PLAY THIS: A CONVERSATION WITH PEARL GATES & SYLL
Discussing the new EP with two of Washington Heights’ brightest stars
“We want people to run it back; to really get that feel for what we were trying to capture in these five records.” — Pearl Gates
Pearl Gates and Syll Muzik — two artists from the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, New York — recently combined their artistic influence to drop Play This — a five-track EP on Below System Records.
Produced entirely by France-based musician Corrado, Play This delivers an incredible amount of imagery and storytelling in such a tiny sample of their potential as individuals and as a unit. Narrated by the charismatic Blanco, Play This is essentially a five-track audio screenplay — bringing the listener across a day and night in Washington Heights and the madness in-between sunrise and sunset.
With only one feature — the legendary veteran Wordsworth — and several varied sonic palettes, Play This is too good to be left as just an EP. With rumors of a sequel as well as solo projects from both MC’s, Play This is the perfect momentum-builder for hip-hop fans, cinephiles, New York residents and music explorers.
Taking a break from filming visuals for the EP, both Pearl Gates and Syll took the time to talk about New York, the teamwork behind the construction of the EP, the motivation behind the title of the track “Hold Ya Head” as well as each of the five individual tracks.
ON PLAY THIS EP
Pearl Gates: (The short length) was done purposefully, with the intentions of drawing in the listener to what we do. We got more stuff recorded, but we wanted to put that out and give a little feel for what’s to come.
As far as Syll — I’ve known Syll since I was a youngen. We met on the block, literally rapping. I must’ve been twelve-thirteen years old; we been rocking ever since. That’s the the homie; that’s family. That’s my brother right there.
We ran around in the street, we been fucking around with the music. And we finally came together to put this project together.
I met Corrado… he’s a producer from France. So when I went on tour with eMC in Europe, we had a stop in Lyon. I met him, and I just loved his production. It was very theatrical, and so it kind of lent to what we were trying to do from a sound perspective and rap perspective in terms of what we were trying to deliver.
Syll: The cover was really an afterthought. When we were hearing the beats and everything and them having that theatrical feeling, we instantaneously framed our neighborhood and just framed all of those experiences. It was like trying to explain it to someone without having a conversation; like, “Man, just play this and you’ll get it.”
Like a short film approach where if you just play it, you’ll get it.
So the cover was keeping within that vein of that cinematic feel of a bloody tape in an evidence bag — like, “What is that about?”
And Blanco — that’s our man a hundred grand. From the neighborhood; really good cat. He’s really in that main vein as well: just life in the streets and what’s going on; he really has his ear to it. We just had him in the lab a couple of times. He was just telling stories, so we turned the mic on and said, “You know what? Let’s use this.” And it just really happened organically.
Pearl Gates: Since we were taking you behind-the-scenes of the inner-workings of Washington Heights, everything that that represented is basically being low-key, being quick… It’s not that we’re talking fast — you’re listening slow; you got to catch up. As far as “Symphonic”, how we set it off was we were walking through a normal business that is not normal.
It’s almost like if you’re a painter and you walk into a room, you’ll see the room differently from a plumber. Basically just walking people through it.
We got gambling going on, we got this going on, we got that going on. But really within all that: the inner thread of the culture of Uptown is hip-hop; hip-hop is there. So it’s almost like a cypher going on as all these other things are occurring.
We want people to run it back; to really get that feel for what we were trying to capture in these five records.
“baited by the same hook / same plot / same juks / they take a look in the mirror / and see the same crook”
Pearl Gates: I was trying to capture the fact that the way society is built is cops-and-robbers, basically, on the frontline. At the end of the day, there’s a thin line between the cops and the robbers; the cops are technically there to protect and serve and the robbers are there to rip apart the fabric of society.
But really, you guys are meeting in the same spot.
It’s almost like a sense of how deeply, or how far can you judge, the movements of what goes on on the crime-side — which “NYSoC” is “New York State of Crime”.
How much can you judge that when we’re really, literally meeting at the same point in society?
That’s what I was trying to capture in that line in terms of just opening people’s eyes to not only what goes on behind-the-scenes, but really what it is. It’s what it is: a very thin line between those ideals.
3. COME FIND ME
Pearl Gates: I’ve already been working sonically on records like that. I’m on Masta Ace’s The Falling Season album — I did the joint called “Story of Me”. I did “Fly Thoughts” with eMC; I’m on EdO.G’s upcoming album Freedom and I’ve kind of played with that sound.
It’s just the evolution of hip-hop. It’s not only bars — hip-hop has always been a feeling. So we try to capture the dark element of running — like, what are you running from? It could be whatever. But we tried to capture that element sonically, and it just brought out something different in us that we wanted to introduce on this project. Because we don’t only rap.
Syll: Going back to having Blanco on the project and narrating: basically he’s narrating bringing the listener — like a young OG, someone not from here — through the whole story.
- The first track, you come in and boom: we’re at the little gambling spot; we doing our thing.
