The Beat N’ Track plays on this month with senior audio engineering technology major Levi Gordon. Growing up in a Pittsburgh suburb, Gordon struggled to find which crowd he fit in with, attending private school yet growing up in a low-income area. After years of being seen as too privileged to hang out with his neighbors, but too poor to be accepted amongst his classmates, Gordon finally found his place at Belmont and tells his experiences through his music as Skeleton at the Feast.
Belmont Vision: Tell me about where you grew up and how your hometown affected your music.
Levi Gordon: Wilkinsburg [Pa.] is a very urban neighborhood. Even before I was into hip-hop, that music was always around me, it was always part of the culture. So even before I understood it, I was familiar with it. It’s the kind of neighborhood where people drive by in their cars and the bass just rattles your house. You can’t even hear the music playing in the cars. Everyone has really crappy cars but really nice sound systems. If you are exposed to anything long enough I feel you will either grow to love it or grow to hate it, and in my case, it took me awhile, but I came around to loving it. Where I grew up also gave me a unique perspective on what I write about because I was a private-schooled, white kid in the middle of a really urban neighborhood. Even when I did relate to my neighbors, they might not have felt the same because I probably looked like a snobby, rich kid. And then at school, I was surrounded by people who had more money than me and they kind of viewed me as this poor kid from the hood. So I was always in that limited space where I didn’t feel like I fit in. I wasn’t rich enough to hang out with the cool kids in my grade and I wasn’t poor enough to hang out with the kids in my neighborhood. I was really bullied in school and that really had an effect on my music, a lot of feelings being marginalized and overcoming adversity.
BV: You said recently, “If I don’t know anything about it, I shouldn’t talk about it.” Explain that.
LG: In our modern culture, especially in hip-hop, everyone wants to be rich, the status quo is that I have 100 women at my disposal and like, 20 cars and they’re all expensive. That’s what people talk about and what ends up happening is in order to get to a place where they can legitimately brag about those things, a lot of rappers who are starting out talk about that stuff like it’s their life. Normally that’s not how it is at all. They’re trying to live this life of the rich and famous before it really happens to them. They want people to think that they’re cool. I hate that. I hate that not only because it’s a lie, not only because they are not representing themselves, I hate it because what they are aspiring to is not a good thing. There are a lot of noble things to aspire to and you don’t hear people talk about those things very often in hip-hop. For me, when I sit down and wonder what I am going to write a song about, it is very tempting sometimes to say, ‘Well, I know people will like my song if it’s about a girl and how good she looks or that I talk about getting drunk or getting high.’ Any of these things are just so typical in rap music, but that’s not my life. I don’t relate to that so I don’t talk about it. Things I talk about are what it was like growing up in my neighborhood or about a relationship, things that I can personally identify with. That way, people who know my style will know that I am always going to be honest and they can trust me.
BV: Who are your musical icons or who you identify most with, in the music realm?
LG: I listen to a lot of poetic rappers like Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, and Cage. There’s a guy from Canada who goes by the name, K-OS and he hasn’t come out in the U.S. as much, but he is really popular in Canada. He’s a really, really great producer. He has really cool eclectic arrangements of songs that he then raps or sings over. I listen to those guys a lot and get my influences from them.
BV: Some people may not consider rap to really be music, just noise. What do you think about that?
LG: I totally understand that. I think if you grew up around music where the vocal parts are always melodies and harmonies, then that is what you’re used to. You may not even give rap music a chance because it sounds like someone just talking at you, but for someone like me who comes from a more poetic background, I see rap as an opportunity to talk about a lot of really important things. It’s kind of a poetic medium first and foremost. I happen to like good music, I think, so I try to incorporate that as much as I can for emotional effect. Even if they are simple, melodic lines, they need to be something the audience can attached themselves to. I write with artists who are better at writing melodies than me. I’ve done music with Rayvon Owen and other composers and arrangers who can make a better music product. It sounds kind of dumb but I have had people come up to me and say, ‘My parents hate rap music, but they listen to you all the time.’ I think that’s just wonderful, even though I hope my target audience is not just dads, I’m glad people do recognize something that has musical integrity.
BV: Your ethnicity is a minority amongst most rap and hip-hop artists. Is this an advantage for you?
