Where would Benjamin Laub be today if it wasn’t for the Wu? Around the late 1990s, the Chicago-born, Colorado-bred Laub was not the MC better known today as Grieves, but rather a kid who was seriously into punk rock. But after hearing Wu-Tang Clan’s irreproachable 1993 record Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, things began moving in a decidedly different direction.
In a field across from his junior high school in Fort Collins, Colo., Laub and his buddies would sit by a “giant-ass tree” all day after school and trade Walkmans. While Laub doesn’t recall who introduced him to Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck,” he describes its effect vividly. “I remember just being like, ‘What the fuck?’ I had never heard anything really like that,” he says, elaborating elsewhere in our conversation about what excited him about Wu-Tang. “It was hearing beats that actually provided some goosebumps factor and having word play and rhymes and crazy shit that I didn’t even really understand.”
However, just as RZA, Raekwon and other Clan personnel played a role in igniting that interest in hip-hop, Laub also owes a great debt to someone else. After freestyling for the hell of it over the years, Laub wasn’t serious about hip-hop until he started working as a grocery-store bagger following a stint in rehab. Since the day shifts were dull, he’d sometimes migrate to the warehouse area in the back of the store. There, he met Okie, a transplant from Hibbing, Minn. Laub saw his fellow employee wearing a Wu-Tang shirt, which soon led to the two bonding over rap and weed. Okie was also into rapping and very proficient at freestyling. As Laub got clean, he devoted more time to writing rhymes, tracking down instrumentals on vinyl and learning more about creating hip-hop from his new friend. “He kind of taught me how to take it seriously—not as far as the business goes or professionally, but kind of like, ‘You’re an artist. This is a craft,’” Laub says. “He taught me how to hone that craft. From there, I carried it on.”
Now 28 and based out of Seattle, the rapper resides on a totally different plane. He’s signed to the vital indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers, tours regularly (he was on Warped Tour last summer) and, in a nice full-circle turn, has even shared stages with Wu-Tang magistrate GZA. Although Laub’s handled his own production before, he has regularly used beats from and toured alongside Budo (aka Josh Karp)—the Eric B. to Laub’s Rakim—since 2008.
Starting this discussion with an invocation of Wu-Tang might lead you to figure that Laub follows in that group’s imaginatively violent, crime-committing footsteps, but he strikes a very different vein. Grieves’ raps focus on recovering from fractured states of mind—breakups, spells of addiction, disappointments—and searching for reasons to keep going. These calls to empowerment and optimism sync with the general nonaggressiveness and diversity of the beats backing him. On 2011’s Together/Apart, “Heartbreak Hotel” has a drowsy, coffeehouse keyboard going on, and “Bloody Poetry” follows a twinkling piano on a parade off the beaten path, while “Cloud Man” from 2010’s 88 Keys & Counting has an abstract, folky feel.
“Emotional storytelling” has long been Grieves’ calling card. While he does sound open to testing new waters, he’s adamant about the importance of honesty and authenticity in his work; if he raps about a scenario, it must be something he’s experienced. “Even if the whole world loved it, if I can’t believe myself, what the hell am I doing?” he says. “Maybe that’s just the way I was raised or whatever it is, but I got no time for bullshit in my life. Why would I have any time for it in my music?”
GRIEVES & BUDO
w/ Intuition, DopeThought
741 S. Kilby Court (330 West)
Thursday, Aug. 16, 7 p.m.
$13 in advance, $15 day of show