- The second joint: we walking the streets and you’re feeling that energy.
- Then the third joint is actually more of an introspective perspective of the listener; of the person who’s actually being walked through the neighborhood.
Now, Blanco introduces him to the lifestyle, and then it’s like, “Alright, man. Follow the directions; go to the spot, in-and-out.” And it’s the listener’s perspective within the story: “Oh, man. It’s three in the morning; it’s dark. But you know what? I’m pushing forward with it.”
Like Gates said, it’s that angle of when you’re on the run; when you’re on the move.
Pearl Gates: And sonically, we just took that chance, because that’s what we do as well as just rhyming. You listen to the project itself and you hear that song and it’s just so… different. But I felt like it was necessary.
And even talking with Deniz at Below System: he was trying to figure out, “Man, does it fit?” But I was just like, “Trust it.” Because it’s the evolution of where it’s going. And we’ve already been doing it, but because of the platform we have at the moment, I just wanted to fuse both elements.
4. ANOTHER EPISODE f/ Wordsworth
“we turn light into matter when brilliant minds gather / convert darkness to energy when you blind and battered / and find a way / you better find your way / that’s how that goes / every day’s a battle for your soul”
Syll: That line is basically trimming down all the details of life, where the common factor always is energy. People have a lot of different words and a lot of different belief systems and they connect that.
The soul is something that people understand to be very centered, very grounding in the person. But it’s also something very vulnerable.
So in that verse I went a little deep; it’s probably one of the deepest verses I have on the project. It was just capping it, kind of like that sigh at the end — “every day’s a battle for your soul”.
Pearl Gates: Words’ has been an integral part of me being able to grow as an artist and actually being able to get a platform. We’re a part of a hip-hop collective based in Philadelphia called theIDEA. And so we met through the collective and we’ve been building ever since.
As far as him being on the project, I felt it was a perfect space for him because he’s such an ill storyteller.
We had three different perspectives: from a broad, global perspective to a dark, abandoned crackhouse perspective to Words’ storytelling ability: walking you through an episode.
Being that he has that background with Lyricist Lounge and all that, he’s always been into visual arts. I thought his perspective would be great on the project. It just fit.
His features usually mean quality; he brings it.
It was a blessing to have him. The way it happened was crazy: I sent him the record just so he could hear it; he was like, “Yo! This joint is dope.” And I was like, “You know what? It might be dope if you had something on it.” And he was like, “Word.” He got to it and the rest is history.
5. HOLD YA HEAD
Syll: When we were doing the tracklist, we were holding onto that song. It kind of put itself in that space, because of the way the story was being narrated with Blanco and those four tracks prior to it. Like “Another Episode” ends with the listener showing you who’s being walked through Washington Heights; him getting shot up.
Then “Hold Ya Head” just comes in where it’s like, “Yo — hold your head.”
Going back to the whole three different angles and directions from “Another Episode”: life could take you so many different ways that at the end of the day, you’ve just got to hold your head.
Pearl Gates: I agree with Syll — it kind of just found it’s place there. But really, it just gives the feel of you made it to the morning. Everything else that goes through the project, you’re just walking through a day and night of the lifestyle. And then that song is just like the sunrise. What’s in store the next day is basically what’s to come, as far as more music and stuff.
But that song was a moment of the dust settling. I thought it was very fitting.
Syll: That was actually one of the motivating factors in the back of my mind when I was writing that hook. I was actually in that little pocket — that little moment — I was going through all of my old inspirations and influences. Banged out a couple of tracks, with each one being a representation of those elements that have made me who I am now.
So when it came to that joint and I heard the beat: in the beginning, that was me winging it where I was just saying, “Hold your head.” Then when it came down to the hook, I went back to that reference.
ON FUTURE PROJECTS
Pearl Gates: My album is coming; my album’s done. Me and Syll got more joints with Corrado in the stash, so there are some things… We just want to let this record resonate with people and see what else is to come.
I don’t want to let off too much of the surprise, but I’m working with another artist on an album, and that should be dope, as well.
Syll: Right now, the artwork for Play This was something I drafted and came up with, and then we passed it along for some final editing and touches. What I got coming up is you’ll see a lot more artwork; a lot of different artists and stuff like that I’ll be working on.
I have a solo EP as well as an album in the works. Right now, we’re really focusing on Gates’ album coming out and see where we go from there.
Pearl Gates: Big thanks to Corrado, iRobot Scott, Sam Brown — who mastered the project and Wordsworth for being a part of it. Obviously Below System — the hub for making it all possible. A big thanks to Jerry (Graham) and all his work.
Live From The First: that’s the name of my album. That’s coming soon, going to have some nice features on it. And Play This 2 — might be around the corner.
Syll: We got some visuals coming out soon — that’s something to look forward to. Shout out to Mostafa Douban, an ill videographer, cinematographer; a lot of work that’s going to come out with him. As well as to Blanco for the narration. He definitely did his thing.
- Special appreciation for Christina Verderame and her brilliant photography