On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
It’s hard to stop your foot from tapping or head from bobbing when you listen to songs from 10issues, an ensemble of University of Maryland students and recent grads. As Kojo himself said, “I’ve got 99 problems, but 10issues is not one.”
With three singers, a rapper, two horns, guitar, bass, keys and drums, 10issues blends hip-hop, jazz and R&B with a contagious, youthful energy — think Anderson .Paak or Acid Rap-era Chance the Rapper performing with The Social Experiment. The rhythm section is tight, the wandering horns hit jazzy grooves and the vocalists wind their harmonies around rapper Alex Asifo’s verses.
Despite being college musicians, most members of 10issues aren’t music majors, and the group is constantly scrounging for rehearsal space where they can all squeeze in. So, when friends and fans suggested they submit to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest, they were well prepared for tight spaces. As keyboardist Tim Baker said, “This is already our bread and butter, so why not just put it on tape?”
Kojo sits down with three members of 10issues to talk about gigging in the region and the DMV music that’s influenced their own. And we’ll hear the band perform some songs, including their submission to the Tiny Desk Contest, “Dove Tattoo.”
Produced by Mark Gunnery and Cydney Grannan
- 10issues A Maryland music collective; @10issues_
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Every year, our friends at NPR Music organize a contest inviting musicians from around the country to enter for a chance to play at Tiny Desk concert and to go on tour with NPR and contest sponsor Blue Microphones. These are intimate video performances recorded live at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen in DC. To enter, musicians shoot videos of themselves around their own tiny desks and share them with NPR. The contest winners will be announced next week, but before then, we're meeting some of the local musicians who submitted songs to the Tiny Desk concert.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're meeting the Maryland Band 10issues. I'm speaking with Alex Asifo. Hi, Alex.
ALEX ASIFOHi. How are you?
NNAMDIJoshua Smalley. Hi, Joshua.
JOSHUA SMALLEYHow you doing?
NNAMDIAnd Tim Baker. Hi, Tim.
TIM BAKERHey. How's it going?
NNAMDIThey're all members of the band, 10issues. It's a musical collective from Prince Georges County, as part of our listen to local bands who entered NPR's Music Tiny Desk concert. Alex, I'll start with you. 10issues is relatively new, and has only been around, oh, since February of last year. How did you start playing together?
ASIFOWell, Kweku came to -- Kweku Aggrey, he's kind of like the band director, he kind of like came to me, and he was, like, hey, I want to start a band and call it The Collective. And I was like, really? And then he was, like, yeah. I want to come together, I want to start a band with all the best players from around UMD. And then I kind of looked at him, like, I don't believe you. But, lo and behold, he brought, like, a whole bunch of talented musicians from around campus.
ASIFOAnd what's amazing about that is that I've known all of these people before we even formed together. We just never, you know, conceptualized the idea of actually all just, like, forming a band and playing together. So...
NNAMDITim, how'd you get involved?
BAKERYeah, similar story. I was making beats with a friend, and Kweku came through, and he heard some of my stuff. And he asked me if I would want to sit in for a few rehearsals. And I said, yeah, yeah. I'd love to. It's funny, actually to what Alex was saying, we've all been making music together for a long time. Like I've made music with Alex now for like...
ASIFOSince high school.
BAKER...yeah, since high school, like, five or six years now. So, it's coming full circle, I guess.
NNAMDIWhere'd they find you, Joshua? (laugh)
SMALLEY(laugh) So, it's actually kind of a funny story. I was in the Nyumburu jazz band at the time. We were actually in rehearsal, and Kweku just happened to walk in the room and hear me on the drums. And then the bass player was there, and his name is Darrin. Well, he's no long -- he moved, but he asked Darrin if he could play. And he got on the bass and started playing, ripping and playing jazz. I think we were playing, like, Miles Davis or something. He was ripping it.
SMALLEYAnd then after that, he was, like, yo, I'm trying to start a band around campus with a lot of the, you know, top musicians and artists. Would you mind joining? And I said, yeah, bro, that's fine. You want to come back to Nyumburu Jazz Club next Wednesday? He didn't come back to the jazz club, but we ended up, you know, forming a collective at the time we were called.
