Cities Aviv

“People are just boring and lazy,” says Gavin Mays, who records as Cities Aviv. I’ve asked him what his response is to people who feel that his music is demanding: it’s too much, I don’t get it, I don’t want to have to try that hard. The responsible thing for me to do would be to not use that quote in writing, because I cannot, in writing, replicate the metallic laugh he smash cuts it with, or transcribe every conversation I’ve ever had with the man, all of which lead me to believe he is equal parts trying to make us laugh, too, but also ruefully stating a fact he hasn’t seen contradicted. He knows it’s the easy answer. I think it’s the right answer.

Back On My Shit

He’s sitting next to Quinton Lee, who is credited as RPLD GHSTS for his production and composing (and some singing) work. Their backs are to a blue retainer wall which is not blue because the city of Memphis has any care for the maintenance of its infrastructure, much less the people who have to look at it, but because their friend Clarence, who’s a painter from up the block, tagged it, kind of as a joke, and his mom yelled at him and made him paint over everything. The outlines of his original work persist. The wall curves, following the highway above it, and the top is starting to think about folding under the weight of the semis that barrel through. If you don’t turn your head you could maybe buy that these guys are sitting in an emptied pool. Nobody has a pool of their own though. The neighbor has an alligator pond that he says I may use to dispose of any men that give me grief. We’re in South Memphis. Like six weeks later, Gavin will walk away from his set up in Brooklyn and move back to this muffled, distracted, supremely kind, overgrown city where he was born for good.

“It’s just a different makeup here,” he says. “I think there’s a more intimate nature to how people interact, even if that intimate nature becomes aggression. It’s more focused and channeled. In New York it’s very erratic.” When Gavin criticizes places that aren’t Memphis, places that have, to date, disappointed him, glamorous places that turned out to be caught up places, he always takes care to mention people he loves, the exceptions to his rules. But the few, the proud, the brave can’t make up for the wear and tear. “People have -- they can breathe here in a way that they can’t in the city. The city won’t allow you. You always gotta hustle, you always gotta grind. As if humans were meant to aimlessly grind and hustle for shit.”

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"It’s really hard to be who you truly are in this world. I mean, I know he’s seen some shit; I’ve seen shit. Just growing up in the household, you see shit go on in the household. My brother, he’s homosexual. And to see him come out into the world – and that’s truly hard when you’re an African-American male, and you’re homosexual and you go out into that world. Seeing that – I look up to him.”

Quinton, who did not take to New York, has a little more compassion for the general public than Gavin. Gavin sometimes calls Quinton innocent. “I believe, honestly,” says Quinton, “they’re just really scared. It’s really hard to be who you truly are in this world. I mean, I know he’s seen some shit; I’ve seen shit. Just growing up in the household, you see shit go on in the household. My brother, he’s homosexual. And to see him come out into the world – and that’s truly hard when you’re an African-American male, and you’re homosexual and you go out into that world. Seeing that – I look up to him.”

They talk about people around them trying to regulate even the most minute deviations from the norm. Pant length, for example. They don’t talk about the reasons for some of that conditioning – which of our children’s freedoms we sacrifice to preserve them in these united states of conceal and carry. What our grandparents’ failures left us with. What watching somebody else be a weirdo and thrive can do in the stomach of a person who suppressed himself and went nowhere.

“Being a person of color in this fucking world, you’re always in comparison to someone else. You can’t just be yourself. It’s a culture of comparison. You do your thing, it’s never good enough.”

There’s a song on Your Discretion Is Trust, the album Gavin released in May, called “Act Up.” Hook-wise and flow-wise, it’s the one that comes closest to the lexicon of contemporary American rap. It’s only 70 seconds long. Most of the people I’ve talked to about his album have said he was foolish to cut it off then. Most people I’ve talked to about Cities Aviv think it’s a failing that he’s not making songs that fit into our current distribution and promotional channels. Most people I talk about rap with will in the end fall back on some metric of popularity, this word “impact” or they will text me a bunch of flame emojis. Very few people are comfortable with rap as art.

