Bad Apple Commune talks activism, art, and the unifying nature of eclecticism - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Bad Apple Commune | photo courtesy of Bad Apple Commune

When I first moved to Philly in 2002, I had dreams of forming a band with the few people I knew here, and that the band would lead to collaborations, coalitions, and eventually a movement, a crew. I had visions of Native Tongues, Elephant 6, Dischord Records and Wu-Tang Clan in my eyes, but I was directionless and my ideas were all over the place. I couldn’t quite find those kindred spirits, even in a city as culturally rich and empowering as Philadelphia.

Years later, the rap collective exploded as a concept in 2010, with the idea having a renaissance abd groups like Odd Future and the A$AP Mob taking the reins; diverse acts from multiple places and time converging to create new, original-sounding art in a saturated hip-hop marketplace. Eventually, Philly would find its own place in this resurgence of collective work nearly a decade later in the form of the eclectic Bad Apple Commune.

Comprised of members Jordan, Kennedy (aka Highnoon), Drew (aka Black Costanza), Zeke Ultra, Malkia, Whomst, Huey the Cosmonaut, Harrison and Savan DePaul, this group of energetic, wildly experimental young black artists create sounds as disparate and unique as they are ever-changing, challenging the perceptions and expectations of music genre in all forms. A strong part of their work is what sets them apart from other collectives, like perhaps the Vice-cosigned “boy band” BROCKHAMPTON, is also what makes them essential to and representative of Philly: their penchant for activism. The Commune has eschewed the swiftly blurring lights of stardom; they’re worried less about commercial success as they are about spreading messages and promoting and performing at concerts that benefit local charities and grassroots social activist groups. In a world where the youth is often maligned for not knowing it’s history, it’s empowering to see musically advanced artists on the younger side of their twenties praising Angela Davis and throwing up tributes to queer Black anarchist radical Kuwasi Balagoon.

With a live show that feels like a high-energy basement revival, where members swarm the stage picking up instruments to aid each other in various songs, it’s more than apparent that the kids are alright. Whether it be DePaul’s droney, soulfully moody debut BROOD VIII or Zeke Ultra’s vastly intellectual Def Jux / Kind of Blue tossed in a blender and reincorporated with circuit-bent toys soundcloud mixtape Luna, to the ethereal, dreamlike bedroom pop of collaborator Whomst, this is a collective, a commune, bent not so much on domination, but on community. We chatted with key members of Bad Apple Commune about activism, art, and the unifying nature of eclecticism.

The Key: How did Bad Apple Commune form, how long have you been making music under that name?

Huey: The commune started as an idea after I played a show at Haus of Yarga. It was actually a really dope show. cause Zeke and Kennedy both featured on some tracks during my set, which was the first time that had happened, I think. Afterwards, Zeke, Malkia, Kennedy, Jordan and I were all hanging out at this pizza place near Penn and talking about black nationalism, the Panthers and other stuff which was super cool. Anyway, Kennedy basically suggested forming a group, and we were all down and that’s how it started. Oh yeah, the owners of the pizza place also totally profiled Zeke and Jordan because they “smelled weed” in the bathroom or something, so we left.

Kennedy: Huey and I both met on Tinder, ha ha, though there were no romantic intentions from either of us. We both featured that we’re musicians somewhere in our profiles, I think I had a picture of me playing the guitar on mine. He messaged me and asked if I wanted to link up and make music, which I was originally hesitant to do because I’ve never really collaborated with anyone, especially someone I’ve never met. We met up and got to know each other for a while before we started working. Something we had in common was a lack of community, specifically in the Philly music scene as a black person. We both felt kinda isolated with where we were and weren’t finding our people at our respective colleges. I was at Temple at the time and Huey’s at Haverford. We found this common desire but didn’t really do anything with it until that show at Yarga.

Zeke: Huey, Harrison and I met at the King Krule show in October 2017. I lost my key in the pit during Show Me The Body and Harrison found it not knowing it was mine. Huey and I reconnected a year or so later and that was it.

Savan: Huey and I met through online networking when he was looking for someone to help him record, mix, and master.  As we continued to work and collaborate, we shared personal views and became good friends. Through Huey, I met everyone else in the collective, which I’m grateful for because I was never able to find that camaraderie anywhere else.

TK: Who are the members of the Commune and what are their specialties?

Jordan: I have my hand in a couple different things. I mainly work with visual arts, photography and painting, but I have a lofi / indie project I’ve been working on for a while called hello, jordan as well as producing beats.

