Bob Rok: Memory Lane

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Photo courtesy of Thanos Alatsidis

Emcee Bob Rok and producer DJ ALO collaborated on an album that is inspired by Rok’s youth, appropriately titled “Memory Lane.” The album vacillates between being quirky and conscious as the Chicago artist touches on topics that include society’s decline and dressing like a dog (to keep kids off drugs).

Memory Lane is an 8-track album produced entirely by ALO. The project comes to us courtesy of Good Coffee Entertainment and features appearances by Doc Wattson, KASZ, and Rok’s band, Greenlights Music.

Bob Rok spoke to The Real Hip-Hop about vendors that peddle misery, being a part of Greenlights Music, and his album, Memory Lane.

TRHH: Why’d you call the album Memory Lane?

Bob Rok: I called the album Memory Lane because I made a lot of references to the 90s throughout, and then made a lot of references to things from my childhood and things from 90s and early 2000s culture. So, the entire album kind of felt like a cathartic processing of adolescence into adulthood.

TRHH: Is that the way you planned it or did it just kind of take shape that way as you were making the music? 

Bob Rok: When ALO and I were kind of going back and forth on it I think we pretty quickly landed on Memory Lane. He actually pitched it after kind of talking about each one of the subject matters of the songs and talking about their connection to one another. He just said “Yeah, you’re talking about Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, talking about Pee-wee Herman, you’re talking about In Living Color.” Throughout that album the thing that’s tying it together is that collective memory that everybody has of a certain time — kind of right before the internet really.

TRHH: How did you and ALO decide to do a full album?

Bob Rok: At first, he just sent me like 4 beats. I just wanted to kind of see what he would send me at all. So, I’m listening to those four, one being the beat for “Summer’s Coming” and I was absolutely floored. Just catching me at a time when I knew I was going to start to sit down and harvest these thoughts that I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic, and how enough time had passed that I was ready to start reflecting on that. He’d send me those initial four, I wrote to those I think in about a week. What I loved about the four that he sent me is, the first one was Summer’s Coming, so, that kind of is one of those songs that when you listen to it has such a specific tone that the subject matter you can almost guess it.

The rest of them had this darker industrial sound to them, which was something that I personally hadn’t really worked with on anything that I put out recently. So, when I listened to that it just made me see like neon signs everywhere. It was just something about that sound — it was very dark, but in front, and very commanding, and just kind of deserved what I felt was a new delivery, a new way of writing, and a new way of thinking about things that I hadn’t done in previous projects.

TRHH: You mentioned “Summer’s Coming” and on that song you say “this is stoner music for the shit that makes you mad.” Explain what you mean by that.

Bob Rok: I felt like we’ve been in a period where a lot of stuff is pointed away from working class people and music that it is asking you to challenge the status quo a bit. And also, just to be more critical as thinkers and as consumers of art and consumers in general because that’s what we are. We’re consuming things all the time and I think we’re sort of in an age right now where we’re passively consuming a lot of things and we’re not thinking too much about what’s going in. So, I think a huge part of that saying that “this is stoner music for the shit that makes you mad” is kind of like when something angers you you’re looking for a song that evokes that fight inside of you that you want to have.

Because you don’t want to fight something that angers you apathetically, you wanna be charged up, you wanna be dancing and rooting to what your cause is. You want to be enthusiastic and motivated. So, it’s kind of that. The entire album was that. Here’s some music that is actually really artistic, and here’s some thoughts that you should have — things that I think about all the time and I think are worthy of entering the public domain and being considered.

TRHH: How is doing a solo project different from doing a Greenlights Music album?

Bob Rok: A lot more cohesion and control in terms of themes and subject matter. I feel a lot more control in certain artistic choices that I’m making in the studio, and definitely ALO’s fingerprint on his signature composition, how he arranges stuff. I think part of this was like working with him I felt a very interesting partnership there where I was kind of like, “Oh, this actually sounds like we’ve been working together for a really long time,” even though this is the first thing that we’ve done.

I have a similar feeling with Greenlights when we work on stuff, but I know that when RP is doing his thing I’m a bit more passive and my goal is what can my contribution be to make this vision that he has come to light? What does this song need versus when I do something solo I have kind of a very specific vision and layout that I’m thinking about that I want to talk about in each thing. And I have a very specific idea of how that should be executed for the audience. How are they gonna consume it, and how are they gonna feel when they’re listening to this album?

TRHH: You have a line on the song “Calling Zandar” where you say “these vendors peddle misery with logos and a model.” Who are these vendors and what misery are they peddling?

Bob Rok: I would say it’s kind of more touching on the culture of every single one of us turning into businesses. I think that is a viable hobby right now for people to turn themselves into businesses, to turn their free time into peddling some sort of service, or some sort of consulting of some sort, or some sort of a snake oil. What I find is that it’s actually our misery that we have, in that we’re very anxious right now, our democracy is very shaky right now, our economy is very troubled right now, everyone’s very nervous. And part of that I think is seeing that phenomenon of everybody coming up with their own logo, everybody being their own brand, and not really asking what am I selling, but why am I selling this, why am I doing this, why do I want to do this, is this really how I want to spend my time?

So, it’s kind of just me saying we’re living in an age where everything has been decentralized and there are no more artists, store owners, or even homeowners. It’s all this homogenized process that’s being sold at all hours of the day, like turning the entire world into Las Vegas. Everybody’s a logo now, everybody’s a brand, your name is your brand, the things you say, and the things that you do, and the things that you think are your business. And it’s that marketplace of the internet that has made that thing a reality. So, it’s kind of talking about our collective misery as human beings turning ourselves into stores, turning ourselves into businesses, instead of seeking spiritual meaning, educating ourselves, being more critical of the things that we’re being presented with all the time.

