The next generation of Pittsburgh music is here
by matthew ryan miramontes
Oyo Ellis was only a teenager when the Bad Brains arrived in
Pittsburgh on their 1987 I Against I Tour. The embodiment of
energy Ellis saw that night inspired him to build a career in bands
like Killer of Sheep that connect punk foundation to hardcore
Musicians like Orlando Marshall, who is better known by his stage
name Buscrates, are finally starting to be recognized by the
population of Pittsburgh with a grand scale influence just like it had
in the golden years of jazz even now 90 years later.
Then there is Sierra Sellers who is an artist that has recently been
getting national recognition from NPR after being named one of
the “2020 Slingshot Artists To Watch.” Sellers can now connect a
deeper love for soul music to her performances; and it all flows right
back to her hometown of Pittsburgh.
These staples of the musical community and up and coming
artists are just a few examples of the budding talent of Pittsburgh,
proving that the historical roots are just the precursor to a broader
spectrum of talent that develops every day.
“In the beginning, Pittsburgh didn’t really shape my sound at all.
I was trying to figure out what my sound was and as time went on, I
played with more musicians and went out and saw more live music
and that experience has just made me better. You don’t realize how
much talent is really right next to you,” Sellers said.
In a study released by Sound Music Cities in 2018, a survey of over
1,800 Pittsburgh respondents saw that 75% are music creatives and of
that 75%, 58% of all music creatives live within city limits.
According to the same study, 2/3’s of venues have experienced
stable or increased revenues over the past three years, and those
same percentages believe that their audience interest in local music
has increased or stayed the same, making up a network of artists
who work to improve the music scene from the inside city limits or shift looks toward Pittsburgh from surrounding cities like Aaron Adkinson.
While Ellis, 50, Hill District explains how the Bad Brains are not a Pittsburgh group and call D.C. their home, the impact that they had in just one show was enough to change a local musician's calling for the rest of his life.
“I saw the Bad Brains play at Skibo Hall at CMU on March third, in ‘87 and it affected me more than any shit musically,” he said.
While stage shows for punk bands were nothing spectacular or stunning in ways of large pyrotechnics or flashing lights like today, Ellis still carries this memory as an influence to where those fits of energy come from when writing music throughout his career.
“And what I perceived is they brought out HR, the lead singer of the Bad Brains in this chair, like a bar stool and they taped his feet to the chair and his torso as well. I mean he had one hand free just to hold the mic.” Ellis said.
While every artist holds contrasting styles under their belt, they all live under the umbrella of Pittsburgh and make these connections through sound. These connections might be the punk rock backing that Ellis had and continues to grow or the soulful powerhouse that Sellers is becoming.
With lyrics from Killer of Sheep that describe, “We see everything you do, desire in the eyes of the owl watching you. Persistent surveillance will keep you in your place, you want a picture of the future, a boot in your face,” on the track “Thought Police” that connects Killer of Sheep and Bad Brains to the dystopian future storytelling.
While Oyo has been present in many varying bands and groups, his writing and ability to scream out through performance will always lie much deeper than the surface, a direct influence of the music that surrounded him from a young age.
Even as time moves on, the stories and moments stick to manipulate the choices that follow even years later. It might have been nearly 33 years ago, but Ellis recalls it if it was just happening last night.
“HR basically said, ‘Yo, I’m going to do this show and this is a representation of oppression and the world trying to hold you back.’ And like two songs in, the chair was split in two, and I mean, this was the Bad Brains, they destroyed that shit. He had like half a chair arm taped and he was doing backflips and the whole HR type of movement.”
To anyone unaware of what the Bad Brains or this rapid-fire movement style meant to 17-year-old Ellis at the time, was an explosive revolution in music that made him want to pursue sound as a productive medium. He immediately turned to punk rock to be this canvas where his bands like Battered Citizens were free to make a small round of buzz around the Pittsburgh hardcore scene back in the late ’80s playing shows with the likes of “Youth of Today” and the “Cro-Mags.”
“And to me, it was like ‘yes, you couldn’t hold back the PMA or Positive Mental Attitude and he destroyed the chair and this symbol of oppression with these splinters flying. This was a combination of seeing the Bad Brains at the height of their career that made this seem like some otherworldly type of stuff, and I bought into that whole movement.”
The real story is that HR actually had a hernia, as explained by bassist Darryl Jenifer, who wanted to keep the hernia from getting worse and resulting in a cancellation of their entire tour. So they had the idea to tape him to a chair to remind him that he needed to stay reserved or suffer worsening the hernia. While the story wouldn’t reach Ellis’s ears until 30 years later, it never changed how he looked back and saw the power through punk rock.
“[And] it took a lot of the luster off, but it didn’t change anything. And I mean as wrong as I was about the real situation, that was some real shit to influence me and it was honestly like seeing Jesus Christ walking and hopefully some kids are getting that from somebody today,” he said.
