Magna Carda’s Golden-Era Rap Realization
The homegrown rhyme syndicate just went from "emerging" status to "fully realized"
Young, so young. Chris Beale and Megan Tillman, walking down from the Downtown Facebook offices toward Halcyon coffee bar, are the here and now of 21st century Austin.
Beale, 26, rocks a flattop fade, reminiscent of those found during rap's late Eighties/early Nineties "golden era." Tillman wears a pair of Nike Air Flight 89s and Janet Jackson braids from 1993's Poetic Justice. Even their hip-hop sobriquets – as producer Dougie Do and rapper Megz Kelli – evoke a carefree yesteryear.
"I'll be 24 next month," stresses the latter, leaning forward in her seat – irony unspoken.
As the main cogs of Magna Carda, perhaps the best homegrown rhyme syndicate since the League of Extraordinary Gz (rediscover June 8, 2012, cover story "You Can't Bury Me"), the local duo's driven the group out of "emerging" status into "fully realized." Magna Carda's latest release, the bouncy and occasionally reflective Cirqlation (see "Texas Platters," July 15), ranks as a critical leap forward, while maintaining an old-guard nuance of collectives like the Native Tongues/Soulquarians, which once clustered Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Q-Tip. Aural wizardry from Dougie Do and Megz's poison-dart lyrics mesh at the album's eclectic high points, the MC Lyte/Audio Two-inflected "Ykwtii" and "Southern Ether," a strange brew of dive-bar blues rock and pre-Future proto-trap.
Aside from tried and true braggadocio, Cirqlation disseminates new love, endings, and change throughout, especially on the back end.
"Kind of like the cycle of life, which leads you through different experiences, which ultimately influences any kind of artistic, or whatever kind of decisions you make," explains Tillman.
A character-building West Coast tour proved to be a significant turning point.
"We started [the tour and album] without a plan," she continues. "We all lost our jobs, and we didn't know when we were coming back from tour. We're like, 'We'll deal with life when we get back.' We had also come to a time where we said we'd stop trying to fit in with the certain structure, like 'how music is supposed to work,' and do our own thing.
"It was just a parallel: us going through that in life, and then us going through that musically."
Is You Feelin' Me
Tillman and Beale's origins couldn't be more disparate and distinct.
A New Orleans-to-Dallas transplant by way of Hurricane Katrina, the rapper/songwriter eventually found her way to the state capital's St. Edward's University, where she met Beale through a mutual friend. Formerly an Air Force brat, Beale lived in London and Perth, Australia, before landing in Texas at Pearland. Longtime fan of Q-Tip, various Stones Throw artists, and lesser-known producers like British auteur Eric Lau, Beale didn't begin fiddling with sonic alchemy until his first year at St. Ed's.
"I grew up in the band. I played tenor sax growing up, ever since middle school," explains Beale. "Then, when I got to high school, senior year, I was like, 'I'm tired of playing classical stuff and jazz. I'm not really learning anything new.' I ended up just being like, 'I want to do my own thing.' My sister's friend showed me Fruity Loops."
Ah, yes – the infamous Dutch-engineered Fruity Loops, or FL Studio. Debuting in 1997, the straightforward and sometimes-maligned digital audio workstation touched off many careers, including 9th Wonder, Mike Will Made It, and DJ Mustard.
"I got a pirated copy, and I'm in my room: 'Boom, boom, clap, clap, boom, boom.' My family's like, 'What are you making?' It didn't make sense at all," he laughs.
While her influences include Eve, Mystikal, Eminem, Mia X ("'cause she was from my hood, the Seventh Ward"), Tillman's ferocious verbal acumen sprouted from listening to the baby-soft rap verses in songs from sugar-sweet R&B acts like 3LW.
"That was my favorite part," she enthuses. "I'd memorize all the raps and then pick them apart. Rework my own words in it and stuff like that."
She also took significant notes from Teena Marie, Erykah Badu, and Sixties/Seventies soul and ballroom blues. Her move to Texas, following Katrina, flipped her world upside down – music included.
"When I moved to Texas, some of the music I grew up on wasn't even a thing out here. I grew up on bounce and second line music, and being very engaged from a young age because in New Orleans, things like the band are arguably more popular than being on a basketball team.
"Music is everything. I mean, [Louisiana's] education is piss-poor, but music is in the schools. Music is around you."
YKWTII (You Know What Time It Is)
Ascending releases and a well-built live act still leaves Magna Carda – rounded out by Derek Van Wagner and Michael Gonzales – in a predictable flux.
"We got off Cirqlation, and we started to think about doing an EP," begins Beale. "Then, at the beginning of the summer, our guitarist [Eric Nikolaides] took off to school, so we lost one member. We were like, 'Oh, that's cool. We'll just keep it like us four, and then we'll just add on our homie, or however we want to change up the show.'
"When that all happened, we were also dealing with getting management. For us, we were staring in the dark. We were like, 'All right, what do we do now? We did everything everybody in town told us to do.'"
Management didn't go as expected, nor did the loss of Nikolaides. A suitable realignment is still fresh for Tillman and Beale here at Halcyon. They understand it's going to change the band, so an opportunity's now at hand.
"We want to be more ambiguous with our sound, and we want to be more ambiguous with our collaborations," says the MC. "We're kind of in the middle of rebranding the face of Magna Carda, what we look like, and how we approach things. It's a new dawn."
This virtual restart doesn't preclude a home base change, either.
"Everywhere we go, we make connections with all of these other musicians and people, and then we wonder why it's so hard to make things pop here, make things grow," shrugs Tillman. "We stopped trying to figure it out and just do our half: We try putting together shows that are more outside the box, shows that bring different artists to the table – those that are ignored in a sense. And we talk about amongst each –"
She catches herself. Looking down at my recorder, she turns defiant: "I don't care about being on the record, I'm gonna speak my mind.
"We talk about it amongst ourselves, too. Not us, but other bands doing things bigger than Austin – like their music is on TV shows, and they're playing ACL. We're all outside the box. So we're trying to figure out how we're doing stuff so right, but so wrong at the same time."
Magna Carda lands at the Mohawk on Fri., Aug. 5, "for another Good Friday with the homies Monkier and BoomBaptist."