Kennedy: I guess I would call myself a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist. I grew up playing piano but didn’t start writing music or playing guitar until the end of my freshman year of college, so the summer of 2016. I make indie-rock and bedroom pop but I would eventually like to write a bunch of different stuff. Once I’m a complete genre-bender, I believe I’ve reached my final form.  I’m on a few commune tracks as “NED” which is just a short abbreviation of my name. I also play keys in a band called Beach Bod. Harrison’s in the commune. He’s a sick guitarist and he plays in my live band sometimes.

Drew: I make music under the project name Artifact Youth and I also have a sort of rap persona called Black Costanza. Artifact Youth is the name I produce / sing / songwrite under but it’s also a project that has no real genre specific focus. I’ve always had a hard time staying in a specific genre when working on stuff so Artifact Youth is a way to just explore my sound and find consistency through other aspects of my work.

Anaje: The really amazing thing about Bad Apple is that we’re all so willing to create different mediums and collaborate. We have a majority of musicians. I’m a photographer; a few other members are also photographers.

Zeke: I’m a musician mainly, but I just do whatever interests and stimulates me.

Malkia: I don’t know if I can call myself an artist, maybe a curator, but i’ve done some zine and art projects. Looking forward to working more on visual art based initiatives in the group. In the meantime I’m working on my own Afrofuturist and de-colonial digital art projects.

Huey: I make music a lot. Some people have called it emo-jazz rap. I rap. I sing. I make beats. I play guitar. I’ve also started to take film photos of my friends and the Bad Apple Commune shows. Always wanted a visual medium. Mostly influenced by the wonderful work that Anaje and Jordan do. I’ve also been trying to write a bit about black anarchism and some of my thoughts. Hopefully some of that will surface soon. I have been starting to model a lil’ bit too so catch me posing.

Savan: Musical artist here! I rap, sing, produce, and engineer — my style is described as “Afrofuturist rap.”  I’ve also been increasingly diving into psychedelic video art.  Music is the medium through which I critique and analyze the world around me. I’m also in a duo called Sagan Theory.

TK: Why the name Bad Apple Commune? Specifically the “commune” part. There seems to be an underlying political message between that aspect of your name and some of your Instagram posts that feature Black radical thinkers and activists. How are politics and social activism relevant in your work? 

Huey: The “bad apple” part comes from an Earl Sweatshirt song. Commune is sort of a joke, I think. I think we all wanted there to be some radical element. I think the key is that communes are intentional communities and I think we formed the commune in some ways as an intentional space for black artistry and music and black radical politics. I personally identify as black or New Afrikan anarchist in the tradition of Kuwasi Balagoon. Those politics have been fairly influential in my own approach.

Drew: A huge part of this group revolves around education, conversation and organization in an effort to make change in our communities and personal lives. Each of us have varying radical views and I think that’s what’s important. Being able to be ourselves in an exclusively black space, sharing our educational resources, experiences, frustrations, political views, personal missteps, and [to have] support is such a commodity within itself. I’ve grown up in white towns and white music scenes without ever having had a space like this. So to have a group of friends that are focused on supporting and growing together, that’s big. Give black youth, black adults a space to heal, learn and grow, BE THEMSELVES, teach them to organize and build community; that’s a foundation for some pretty radical shit.

Kennedy: We’re aware of some of our privileges, specifically existing in the Philadelphia area where not all of us hail from. If we’re going to be active in this space, we want it to at the very least benefit the surrounding communities. We want to focus on issues that affect black people in Philadelphia like housing, mass incarceration, and other systemic barriers that are inherently designed to put poor and working-class black folks at a disadvantage. We’re constantly brainstorming new ways to materially support local organizations and causes. So far, our first benefit show generated $400 for the Community Bail Fund to help fight cash bail policies that will hold people in cells for minor offenses just because they can’t make bail. We hope our actions will be representative of our politics as much of our politics is based on action.

Savan: That community, that space to learn and act is super important in my eyes.  Like Drew, I’ve frequently lived in white areas and unfortunately in many white reactionary environments where I never felt that I could truly air my sociopolitical grievances. The fact that a space like this exists is incredible; I want us to do as much as we can with this space using the privileges and opportunities we all currently have.

TK: There seems to be a movement towards collective work in hip-hop, like with ASAP, Odd Future, and now Brockhampton. How have those collectives influenced your work? What missteps have they made that you guys try to avoid when it comes to collaborating and staying a solid unit?