Influence in music is vital and is able to pass a sound from a generation down to those that follow. Artists like Buscrates, 41, of Highland Park, are able to have humble origins in Pittsburgh, are able to continue to build work every day in his home studio to pass down ideas through sound.
“We all have our people, I mean Charlie [Another Pittsburgh producer under the name C. Scott] is like a little brother to me. It originally was me, Grand Ear, and also Nice Rec who were all part of East Liberty Quarters who all traded our beat secrets and records.”
A Signature Sound
Where East Liberty Quarters was able to thrive on samples and intricate
boom-bap beats, Buscrates, who truly got his start with East Liberty Quarters,
is essentially creating the modern-day J Dilla funk master digging and flipping
where everything can be a sample. He is not afraid to sample the conventional
materials like records and mp3’s, but also twist the boundaries by using items
like spring-loaded cars and children toys that tie a human connection that is
playful but almost entirely fitting with his energetic attitude.
“No matter what genre I’m doing, I want people to hear it and say, ‘Oh yeah,
that sounds like Buscrates,’ through my personality. I mean Pittsburgh is littered
with talent and the internet breaks down those barriers that were once
stopping people from having a platform.” he said.
But it seems to always come back to the location and how that can shift an artist’s style or appearance on the outside, making for a search for identity that only comes from creation. For Buscrates, his studio is covered floor to ceiling in equipment where he is able to isolate himself away from the outside world and simply produce between instrumentals, featured tracks with other artists, or his own vinyl records that scatter the room.
“No matter where you go, there you are and I always try to hold true no matter what my location is. At the end of the day, I’m still Buscrates.”
This connection to East Liberty Quarters is what gave Buscrates the hidden local legend status that he so admirably denies, working those late nights at the now-defunct Shadow Lounge to the early mornings of self-releases, Buscrates is directly connected to creating Pittsburgh’s sound.
While the Shadow Lounge closed its doors in 2013, the spirit still lives on through shows today in Pittsburgh. In forms of the future, Buscrates realizes both the talent that has been here and passed as well as the talent that is upcoming, but says that there needs to be a space where artists can realize that potential through consistent booking and crowd involvement.
“I cannot possibly overstate the importance of what the Shadow Lounge means to the city. There are moments though, where certain shows [prove that] the Lounge lives on and it’s just the exact right vibe where the timeline reconnects to modern-day.”
Buscrates connects his upbringing to the new generations of artists like C. Scott that are studying somewhat in his footsteps and giving a new rhythm to follow. As one chapter closes and another begins, Buscrates still sees an art form in producing a sound that is worth saving in the city.
“Pittsburgh has its time, it just needs to have whatever that needs to happen, but it’s there and something needs to happen for those pieces to meet,” he said.
From her dim-lit performances at local spots like Club Cafe or playing the main floor for Stage AE, perhaps new artists like Sellers, 24, of Bellevue, are among many artists in Pittsburgh that are gathering up looks from higher-ups around the country for her experienced style that started here in Pittsburgh.
She is getting acknowledgment from around the country thanks to a mention from NPR and her raw talent that is able to create a springboard for her deeply soulful, but lively sound.
“I’ve traveled to other places like New York and of course they are talented too, but being from Pittsburgh or a similar small town, you think of those musicians in New York or L.A. as the cream of the crop and you expect them to be better than anybody in Pittsburgh. But it’s very similar and I think Pittsburgh has a lot of potential to really build up a scene here.”
Pittsburgh is a historical music city with ties drawing all the way back to the 30s with experienced jazz artists that highlighted the scene as a branch way between New York and Chicago. Artists like Sellers are still trying to find exactly where they fit in Pittsburgh as she started to do that with her self-titled release “Sierra Sellers” in 2017. Sellers also began to do features for artists like Bill Waves and One800 and moved onto her newest project “Ophelia” which dropped in March.
“I do have to find a place where my music fits and I can thrive there and where people actually do come out, and I think eventually Pittsburgh will be,” she said.
Not only is the idea of a location important, but since a scene can only grow so large and host a seemingly infinite amount of niche artists, Charlie Scott, 25, of Bloomfield thinks that individuality can also be the key to variety in creation.
Scott is one of the prolific producers that got his original rise in the jazz scene playing the young kid at the almost end of a seasoned era in music in Pittsburgh for jazz.
“I came up in a city that at the time when
I was seriously getting into music was still
at the beginning of an upward cycle that
was starting to get a lot of attention. What
I saw was many musicians working at a
really high skill level with people who
would really go on to be famous, but
people who weren’t [being] themselves.”
This was called for primarily the artists in
Pittsburgh who began to make music but
forgot those lines that the city had painted
nearly 100 years ago. It is now a shifted
environment from the traditional jazz
background that Scott grew up around,
into something that is more accessible
through the internet without a definable
sound for the city.
