Sometimes, seeing a local act perform without having any expectations beforehand pays off. On very rare occasions, you’re left reeling, struck by a sense of revelation — the feeling that you’re witnessing fresh uncharted talent that could blow up and out of the scene at any moment.
That’s how I felt when I discovered The Real Clash. I’d stopped to hear them out of curiosity: Just how good could a hip-hop ensemble from St. Petersburg College actually be?
I was captivated within the first few minutes.
The instrumentalists were focused and locked in tight. They knew how to step back and let things breathe while the two verse-trading emcees and sultry-voiced vocalist took the spotlight, and when to step in and turn the mix and energy up. The nine-piece held it down like pros in a way that seemed effortless, demonstrating the sort of easy chemistry and dynamic stage presence that some veteran bands still have trouble achieving, and brimmed with an infectious exuberance and upbeat vigor that filled the room.
I had to find out more.
The Real Clash grew out of SPC’s two-year Music Industry Recording Arts (MIRA) program, which is dedicated to delivering real-world training to its students, all within a collaborative environment.
Lead instructor and department administrator Mark Matthews designed the program from scratch more than six years ago, drawing from a wellspring of experience writing music for film and TV in LA. He’s made a point of only hiring educators with professional credibility.
“Not to put academics down, because they can teach you how to play and how to be a good musician, but it’s hard for somebody who’s never been out there to teach you how to make a living as a musician,” Matthews asserts.
MIRA students gain relevant skills and insight generally missing from bigger pricier schools like Full Sail, not to mention free access to three versatile state-of-the-art audio production suites/classrooms.
“These students need to know what they’re up against when they get out there. And every single person we have on staff has ‘made a noise for money.’”
MIRA courses are organized so that students from all three “specialty tracks” (performance, composition and production) are required to work with students in contrasting tracks, using what they’ve learned about technology and recording to collaborate on live campus showcases and MIRA compilation CDs issued at each semester’s end. Students learn how to manage projects in both live and studio settings, how to seek out the right people to get desired results (which means enlisting help from artists outside their specialty), and how to be successful when working with people they may not know or like.
“Once you get to Tech 4, the last semester of the program, you’ve worked with, if not everyone there, then alongside them, and you’ve grown and evolved together,” explains The Real Clash’s frontman/lyricist Rashad “Shadcore” Harrell. This means that most of the Real Clash members had already established working relationships before they were approached to join the ensemble co-founded by Rashad and fellow MIRA producer/lyricist Jay “Jay Acolyte” Wilson.
The twosome originally planned to follow the school’s already-existing model for rock and jazz ensembles: establish the curriculum for hip-hop, then pass the torch to a new group after a semester. But they wanted to write their own material. “That’s what made us different from the jump,” says Rashad. “All the other ensembles do covers; we wanted to do original compositions.”
They also wanted to enlist real instrumentalists. “I always felt like there was something more that could happen from having a live band behind you. The energy is just different,” Jay stresses, and Rashad agrees. “It’s just more electrifying with those live acoustic sounds coming from behind your ears. And there’s so much more you can do on the fly.”
They didn’t want just anybody to sign up, however, so they brainstormed a wish list of potential candidates and began reaching out. Everyone they contacted came on board, and the lineup has remained almost the same to this day, with the exception of recently added keyboardist Jordan Walker.
Months later, they’d written, played and recorded some first-rate material, delivered buzz-worthy performances around the SPC campus, and were trying to figure out what to do once the semester was done and credit earned. Their creativity was still flowing, chemistry swiftly growing, everyone was having a good time, so why quit?
“You will be doing yourself a disservice if you cut it off after this semester is over,” Rashad remembers Matthews saying after he saw the ensemble perform at a campus event. “You should take it outside of these four walls.” Matthews’ encouragement solidified the band’s decision to make The Real Clash a full-fledged (off-campus) group.