NNAMDIYeah, but you started out forming a band.
SMALLEYYeah, we did.
NNAMDIWhy did it become a collective, and what's the difference between a collective and a band?
SMALLEYI guess, so, for the collective, it's more of a space where we can all bounce ideas off one another and really just play music and jam and vibe versus a band, where it's kind of, I guess, more structured. I mean, of course we had to come up with a name for our collective, but, yeah, we just -- I guess a collective, you just bounce ideas off one another, you know. And we just jam and rock out.
NNAMDISpeaking of a collective and a name, Alex, why 10issues?
ASIFOIt was kind of like very much a coincidence. I think Josh has the answer for that. He kind of coined it. I was taking a nap, and the whole group message thing was going on. I wake up, we're 10issues. I'm, like, the tennis shoes? You probably can talk about that better than I can. (laugh)
NNAMDICome on, Joshua. (laugh)
SMALLEYSo, yeah, we were trying to come up with a band name, and I thought it'd be funny to call it, you know, tennis shoes, like the tennis shoes on your feet. Because, you know, I thought it was very marketable. I thought it was a very marketable idea. And then, you know, the collective thought otherwise. They said, you know what? How about we just 10issues, like, you know, 10 issues, problems? So, I'm like, I mean, it's cool. I still would rather it be tennis shoes, like the shoe, but... (laugh)
ASIFOWere there 10 of us at the time?
SMALLEYNo. There wasn't 10 of us at the time.
ASIFOIt's funny, because we have 10 members now, but at the time, we only had nine members. But we spelled it with a one and a zero to be, like, artsy. Now it has another level of meaning.
NNAMDIWell, I've got 99 problems, but 10issues is not one of them. (laugh) How would you, Tim, categorize 10issues' sound?
BAKERI think it's a whole lot of things. I'd say a little bit of hip-hop, R&B, maybe some jazz sounds. We were looking to kind of blend a lot of genres, do something that's kind of outside the box.
NNAMDIDo all of you come from working with different kinds of genres? Are any of you music students at all?
BAKERNo. But I think that's kind of, like, the great thing about us, is that, you know, we come from very different backgrounds, and we kind of honed our crafts individually. So, like, when we all do come together, I guess it's kind of like that collective aspect, where we just bring all of our, like, skills together, bring all of our ideas together. And we just come together like Voltron and just, (laugh) you know, kind of just like form, you know, the sound that we have, and kind of like whatever sound that we, like, perform at that time.
NNAMDIYou're all either current University of Maryland students or recent graduates. What kind of musical opportunities are there at the University of Maryland, both in terms of music educations and just opportunities to play with other musicians, especially if you're not a music major, Joshua?
SMALLEYSo, it's quite funny, actually. I didn't really -- I'm going to keep it all the way honest with you. I didn't really have -- because I wasn't a music student. And when you're not a music student at University of Maryland, it's very hard to find musical outlets and, you know, resources. Like, if you're not a music major, you can't really use any of their equipment, really. And I'm a drum player, so how I got involved with music was I just was walking around campus singing all the time, singing super loud. And then somebody was, like, you, you need to perform for Juke Joint. Juke Joint is like, you know, a monthly, I think, talent show that and the Nyumburu Cultural Center has.
SMALLEYSo, I just started performing at Juke Joint, singing, and I found a piano player, and we started performing. And that's really how I got in the music scene at University of Maryland and in the Nyumburu Jazz Club. Those were, like, the two main outlets for me for music at the University of Maryland.
NNAMDIWhat did it for you, Tim?
BAKERI was a part of, like, the production scene. So, a lot of, like, the mixing and mastering engineering scene. So, I made a lot of beats. I'm primarily a producer. I only play piano on the side. I'm not any kind of virtuoso. But I got into the scene through mostly that, and Alex introduced me to a lot of people in that sphere, too. And then, you know, there's just enough, like, interconnecting nodes that, like, you eventually run into somebody like Kweku, who's trying to put together something like this.