“When you start speaking about ideas such as industry, and shit like that,” says Gavin, “it gets very bleak, and very grey, because you throw out a lot of human elements. It’s like, ‘Well, business is business.’ We have a lot of artists that are just trying to stay relevant, they’re ‘about their business.’” And the human element that remains in the industry is the physiological responses – to tempo, volume, vocalized emotion, a diminished seventh – that none of us is immune to.

“Yeah, I’ve had those moments, where it’s like, you’re with your people and you’ve got access to things other people don’t have access to, so it’s like, yeah, fuck. This is what we do. You can try to act up, but no one really sees you. But at the same time mocking that whole shit. Coming from a place where, as much as you’re in it, you’re still outside of it. You see the structure that it is.”

Living and working as we choose, even in clear view of the structure, is the fight of our lives.

“Being a person of color in this fucking world, you’re always in comparison to someone else. You can’t just be yourself. It’s a culture of comparison. You do your thing; it’s never good enough. You go hard: ‘Oh, you sound like this dude.’ Or you do this thing: ‘Oh, it’s like this.’ And it can’t just be the truest, purest expression of you. I feel like people carry that into how they behave, how they handle themselves. They see something that works, they’re like, ‘Let me just go with what works. And I don’t need to deviate from that in any way. It’s easy.’”

In this fucking world of judgments never not hurtling through the air, this fucking world where the critics are writing for each other, the radio’s a robot and these kids did not do their homework, there’s plenty blame to go around. The subtext here is the domination of the music industry by a regimented field of tones and priorities, and the reason it’s subtext and not the front page is that the critical infrastructure for black music is imaginatively and financially bereft. The consideration of music that has no use for a boring and lazy nomenclature, or the algorithms and profiles that rely on same, is left to those with sources of income that allow them to intern, to people who are giving themselves probably like one more year in Brooklyn, people who’ve never had a decent edit in their life. The fetishism is so real. The misapprehension is so rife.

“We know what we’re up against out here,” says Quinton. “The whole idea behind this shit is, like, you can only pat people on the back for so long,” says Gavin.

“The whole idea behind this shit is, like, you can only pat people on the back for so long.”

There are moments when Quinton and Gavin volley back and forth that I know might read rote. That you’ll resist. That you want to think are affected, or what everybody says before they have kids and really lose their innocence, or denote emotions which aren’t practical. When I ask them if they ever doubt what they're doing, especially since Quinton has just told the story of Gavin playing a hot wings spot back in the day -- “Someone came up to me and they were like, ‘How do you fucking do that? How do you fucking do that, like get up in front of people on a microphone and just do what you do?’ I was just like, ‘It takes a lot of insanity. You have to be fucking insane. Why are you fucking doing that?’” -- they crack themselves up with their own vehemence.

Gavin: “Not gonna fucking stop, for nothing.”

Quinton: “I don’t know what it is. It’s definitely some element that I can’t fight. You can fight it, but it’s just gonna eat you up if you fight it.”

“I feel like sometimes we speak in ambiguous terms, but it’s that special. There’s no point of trying to bring it down to this dense plane, like trying to define it. Like, nah. Let it stay where it is. We’ll give you the pieces to it. And that’s it. That’s all you get,” says Gavin. “I give it to you, take it or leave it. I trust in you that you can understand.”

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Cities Aviv in the Memphis that made him – its overgrowth and its re-purposed pyramid, the car wash that’s a party, the one time Queen of Memphis that's now an abandoned high rise -- but mostly the friends that have never needed him to compromise.

It’s You I Love

Made By Pressure World

It’s Not A Thing To Be Thrown Around

YT and Cities Aviv sat with the homie Daniel Mathis, of Pressure World Sounds, in a warehouse on South Main in Memphis. The conversation below might help illuminate the mix he made for us, but really you should just go see him yourself and ask for stories.

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YT: What’s the neighborhood where you grew up like?


It’s Raleigh. It’s a cool neighborhood. I grew up right off of Craigmont High School. We would always run through the back fields of Craigmont, run around and skateboarding in that area. But growing up there weren’t a lot of kids that were into what I was into in those neighborhoods. So I would, a lot of times, just go out and skateboard for hours. Lost in my headphones, kind of thing.


YT: What were you into that was different?