I was also thinking a lot about the vinyl chloride train wreck from BNSF – actually, they just had another train wreck on the anniversary of when it happened. They didn’t have vinyl chloride in the trains this time, but it happened a year to the date with less harmful chemicals. As somebody who works in the EHS –Environmental Health and Safety, as a country we don’t police corporations very much. A lot of the time they kind of buy their way out of situations that we have to pay for with resources, land, the things that I think are way more important than getting vinyl chloride from point A to point B, and not regulating these people the way that we’re over-policed in our same pursuit of like going to walk down the street from your home any millions of things could happen and you could be criminalized in the drop of a hat.

TRHH: I think the train crash and vendors are both results of capitalism.

Bob Rok: Absolutely.

TRHH: They’re connected. You’re right, America values business. Business over people and always has been that way. The peddlers are kind of like a microcosm, they’re kind of like smaller versions, they aspire to be like the corporations. To me it’s the same thing.

Bob Rok: Yeah sort of the aspiration, but then like the Chicago Fire that happened, a lot of those guys actually fed some stories into the media to blame Mrs. O’Leary and her cow because they didn’t like her because she wanted them to be regulated and they built these factories, this is pre-OSHA, right next to each other when they shouldn’t have been next to each other. Because maybe one was producing or manufacturing things that were very flammable, while the next factory over was producing something that was very dry or producing a chemical that if it came into contact with fire it would spread it very easily. Basically, the reason that factories and corporations should be regulated is because you’re absolutely right, they have none of these concerns in mind.

The Chicago Fire spread so long and was so hard to fight because these factories, which were right next to each other, were not following any kind of safety protocol and it was an absolute disaster. Every single time that we’ve let corporation’s police themselves they’re going to take it easy on themselves [laughs]. And that might be corporations, that might just be human nature, but it’s horrifying. When I was a kid being a sellout meant something. It was lame to sell out and now like I said, it’s like everybody’s transformed into these mini slimy businessmen and kids aspiring to be billionaires, and they just have absolutely no reason why. The overall theme of Zandar is I feel that we’re in the middle of a profound spiritual crisis, not just here, just all around the world and in humankind. Also, we’re so far beyond selling out that like making genuine art or trying to challenge the audience to think about something in a different way, it’s secondary. I mean, we’re a couple of seconds away from all of this being produced by robots.

TRHH: You and Greenlights Music have a show in the Chicago area on May 3 at Robert’s Westside with E-Turn and Homeboy Sandman. What do you have in-store for fans that come and check out the show?

Bob Rok: Man, so, first I’m about to finish a project with Greenlights called “The Automat” which is actually a concept album about working that we’ve been recording all winter, that I’ve been writing, and we’ve perfected it. So, that’s about to come out and by May I’m going to be performing stuff off of that. I’m really excited for people to hear that project and I’ve been working really hard on it for like the last year and a half and I’m really happy with how it’s coming together. But also, it’s been crazy to bring Homeboy Sandman to Chicago because he’s like the type of dude that makes it worthwhile to continue trying, and to continue challenging yourself, and to get better, not because you’re expecting a specific outcome, but because the craft is worth respecting and as an artist you’re kind of worth respecting yourself and challenging yourself.

So, the fact that we’re going to be able to share that bill with him and E-Turn is really exciting. He hasn’t been to Chicago in a couple of years, but then also the last time we played at Robert’s Westside with Greenlights that was really, really crazy and fun, and the audience went nuts. That was genuinely one of the best times that I’ve had at a live show in a while. So, I’m really excited to go back there immediately. There’s something really charming about Forest Park — something that feels a little bit untouched. I find that in Forest Park and like the far south side of Chicago where the condos haven’t all been replaced with these robotic looking structures that look very similar to one another, and the neighborhoods, you can’t see them as much.

You still can, like we were in Bridgeport the other day and I was just walking through Bridgeport and kind of missing what those bungalows look like in the rows and what neighborhoods look like with storefronts that have a little chipped paint instead of like the same Jeni’s Frozen Ice Cream, and a Target Express, and the same four Ross Dress for Less and a Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s just like everywhere. So, I’m glad there’s still places like Forest Park and venues like Robert’s Westside where it looks like a real place, and there’s people that are actually there and they come. I’m really looking forward to it — I’m going to have plenty of new songs, we’re gonna have Homeboy Sandman there, and then of course Greenlights, they’re gonna rock it. Full band — love playing with those guys so much.

TRHH: Who is the Memory Lane album made for?

Bob Rok: Definitely for people seeking that sound that I think is really unique. And by sound, I mean kind of the tones of each individual song and then how they fit together. And then also on this one specifically, I felt like I was trying to reach out to people who were about my age and a little bit older who would understand what the hell I was talking about. You have to be of a certain age to know who Parker Lewis is [laughs]. That’s a deep one, and even Zandar, which is basically like a glorified 8 ball which was like a board game in the 90s. And the significance of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, like how coveted that specific cereal was, and how rare it was. I guess I’d call it latchkey kid culture. The kids that were growing up are watching The Box and watching Saturday Night Live on Saturdays and just trying to learn how to skateboard and failing miserably [laughs]. The now somewhat successful burnouts is how I would call it — who kind of wear that title with a bit of pride now.

Purchase Bob Rok x ALO – Memory Lane

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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