“I don’t think there is anyone Pittsburgh
sound and I just think that we haven’t had
much of a base in the recent past to solidify
a continuous movement in the underground.
Things come and they go, but for instance
Deep House [venues like Hot Mass and Cattivo
were bursting with artists] was popular five to six years ago, but now it’s almost on life support.”
While scenes change and the life cycle goes on, Scott remembers some of the greats who were able to champion him into the culture of hip-hop production and some of those early roots of beat making. While he is the Swiss Army Knife of beat making with everything from deep house to boom-bap productions, Scott finds that the key to starting is having strong support.
“But in its place are new sounds, and there is a thing that comes in, then a thing that goes out. If you’re trying to be a producer or DJ here in Pittsburgh, it’s difficult because Pittsburgh has never really had a soul or funk-infused hip-hop scene that people appreciate on that side of things.”
Scott is able to provide some evidence to his knowledge of Pittsburgh’s immersive production background that spawns from mentors like Buscrates who continue to adapt even near 20 years after originally beginning.
“[Buscrates] was the first one I met in the whole entire city that was really doing innovative things with his music. Honestly, I just be in the crib trying to do stuff Buscrates did 10 years ago.”
In terms of looking toward the future of rebuilding off of the closing of the Shadow Lounge which was one of Pittsburgh’s underground staples, Scott believes there is hope for the future of the adaptability of the artists here.
He is selling physical copies of his record “The Pittsburgh Diaries” from 2016, as well as his newest project, “Phase Shifting” that dropped in 2019 on Soul Slime Records.
Scott has already hinted at being done with another project on his social media but has been fairly quiet about its release date and when it will be able to grace the city’s speakers.
“I’m trying to be more adventurous and trying to push the envelope a little more without finding a pocket and then just sticking there, I’d like to see us challenge and push it more. I’m just looking simply for consistent, newer venues [who are] sticking around that are really able to invest in local talent,” Scott said.
“The artists working in the city are really who make an effort to be good neighbors
to their peers and all those smaller community things. Pittsburgh is a changing
Pittsburgh, but it’s still Pittsburgh.”
While artists in Pittsburgh are working in a smaller market trying to pound impressions
into the pavement, others like Aaron Adkinson, 27, of Brooklyn, NY or “NVSV”
(pronounced: NASA), traveled outside the population of 300,000 in Pittsburgh for
an 8.6 million in New York City.
Even though Adkinson was never born and raised in Pittsburgh, he quickly was able
to integrate and begin lifelong partnerships with the musicians here doing a
collaboration album between local artists called “Mysterious Shit.” The record
featured Clara Kent, Pharaoh Lum, and Bilal Abbey as a 31-minute bounce through
both aggressive hip-hop and bumping instrumental segments
“I always accredit Pittsburgh for growing and shaping me as a man. I moved to
Pittsburgh from Baltimore when I was 18. I needed to get out of the situation I was
in and college was the vehicle for that. The music I made while in Pittsburgh has
nothing to do with the current or popular sound of the city but had everything to
do with what I was experiencing.”
Even though a large chunk of “NVSV”’s music was made in Pittsburgh, his newest
project takes exploration into his move to Brooklyn and can orchestrate the move
to a direct correlation to a rise in streams but seems unable to forget exactly what
made Pittsburgh so special.
“I look at my time in Pittsburgh as the semi-pros. Once I moved to Brooklyn it’s like my fanbase in Pittsburgh grew. I don’t know if it’s because I left and became less accessible or if I made a lasting impression on the city but I’m thankful either way.”
This is where “NVSV” is able to use a shift of location to create new looks that travel back to Pittsburgh as his latest project uses a majority of Pittsburgh artists as features. Creating a combination of where he was able to cement himself but also orchestrate a branch too.
“All songs written and recorded here in New York. If I wasn’t here I wouldn’t have been able to make that tape. New York fucks with me, making friends in all the right places so… I also burned some bridges in the city full of them.”
Keywords: Music, Artists, Pittsburgh, Sound, Shadow Lounge, Musicians, Talent, Punk, City, Influence
Matthew Ryan Miramontes operates Matt's Music Mine and is a future graduate of Journalism at Point Park University's class of 2020.
His home studio, Highland Park, December 6th, 2019
Thunderbird Café, Lawrenceville, January 17th, 2020
Rex Theater, South Side, September 25th, 2018
Mr Smalls Funhouse, Millvale, March 30th, 2019
Rock Room, Polish Hill, September 26th, 2019
Rock Room, Polish Hill, September 26th, 2019
Rock Room, Polish Hill, September 26th, 2019
Rex Theater, South Side, November 26th, 2018
Rex Theater, South Side, November 26th, 2018