Just skateboarding, hip-hop music that wasn’t the norm, mainstream back then, but very much, looking back, it’s the golden era, but for Memphis. Memphis wasn’t playing that kind of stuff on the radio. Out there is a little bit more, people into their cars and things like that.


CITIES AVIV: Raleigh, too, it’s a really secluded neighborhood. Raleigh Egypt’s out there. It’s definitely not a place that you go to unless you know somebody.


YT: Can you tell us how you began to even notice that there was music that wasn’t –



Yeah, that actually started happening, really, through skateboard videos. In all ways, whether it was punk rock music, old music – as in even southern rock or old funk that wasn’t really documented much -- and definitely hip-hop. And through that I was also reading like URB and magazines like that. And just looking at, and buying, different CDs all the time.

By the time I was 16 I was already working 40 hours a week so I was able to kind of buy a lot for myself. So I was very much into like always keeping all my hobbies pretty stacked. As in buying CDs or having my skateboard stuff always fresh. Cause I was doing it anywhere from seven to eight hours a day. I wasn’t a big person when it came to school. I skipped school a whole lot. It was horrible. I wish I wouldn’t have nowadays.

“A lot of times these people haven’t heard their records in 20, 30 plus years. One time L.H. White – “24 Hours Too Long” – I found him and had him over to my house. And when we sat down, he was like, “You have that record, right?” He told me, “I’ve been wanting to rewrite this song for 20 years, but I can’t remember the lyrics or how it went.”

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YT: What was appealing about the stuff that wasn’t documented?



The fact that you were able to play something that maybe someone hadn’t heard – that was as into it as you are. It’s just the whole feeling of unearthing a sound, or just showing people new music. And then, also, when you hear new music, you know the feeling, and so therefore seeing it in someone else, it’s a good feeling. And unearthing the music also adds such a story, usually. When you’re really researching -- there’s been times when I’ve called sixty people looking for someone, just because of the name relation.

A lot of times these people haven’t heard their records in 20, 30 plus years. One time L.H. White – “24 Hours Too Long” – I found him and had him over to my house. And when we sat down, he was like, “You have that record, right?” He told me, “I’ve been wanting to rewrite this song for 20 years, but I can’t remember the lyrics or how it went.” A huge smile came over my place, just to be able to play it for him. I made him a CD right then and there.

Some of them have passed away and I’m talking to their wives and their daughters and so they’re getting to remember their, you know, spread their family’s music to places that would never have heard it.



YT: Do most of the people you talk to – had they given up?



Yes and no. It’s a wide range of what goes on. Some always consider theirselves loners, in a sense, so they’re still doing that thing. They’re not necessarily always playing, but maybe twice a year they sit down and write something , and really commit to that. And they write that song for five years or something. They have a totally different way of creating than other people, of course.

And then some people: “Man, I was 17 when I did that. I was just running with a lot of guys. The studio was there. My dad put a lot of money into it. Never really went anywhere so I followed the family mechanic business.” Or something.

And then some people are, when they hear me knocking at their door and we start talking, they’re like, “Oh, I’m getting the band back together.” It’s all corners.

But some people have definitely gone on to become very – especially in Memphis. People like Perry Michael Allen. He’s living in Italy now with a big studio, doing session work for some major players. There’s Lester Snell. Snell does a lot of studio session work for Ardent. There’s definitely a lot of very known players that whenever people come to town, like Bruno Mars or whoever, they want to bring these Memphis players in to have that authentic sound. Somewhat.

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CITIES AVIV: There was a era -- there was Motown, there was Stax. But then there was also a point where they all kind of evaporated. And then there was a portion where you had these – subterranean might not even be the right word – but these musicians that were kind of scattered throughout. That were still doing it but much smaller scale. Cause there was a point where it was a big industry and then it just, like – boom. Cause I feel like where we are now is the back end of that – everything dissolving.


There’s a lot of different things that played into that. From really popular musicians that still play, to this day, here, and tour and stuff like that, to the smallest of musicians blame for the downfall of a lot of big studios and why things didn’t make it. The main thing is the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Even talking to like Steve Cropper of the M.G.’s, he’s like, “People I played with every day and ran around with and grew up with, in their homes, there was this unspoken tension that came over – this cloud that came over – Memphis.” That didn’t necessarily come directly in between people, but it was just this lag that was always there.

