As a teenager living in rural Colorado, Benjamin Laub found an unlabeled mixtape with early Atmosphere songs on it at a skate park. It was the first time he had ever heard introspective, poetic hip-hop, not like the “West Coast gangster pimp rap” he was used to listening to.
A couple decades later, the Seattle-based rapper, better known as Grieves, signed to Atmosphere’s label, Rhymesayers.
Grieves will bring his confessional rhymes and catchy beats to Mesa’s Club Red on September 6 as part of a 47-date cross-country headlining tour.
The Chicago native says Colorado was a staple for his career — it was where he discovered hip-hop — but it was no cultural hub. He decided to head to Seattle in the early Aughts.
“Colorado is a very supportive place for musicians, but there wasn’t a hip-hop culture there,” he recalls. “I remember wanting so much more but at the time. I was struggling with drugs and other issues and I knew that if I stayed in [Colorado], I wouldn’t get what I need out of my life… So I took the leap and I moved here.”
When he first arrived in Washington, he was going to college to pursue a teaching career and washing dishes to make money on the side.
Then everything changed.
“I discovered this beautiful, ripe, exploding hip-hop scene in Seattle that I had never experienced before and I was just taken away by it,” he says. “I could go to someone’s studio and watch them make beats, and it was this whole new thing and it was crazy and it was alive and it completely took me by storm.”
Within a year, he was already out of college, signed to his first label, Seven Hills Records, and going to audio engineering school.
“I was completely submerged in music and if I wouldn’t have moved here, I would’ve never discovered that and I would probably be teaching a kindergarten class right now,” he admits.
Before Grieves discovered the unique brand of underground hip-hop that he would eventually produce, he recalls feeling inspired when he heard Wu-Tang Clan for the first time. Grieves also listened to an eclectic mix of music growing up, including blues and punk rock.
“I remember hearing a Wu-Tang record and being like, “What the f**k?’ and hearing the samples, like the blues records that I used to listen to with my dad in the background,” he says. “I understood how the music was being made, which was the first time in my life where that was ever possible. Even when I was listening to punk rock or soul blues music… I didn’t understand the music as a formula; I just took it in and was affected by it, which is art’s job. But I understood it and I started listening to rhyme patterns and I started liking rappers for the way that they rapped. I never liked guitar players for the way that they played the guitar.”
Stylistically, discovering Atmosphere’s music at the skate park added another layer.
“It was a burned CD, like someone’s skate mix. It didn’t say anything on it,” he recalls. “I remember probably for two months, I had no idea who it was. I just knew that I loved it and I couldn’t stop listening to it.”
Eventually, a friend pointed out that the music he was bumping all the time was a rapper and producer duo from Minnesota named Atmosphere, who had co-founded an independent record label called Rhymesayers.
“He kind of opened my world to the Rhymesayers stuff. That was huge for me,” he says. “It taught me that introspective and emotional side of me was allowed to do that with hip-hop. People weren’t writing like that.”
Grieves’ upcoming tour is in support of his fifth studio album, Running Wild, a 15-song effort that the rapper says shows a different, yet more authentic, side of himself. The record, which will drop August 25, was recorded in Sweden with producer Chords. According to Grieves, there’s one thing that sets it apart from the rest of his releases: It was done out of his comfort zone.
“The previous releases were all done in my studio or my buddy’s studio,” he explains.
“It’s all done within the bubble. Knowing that we wanted to show a more dynamic range of me on this record, we decided to step out of the bubble.”
Grieves says previous ventures, such as 2014’s Winter & the Wolves, often felt contrived. Running Wild is Grieves’ coming-of-age album, one in which he took artistic risks that he says felt “liberating” and “healthy.”
“It feels like I don’t have to do something because I feel like I should have to do it,” he says.
The album’s first single, “RX” is a contemplative, trap-tinged track about Grieves’ struggle with panic attacks.
“With ‘RX,’ I take a step in a different direction,” he says. “It’s not just uncomfortable for me. It’s uncomfortable for the listener too. It’s pushing them in another direction too because if I’m going to test my boundaries, most likely, yours are going get pushed on a little bit.”
Authenticity is also an important aspect of Grieves’ live shows, which he curates completely on his own.
“I do everything myself,” he says. “I have band members and they definitely play their part, but when it comes down to the creation of this whole thing… It’s all me. I mean, I even program the f**king lights.”
Grieves wants fans who come to his shows to get a different experience than when they listen to the record.
“There’s more energy; there’s this community, this attitude that you don’t get from the record,” he explains. “Music can reinvent itself throughout your life. That has always been the most inspiring part about touring, getting to meet people and getting to see their interpretations and their reactions to this music; it helps me craft these live shows into a place for them and it honestly reinvents this music for me, too.”
Grieves w/ Dem Atlas and Everyday Affiliates, Club Red, 1306 W. University Drive, Mesa, Wednesday, September 6, 7 p.m., $16-$19.