are on the same mental platform, they’re like, “Man, I’m chillin’ right now, I’m not really tryna hear that shit. I’m trying to escape from that. I’m trying to fantasize when I listen to my music.” For me, it’s the inner conflict of dealing with that and not wanting to talk about it, versus dealing with it and talking and living in it and basking in it so that you can move on from it.

CP: In your new interview with Bandcamp, you’re quoted as saying, “I’ve been letting go of the term ‘rapper.’” But even as your sound evolves, how is rapping a uniquely useful way of expressing yourself?

GG: I want to clarify -- that’s not fully what I was saying. I definitely am a rapper. [The journalist] was asking me about a tweet I said about the [XXL magazine's] Freshman cover and that, to me, was the commercialization of rap: trying to turn it into a product to be sold. I think that’s what the XXL cover is doing now; it’s like a meat market, like, “Oh, this is whose music you should buy.”

First of all, none of those dudes even rap, so they’re not rappers. In that regard, I’m not that kind of rapper. But I’m definitely a rapper. The hip-hop culture has been built on all the different elements, but the one I most attached myself to was the rap element. I tried to breakdance. I was buttcheeks. I tried graffiti. I was buttcheeks. Tried DJing and I was buttcheeks. So this was the part of the art form that I could most identify with and participate in.

CP: How are you planning to balance your solo career and ZuluZuluu work going forward? Right now, you’re heavily involved with both.

GG: It’s gonna stay like that. We got a bunch of new ZuluZuluu music, and all the individual Zulu members got a bunch of new music, and we got other artists that we’re producing and working with. We got a lot of stuff.

CP: How exactly is the Welcome to California tour with Atmosphere going to work -- are you performing a solo set and a ZuluZuluu set at all the shows?

GG: Yup, I’m doing two sets the whole tour, and DJ Just Nine is also doing a DJ set. We’re gonna be working, man.

CP: What are you most looking forward to about the tour?

GG: We’re playing several historic venues, so that’s gonna be nuts. I’m looking forward to the whole thing, man. Cali is just that wave; it’s got that vibration. It’s a beautiful thing that we get to go play in front of this many different large groups of a new audience. Every night it’s going to be a new audience for us, and it’s gonna be a big new audience. We’re gonna have to go super-hard and try to show that we’re out here for a reason.

Greg Grease
With: "Special guests" 
Where: Icehouse 
When: 11 p.m., Sat. July 22
Tickets: $10; more info here