NNAMDIAlex, you're not a music major, either.
ASIFONot at all. Not at all.
NNAMDIHow'd you run into all these music people?
ASIFOKind of just being any and everywhere. So, I would also go to the Juke Joint, and I'd perform there, as well. And that's where I would see Asia -- I would see Josh there. I would see Josh just singing around campus, and I'm, like, hey, I know that guy. I've known Tim since high school, but for me, I kind of just felt like I had to go into DC and also find opportunities, as well. Because it does get kind of limited on campus. So, you kind of got to dig and find people.
NNAMDII think I heard or read someplace that, at some point, you guys used to practice in the Clarice Smith Center. Is that correct?
ASIFOYeah, we got kicked out. (laugh)
NNAMDII was about to ask, how'd you first get in in the first place, since none of you are music majors? And why'd you get kicked out?
ASIFOSo, we kind of just -- we're just, like, hey, we're just going to find this classroom in here, and then we're just going to start practicing, you know, just so we can start rehearsing for our performances. But then people would come by, like, hey, you're too loud. You know, you guys can't play here. You guys haven't reserved this. You guys aren't music students. So, they kind of just sent an email to, like, everybody else in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and said, don't let these people play in our classrooms.
NNAMDIBefore they sent those emails, you should know, I used to be the voice of God at the Clarice Smith Center, the one who told people to shut off their cell phones, etcetera before performances. And, in those days, I would've simply said, keep 10issues here, and you'd have still been playing there.
NNAMDIThat was the kind of power I had there, he lied, cleverly. (laugh) How many of the band members consider themselves locals?
SMALLEYI definitely -- (all talking at once) I'm definitely from the area.
NNAMDIJust about everybody's from this area?
SMALLEYOh, yeah. Kweku's from Philly. Chris is from Jersey.
ASIFOYeah, Chris (unintelligible), the guitar player, he's from New Jersey.
NNAMDIFor people who went to Midland High School locally, Alex, did you have music education in high school?
ASIFOI did not. So, I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I didn't have any musical education. I kind of just, you know -- we just learned just by listening to music and just practicing and performing by myself.
SMALLEYYou play clarinet.
ASIFOThat was in middle school, man. I haven't touched that in years. I haven't touched a clarinet in years, but, you know, I might have to bring it out for a performance on Friday.
NNAMDIAnybody else have music education in high school?
SMALLEYI was in the band, yeah.
NNAMDIYou were in the band in high school. What instrument did you play?
SMALLEYI played percussion, yeah.
NNAMDIYou played percussion?
SMALLEYYeah, and drums.
NNAMDIYou know, I'm beginning to wonder now, do high schools bands have, like, beats these days, (laugh) somebody who specializes in making beats?
ASIFORight. They should.
SMALLEYNo. Back then, I was still playing the acoustic drums.
NNAMDIThey should. What do you think of the local music scene in the Washington region, both as a listener, and as a musician, Joshua?
SMALLEYI find it quite fascinating, honestly. I'm a huge go-go lover. So, I mean, I could listen to go-go music, like, every day. So, I think I might listen to go-go every day, so that's like a huge DC genre...
NNAMDI(overlapping) We'll try to get you an apartment at the corner of Florida Avenue and 7th Street Northwest. (laugh)
SMALLEYI know, right, I should. But I love the DC music scene. It's a mixed variety. You know, you have -- I know DC -- you go downtown and DC is a lot of jazz clubs. You have the jazz scene down there. You know, I know a lot of -- go-go's been catching a lot of flak as of recently, but you still have the go-go scene, and I don't think it's going anywhere. You know, you have, you know, hip-hop, you know, (unintelligible) all of them. So, I mean, this is pretty diverse. It's pretty diverse.
NNAMDIWhat do you think of the local music scene, Tim?
