Most high school graduates from the U.S. who can afford to travel spend that first summer out of school in places like Mexico or Europe. But Caleb Cunningham, frontman, songwriter and producer for powerhouse hip-hop ensemble Project Lionheart, knew it was time to start getting his groove on. So he took off from his adopted hometown of Seattle to study the drums in Dakar, Senegal.
While returning to West Africa several more times over the next few years, he split his time Stateside drumming in a local reggae band and building an arsenal of hip hop beats and songs. He thought he hit the big time a few years later when he scored a gig as the drummer and MC for The Mob Law, a group whose fusion of hip hop, rock, punk and reggae earned them a huge following in Seattle and the chance to record an EP and a full length album, Hold Us Down.
Driven by Cunningham’s fiery rhythms and onstage charisma, The Mob Law became so popular that they went on the 50 college East Coast jaunt as part of National Lampoon’s Disorientation Tour. But for the drummer and musical visionary, accolades and adoration aside, something important was missing: true musical focus.
Gathering the massive arsenal of beats and original material he had accumulated over the years, Cunningham left The Mob Law in 2007 and finally got serious about developing the Project Lionheart concept he launched as a “hobby project” back in 2001. Hooking up with longtime friends, onetime Mob Law guitarist TJ Berry, bassist Jarrod Keith (who Cunningham knew from his first reggae band) and Senegalese percussionist Thione Diop, Cunningham launched his new purely hip hop driven band.
Project Lionheart’s upcoming release The Art of Resistance (Special Edition) on Seattle based indie label Sound Records features remixed and remastered versions of all of the tracks from the group’s debut album, which they originally produced and pressed themselves, in addition to four brand new cuts.
With digital distribution by Universal affiliated distributor In Grooves, the revamped 14 track album now includes star-studded feature performances by Canibus, popular MC Crooked I, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Clan associate and producer Bronze Nazareth, well known Seattle rapper Damon Kollar and singer/beatboxer Blake Lewis, runner up in the 2007 American Idol competition.
The group began performing in the Seattle area in January 2008 and quickly built a following while working on their debut album. In addition to regular “home base” gigs at The Nectar Lounge, Project Lionheart has also performed as part of the Rock The Bells hip hop tour at The Showbox and regional hotspots like The Wild Buffalo near Western Washington U. in Bellingham.
“One of the biggest reasons for shifting gears in my career and starting Project Lionheart is that I wanted to shake off the drums and take center stage so I could really connect with the audience,” says Cunningham. “I also wanted to get beyond the whole hybrid rock reggae hip hop thing that defined The Mob Law and have a group with a singular vision as hip-hop artists. I basically brought my stockpiled songs in the studio and infused these electronic beats with real guitar, bass and some sax, which TJ also plays. The idea was to create socially relevant, politically charged songs with a mix of great beats, raps and singing.
“We chose the title The Art of Resistance as my way of communicating to fans and listeners to stop and think about their lives and the world around them,” he adds. “I’m not a teacher or a politician, I’m an artist, writer and musician and this is my way of expressing what’s on my mind and impacting people’s lives. I’ve learned over the years that music can be as powerful a force as politics to bring out issues that need to be addressed, things like those I am touching on here like the prison industry and the way children are being raised. Though I ran away from reggae, I approach my craft like Bob Marley, making socially conscious songs that are also fun to sing along and dance to!”
The infectious, sharp grooving “The Way We Live” featuring Damon Kollar is a unique overview about our society and makes specific points about TV, the prison industry, the need we have to impress our neighbors, the war in Iraq and, as Cunningham says, “little things that piss me off.” The track rolls like a cool conversation, bouncing back and forth between Kollar and Cunningham. The set also features a remix of “Heart of the Lion,” a mission statement about being a badass and not staying stuck in the mud of your life; it’s got a new gangsta beat behind raps by Cunningham and Crooked I. Among the new tracks are the fun club anthem “Light Up The Darkness”; “The Rain,” a funky, destiny fulfilling spin on poetry and wordplay with members of the Wu Tang Clan; a track about the “Ancient Art” of being an MC, performed with Canibus; and “My Eyes,” a melancholy tune about learning from your mistakes featuring the vocals and inimitable beatboxing of Blake Lewis.
Much of the celebrity pull on The Art of Resistance (Special Edition) comes via the connections of the guys running Sound Records, which signed Project Lionheart in early 2009.
Launched in 2008, Sound Records is the vision of partners/principals as president and VP, respectively. The independent startup already sports a roster of established and emerging artists from the rap and pop/folk-rock worlds, including Keith Murray, Canibus and Bronze Nazareth.
Sound Records took shape when Noah Hartkopf, manager for Ken Stumbo’s successful, Seattle based property management collection agency IQ Data, was in Phoenix on business and met members of the Wu-Tang Clan in his hotel lobby. After talking music with them, Hartkopf suggested the group get in touch when they visited Seattle the following week.
Hartkopf and Stumbo received a random call three weeks later from Wu-Tang Clan affiliate, the Grammy Award winning de facto leader of the group, about possibly investing in a recording project. This inspired the two to follow through on something they had discussed in the past: launching their own record label. Deriving its moniker from Seattle’s nearby Puget Sound and tying in as well with the city’s storied musical legacy, Sound Records was born.
“Since we signed with them, our mission has shifted slightly to allow for crazy and wonderful collaborations with the greatest hip hop artists and minds we can find,” says Cunningham. “I’ve learned that making great hip hop records and putting on amazing performances is about much more than one person. It’s about a whole community, working together and supporting each other. Sound Records backed our goals in a big way and opened doors for us to work with incredible artists like Canibus, who I grew up listening to and admiring. To having guys like that now want to work with me is beyond my wildest expectations. It’s everything any of us have ever dreamed about.”