“The Real Clash are representative of our goal — to teach the kids how to band together,” Matthews explains. “What I really love about it, and the payoff for me, is that they did it themselves. We provided the forum, we provided the room for them to rehearse, and we provide a mentor, in their case [SPC instructor and La Lucha bassist] Alejandro Areñas. But they wrote all their own material, they worked at it, perfected it, and brought it out to the public, and the public likes it. What’s more perfect than that?”
A few members of The Real Clash are still enrolled in the MIRA program, others have graduated and juggle full-time jobs, internships, other bands, solo careers, family. But as Rashad puts it, “Everyone makes the time for this because we all really enjoy playing together. There’s no egos, nobody stepping on each others’ toes … we realize there’s enough room for everyone to get their shine. And when that happens, the whole group shines.
“One thing we couldn’t predict was how the chemistry was going to flow. We all knew each other’s work just from being in the program. But you don’t know until you get together and see, if it’s going to work,” says Rashad, “But it works so good, it gels so good.”
The name, originally The Real Clash of the Titans (for the SPC mascot), mostly represents a clash of styles. “But not in a bad way, or in a way that doesn’t work; it’s going against what you might expect,” Rashad says. This includes diving into other genres — funk, reggae, Latin, rock, R&B — to get to the Real Clash’s eclectic sound. “Jay came up with a tagline we’ve adopted. ‘This is hip-hop redefined.’ That’s how I approach composing something new and whenever we talk about the live performance, I think, how can we redefine the status quo?”
This includes tearing down stereotypes about what, exactly, hip-hop is. Rashad isn’t trying to work a message into every song, but he recognizes the power his words can have and uses them as wisely as possible. “Just being the way I was raised, I’m gonna try to say something substantial, something that could enrich your life, enrich your thinking, make you a better person or make you want to pay it forward or say something nice or encouraging to the next person. As a lyricist, I’m going to try to say that as creatively as possible. I hate it when you can predict what an artist is gonna rhyme.”
Lyrics are thought-provoking and intelligent but not always serious; trademark set-closing track “Effigy” comments on hip-hop clichés, posturing, and staying true to yourself no matter what your background. The chorus — “This what hip-hop looks like, thought it was all thugged out like Suge Knight? All I need is a beat and a good mic, putting stereotypes to bed like, ‘Good Night!’” — seems to sum it up perfectly. “It’s definitely about trying to make people think something different,” Jay says.
The group is diverse in background and age (from 21-year-old guitarist Andrew Roden to 44-year-old drummer Mark Vance), but that diversity — and their easygoing camaraderie — helps them complement each other’s strengths. Rashad takes command of the crowd as soon as he steps to the stage, all bluster and punchlines, while Jay brings the more deliberate flowing, laid-back creeper attack. Eliana Blanchard is the soaring vocal anchor and hype gal in their midst, not to mention an eye-catching stunner with flowing hair and a 100-watt smile. Jordan adds sonic layering, texturing and grooves, while Mark trades off drumming and percussive duties with Travis Young, also a beat-boxing whiz. Bassist Taylor Gilchrist covers the low-end frequencies, DJ Rollin Covell complements the rhythm section with digi turntable scratches, sound effects, and audio samples, and Roden adds rocking guitar riffs and searing solos.
The band is currently a dozen tracks deep on a debut album for 2014, but haven’t set a concrete release date yet. They have a title, however: Clash Wednesday. “That’s the day that we practice; we get together on Wednesdays and make the magic happen,” Rashad explains.
The Real Clash has played several off-campus gigs since their first this past April. While the biggest one so far — opening for Method Mad and Redman at Cuban Club last month — wasn’t quite what any of them expected (the set was cut short and they were only able to play three songs), they all seemed to take something from the experience. Plus, they were exposed to a new appreciative audience and got to unleash a brand new track, “The Kraken,” that got everyone’s attention.
“Looking back at the video, I see us performing and lights flashing.” Rashad says optimistically. “Everyone was trying to get a shot of us. I just thought that was pretty cool.”