Huey: I mean, I think some of us are definitely influenced by Odd Future, and remember when it was coming up. I think it’s hard to be a black creative and to not be influenced by Odd Future at all right now. Speaking personally, Earl and Frank are some of my biggest influences. I personally was way more into Pro Era (Joey Bada$$ and Capital Steez) as a collective, though, for their obvious political messaging — go watch the “Survival Tactics” video. However, I definitely feel like we are trying to do our own thing. I mean in terms of missteps, I don’t really know what those groups have experienced, but I definitely think the key to a collective is relationships between the members and the way to maintain those relationships is through communication and trust.

Drew: I agree with Huey. I think our approach is primarily about relationships and community, both internally and externally. Black love and support is the centerpiece in my opinion. At the same time, when you have a group of people this talented, it’s like “okay there’s so much potential here, let’s make something as a unit.” And I think we’re getting there. Community is key.

TK: Your collective’s overall take on hip-hop music is pretty expansive. There’s lo-fi beats, there’s dreamy, gothy experimental sounds, some indie rock thrown in there…was this intentional? What other aspects of music and influences are you drawn to outside of hip-hop / rap?

Drew: I don’t think there’s a primary focus when it comes to genre within the group. We’re all such different people and our taste is pretty broad. I think the intention lies in everyone just being themselves and making whatever they want to. We’re all such individuals and I think that’s our biggest strength musically. For me, my music has always been a fusion of what I love. I want to make a Cudi track as much as I want to mess around with some Stereolab grooves. Toro y Moi is usually my constant influence, as well as Frank Ocean.  It’s just a lot of fusion.

Jordan: No I don’t really think it was intentional, I think it just ended up that way because of everyone having their own projects going on in various parts of music. Like…there’s Huey making jazz rap, Zeke making darker raps, WHOMST and Highnoon making really good indie, Savan making everything…it’s just nuts! Other aspects I’m drawn to are the new house guys like Ross from Friends, DJ Boring, and Palms Trax. Mainly a lot of indie like the Drums, DIIV, Beach Fossils, Surf Curse, and Current Joys.

Kennedy: The way that black people experience the world is so vast so it would make sense that we choose different sounds and mediums to express that. I think a lot of time, taste just has to do with enculturation and exposure. I grew up only listening to gospel music and whatever G-rated Disney songs my mom would allow, so once I got a bit of freedom to choose what I could listen to, it kind of exploded in every direction. I think at the end of the day, we’re all just doing what feels natural to us. Dev Hynes is my number one inspiration in life, though. We stan our king.

Savan: Rap game Bjork right here. But for real, I’ve always wanted to capture the feeling of otherworldliness in my production and lyrical style. The influences I cite cover a wide range — fka Twigs, SOPHIE, Sun Ra, Definitive Jux Records, Company Flow, and literally THOUSANDS of other great artists.  Not to mention the inspiration I have received from my fellow bad apples has been invaluable. I love all their tunes.

Zeke: We all just do what we do. Dean Blunt has been inspiring to me right now, Lil Tracy is one of my favorite rappers, Navy Blue, Mach-Hommy too. And Singeli music.

Huey: I agree with Zeke. We all just do what we do. Some influences of mine are Frank Ocean, Common, J Dilla, Chance the Rapper, Lauryn Hill, Orion Sun and the folks in SLUMSNYC (MIKE, King Carter, Ade Hakim). I’m from the midwest and I feel like place is a really important part when it comes to my music. I try to write music about the places that I’m from and that sound like the places that I’m from. Also, I’m really influenced by folks in the Commune. I’ve been making music with Harrison for a long time, so he’s a big inspiration. Zeke, Kennedy and Savan especially have all inspired me through their own work to be better myself. I really love all of their music.

TK: What are the main aspects of a BAC artist? How do you decide who to work with both within the group and externally?

Kennedy: Everyone in Bad Apple is there because they feel, to some extent, a sense of isolation in their immediate environment and want to be around other black creatives. Some of us come from predominantly white places or attend predominantly white institutions [for college], myself included for both. There’s this emptiness that comes from being in white spaces, especially when that’s all you’ve ever really known. There are so many forces that make you question who you are and what you do. You wonder if you’ll ever find that place you really fit. I think what we’ve done and are continually trying to do is create an environment where black folks don’t have to explain themselves. They can be queer or goth or rappers or punk rockers or DJs or photographers or academics or visual artists or whatever they want without their blackness being questioned. We don’t all have the same political ideologies nor do we have the same mediums of artistic expression, and that’s natural. It’s easy not to create an echo-chamber because we’re as diverse as the black experience. We don’t want to fit into any particular mold that’s been laid out for us. We join forces because we’re stronger together.

For more on the Bad Apple Commune, give their Instagram page a follow.

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