BECOMING THE VOICE OF A REVOLUTION
On the late evening hours of June 7, 2020, at the intersection of 12th and Pine, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) set off the first of what would become multiple rounds of tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets against a crowd of hundreds of Seattleites protesting on the tenth night of the George Floyd Protests. As the crowd began to clear, SPD advanced down Pine, making their way toward 11th. A block away, at 11th and Pike, the members of Marshall Law Band (MLB) stood on the same makeshift stage they had been performing on for the past four nights, rooted firmly behind a sign that read “MLB for BLM.” As the police turned down 11th, friends and fans alike came up to the band, urging them to stop playing because the police weren’t going to stop.
In response, frontman Marshall Hugh only had one answer: “We’re not going to stop, either.”
It’s this kind of fortitude that makes itself apparent on 12th & Pine — named for the intersection of SPD’s East Precinct and where MLB became the voice of a revolution. As the band showed up night after night, protesting by spreading love rather than hate, Hugh went from being interviewed by local outlets like Converge Media, The Stranger, and Dan’s Tunes to global entities like CNN and Fox News. Already well known in Seattle, MLB was propelled from a community pillar to a national voice of the city and the movement within it. Writing new songs on the spot and powering through performance after performance throughout their time on the formerly benign street corner, it only makes sense that, only five months later, MLB has already pushed out what is sure to be a defining album of the entire BLM movement.
Far from what you might expect from a typical protest album, the production on 12th & Pine — done by Jack Endino, who, over a three-decade career, has worked with local bands as big as Nirvana and Soundgarden and as yet-to-be-discovered as BEARAXE and The Black Tones — is light and open. It sounds voluminous, like the notes might just waft out of your headphones into the sky. The effect is two-fold: Like seeds from a dandelion, the frequencies traipse to wherever they’re needed, casually settling down when they find ears that need a little education mixed with a lot of love. But, more than that, the production gives the sense that you’re right there with the band on 11th and Pike, fighting for change, watching the music float into the night.
Beautifully sequenced, the LP is deeply rooted in the approximately 16-square-foot space the band carved out for themselves in the middle of Capitol Hill. The album opens with “Reel News,” a powerful, earnest plea to the media for more honest, comprehensive, nuanced coverage that acknowledges there are more than two sides to any issue. With one of the most impeccably creative and gut-wrenching lines on the album, Hugh speaks out against the outlets that interviewed him on that stage: “Just lie, some more dollars in your pockets / But yea you got options when your platform is poppin / Chop chop your edits turn my city into Gotham / Sensationalize our problems.”
Tracks like “Hometown Hero” and “13%,” which feature spoken-word vocals from Dan Gregory — a then 27-year-old Black man who was shot in the upper right arm when he tried to stop a man from driving a car into protestors — and FairyVonn Mother, respectively, draw from real-time speakers at the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), the area surrounding the SPD East Precinct that protestors occupied for over three weeks. Groundswells of keys, brass, and drums sit just underneath the vocals, pushing them forward and rocking them back like a current gently hugging a piece of driftwood, emblematic of what MLB does best: bolstering the community, promoting dialogue, staying positive and proactive, and not shying away from telling the truth.
An uplifting, inspiring piece at its core, “Hometown Hero” also highlights the real-world, constant threat of violence that follows Black Americans in their daily lives and the subsequent desensitization of those individuals: “I want change. I would hop in front of a bullet for anybody. I would do that again, but I need y’all to go out there and vote so I don’t have to do that no more.” This idea is mirrored on “Ain’t Enough,” the fervent, more vitriolic seventh track in which Hugh relents, “Rubber bullets, they ain’t phase me.”
The first half of 12th & Pine, with tracks like “Reel News,” “Hometown Hero,” and the equally-hopeful, straight-to-the-point “BLM,” is all about community and perseverance. The second half of the album, with tracks like “Ain’t Enough,” the more personal, harder-hitting “Poor Man Rich Soul,” and “Atlas,” which references the dystopian world portrayed in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged,” shows the buildup of frustration that can happen to a community when they’re constantly disenfranchised — or to a band when they’ve been performing on a street corner in the middle of a revolution for over a week.
Final track “Kleos,” with a sax line that feels like it shimmied under your aching feet, turned into a cloud, and started lifting you up toward the heavens, brings together some of the earnestness of the first half of the album with the newfound fervor of the second half: “And yeah we took some losses, we ain’t got no Oscars but now we got ‘em awestruck / Either that or nauseous, we’re through being cautious, we got this.” It’s as if a new MLB is born, hardened from their journey but ultimately better for it — and still able to smile in the face of adversity.
Not just a lyrically-powerful protest album, the music of 12th & Pine is a seamless integration of hip hop, jazz, funk, and country. It’s a sonic feat that reclaims genres that have been appropriated by white culture since the founding of America. In an era where the lines between genres have become increasingly more blurred, this reclamation is subtle but incredibly powerful.
On one of the jazziest songs, “Don’t Wanna Die,” Hugh references the “summer of love” — the name given to the summer of ‘67, when (white) hippies paraded gleefully across San Francisco. Another subtle jab, the underside to this reference is that for Black Americans, ‘67 is known as the “long, hot summer,” when race riots erupted across the country. Second track “BLM” sounds like a tune straight out of a jazz club in the ‘40s. But the biggest and best indicator of reclamation is “Louder (Black & Proud),” a funkadelic track that begs to be blasted in a ‘70s-era Cadillac convertible while driving down a remote highway. It’s a song to get out of town to — a joyful romp that asks you to leave your woes in the driveway, to forget just for a moment that “homie couldn't breathe on the concrete gasping.”
In the video, directed by Chase Fade, MLB, guest rapper Nobi, and a host of other Black female community members (including Shaina Shepherd of BEARAXE), don some incredibly groovy apparel (and some roller skates), smoke some weed (another reclamation), and dance around several different venues (one of which is a Cadillac; alas, not a convertible).
As the group gleefully galavants, eventually all making their way to the same dance club, it’s impossible not to feel their joy. The four-and-a-half minutes fly by as smiling face after smiling face graces the screen, an ode not only to Black people, but, as the video makes clear, to Black women.
The piece de resistance, “Louder” reclaims a lot of things — funk, fashion, weed, roller skating — but, even more than that, it ushers in a whole new era of what it means to be Black in America by very simply claiming something entirely new: the ability to be Black, proud, and, most importantly, happy.
~ Dan Ray of Dan's Tunes