Swollen Members Balance 20+ Year Legacy with an Eye on the Future
by Yasmine Shemesh
“I think the greatest piece of our legacy is that we’ve really connected people,” Prevail says, leaning forward in a booth at the Storm Crow Tavern on Broadway Avenue in Vancouver. Over a beer on a sunny winter afternoon, the rapper and wordsmith is contemplating his 20-plus year career as part of one of Canada’s most legendary hip hop groups. Swollen Members broke out in 1999 with their debut album, Balance – the JUNO Award-winning recording was a product of intense creative chemistry between Prevail and Madchild, a connection unstoppable after they serendipitously crossed paths, first at the X-Large Store in San Francisco and, a few months later, at a parking lot party where a rapid-fire rhyming exchange had both win massive respect for each other. “Lady Venom,” the lead single off Balance, dominated airwaves and MuchMusic video countdowns. Prevail and Madchild’s contrasting yet complimentary writing and delivery styles (with Prevail more academically inclined and Mad on the scrappier side), catchy-as-hell melodies, and follow-up albums like Bad Dreams and Monsters in the Closet (producing defining hits like “Fuel Injected,” “Steppin’ Thru,” and “Breathe,” the latter featuring Nelly Furtado) further drove home their brilliance. Prevail and Madchild (with Rob the Viking and, earlier, Moka Only, Easy Roc, and Zodak) were crowned the reigning kings of West Coast Canadian hip hop – and a major point of pride for Vancouver.
In the early nineties, Vancouver’s underground hip hop scene was flourishing. For one, there was Krispy Bisket Radio, hosted by DJ Kilocee. “If you were a hip hop head in Vancouver in those days,” Prevail nods, “you were either listening to Krispy Bisket or you were at the radio station.” He remembers sitting in the station’s room with Moka Only and the Rascalz’s Red1 and Misfit writing rhymes, as graffiti artists would be next to them scribbling in their notebooks in preparation to hit the train yard that night.
The city was filled with centres where the community would gather. “You had places where people could connect and talk and trade graffiti writing tips and spit rhymes and show off your high top ADIDAS. And what I always liked, too, was after the club, you’d go outside and someone would just start beatboxing and – cyphers. Every time after the club, cyphers. Cyphers on the corner of Robson and Thurlow. In front of the bus stop. There were certain spots that you just knew: Metrotown, Joyce Skytrain Station.”
When Swollen Members formed, that mantle – the historic lineage, the work ethic, the commitment to continuing to push the tradition of local hip hop culture in a positive direction – was passed to them. They took the responsibility both extremely seriously and humbly. “I really do truly feel that we’ve brought people together and given them an understanding of hip hop culture and rap music,” Prevail says. “Our first tour was with Gob and Bif Naked, across Canada. If you like good music, you like good music. And I think we brought a lot of kids over from different genres and, then, vice versa.”
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Balance and, in celebration, Swollen Members are planning a massive world tour. In the meantime, they’re slowly rebuilding awareness. In late 2017, they released a music video for “Supreme Beings,” a previously unreleased track from their last record, 2014’s Brand New Day, chosen for the way it represents that classic Swollen sound.
“It’s gritty, it’s raw,” Prevail describes. “The lyrics – we’ve always prided ourselves on being cryptic but approachable, and we all thought, we agreed that “Supreme Beings” – and the beat, it’s crazy – we just all sort of agreed that would be a good way to present it.”
The time in between Brand New Day and now, though, has given the group some needed time to reassess and, in many ways, return to their roots. Madchild released a handful of solo albums, while triumphantly overcoming a prescription drug addiction. Prevail embarked on a journey that helped to redefine what his idea of an MC was.
“I realized a master of ceremonies really is broader, a spectrum, than just necessarily being on a musical stage,” he explains. “And I’ve really ground onto that and I’m exploring it heavily.” Prevail became more involved in philanthropic efforts, including an ambassadorship for the charity Music Heals that he is incredibly proud to be a part of, and found himself returning to the root of his creative purpose: writing poetry. “I’m a huge fan of literature,” he says. “My mom’s worked in a bookstore since I was a kid, so Christmas presents, birthday presents were always books. I love reading. I love seeing how other authors pace their timing out and, the way that they build scenery, put words in character’s mouths, I always find really intriguing.”
Mostly, Prevail credits his nephew – Neph, short for the Nefarious One – for that return to his intention, as they collaborated on a music project called Alpha Omega. “He sort of brought me back from the cusp,” Prevail continues. “I’d been rapping a long time and he showed me an avenue on how to really challenge myself again, because I almost got to go back to the proverbial drawing board and start from square one. There was no definition to what Alpha Omega had to sound like. We got to experiment and, in that, I got to go back to my exploration of my writing program. I wanted to get back to basics and it’s been really illuminating.”
After Swollen Members completed a tour in Australia last September, Prevail and Neph flew straight to Italy to spend a month fully immersed in creating: writing stories, penning poetry, and making music with Dave Thompson and Liesa Norman (of Vancouver alt-pop duo the Leisure Principle) as AOXLP, a hybrid of their two groups. “That was a good month for me,” Prevail smiles. “I woke up in the mornings, about six o’clock, and I’d probably write from six to nine, have a little breakfast, have a glass of wine – when you’re in Italy,” he laughs, “then we’d go to the studio. The studio was in the house and we’d go to the studio 11 o’clock and start recording. It was so cool.”
This month, Swollen Members is setting out on a four-stop Western Canadian tour. Prevail, refreshed in his artistic purpose, is looking forward to performing and being further motivated, in equal measures, by Madchild and the crowd.
“I love being on stage,” he says. “Once I’m on there, you have to take one of those old school Vaudevillian canes and sort of drag me off. And it’s inspiring. Gets the energy going, you’re making that connection with your listening audience, and you can see when they’re feeling it, you can see when there’s a point where there’s lows, or when the peaks and valleys are in the performance, and you start to realize, ‘Okay, more songs like this is engaging them,’ and it starts to give you a better understanding of what needs to go into the next record. And I do think we take that energy and we talk about future plans.”
There will, of course, be new music. Inevitably imminent from the vivacity gleaned from live performance, but, more largely, fuelled by that spark between Prevail and Madchild: a special kind of flame that still burns aggressively, indeed.
“In Australia, we had a great conversation about where we wanted to take things in the future,” Prevail says. “A lot of people can’t sit in a room and write with other people, they need their isolation. We can sit five feet away from each other and still be mumbling under our breaths, sculpting out the verse. And it’s almost this unsaid energy between the two of us that I kinda hear what he’s saying, or I hear the cadence and the pace, and it makes me take it in a different direction. And I would think the same for him, on the opposite side of things.”