Basically, when Stax went under, a lot of small studios started popping up. I mean, Al Green had his own studio, even though he recorded mostly at Royal with Willie Mitchell, he still had his own studio that he was having people come in and out of. A lot of things were getting cut in small rooms and then just taken to Ardent and mixed by William Brown and cut by Larry Nix for the Plastic Products plant to cut.

Everything was so close here. You could have your lacquer, and take it to the pressing plant yourself. So it made it a lot easier for the small productions to happen. At that point, when Stax was down, a lot of new technology was coming on, so people were able to just buy a few pieces of equipment and start pumping things out.

There was a era — there was Motown, there was Stax. But then there was also a point where they all kind of evaporated. And then there was a portion where you had these – subterranean might not even be the right word – but these musicians that were kind of scattered throughout. That were still doing it but much smaller scale. Cause there was a point where it was a big industry and then it just, like – boom. Cause I feel like where we are now is the back end of that – everything dissolving.

YT: Can you be explicit when you’re talking about race?


Memphis is very segregated, in my opinion. I feel it’s getting better, in a sense, but I still feel like there’s a lot of tension between whites and blacks. It’s horrible. But at the same time it has such a bond when you meet people because they see that it’s not like that with you. Like when you meet artists and you show your passion about music, it’s really awesome because that whole racial tension goes away. But at the same time some people are very bitter about how Memphis has become, and they always have a wall up.

Sometimes it’s very easy to talk to people because right off the bat they identify with you. And then sometimes, because of things that have happened in their past, and the past in Memphis and how Memphis is, it makes it hard to connect. But music usually, when you start talking about their music, it makes it easy for the artist to understand where you’re coming from.

I don’t really come in contact with too many racial problems in Memphis, just because of – I keep a pretty mixed group of friends in the sense of who I’m always running with and what I’m always doing. I’m always basically running around looking for music. Through that I’ve made a lot of really awesome friendships. I’ve never really come into contact with anything dangerous in the city. But for some reason people act like there’s this big danger in the city due to racial tension.

It’s just how media coverage is, of course. And also how the overall view of things are in Memphis. When a gang of young teenagers gets in a fight, I mean, they just happen to be black. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, that’s just teenagers. Things are getting out of hand; it’s just gonna happen. And it gets blown into this national level of “This is what’s going on in Memphis. Teenagers! Black mobs!”


YT: Is that the lag, then?


I feel. Yes. I feel that it’s just very – it’s just not [portrayed] in the right way. But then in the same sense, I’ve seen rednecks just acting fucking crazy. Like, in bars. When I have problems with people it’s actually – very dumb, close-minded people. And that’s usually the problem. Or people just being overly aggressive. Just anywhere. Because they feel they have something to prove. They need to be tough. They have a preset opinion of what’s going on.

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Sometimes it’s very easy to talk to people because right off the bat they identify with you. And then sometimes, because of things that have happened in their past, and the past in Memphis and how Memphis is, it makes it hard to connect.

YT: Do you think there’s a place where there’s unspoken -- or sometimes spoken – tension, but there is also this shared concern?


Yeah. I guess that’s what I was trying to say when I do make that – you get a warm welcome sometimes, because of that. Because there is this racial tension in the community there’s a lot of people that really go out of their way to show that it’s not like that. They welcome you and they’re very – they want their community to be represented differently. There’s a lot of that in Memphis. That’s what I actually feel more of, but I don’t feel that it’s put across very well. We get a really bad rap. But we have a lot of crime.


CITIES AVIV: Something about Memphis tracks, especially a lot of the old soul that’s been dug up, or – we talk about the Greg Mason track. There was definitely this DIY element as far as people using what they had, whether it be broken gear, whatever.


What was awesome about the Greg Mason track in particular that he’s talking about – it was made in University of Memphis, in their computer lab in the ‘80s. It was very early on. When I’m talking about the computer lab, like, some big-ass computers. Like, he showed me a picture. It was no joke.

