Ask yourself the question, “If I were an emcee, what would I rap about?” Your subject matter would probably cover a broad spectrum of topics that range from the mundane and trivial to the bizarre and fantastic. If you were asked to pen a rap song, you would most likely adhere to the writer’s creed ‘write what you know.’ This is where hip-hop tends to lose its broad appeal. People don’t want to listen to music they can’t identify with. Violence, anger, and disregard are not subjects that most people want to immerse themselves in. Hip-hop was not designed to alienate; it was designed to unify. That’s where Heath McNease enters.
Heath McNease is the antithesis of what you might expect when you think about hip-hop. He is so far removed from the exploits of the rap game that some may think his inclusion in hip-hop is oxymoronic. How can someone effectively write rap lyrics when their main musical influences are The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel?
The answer is by writing what he knows. Heath’s subject matter on his debut album, The Heath McNease Fanclub Meets Tonight, reflects the ebb and flow of his everyday life as an average Joe trying to stay true to himself. Here’s the truth: he recently graduated with his BFA in theatre performance, he was the ‘most valuable player’ on his high school tennis team, and one of his most popular live show songs is about his mom paying his rent while he was in college.
So how does one build a hip-hop fan base with a reputation devoid of any tales of concrete heroism? It’s plain and simple...he’s good at what he does. Heath has toured with West Coast freestyle king Red Cloud, shared the stage with underground hip-hop giants like Pigeon John, Playdough, and Mars Ill, and still kept his hip-hop accessible enough to do tours with the rock bands on his label, 7 Spin Records.
“I don’t try to specifically appeal to hip-hop cats,” Heath explains. “I feel the crowd that I appreciate the most is that fringe crowd. I just like to play for people who appreciate good music. It doesn’t have to be hip-hop because that’s not all I do. I just want people to have an open mind.”
Heath is also a guitarist and vocalist. He uses his ability to play guitar while rapping as a way to unite people with different musical tastes. He has quickly garnered a reputation for having one of the quirkiest and most insanely enjoyable live shows out there. “My whole life has been about performing,” shares Heath. “I am a trained actor, I worked extensively with my university improv troupe, and I learned the principles of crowd participation from some of the best in hip-hop. After that, I just had to take all of those things and mix them together.”
Heath mixes in elements of boom bap, dirty south, blues, jazz, reggae, rock, and even a bit of gospel music to his sound. “I’m such a fan of music. There is no way I could ever box myself in. I love that the album maintains its hip-hop integrity lyrically, but I also love that there are lots of melodies. There aren’t many emcees out there who are writers, musicians, and vocalists. I’d like to be able to make it all work together.”
Heath covers the full spectrum topically on this album. On songs like “Where I’m Not Wanted” and “Farewell My Dignity” Heath takes a humorous look inside the not so glamorous musical life he’s chosen to lead. He talks about overcoming spiritual apathy in order to grow closer to God in “If You Can” and “Swing Low.” On the closing track, “Smile On Me,” Heath speaks eloquently about Christ’s crucifixion.
Throw in the songs about everyday life such as “Nintendo Thumb” where Heath rampantly raps about his prowess as an eight-bit Nintendo guru, and the tongue in cheek observation on the ideas of willfully being a servant in “The Good Samaritan Get Down,” and you finally start to see the range and scope of what Heath is attempting to do.
With this album, Heath is attempting to bridge the gap between fans of thought provoking, intricate hip-hop, and self effacing, melodic pop coined by the great singer/songwriters of yesterday and today. That’s a large undertaking. But he’s up for the challenge.
“The most important thing to me is that I stay true to myself and to the God I serve,” states Heath. “I’m not going to preach at people, but I am not going to hide my faith either. Some of the songs speak specifically about what God has done for me. And some of the songs have no religious content at all. But I feel equally inspired by God when I’m writing a song about playing Nintendo as I do when I write about the book of Isaiah. A great man once said that, ‘God is in everything. Even the ugly things,’ and I agree with that.”