On his latest release ‘Class War’, Stephen Hero creates a poetic port city portrait free from the countless clichés commonly associated with hip hop music.
No visit to Saint John is complete without witnessing something absurd. A shirtless man holding two lit cigarettes cursing at a pigeon, or someone confidently driving their motorized chair the wrong way down a one-way street while glaring at you like you’re the weird one. The city’s unique character is unlike anything else you’ll encounter in the province and yet, many can’t help but feel somehow connected to the distinct reality that accompanies every visit. There is no buff and polish in Saint John. It’s ‘love us or leave us’ 24/7.
On his latest release, Stephen Hero (aka David R. Elliott) captures much of what sets the city apart from other New Brunswick locales, mixing childhood experiences with present day observations to create a poetic port city portrait free from the countless clichés commonly associated with hip hop music. And by doing so, Elliott manages to stick to his metaphorical guns and deliver an authentic album ripe with youthful reflections and maturity.
“I’ve been doing this literally for as long as I can remember so it’s very normal [to me] at this point,” said Elliott, adding that hip hop was some of the first music he ever became involved with.
Elliott has been making music across a wide range of genres spanning country, folk, and rock music for a long time. He fronts his own projects and collaborates regularly with others. A multi-instrumentalist known to on occasional lay down bass, drums and guitar on his own material, Elliott admits his true connection with music has always been in crafting lyrics.
“I might think of a line or an idea and write it down in my phone or whatever, but when it comes time to put the song together I write to a beat and I write very quickly,” he said. “And then I rewrite by performing it over and over. I’ll sing it to myself until it feels right, then I’ll record it, and then I’ll rewrite some more. For whatever thing I’m writing regardless of genre, I take the words very seriously and I need every syllable to be in the right place, but especially with rap.”
On Class War, Elliott’s phrasing and timing is spot-on and his appreciation for the genre’s vocal nuances is obvious. Whether he’s playing with structure, stretching syllables over their predictable placing or squeezing a few extra lines into a limited space, every word lands confidently where it needs to be.
“I really like hip hop because it gives me an outlet to focus on words completely,” said Elliott. “Words and the way I say them. Words as percussion. I have been a pretty serious poetry fan since I first learned to read and that’s how I got into rap in the first place. I already loved poetry and this seemed like the coolest possible version of it. Which of course it is.”
Class War is Elliott’s fourth release as Stephen Hero, a project that dates back nearly a decade. But despite being one of several projects he has on the go at any point, his latest album doesn’t come across as an afterthought or a frivolous side project. Class War is a well-produced, well-written collection of tracks that include collaborations with a number of other musicians who’ve contributed beats, added additional vocal lines or sang backups, and it’s easily one of the most relevant Atlantic Canadian hip hop albums to surface in recent memory.
“I really got to revel in collaboration on this project and I really enjoyed that,” said Elliott. “I mixed the album myself so the ultimate product could be to my liking in a general sense, but I love to write off of other MC’s and producers and make it a cohesive project.”
The album features beats and production by Elliott, Saint John musician/producer White VHS, Daniel James (Bleum), and Toronto-based producer PASTR. Motherhood’s Brydon Crain also contributed to a track as did Penelope Stevens, who sings the infectious chorus line on the song, Oughts.
And of course, there are guest MCs.
“I’ve been wanting to work with Napz Meka forever,” said Elliott. “He’s a really great MC from Saint John who’s based in Toronto at the moment. And getting Penelope from Motherhood singing on the album is really a great honour, she’s amazing. Also Kim D’Ambrosia from Halifax who I’ve worked with before, she really killed it on Old Friends. I’ve also been wanting to work with Young WMHS for a long time, he’s incredibly talented and basically a Saint John treasure. With the song Home, I showed him some beats, he picked one, and just knocked out the hook and the verse.
“My guy LoTek is on a few tunes as well,” said Elliott, “and this guy from Philadelphia who I met online on hip hop forums appears on the track Mother Nature’s, adding a great coda to a song that is so incredibly specific to my experience.”
As with his last album recorded as David R. Elliott (2017’s Strawberry Grass), Elliott continues to profess his love for Saint John and all the bumps, bruises and charm that make it what it is. Class War is as much a commentary on the city’s economic reality (and the lives of those who live it daily) as it is a heartfelt love letter, reinterpreting the stark reality of Alden Nowlan’s Britain Street through firsthand experience.
“One thing I’m really learning as I get older is that everything I do is about the city,” said Elliott. “It’s where I’m from, where I learned to write, where my family is from and lives. I love it so fucking much. It’s such a weird and unique little place and it’s really easy to write about. It’s beautiful and ugly and I really think it’s my duty to write about it well. I feel that I’m sort of taking up where Alden Nowlan left off, to be completely honest. I’m taking the poetry he wrote and the songs Adam Mowery writes and applying it across any genre that I feel I can do successfully.”
For Elliott, Class War is also his way of giving a voice to a community whose identity is becoming more and more threatened by outside influence.
“At a time where there’s a lot of suburb people speaking on behalf of the city and yuppy scum moving into the uptown, it’s really important to make sure people know who really lives here and who makes this city what it is,” he said. “Saint John is not rich people from Rothesay or some British comedian. There are a lot of people suffering here so that rich people can stay rich and I personally feel it’s important to represent that in everything I do. And more specifically, my family has suffered through a lot to create a context in which I can create art, so it’s only fair that my art be about them.
“I love Saint John very much and I want it to love me too,” said Elliott. “I’m not trying to shit on anyone. I just want to represent the people struggling here because their story is important.”