LG: It is a blessing and a curse at the same time. When people hear me, it is a blessing because it hopefully doesn’t take them too long to see that I am talented at what I do and I work very hard at it. For the most part, that is the kind of feedback I seem to get. On the front end of that, I know every time I introduce myself as a rapper, the judgment is evident on people’s faces and they can’t really help that. I know that because I have done the same to other people. You automatically assume if they are white, they aren’t very good. In that case, it is a disadvantage to me. Because I’m a minority, I stand out whereas there are a lot of people who are really talented, but they don’t get noticed because there are other people who have a similar sound to their voice, or style. It’s just an unfortunate truth that unless you’re different, you may not stand out amongst the crowd.
BV: So what brought you to Belmont?
LG: When looking for colleges, I wanted something that was close to music because I didn’t want to be torn away from it, but I didn’t feel confident enough in my own music to pursue it. When I heard about Belmont, it was the only college that clicked. I felt it. I could see myself here and all these other college that I tried to see myself at, I didn’t feel that was where I needed to be.
BV: Tell me about performing in the 2012 Urban/Pop Showcase.
LG: It was hands down one of the coolest experiences of my life. The only thing I could compare it to was, last year, I was a rap battle between acts for the showcase, but I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. I wasn’t getting to do my full art form; I wasn’t getting to go all out. But this year was so huge because, for the first time, I am really getting recognized on campus. I even went to Kroger and someone working there recognized me. I love that. I love getting the exposure to share my message. However, I made the mistake of scrolling through Twitter after the showcase and seeing what people were saying. I would say 99 percent of the feedback was positive, but a few people had to tear me down because I’m white, or I thanked God on stage, or commented on how I covered an Outkast song and there was no way I was ever going to be able to do it justice. Those are things people are always going to say, but I am used to it because I got bullied in high school. I know how this stuff goes, it’s so hard to deal with, but I would do it again and again because it was the greatest opportunity. To get dissed by a small group of people, although I don’t know what’s going on in their lives, it doesn’t speak for the volumes of people who were so supportive. I hate to be cliché about haters, but everybody has them.
BV: Where did the name, ‘Skeleton at the Feast’ come from?
LG: It comes from back in the day in Egypt, the royalty and people of power would throw these big feasts and everyone who was anyone was invited. They would all gorge themselves and get wasted at this big party. During the height of the party, the ruler would wheel out a skeleton of someone who had passed away, who maybe even had partied with that group of people before. You can imagine how that would kill the mood but the point was to think about your life. In that moment, you are doing something that many other people had done. Other people have been there having a good time, enjoying life and they have died. It caused them to think, what they were doing with their lives and how they could make a difference. It was a way to get people to think about that question from that perspective and that’s what I want to do with my music. When someone listens, I want them to have a good time, I want them to enjoy the music, but I want them to hear the words and stop themselves and think, ‘Whoa. What am I doing with my life?’ I discovered it when I was flipping through a book on my grandma’s bookshelf. She is always going to thrift stores and garage sales and she likes collecting cool things, so she had this old phrasebook. ‘Skeleton at the feast’ was an obscure phrase that no one ever uses anymore. We’ve been mis-introduced a lot as Skeleton Feast or Skeleton in the Closet, but I’m glad I found it.
BV: Being a senior, how do you plan to incorporate your degree and your music post-graduation?
LG: It’s really hard because with the nature of the industry, you never really know for sure what you are going to do. As an audio guy, I want to be able to produce people. I want to be able to take people’s music and work with them on it and, Lord willing, in that process be able to collaborate with them and do music of my own and actually be a part of the industry, not just a bystander. If that doesn’t happen, I still want to be working closely with music whether that be touring with people as a stage manager, or running sound at a concert venue, or whatever I need to do to stay close to the music.
BV: What’s next for Skeleton at the Feast?
LG: Well, Lord willing, I’ve got an EP I’m working on called ‘Stranger Management.’ It’s fun because right now, we’ve got about four songs and one of them is produced by me, but the other three are all produced by different people. They are all Belmont students, but have different ways of approaching the music that they create. Collaborating with them each individually makes for a very different product. It’s a fun little project and my plan is to get it up on iTunes or Bandcamp or something like that at the beginning of next year. I’ve been working on it for a very long time. I’m not much of a perfectionist, but when it comes to music, I am always very concerned with the way it is conceived. So I want to work hard to make something that I am comfortable with putting in front of people, and creating something that people want to share. I’m also working on a Christmas song that I want to be out this year. It’s not destined to be any sort of Christmas classic, but it’s a more contemplative, more thoughtful, more seasonal rap song.