When he first emerged as a solo artist in 2002 with his double-disc debut The Headphone Masterpiece, fans were enamored with Cody ChesnuTT's lo-fi sound and sweet, eccentric honesty. The album he'd humbly recorded on a four-track cassette recorder in his makeshift bedroom studio was a menagerie of brash, cocky and romantic characters in his psyche that he duct taped together and spray painted with shades of sweet soul, rock, and minimalist hip-hop beats.
Fast forward a decade later and we find the Atlanta-born artist living in Florida, a family man whose attention is divided between raising two kids and finishing up Landing On 100, his first full-length album in 10 years. In his time out of the limelight, ChesnuTT continued to toss out some new music every now and then (see the 2010 EP Black Skin, No Value). And his simple, scathing song about the Trayvon Martin case, titled "Zimmerman 2012," managed to grab some press. Though the new record is a long time coming, ChesnuTT says his life and times in the music industry (including a brief stint working for Death Row Records in the 90s!) remind him that its always best to let good art grow naturally. ChesnuTT makes an L.A. appearance this weekend at the Echoplex alongside Brooklyn soul troupe Lee Fields & The Expressions.
OC Weekly: The title of your album is "Landing on 100," which is a phrase that means you're being 100 percent truthful. What are some topics where you decided to keep it real on this album?
Cody ChesnuTT: I'm keeping it real about the things that really matter to me; my immediate surroundings and things that truly affect the human condition. Because all the records that really moved me, a lot of those artists sang about the human condition. I just wanted people to get a sense of the everyday walk of a man in life.
From the time you released the hit song "The Seed 2.0" with the Roots in 2002 until now, what are some things that really inspired the most change in your music while you were out of the limelight?
I gave myself enough time to really start studying scriptures and historical writings during that time when I really wanted to do some soul searching. I realized that I really opened myself up in many ways for The Headphone Masterpiece and I tried so many different things to see how much of an impact these words have on people and a lot about how people perceived me. I realized at some point that the stuff on I wrote on that record wasn't stuff I wanted to sing night after night for the rest of my life so I opened myself up for growth. I developed my train of thought, my vocabulary and all that in order to mature. Then I had children which was a cleansing process that allowed me to have a transformation and transition. It allowed me to see things a little clearer and get a different take on life and the responsibility that comes with words.
Talk about the song "Zimmerman 2012" that you released earlier this year that got some media attention for so bluntly indicting Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman. What inspired you to write a song that takes such a confrontational stance?
The issue is something that I think people are tired of. And it's very serious situation that's deeply rooted in the black community, So I think that just in general, it's best to tackle the subject head on. We've had so much sweetener and candy-coated content that people just want it straight, no chaser. And I wanted to be very confrontational because I was singing to a man who's trying to fool into believing he wasn't seeking this guy out to kill him. And I imagine what that much be like as a family member of his that got that phone call. Hopefully if he did hear it, it will cause him to convict his soul and his spirit.
In the '90s I understand that you came out to L.A. from Atlanta to do some songwriting and ended up working for Death Row Records. How did that happen?
At that point, for me being an artist was always my main focal point. But the career as a song writer for Death Row actually happened by accident. It started with me doing a couple tracks for a guy named Travis Payne, who was a choreographer for Michael Jackson, believe it or not. He was close with my cousin who was in the record industry. My cousin told [Payne] that I was a songwriter and he had me fly out to L.A. out to L.A. to work on some song ideas with him for a couple weeks. Then a couple weeks turned into a month and during that time my other cousin, who was in this BoyzIIMen-style singing group [Sixx Feet Under] and they somehow landed on Death Row Records. So they told Suge Knight that they wanted me to do some writing for them. Suge agreed to bring me out and I write about seven tracks with the group that never got released.
But Suge really liked what I did so he pitched a project for a tribute album after Tupac after he was killed and also wanted to put out the Gridlock soundtrack, the last movie he made before he was killed. So I worked on that for a little while. The tribute album never happened but they did wind up putting one of the songs I worked on as part of the Gridlock soundtrack, the last song on that album. That was the extent of my writing for other people.
And you were also in another band prior to your solo career, right?
Yeah, the songwriting then led me to form the band The Crosswalk because the guy who was engineering the sessions for me when I was writing for Death Row, he knew that I was looking for band members and he knew a guys that played bass and drums. And then that band became a thing that played up until about 1999 when Hollywood Records, our record label, dropped us. After that, I started focused on writing a lot of music in my bedroom and that eventually turned into The Headphone Masterpiece.
Did you ever play much in Orange County in those early years?
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The Crosswalk played there twice. We played at one point with a band called Backyard Elvis at the Commonwealth Lounge in Fullerton. I remember the sound guy was really pissed at me for creating feedback because I was putting the microphone next to the monitors to make this weird effect. But that's the only thing I remember about playing in Orange County.
You've described your 2010 EP Black Skin No Value as a wake-up call to the current generation about the value of human dignity. Is Landing on 100 a continuation of that message?
Yeah, it's definitely a continuation. Because anyone who's been listening to music coming out in the last 10-15 years, can see that there's been a crazy decline in the subject matter and content not only in music but in media across the board. So I just wanted to speak about a lot of those things. We're in some very serious times right now so we have to get through them and it's hard to do if you don't have the proper soundtrack. To me, music drives everything. So I just hope to add to a soundtrack that will stir the consciousness of the 21st Century.
Cody ChesnuTT performs with Lee Fields & the Expressions and Naytronix at the Echoplex,1154 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles. 8p.m., $30. 21+.