The album cover art for 'ISSKOOTSIK (Before Here Was Here)', painted by Bunky Echo-Hawk.

Beats and Poetry: Gyasi Ross Discusses 'ISSKOOTSIK (Before Here Was Here)'

Wilhelm Murg

Author, activist, attorney, spoken-word artist, and ICTMN editor-at-large Gyasi Ross has just released his album ISSKOOTSIK (Before Here Was Here) (Amazon | iTunes) on the Cabin Games record label. The album is a hip hop based collection of stories and spoken word poetry about Native American culture and history, which range from musical tributes that honor activists Marlon Brando and Winona LaDuke, to a guest appearance by Abiodun Oyewole of the primordial rap group, The Last Poets, on the title track.

“It’s storytelling and it’s poetry,” Ross said. “I’m a product of the hip hop generation, I grew up with hip hop music and I love it, but I don’t consider myself a rapper.  I was trying to find devices to carry stories. 

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“I was active in the poetry scene for years and people asked me if I wanted to put out a product; I didn’t want to create just to create, I wanted to create something that would last for a little while.  I’ve heard poetry CDs before and I have rarely heard any that I would want to listen to in a car, so that was my standard:  I wanted something I could listen to in a car.  Having a little bit of a following now, I knew that some people were going to buy it, but I didn’t want them to buy it if it sucked; I wanted to create something that’s compelling.  It honestly took quite a while to work out the formula.”

The album is structured like a rap album with spoken and found snippets and samples connecting the tracks, However, the album uses traditional Native music, including flutes music and the drum group, Sacred Water, and even silence, as much as it depends on beats.

RELATED: Marlon Brando and Billy Frank: Gyasi Ross Pays Poetic Tribute [Video]

The overarching theme of the album is the technological and cultural mashup of modern media, the hip hop album, with the concept of the traditional Native storyteller. The idea is reflected in the cover art, a painting by Bunky Echo-Hawk which shows a group of Indians in traditional dress listening to a story teller while sitting in front of a Wal-Mart. 

“I have appreciated Bunky’s artistic voice for a long time, he has an artistic perspective that in many ways is revolutionary, but with a practical edge,” Ross said.  “In some of the songs on the album I talk about how I think there’s too much focus on protesting and not enough on creating our own structures.  Before Here was Here is about our own structures that existed before there was all this concrete, before there were all these, quote-unquote, ‘colonial’ things. What do we have that is inherently ours? That’s one of the ideas that I gave to Bunky.

“There’s stuff we complain about and that we want to protest, but some of this stuff is really in our blood, and at this point it’s hard to separate the DNA from what is truly indigenous and what we’ve both incorporated and enculturated, what we’ve claimed and made uniquely our own.  I think about the Pueblo culture where the Roman Catholic churches have a distinctly Pueblo flavor.  It’s a hybrid; it’s not just Catholic; it’s got something that is very much ours. Going back 20,000 years, we’ve always had to adapt and take on new things, and make these things a part of our culture because it improves our culture, it helps us to survive. Before Here Was Here is dedicated to the thought that this does not come from a purist viewpoint.  What are those concepts and ideas and values Before Here Was Here? And how do we make them applicable in this new environment?  And that goes back to the storytelling, and using a new means of storytelling.”

Ross is particularly excited about the album because it is getting excellent distribution, and therefore has a chance in today’s cluttered market.  “K Records, who put out Modest Mouse and Beck, gave it distribution, and as the result it is in Target, Best Buy, Amazon and iTunes, and that’s a big deal for an unabashedly, shamelessly Native project.  The important thing to me is the outlet, to show that our projects are worth investing in, and that we will support ourselves.”

Ross is planning two shows this summer with Abiodun Oyewole and the Tlingit artist, Nicholas Galanin followed by a college tour this fall.  His album is available on iTunes and can also be streamed for free on Spotify.

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