Hardwork Movement: Vicious, Driven and Nice.
The day after Sterling Duns’ 28th birthday, all four members of Hardwork Movement saunter up the staircase to Duns’ second floor apartment following a full band practice for upcoming shows. Blue streamers still hang from the ceiling, colorful balloons litter the floor of the living room, half eaten birthday cakes sit on kitchen counters and a suspicious gift bag perches on the edge of an end table.
Dwight Dunston (Sterling Duns) along with Rob Ricketts (RB Ricks), Keenan Willis (Rick Banks) and Jeremy Keys (Keys) grab some cake before settling into chairs. All the while, the room teems with a mixture of banter and laughter. A small space filled with people and packed with contagious energy becomes a reoccurring theme when these four MCs get together.
Early incarnations of the group began in 2012 with the Leftovers mixtape. The next several years would see more releases before a hiatus that included temporarily kicking out Keys, then a refocusing of the vision and bringing Keys back into the fold.
Trying to define Hardwork Movement or discern their sound by asking each member of the group who their favorite artist is, or who they listen to, yields eclectic responses.
“But if you ask us to rhyme on a beat, you’ll probably have a similar flow. I think that’s what makes us interesting,” explains Ricks, an easy grin splayed across his face.
Every member offers a series of skill sets to the group. While each holds his own on the mic and several can play guitar, the reserved Banks frequently handles production duties, the jovial Keys provides vocals as well as occasional cello playing and the laid-back Ricks mans the turntables.
And that’s even before bringing in the band: Rebecca Graham and Martin Gottlieb-Hollis on trumpet, Angel Ocana on drums, Jeremy Prouty on bass and Dani Gershkoff on flute and vocals.
“We also take some pride in having some versatility as well,” Keys says, dressed in a salmon button-down, grey skully and wide smile. “Just the fact that we have this live band with us really gives us the potential to push some limits where we see fit and create our own brand of hip-hop that is more modern and something that is a bit more our style, but also celebrating where we came from and where hip-hop originated.”
It may be unfair to compare their sound with another hip-hop band that hailed from Philadelphia, but not entirely inaccurate. Imagine Illadelph Halflife mixed with ATL flow and touches of D’Angelo, voices reminiscent of the cadence of ‘90s West Coast artists (Living Legends, Pharcyde, Hiero, Dilated, Lyrics Born, Planet Asia) combined with early ’90s East Coast, an old school hip-hop vibe and a Millennial’s perspective.
“I think what really appeals to me about them is the way they bridge generations,” says WXPN’s John Vettese, who recorded them for The Key Studio Sessions. “Even though they’re all young dudes, there’s a throwback element. The smooth melodic production and the ways the beats are crafted definitely brings me back to the best of ’90s hip-hop – Nas, Tribe, De La, even vocal hooks that sound like something out of Philly’s neo-soul scene. But the music also has one foot firmly in the now.”
“A lot of people use rap and hip-hop synonymously,” says Banks, peering through his glasses with the studious look of a scholar. “We rap but the hip-hop culture on a macro-level is more of taking bits and pieces and repurposing things and putting your own spin on it. So I think we do a lot of that, filling in all sorts of different experiences and influences.”
Those influences include Broken Bells, Marvin Gaye, Fleet Foxes and Led Zepplin. Those experiences woven throughout their lyrics range from sports and women to traveling. While some artists braggadociously attempt to convince the listener of their mastery of these topics, the MCs of Hardwork Movement relate their experience around these topics, how they impact and affect their lives and dreams. How to be satisfied, but still want more. How to be satiated, but still hungry. How to know who you are, but still explore. The dichotomy of good problems.
Blending talented musicians with skilled MCs rarely results in each element complimenting the other without outshining, and therefore highlighting, the underwhelming inabilities of the other. On “Living Legends,” off the group’s Good Problems album from earlier this year, Duns holds down the second verse with the line:
“Prescription: Keep giving them images of what it is/ To be young, black, ambitious and vicious, and well wishing and mission driven/ I be avoiding the sentence/ Yo, I been dodging the symptoms/ To the whites and blacks listening/ Keep it 150/ With yourself holmes…”
“That’s the American dream, re-envisioned,” explains Duns, sitting on a stool. From the boatshoes on his feet to his tan pants and grey athletic hoodie, Duns straddles a serious thoughtfulness with youthful energy. “All of us have done work in figuring out how we want to live our life and what success means to us. What it means to be happy and figure all that out and not be fed this message from history or our parents or TV or media. To blow all that up and figure out what’s really important to you.”
To take the information you’re given, both from valid and invalid sources, to define oneself, to deconstruct the projected narrative and pick up those pieces to find the ones that fit is to establish one’s own true identity.
“To be both vicious and driven, it’s kind of seen as you have to be one or the other and they really don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Banks points out. “You can be both. You can present a mission-driven front while being kind of nice.”
“We’re all living legends,” Duns continues. “But to believe that you have to blow up other people’s perspective of you, of what it means to be successful and recreate your own. Then all you have to do is believe.”
A week prior, just doors away from the Girard Station El stop, the group meets in Hardwork Movement’s practice space. Tucked inside an autobody shop on the second floor is a large, cavernous room. In the far corner, a green and white tent shelters the four members of the group as well as the five members of their band prepping for an upcoming spate of shows. The practice comes to an end as the nine members huddle in an embrace and sing “Happy Birthday” to no one in particular.
“When we get in the room together, there’s no ego,” Gottlieb-Hollis points out. “Everybody has a voice and we listen to each other. It’s a rare thing.”
Those strengths shine weeks later at a near-capacity show at Boot & Saddle. They’ve come a long way from 2012, selling out a Haitian restaurant in Washington D.C. The four MCs take the stage to a crowd of more than 100 people packed into the venue. Rihanna’s “Work” pours out of the speakers as the MCs replace Rih’s lyrics in the chorus with their own, chanting “Hardwork, work, work, work, work, work.”
As the night proceeds, the band’s horn section pops up a third of the way through the set in the middle of the crowd, pumping their brass sounds into the atmosphere as they march to the stage and replace songs back by produced tracks. The show swells from the inside out, and once again the energy notches up.
“It’s a journey that we take together with the audience,” Gottlieb-Hollis says.
Hardwork Movement’s live performance is gaining its own reputation. Vettese attended a show at the end of 2015 at Kung Fu Necktie, leaving with a distinct impression.
“They absolutely crush it as a live band,” says Vettese. “That’s another unique approach, since I feel like most of the time live hip-hop is either a rapper with a DJ, or it’s a rapper with a band. Rarely is it both.”
“Whether we are using words or an instrument to tell our stories, we want to be very intentional about every note we play, every single word we write,” says Duns about coming together with the live instrumentation on stage.
The energetic atmosphere is visceral. The full, rich, crisp-but-not-sterile sounds feed the crowd as a setlist rehearsed at practice, complete with an interpretation of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” takes shape on stage.
The only time the night is punctuates with pause is when Hardwork Movement tells the crowd it is Graham’s mother’s birthday. They ask the audience to serenade her, which the show-goers do with enthusiasm as the band records it on a cellphone, to be delivered later.
It may have temporarily stopped the momentum of the night but to be a reemerging act on stage, with nearly a full house of fans into your show, to stop the gig to show love to a band member’s loved one and risk losing the crowd or moment?
These are good problems.