Above Top Secret: The Camp Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Futuristic mysticism, hip-hop positivity mashed up with electro-industrial menace.
File next to: Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction
Playing: Camp Wavelength, Friday August 28 (Late Night Set) at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island). Get your ticket here! *Late Night Ferry Ticket Required. Purchase one here!

When it all crashes down, you have to build it up again. A couple years back, local hip-hop crew Abstract Random looked poised to break big, when suddenly their signal went silent. But Ayo Leilani and Sun Sun regrouped, rebranded and are ready to rise from the ashes as ATS (Above Top Secret). As well as being DIY musicians, the pair are also grassroots promoters, working with 88 Days of Fortune to create LGBT-friendly, woman-positive safe spaces in the hip-hop scene. Joe Strutt met up with Sun and Leilani to hear about starting over, breaking barriers and throwing inclusive parties.

Above Top Secret is new, but you’ve been around for a while. Let’s talk about the evolution from Abstract Random: how did it all happen?

SunSun: Jamilah left the group… a year ago?

Ayo Leilani: It’s almost been two years…

S: She left the group to pursue her own career stuff, and it took us a year to recuperate from that, ’cause it was all of a sudden.

A: It was right after one of our best shows…

S: …This great show in Brooklyn, we opened for Shabazz Palaces. We got flown to New York…

A: …Probably the most we’ve gotten paid for a show, and it felt like we were making it.

S: The audience loved it. It was great. Shabazz Palaces were there for our whole set, they loved it! They were singing our songs afterwards. It felt so cool! And then Jamilah quit suddenly after that. It just took us a while to regroup. I just kept making beats because I love making beats. I didn’t know why I was making them, but still doing it.

A: We spent that year after Jamilah left wondering what to do now, ’cause we just spent all this time creating an album, touring twice in Europe, moving the album — the next step would have been distribution for it, or getting a booking agent or whatever, but then it was like, “Well, what do we do if we don’t have this member?” At that time it was like…

S: …It was really hard at that time.

A: “Oh my God! We’re never going to make music ever again!” Actually, what pushed us out first was that we got asked to do the Nirvana covers tribute for Canadian Music Week last year. Sun’s a huge fan of Nirvana and she said, “We have to play this show.” It was a great show. We ended up putting up an ad, looking for a new member…

S: We found somebody, it worked for the show….

A: …It didn’t work after that. But that was the first thing that pushed us, made us think we have to do this…

S: We were like, “Let’s try again.” We had another roommate at the time, Tee Fergus, and when I DJ’ed, she’d do MC’ing with me, so she got used to being an ad-lib type person. So she joined the group for a little bit but left shortly afterwards to focus on her visual art. But, because she joined the group, it forced us to change the name and rebrand even quicker. Then we just took it step by step — we worked on one track at a time, and then we came up with “Ghost” and our friend FroCasso helped us with the video. And now we have the Harbourfront [SoundClash] concert — Leilani didn’t even tell me she applied.

A: I did it kind of like a joke, “Let’s apply and see if they even…”

S: …’Cause we only released one song as Above Top Secret, so who knows. So she applied for it and we got in [as a Top 5 Finalist], so now we’ve written all of our songs.

Sometimes it’s just good to have a deadline.

S: I work best with deadlines. [Leilani laughs] So now we have a show and we have a half-hour set ready to go, and we added on a drummer, Brandon Valdivia. He drums for Lido Pimienta.

A: After the Wavelength/88 Days Artscape show that I performed at, Lido kept going to me, “He’s your new drummer! You gotta add drums!” And I thought, we have this show, if you add the drums on to Sun’s beats, this industrial hip-hop/electronic mashup thing, live drums would sound really great on top of it.

S: It’s cool. We’re making new costumes, new masks…

Do you collaborate a lot with non-musical people for your visual concepts?

A: Well, because Sun’s a visual artist, she does most of the visuals — all our masks and costumes. And now that she does clothing design, she’s done our outfits for the Harbourfront show. We have friends like NorvisJr., he’s in New York, sort an experimental Afrocentric futuristic musician and visual artist. He does a lot of live projection work and he’s shown Sun a few things that we’re gonna try and incorporate for our shows. But mostly it’s all Sun.