But when you hear it, it’s very crazy. It’s almost hip-hop, almost punk, very electro out there. But the ballad is some of the most beautiful synth wonderfulness in the world. It’s amazing. But it was cut there. The guy has since passed away, the guy who sings on it. It was made by this one guy named Bernard Haynes. He always ran around Hi Records and all this other stuff but he was never given the opportunity to produce anything. He got in with the High Water crew, which was basically a university-funded record label for blues musicians. He got in there and they would give him time just to mess around on the computer, making beats, basically. This is 1986.

He put “Recorded at the Electronic Lab, Memphis, TN.” He did it on a computer and brought it to a singer. If I would’ve just heard this I wouldn’t have thought of how I could sing to it, because it’s so out there. But the guy definitely takes it there.


CITIES AVIV: There’s nothing, even today, that sounds like this record. Nothing I could recall. It’s very spastic, very off-kilter, schizophrenic, borderline. It’s insane.


Any time you play it for somebody they look at you and they’re like, “Whoa.”

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“Looking back – you talking to a ‘70s artist and you bring up maybe somebody that was more into the rock scene – like you were saying, genres didn’t really matter because they were all being creative in their own sense. So they were all kind of hanging out. They were like, “Man, we were playing with those dudes! We were in the sessions with those guys. We didn’t even look at it as a different kind of music.”

CITIES AVIV: You’re like, “What drugs did they have?”


Yeah, this is definitely a special record.


CITIES AVIV: If you had to sum up, as a whole, the weight of this music existing in the city – someone asked me years ago, they were like, “If you had to do anything, what would you do?” I would like to uncover the obscure. There’s this notion – and there’s tons of artists that are doing things right now that I respect, people like James Ferraro or a Dean Blunt. You even have more dedicated noise artists, like Prurient or someone like that, which – to me genres all dissolve when I start talking about people like this because they all have visions and it’s all people that are pushing forward with something that’s important to them. So when I think about a lot of this music, it doesn’t fall far from these categories, even if it’s a Sweet Soul song.


Looking back – you talking to a ‘70s artist and you bring up maybe somebody that was more into the rock scene – like you were saying, genres didn’t really matter because they were all being creative in their own sense. So they were all kind of hanging out. They were like, “Man, we were playing with those dudes! We were in the sessions with those guys. We didn’t even look at it as a different kind of music.”

A lot of the people nowadays, within the music community, it’s not a genre lock. I feel like music, when it’s evolving, it’s just like that.


YT: Well, it’s also like, if you can play – music education totally fell apart in this country. The people you’re talking about were taught in school for free, and there’s so many schools here, there’s so many colleges.


Yeah, Memphis – it was a very big thing to be in the band. It was huge. It still is, I think, to this day. But, yeah, that’s a good point. In fact, some of the people are still music teachers or play at churches, they really still are playing, but using it for teaching or church.


YT: Can you give us an example of somebody like that?


I mean, Le’Gamby. Yeah, Lee More. Actually, Libra. You’ll find some really great YouTube videos on her, she goes now under Prophetess Libra. Her name is Yvonne Mitchell, but not Willie Mitchell’s daughter. Libra, on Black Diamond Records. The guy who started Stax, Jim Stewart, started this label in the ‘80s, after Stax went under, and did everything out of Ardent. And she’ll even, if you look, some of her YouTube videos up talk about how she was heavy into drugs and always running around, kind of like a groupie.

It’s funny talking to other groups, if I ever bring up Libra, they’re like, “Man, she would go on our tours with us. And just kick it. Like, just follow us. She was fun, she was cool, but we didn’t know how she could just be gone for so long. And just getting crazy.” And, sure enough, talking to her she’s like, “Man, I was wild back in the day. But that’s what’s brought me to this.” And sure enough she’s built a pretty big congregation in Atlanta and in Memphis. She travels back and forth. It’s a pretty special thing.


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YT: What’s the saddest story you’ve heard?


A record called “Sweet Pearl.” There’s a lot of hearsay within the bands about what went on, but a possible relationship between the producer and the singer, when the producer was married and his 16-year-old son was the guitar player and songwriter. Again, this is kind of hearsay but I kind of believe it, just due to everybody that I’ve talked to. Right when the record was recorded and came to light, before it got picked up from the pressing plant, apparently the wife had caught wind to a little of what had happened and it instantly got shelved, put away.