BAKERI think it's really exciting. I think that we're seeing -- my personal favorite genre of music, like kind of the selection new wave, R&B scene. Like, that's really starting to develop in the DC area. And I feel like when I was younger, listening to music, a lot of who I was listening to was from, like, New York or L.A., or just like not around, like, the DMV. But some of my favorite artists now are from the DMV, and it's great, you know.
NNAMDIHow about you, Alex?
ASIFOYeah, I think that, you know, there's such an eclectic, you know, taste of music that's in the DMV, and that's coming out of the DMV, as well, DC, Maryland, Virginia area. But it definitely just used to be, you know, go-go, go-go, go-go. And that will forever be, you know, the sound of DC. No matter, you know, what happens, that is the sound of DC. But what you're starting to see is just kind of like what Tim said, like the selection kind of, you know, R&B future balance of, like, hip-hop kind of style. So you hear, like, a lot of diverse, you know, sounds, whether it's some GoldLink or Shy Glizzy or (unintelligible), Masego, Rico Nasty. So, there's a lot to listen to.
NNAMDIPunk scene used to be fairly big in DC. Does that influence the music scene here these days at all?
ASIFOAt the Black Cat. (laugh)
SMALLEYI'm not a big punk guy.
NNAMDIWhat are some of your favorite venues in the region, both where you like to hear live music, and where you like to perform? Tim, I'll start with you.
BAKERI like this place called Songbird. It's in -- is it in U Street or Adams Morgan?
BAKERIt's in Adams Morgan.
NNAMDIWere you sober when you were there last? (laugh) You seemed to have forgotten the location. (laugh)
NNAMDIIt's in Adams Morgan?
BAKERI was, yeah. No, but it's a great venue. It's a smaller place. It's a record store up top, and then a concert venue down below.
BAKERAnd I went to go see this rapper Saba there, and it was just like a really cool kind of, like, intimate vibe. I liked it a lot.
NNAMDIWhat's your spot, Joshua?
SMALLEYMy spot to listen to my music. (laugh)
NNAMDIIt sounds like Joshua has more than one spot. Favorite spots that you have.
SMALLEY(laugh) Songbird might be among one of my favorites, as well.
NNAMDIReally? How about performing spaces? Have you performed at spaces in DC, and where do you like performing?
SMALLEYHonestly, I haven't performed in DC.
SMALLEYYeah, I haven't performed in DC.
NNAMDIIf you had the opportunity, what would be the spot...
SMALLEYIf I had the opportunity, the spot...
NNAMDI...that you would like to appear in?
SMALLEYProbably one of the jazz clubs. Probably one of the jazz clubs. Any one. It doesn't matter. I just want to get in one.
NNAMDIAlex, what's your favorite venues in this region? It doesn't have to be in DC. Anyplace in the region.
ASIFORight. I'd definitely say Tropicalia. It's on U Street. It's a very intimate venue. I performed there once. The 9:30 Club. You went to go and see a concert there before, Tim and I. Amazing concert.
BAKERDid we see that?
ASIFOWe saw Masego. (unintelligible) Wait, where were we? Oh we were at U Street (all talking at once) that, too.
BAKERThat was a crazy concert.
ASIFO5:30, 10:30, 11:00, (laugh) but also Milkboy Arthouse, which opened up right next to University of Maryland. And they've given a whole bunch of opportunities to local acts, so, (unintelligible) yeah, Milkboy Arthouse, we performed there. I performed there. Comedy shows, because I came from a very, like, do-it-yourself scene in DC, and we were performing at churches and, you know, apartments.
NNAMDIWell, many of you are gigging jazz musicians in this group. How easy is it to get to play professionally in this area, Joshua?
SMALLEYI mean, it honestly depends -- I mean, so I feel like it depends on who you know, because it can be very difficult. But if you know the right people in the right places, I feel like it's just about opportunity and who you know and being prepared for the moment to gig, you know, when you get your name called.
NNAMDIWhat's the hardest thing about playing music in this region? If Joshua says to get to play professionally depends on who you know, is the hardest thing about playing music in this region if you don't know enough people?