And Sun, you’re doing all the beats too, right? Do you spend a lot of time playing around and seeing what comes together?

S: Kinda. I approach it like a painting, or like I’m doing a drawing: just get into a vibe and just start playing around until something sounds right, and just keep working at it ’til it feels right, and export it. Then we play it on the big speakers and start jamming on it.

A: You do a lot of layers in your songs.

S: Yeah, I try to make it pretty full.

Are you doing Ableton?

S: I use Reason 5. I used to use an SP-404 for a while. It took me a while to transfer over to a computer, but now I like Reason a lot. It’s good for me, very visual. I’ll spend a couple hours at a time — I can only take it for a little bit when it’s on repeat, but you getin the beat. I like making beats in the morning. I wake up early, by myself, and just get lost in it.

A: And then she’ll play it, and be like, “I made a beat!” And then I’ll listen and be like, “Wow!”

S: I wait for her response. If the reaction’s not poppin’ right away, I’ll know I need to go back to work on it.

A: All of the tracks for our new album were pretty much, “I made a beat!” And then we’d just start writing the song right away, just start jamming, like, “Oh man, I’m so angry about this thing!” A lot of the album is about loss of friendship, gossip…

S: We went through a lot last year. [laughs] It’s like our therapy.

A: But also, the songs refocus on what we were originally into with Abstract Random, the political side. So we’re talking a lot about organ trafficking, stolen native women, black kids being killed, Black Lives Matter, gentrification, things like that. So it’s a mix of personal and…

S: …Exterior topics.

Related to what you’re doing with the band, tell me about 88 Days of Fortune. How are you involved with it and how does it play into everything you do?

A: We’re both founders and co-directors of 88 Days of Fortune, but we’re also in a band that is under the collective of 88 Days. We’ve been around for six years, but really, it started as a collective doing shows, just really trying to start a movement in the city, ’cause we weren’t getting booked for any shows by anybody. Every time we tried, people said, “Well, who have you played for?” and we were like, “Nobody.” But we felt like we were really good! [laughs] But we didn’t get shows, so we just decided to make our own. So we had a lot of people come through those shows for six years.

S: The first four years were more about the shows and the fifth year turned into being more about promoting, helping particular people. And a lot of people branched out to do their own thing. So now it’s more about booking and promoting, and do an event or two each year.

A: Now it’s more about sponsoring and funding music videos. 88 Days was the funder/sponsor for our “Ghosts” video — also the funder for L.atasha A.lcindor’s video. She’s from New York and is also part of the collective. But we also funded Akoko, from D.C., as well as Njena Reddd Foxxx, who’s coming out with a new video we just got done. It’s really great. But that’s what 88 Days does…

Talking about having people from different places in the collective, how does the interplay work between having your community being locally based while also featuring people from elsewhere who are on same wavelength as you?

S: It comes down to the music, I think. The sound is what we’re drawn to for those people, not depending on where they’re from. So we bring them here ’cause the sound matches, or I know that people here would be inspired by it.

A: It’s also… Toronto’s a really hard space to make your scene in and sustain the scene. You can make the scene pop off for a little bit, for maybe a summer or something, but sustaining it is hard work, so you’re constantly trying to find the thing that will be like, “Hey, this is a new sound, check it out” or “Hey, this is something similar but from outside. Check this out — let’s collaborate with these people.” It’s a lot of work, but… [laughs] That’s all it is! It’s a lot of work, but with passion and drive anything can be done.

It seems to me that in Toronto we have a lot of different scenes, and there are a lot of walls between them. Do you find this when you’re working to build up your own thing?

S: Yeah, for sure.

A: When we started 88 Days, it was just about doing shows, and then it slowly kinda turned into doing shows that were safe spaces: LGBT-focused, or just recognizing that we’re throwing hip-hop parties that need to be female-friendly, or need to be LGBT-friendly, trans-friendly, things like that where, y’know, you can find music that’s fantastic but…

S: …But generally hip-hop parties are pretty straight. If you look queer or weird, you might not feel comfortable in these spaces, so we kinda created a scene that had straight people and queer people. And it was all right, for the most part. A lot of the guys had issues, still, with gay guys… We had to talk to people sometimes.