And the only reason anybody found it is a junk collector kind of guy – I talk to a lot of those guys in Memphis, they’re great – he found some records in the middle of nowhere, like outskirts, probably about 20 minutes out of Memphis. And he found a copy of this, and it’s because it was sitting with the singer. It was at her house.

So finding that, then doing more research, then finding her through that, I find out that this guy bought it from her. She’s like, “Oh, so you got that! That was my last copy.” So then I did a little bit more research and found a couple copies and got her a copy. And we have it licensed and it’s gonna come out, hopefully, next year.

This is a really great example of a very homemade mix. You have to ride it if you play it out in public, because it’s up and down, it’s very lo-fi, but it’s what also makes it very beautiful. The other side’s a really good just funk track. If you were to find it by itself, you’d be like oh, this is amazing, but the other side kind of outshines it, just because it has so much personality and love, and then also hearing the story is kind of crazy.

I feel like I talk about something that’s so outdated.


CITIES AVIV: I don’t think so. It’s very relevant, even if you think about – there’s the unsung element of Memphis rap, which is constantly being seeped into – siphoned. I feel like a lot of people are trying to siphon the style, but what was tight about it, was it was so deeply rooted here. You couldn’t get that style anywhere else, those aesthetics. If you listen to a lot of the old rap music, all the samples, a lot of that style came from –


The lo-fi-ness.

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This is a really great example of a very homemade mix. You have to ride it if you play it out in public, because it’s up and down, it’s very lo-fi, but it’s what also makes it very beautiful.

CITIES AVIV: The lo-fi-ness of the soul records. When you bump those 45s, if we bump “Sweet Pearl” or if we bump The Sweet & Innocent, there’s just a feel, a vibe that you get that you don’t really catch in a lot of music that comes out now. Not that people aren’t capable of doing that, it’s just it comes from this place and this era that carries such weight, such baggage, with it. It’s borderline ethereal. Kind of like what we were talking about people battling demons with rap music. It’s very relevant when you hear these soul records too. Like there’s something about it, to where these people are almost in between the physical realm and the spirit realm. At least that’s what I hear.

Obviously, too, people taking singing and gospel music and then pulling that into the secular world where it’s borderline a sin for them, or something they aren’t supposed to be doing, but they do it with everything they got. It’s something that’s very special that should be cherished.

We trip, because me and Daniel been homies forever, and I feel like people are always like, “Oh, I need to get up. We need to get some sample flips.” But to me it’s such a thing that’s sacred. Cause even if I flip something, I definitely stay true. I’m not gonna tell you what it is, but I’m always gonna pay homage to where it came from, at the same time.

And also, too, it’s not a thing to be thrown around. It’s an attribute of where we come from, that we have to keep spitting, cause otherwise, who’s gonna talk about it? People, they want to talk about the same thing over and over.


YT: People assume that what they hear on the radio is the best that we can do, and I think everybody in this room knows that there’s a million reasons why that’s never, ever, been true. Quality is not the determining factor of popularity. But also when we think about what musicians are listening to, and what went into the work that we hear from them – it’s a mystery. And you’re making it less of a mystery. Right now.


I feel like, yeah, but I guess this is just me seeing so many other people doing it. And keeping in contact with those people to also – cause there’s this whole community that’s doing this nowadays, and they do work very tightly together, whether they’re in Oslo, Norway, or Toulouse, France. We all try to educate each other – the right people do. Now there’s of course the people that are out to try and make money off of people’s music and they want to find the record just so they can sell it for a million dollars. Which I can’t say that I haven’t done before. But I always try to give enough, or help the artist out. I’ve helped artists sell their records to make money, cause they can’t pay their phone bill.

But it’s amazing how much stuff is getting uncovered, still, to this day. You never will – I mean, every day I hear something – every day I’m frustrated about my collection. We’ll put it like that. I feel like I have something to play for people that they haven’t heard, and I have a lot of friends and connections. Things that they uncover, it’s just amazing. There’s so many ways that music can be recorded and done. Styles. You’ll never quite know all of it – you’ll never know all of it, of course. But even just me trying to focus on Memphis music, I feel like I’ve maybe hit 25% of what’s really happening. I’m missing out on a lot. I feel like every day I’m hitting something new.