Words by Melissa Vincent

* This article originally appeared in Issue 2 of Gusher Magazine - buy a copy here *

Looking around at the crowd shortly before Ho99o9’s (pronounced “Horror”) headlining show at the Velvet Underground in Toronto, the audience is mildly perplexing. A group of backpacked, barely legal teens grasp for a spot in front of the stage next to an older punk sporting a fluorescent mohawk. A few bespeckled white dads hang near the back while a cohort of fellow black femme punks square themselves in the middle of the pit. An electric current is palpable. It’s an utterly refreshing turnout in a city which, in the last several years, has become infamous for shows that usually fail to bring out audiences as diverse as the city claims to be. It takes a certain artist to stir the pre-existing pot. Ho99o9, the New Jersey-based eclectic thrash duo, comprised of Eaddy and theOGM (The Original Gangster Mutant), are one of the few bands in recent memory that have managed to do just that.

Their set is a properly raucous affair, an ongoing show of pure and unequivocable force dressed in deliberate artistry. Sporting an Edwardian gown at one moment and leather bondage the next, the pair dually evoke the rigors of Young Thug and Bad Brains’ H.R. and spend more time airborne than on stage. After their set, I wrestle with the question of how others might define Ho99o9 as a band. Weirdo noise rock with guttural intentions along the lines of Faith No More? A rap-punk hybrid both of their own imagination and inspired by artists like Death Grips? It’s impossible to ignore the larger commentary they’re making in their music. The state of black artists operating outside the realm of what dominant media discourse labels “urban music” has a dense history. From rock forebearers like Death and Fishbone; to R&B experimenters like Erykah Badu and Santigold; to contemporary artists like Solange, Shamir and Vagabon, Ho99o9 sit as descendents of this history through their direct challenging of the genres in which they operate.

Earlier that day, I met with Eaddy and theOGM at the Bond Hotel in downtown Toronto. Due to the hotel’s proximity to a newly minted university, the area is experiencing the mounting effects of gentrification and the clamour of construction rings through the lobby. For Eaddy, 28, and theOGM, 28 (who self-describes as a 99 year old wizard), their hometown of Newark, New Jersey, which is undergoing a similar type of neighborhood change, has had a sizeable role in informing both their identity and trajectory as artists.

The pair met through mutual friends and immediately hit it off. Bonded by their appreciation for outsider art, they regularly made trips to New York to see artists like Cerebral Balzy, Japanther and Theophilus London, and were mainstays in the New York DIY scene. They also shared a desire to create something they felt was lacking in their community. “We formed this little collective where we just wanted to bring dope shit to New Jersey”, theOGM remembers. “I wouldn’t say there was nothing cool but there was either like gangsta ass rap parties or some nerd on campus kind of vibe. There was nothing like a scene where there was rock and art and this style with these kids with this energy mixed together”.

The collective, NJstreetKLAN, quickly became a crucial operating arm in a city that regularly makes headlines for its challenges with intra-community violence. “That was our movement, that was our vibe, our everything”, theOGM muses. “There were a bunch of dope artists around us who couldn’t perform or didn’t have places to record their music. [Most people] look to New York for some new artists but they won’t look here. In New Jersey, we were nobodies. We felt like we were just trying to be heard and create platforms for our other homies. At one point we wasn’t even worried about us. We literally only worried about making sure everyone else was good and being able to provide that for our friends.” However, like most thriving DIY scenes, an organic dissolution is understandable, if not inevitable. “Once everyone started to get big and their minds got all like ‘I’m the shit’ and their egos got into it then we were like, ‘alright, we’re going to step back from all of that and we going to go and do us real quick then we’re going to holla’”, theOGM says. “Then shit started turning up.”
Cut to 2017 and Ho99o9 have propelled to a level of international acclaim that feels rare in an age where impressive artists are susceptible to the transient cycle of “internet fame” and trends that are perpetuated through music blog culture cycle at a locomotive speed. Since the release of their first EP, Mutant Freax in 2014, they have acquired a swelling and wildly dedicated cult following while playing festival stages as varied as Afropunk and South by Southwest in the United States, to Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds and Pukkelpop in Europe. In 2015, they collaborated with famed director and world renowned punk archivist, Bryan Ray Turcotte on the video, "Casey Jones/Cum Rag" which premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. This year, Ho99o9 released their highly anticipated debut album, United States of Horror.