Do you think you’re breaking those barriers down?

A: For sure.

S: We tried to mix up things to challenge people’s perspectives — you know, to have straight men at hip-hop shows see guys dressed like women at the same event.

A: We’d have ILL NANA, who are a queer dance collective in Toronto, perform on the same set as Keita Juma. So people who are fans of KJ, who’s obviously a straight cis-man, see other men in high heels dancing, and really rocking the high heels! Really actually being able to dance in them, cause I can’t even walk in them and they were able to dance and do the splits. And seeing the recognition and acceptance of that helped people in the audience really shift their views. And also we did a lot of things with Yes Yes Y’all, which is a huge queer hip-hop and reggae party in Toronto, and they’ve also helped blur the lines of straight and queer events and it just being a party.

And how do you feel about the borders between hip-hop and non hip-hop? Do you ever feel that you don’t get asked to certain shows just because you’re a hip-hop crew?

S: Yeah…

A: But I feel with Abstract Random, we got exposed to a lot of indie festivals and electronic festivals, and feminist art collectives that were not hip-hop based at all, and we were the hip-hop/electronic aspect to it. But with other people in the collective it definitely wasn’t crossing over. I think slowly, now, it is. But I think that’s now, just in general, the shift of mindstate in Toronto of what music is acceptable.

S: And what is hip-hop?

And what people listen to is so much more blurred together now.

A: Exactly.

But do you ever feel when you’re invited to a show like someone’s just checking off a box?

S: Probably. [laughs]

A: Sometimes, yeah.

How do you deal with that?

S: Unless someone actually tells me that, I’m assuming we’re there for the music. I’m usually just happy to be asked to be somewhere.

A: I feel like it’s important, even if we were a box that got checked off, or there for a grant or whatever in the scheme of things, at least we’re there to take up space. We’re gonna provide the entertainment, provide the message with our music and do as much as we can do in the time that we have, and then hopefully be asked again because of our music and not the box-checking.

And in Toronto, what could people be doing better to make inclusivity something that just happens instead of something that’s an afterthought?

S: They always have a guy headliner! All the festivals, it’s always a majority of men and then one or two females. And then if they have a female, it’s always a femme-ish female, not a regular girl. I dunno, someone that looks like me isn’t there. You only see a certain female highlighted because it’s still through the lens of dudes saying, “Girls have to look that way.”

A: Yeah, I feel like if the Toronto music scene — mostly in the hip-hop scene, ’cause that’s what I can talk on — should include more women, highlighting them and just showing the amount of women doing events. I mean, I’ve been doing events in the city for six years and most of the times I’ll meet people and they’ll be, “Oh yeah! 88 Days, I know all about that!” And they’ll start naming off all the guys that are part of it, and they’ll be talking to me, and I feel like, “You have no idea who the hell I am!” Not that it’s an ego thing or anything, but this is so interesting that you understand the collective and the importance of it, you understand the root of where some of your favourite artists started, but you don’t recognize the work of women in the collective to actually push all of this, or the work of queer women, specifically. So yeah, I think the Toronto scene needs a lot more recognition to the people who are actually behind the scenes doing things, and also to the women who are here and have been doing things. It’s not just Michie Mee — big ups to Michie Mee, who was Canada’s first notable female MC, and who is a community leader and inspiration — but the city is full of other amazing female MCs, who all deserve shine and recognition.

S: They’re only saying that’s the only female hip-hop artist ever…

A: …And there’s so many! There’s so many!

S: They’re just blocking them, because they don’t fit a box for them. Like Neverland Gang — they’re so good. There’s so many female rappers that I prefer over the guy rappers for Toronto and…

A: …They don’t get the same kind of push…

S: …That dudes do. That’s how it is, I guess. Because they don’t look feminine…

A: But that’s what we try to do with 88 Days, is to push those people who wouldn’t necessarily get that push. Even if we’re making small waves, at least we’re doing something.

Above Top Secret play Camp Wavelength Friday, August 28 at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island). Get your single day tickets here! Or better yet, join us for the whole weekend and get a Festival Pass!