The music universe is more populated than ever with bands and performers trying to get heard and noticed among tens of thousands of their peers.
Several musicians and performers with ties to Kansas City have recently made news in their galaxies, none more eminently than Kansas City's biggest music star, Tech N9ne. Here's a look at his latest accomplishments and what others who have emerged from our music community are up to.
Tech N9ne's album, “Planet,” hit Billboard’s Top Rap Album chart at No. 7, giving Kansas City’s most successful music artist his 19th Top 10 album on that chart, more than any other rapper in history. Gucci Mane and E-40 each have 18 Top 10 albums. The Top Rap Album Chart was launched in January 2004. “Planet” is also Tech’s fifth Top 10 album since May 2014.
Tech N9ne is one of the most successful independent artists in music. In 2014 and 2015, he cracked Forbes magazine's annual Top 20 list of Hip-Hop's Cash Kings, which ranks hip-hop's top earners. In 2015, when he earned $8.5 million, placing 17th on the list.
A Kansas City native who now resides in New Orleans, Fish released two albums in 2017 and both continue to perform well on the charts. “Belle of the West” has been No. 1 on the Roots Music Report for 17 weeks. And on the Billboard Blues Chart for the week of March 26, “Belle” was No. 8 and “Chills and Fever” was No. 11, ahead of albums by ZZ Ward, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and “TajMo,” a project by Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’.
Fish is getting recognition elsewhere. In a New York Times music column on March 23 that lauded the band Luscius , Paul Krugman (yes, that Paul Krugman) referred to Samantha Fish as a “stunningly talented star” among a bevy of independent musicians and bands who are succeeding in the music world.
And on March 27, the online version of Paste magazine featured an exclusive premiere broadcast of the video for “Blood in the Water,” a track from “Belle.”
Paste wrote: “ ‘Blood in the Water’ demonstrates Fish’s love of traditional Americana songwriting with violins and bluesy vocals, and the song’s new video, directed by Keith Hoffmann, juxtaposes Fish’s sweet, tantalizing vocals with a dark visual narrative.”
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
Fish isn’t the only Kansas City artist with a video getting love and attention from the major music media.
On March 9, Rolling Stone posted a feature on the video for “Childhood Goodbye,” the new single from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a Kansas City son-mother duo comprising Madisen Ward and Ruth Ward.
The video was made via HitRecord, a production collective owned by Golden Globe nominee and Emmy winner Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also makes a cameo in the video.
Madisen Ward told The Star he and Gordon-Levitt got acquainted in 2010, when Ward started creating music on HitRecord (pronounced “hit-reCORD”), an online community of artists, musicians, photographers and other artistic types.
“I got well-known on that site, and he was paying attention to my stuff. So when (we) got signed in 2014, Joseph went on Twitter and said one of his favorite musicians on HitRecord got signed to a label,” he said.
Gordon-Levitt told Rolling Stone: "His contributions would range from a surreal Muppet-like falsetto about a sad king to a dark, underground-style rap about the blood of wolves. Then, once he blew up, he kept this different side of his creative-self alive and running wild undercover on our site. So it's all the more special that he wanted to make the video for his new Mama Bear song with us. I think a lot of people in the community were really touched, and I was too."
Ward worked out the treatment for the video with a few other contributors, including director Raymond Wei. It features several HitRecord members posing while footage of films and videos of their childhood are projected on their faces and torsos and a green screen behind them.
In addition to Gordon-Levitt, Ward and his mother appear in the opening scene. The song, a gorgeous, keening anthem, laments the waning and loss of childhood.
“It really helped narrate the song and capture the feel of the story,” Ward said.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear released their inaugural album, “Skeleton Crew,” in 2015. That year, the duo was named one of 10 “country stars to watch” by Rolling Stone and performed on one of the final episodes of “Late Night With David Letterman.”
Ward said “Childhood Goodbye” will be part of an upcoming EP, though no release is imminent.
“We have a bunch of tracks recorded and it will be the single off that,” he said. “But for now, it’s still TBD for the EP.”
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear will perform for Star Sessions at noon April 16. The performance will be streamed live on The Kansas City Star Facebook page.
The quartet Making Movies features two pairs of brothers: Enrique and Diego Chi and Juan Carlos and Andres Chaurand. At the 2017 Latin Grammy Awards show in November, Latin music legend Ruben Blades mentioned Making Movies as one of the younger Latin bands who had impressed him. "They have this song ‘Spinning Out’ and it’s excellent.," he said. Since then, Blades has recorded his version of "Spinning Out," and Making Movies is recording vocals for the track, which is a candidate to be included in Blades' upcoming album, "Mixtura."
Also, KCPT (Channel 19) recently aired "Music Is an Immigrant," a 30-minute film that documents the Chi brothers' trip to their native Panama, where they explored their musical heritage. The film can be viewed at the KCPT website.
Victor & Penny
Victor & Penny, The guitar-ukulele (and husband-wife) duo of Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane have been invited to perform in Gothenburg, Sweden, as part of the Nordic ExChange. The event is the first conference in Sweden sponsored by the Folk Alliance International. Of the eight artists invited to the event, Victor & Penny will be the only act from North America.
The ExChange, McGrane said, is an industry conference that focuses on networking, professional development and music export and exchange opportunities for the Nordic folk/roots music industry.
"In addition to a half-hour showcase, we may be speaking on a panel about North American touring," she told The Star. "After seven years of steady national U.S. touring, our next goal is international touring. At the Nordic ExChange, we will have the opportunity to connect and build relationships with international festival, venue and press professionals." The conference is April 9-11.
The music project Ssion (pronounced “shun”) created by former Kansas City resident Cody Critcheloe has been making heavy waves for its latest video, “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” which features Ariel Pink. On March 18, Stereogum called it the video of the week, ahead of new videos from Taylor Swift, Lil Jon, Rae Sremmurd and Courtney Barnett.
Critcheloe and Ssion have also been the subject of feature stories in the Fader and in Now magazine, which said Ssion’s upcoming album “distills a huge amount of his formative influences into scathing, hilarious and beautifully crafted songs that seem to spring from the stasis of over-networked life.”
In January, thanks to a push from Jon Hart at the Bridge (90.9 FM), the Kansas City band Hembree was one of 22 Slingshot Artists at National Public Radio Music. Slingshot is NPR’s “artist incubator” website.
After that, Hembree scored a showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference, where they caught the eyes and ears of Rolling Stone, which, on March 19, named the band one of the “30 best artists we saw at the Austin throwdown.”
Of their March 15 set at the Continental Club, Jeff Gage wrote: “There was certainly a loose, laid-back vibe to the show as the band members ribbed each other between songs, but there was a single-minded focus as (they) tore the swirl of guitars and keys on a song like set-closer ‘Holy Water,’ which saw singer and guitarist Isaac Flynn finish standing triumphantly atop the kick drum.”