The record is a 17-song monolith which manages to give every genre they touch a heady reconstruction. The grating power electronics on songs like “War is Hell” are spliced with melodies directly borrowed from 2010’s Atlanta trap on tracks like “Hydrolics”. This is followed by breakneck riffs on “New Jersey Devil”, an evident ode to old school thrash and death metal. Elsewhere, “Street Power” and the Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio) produced “Face Tatt” are two of the most inspired and cutthroat hardcore songs I’ve heard in a long time. While there is no denying that rap makes its way onto the album, the term spitting takes on a new meaning when the lyrics feel like they’re literally being flung from between Eaddy or theOGM’s teeth. Perhaps the only thing that truly anchors the bedlam is the certainty that each track rings of a micro manifesto of its own creation: on the bridge of “More Power” they wail “More Power/ Fuck Pigs/ Love your Enemies/ Kill the Rich”. “That’s why we tangle these genres up”, says theOGM. “We’re just a fucking pot stirring up of radical shit.”

While the album could be perceived as lacking cohesion, the pair identify its scattered and disseminated nature as its greatest asset. For Ho99o9, it was crucial to follow their creative process towards an album they envisioned to be much larger than anyone anticipated. They put together the album in the studio with a live band and meticulously built each melody, riff and drum pattern that made it onto the record. “We wanted to make this project memorable. That’s why we’ve got so many elements on this album and have songs from this genre and that genre, not your traditional hardcore album where there’s 10 songs and they all sound the same with the fucking crazy guitar and drums”, Eaddy explains. “We wanted to make this like a full masterpiece. It’s kind of like when you gotta write this full 11 page report and you’ve got to make sure it’s fucking tight before you give it to the teacher. You just don’t want to write no bullshit.”
"I'm not pushing protests. I'm not saying that I have the answers to those problems. I'm just expressing how I'm feeling about them... so people can understand the severity of years of oppression."
It’s their penchant for a lack of bullshit that has informed the themes they explore in their music. Since their inception, several media outlets have probed the duo for the overt political overtones to their music. The trilogy of videos for “United States of Horror”, ”City Rejects” and “War Is Hell”, depicts the symbolic burning of fascist figures and social institutions through pixelated 8-bit graphics and grindhouse imagery. It’s just a single example (out of many) of the methods Eaddy and theOGM use to dig out the roots of systemic violence. However, they stress the fact that their relationship with identifying and targeting challenging themes in their music serves a larger purpose than just eliciting immediate political change. “I guess whenever you talk about the country or the government or anything like that, everyone will put it in that political box”, theOGM explains. “I’m not pushing protests. I’m not saying that I have the answers to those problems. I’m just expressing how I’m feeling about them or I’m telling a story that may have happened like a cop shooting an unarmed man. Those are facts. I’m expressing how I feel about it so people can understand the severity of years of oppression. Obviously the music is dark and aggressive and frustrating but we’re talking about real life here. People are angry and frustrated everyday in life.”

It’s a statement that rings true for several artists of colour that are often assumed to be making decisive political statements with their music. Pierce Jordan of the excellent Philadelphia hardcore band, Soul-Glo explains this further in his critique of how people often misperceive Ho99o9: “I read some article about how they were ‘Reclaiming Black Rage’ and after seeing them perform I was thinking about how limiting that analysis is. It’s an easy narrative. Between the differing ways they present themselves at their shows, not to mention the high energy is not just indicative of rage. N---s dance hard and jump up and down for so many more reasons than just anger, like for triple consciousness or the discourse.”

One of the underlying objectives for the group is to critique the automatic politicisation of black bodies. It is also one of the things that makes Ho99o9 such fascinating artists to follow; it takes a lot of courage to look at the built-in, societal assumptions associated with genre and decide that you are both willing and eager to surpass it. It’s an act of immense bravery to want to carve out a world where fans and artists alike are not bound by the powers that be and furthermore, that a new, more equitable landscape is possible. “Sometimes we’re the only two black dudes at a predominantly white festival, but we try not to think of that”, theOGM muses. “For the most part when we do these shows, I don’t even think about the colour. I just think about the music and the humanity and that people of all races and colours and genders come up to us and they’re just delighted to have been to our show. ■