Dr. HollyHood and Jon Quest combine forces with Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket
Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2021 CSA Performance Series season.
Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.
By David Bernabo
When we think of two albums existing in the same space, the brain immediately goes to the mashup record. You probably know about The Grey Album from producer Danger Mouse, which mashes together Jay-Z’s vocals from The Black Album and The Beatles’ The Beatles aka The White Album. Jay-Z, again, is paired with Radiohead in Max Tannone’s Jaydiohead mash-up. The Notorious xx = The Notorious B.I.G. with indie band The xx. Wugazi = Wu-Tang and Fugazi.
These more modern iterations built on folks like John Cage sampling live radio programs, DJ Kool Herc looping breakbeats from soul and funk records, and John Oswald’s plunderphonics.
One could argue that the medley was an earlier form of the mash-up. See Marvin Gaye revisiting younger days, and The Spinners paying tribute to peers, forbearers, and thieves. On wax, there’s Side B of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, and Harry Nilsson anticipating mega-mash efforts like “40 Years of Hip Hop” by peppering a different Beatles song into every line of his cover of “You Can’t Do That.”
And if we are including medleys in this lineage, well, let’s go back even further and give a shout out to the overture — those introductory orchestral pieces that sample musical elements from the opera or ballet that you’re about to hear.
Ok, I’m straying from the point, getting too loose with definitions, and definitely getting link happy, but the general idea is that the medley pairs like-minded things while the mashup can smash together seemingly opposing forces.
Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket is neither a mashup or a medley, but a third approach to mixing and matching two recordings. In this new “Hip Hopera,” musicians Dr. Amber Epps aka Dr. HollyHood and Jonathan Brown aka Jon Quest use songs from their respective 2019 solo albums as the foundation for an interdisciplinary love story, one that combines music, video, and skits.
(The production is part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA performance series. There are three virtual performances on May 20th and 21st. Get (free) tickets here.)
Epps and Brown met a while ago at the now-closed Shadow Lounge venue in East Liberty. “I knew Jon from Shadow Lounge, from an event called Rhyme Calisthenics,” says Epps. “It was my favorite event — a hip hop game show. Jon was really good at it. You have to be able to freestyle.”
Both Epps and Brown have been making music for a while. Epps is known as the “mom of hip hop” in Pittsburgh, getting opening spots for KRS-One, Rakim, and GZA. Epps is also a member of the #notwhite collective. “We do spoken word, song, visual arts — all things that basically say, We don’t fuck with white supremacy.” In addition to a string a solo albums, Brown performed in Varsity Squad with emcee Beedie.
“We had seen each other at events over the years,” continues Epps. “[In 2019], I told him that I was putting out my project, telling him what it was about. And he was like, seriously, well, I’m working on a project, too. I’m like, how are we both putting out projects that have similar themes but from different perspectives. Our lives seemed destined to collide — like we were going to yoga together and now he’s one of my BFFs.”
Squeezing 11 tracks into 16 minutes, HollyHood’s Yellow Jacket (2019) combines spoken word and a mix of contemporary and old school beats to tell the story of a woman in a relationship with a married man. “In my story, I’m the side chick,” says Epps. “But in my situation, it wasn’t just being a side chick, it was an actual emotional relationship. It was like, that was my boyfriend.”
Jon Quest’s Hollywood Divorce (2019) walks similar territory, but focuses more on the disintegration of a marriage.
“My album is about a man going through his marriage and, ultimately, a divorce,” says Brown. “Throughout the album, I tried to highlight the importance of mental health , going through therapy and discovering that I had these traumas and things that I need to work through. I tried to put that all in the album. Yes, I was wrong for what I did and a lot of crazy situations, but also I’m a human. I might not have grown up the right way. Let me dig deeper into myself to see how I can impact these issues.”
“While our stories overlap, they aren’t the same,” says Epps. “So, we wrote a script. I wrote the first script, but it was the relationship from my perspective. Then, Jon would change lines to sound more like his situation. We had to figure out how to make the story reflective of both of our stories.”
To do that, Epps and Brown picked songs from each of their records, recorded new skits to tie things together, and filmed two new music videos with Jordan Beckham that will be integrated into the performance. Dramaturg TJ Young is also on board to bring these stories out of the headphones and up onto the stage.
“We don’t want to just perform our songs, but tell the story of what our songs are based on,” says Epps.
“Exactly, acting the whole way through,” adds Brown.
Helping with that task will be Jazmaine Wade, Dominique Brock, Leslie Smith, Abby Shaw, and Phillip Thompson who will play the different characters that interact with Epps and Brown’s central characters.
Epps wrote her first song in sixth-grade detention — “it was partially about my teacher who was sitting there in the room with me.” Years later, Epps released her first album Pink Elephant in 2010. To make the more recent Yellow Jacket, Epps wrote over beats by Shade Cobain, Semaj Regah, Highly Intoxicated Productions, and Dev Structures. “It’s better for me to write if I’m really emotional. Regardless of what that emotion is, it makes the writing easier. I think I wrote this album in two days — but not two consecutive days.”
Hollywood Divorce was produced in its entirety by Raiden. “Two of the songs that I wrote earlier on were produced by a different producer,” says Brown, “but I met another producer in Germany and he produced the whole album, remaking those two beats. I started off with the middle of the story, looking at it like a movie — beginning, middle, and end. I had to glue those pieces together, put it on a storyboard. Sometimes I had the topic first and would then figure out the beat. Sometimes I had the beat first. I tried to be very meticulous with the details of the skits, the sound bits, the interludes to make it really stand out. I actually need to go through something to write music. So, it took me six years to write this album.”
With such a long gestation period, it’s nice to be able to repurpose the albums and create something new from it.