ASIFOI think the hardest thing about playing in this area is definitely people are trying to take advantage of you, just because if you're not, you know, an artist that has, like, a lot of clout and a lot of, like, influence in the area, venues and, you know, promoters would definitely be like, hey, we're not going to pay you for what you're doing, but we'll give you five minutes just so you can get exposure. Or, you know, say like, hey, if you pay $50 or $75, you can play at this venue, that three people will show up. It's like, no, we do that from the house. You know what I mean?
ASIFOSo, definitely people trying to take advantage of you, whether it's on campus or it's in DC. So, you kind of just have to be careful.
NNAMDITim, you called it pay to play, huh?
NNAMDIThat's what happens in this region.
BAKERI've seen that a little bit. I used to play some show up in Baltimore, back with another band I was playing with in high school. And you have to watch out, because sometimes they'll try to, like, make you sell tickets. And, like, if you can't sell tickets, like you're -- I mean, you shouldn't be put in a situation where you have to, like, financially compensated somebody else or, like, do the sales for them, you know. So, that's how I feel about it.
NNAMDIThe video recorded was "Dove Tattoo" for NPR's Tiny Desk concert. Tell us about that song. How'd it come about, Joshua?
SMALLEYSo, (clears throat) I think Alex had the song. It was his song, and it was almost, I guess, like, a throw-away song. And Kweku, he really had the vision for it. Like, he heard "Dove Tattoo," I don't know. Like, Alex threw in the group. I think he might've let Kweku listen to it. And then Kweku came up with the idea about how it should go, and threw it in a group chat. And then I think we were performing actually that night, and we were like in the stairwell trying to get it together.
SMALLEYAnd then we performed it, and it just came out beautifully. And since then, we've just been trying to make it sound as best as possible. The most beautiful song probably in our arsenal, I feel like.
ASIFOYeah, thank you. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAlex, how did you conceive of it?
ASIFOYeah, "Dove Tattoo," I wrote it in my dorm room my sophomore year. And "Dove Tattoo" was just kind of about, you know, just like seeing, like, tattoos that people have on their body about dove tattoos and, you know, like that kind of like symbolizing, like, being free, you know, and all that. But the thing is, like, if you have a tattoo on your body it can't go anywhere. It's not as free as you think. So, then I wrote that song, and then I was, like, oh, this is pretty good. But I was like, you know what, I think this song is kind of trash. I don't really like it.
ASIFOSo, when it did come around to like 10issues, I brought it to Kweku, I was like, hey, I wrote this song like two, three years ago. I don't know if you want to use it. And he was like, no, no, no, let's use it. And then, you know, the band, like, really resurrected it and brought it to life, and I was, like, I love this song now. So...
NNAMDII was really impressed watching the band play "Dove Tattoo," because it seemed like everybody in the band got involved in that song in one way or another. How difficult or how pleasurable is that process, Tim, bringing it all together on the basis of a song that Alex wrote?
BAKERYeah, you know, everybody brings their own flavor to the group. What's difficult is making sure that you're being tasteful about, like, how out you are in the group, you know. If you're speaking too loud in the group, you can sometimes drown out a lot of the other really interesting things the other players have to say. So, it's always a balance. But I'll tell you, there's no shortage of talent in the group. Not coming from me, but these guys are crazy players, man.
SMALLEYYou're so modest. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow did you decide, and why, to enter the NPR Tiny Desk contest? Anybody remember what that process was like?
SMALLEYAlex kind of brought it -- Alex definitely quarterbacked, for sure.
ASIFOOh yeah. I was just, like, you know, because, from the beginning, I was, like, I don't think we should sell ourselves short on anything. But not only that is that we had people coming up to us and saying, like, hey, you guys need to do this. You need to -- like, just sending us, like, the link to, like, NPR Tiny Desk. I knew some people, and they're like, hey, like, you guys, like, really need to get on this and do it. It sounds like, you know what, let's not sell ourselves short. Let's just play what we play, leave it up to the universe, and see what happens. And, you know, either way, I'm just grateful to play with my friends. And so whatever happens, happens, but...
BAKERYeah, and we were also doing Tiny Desk-style shows last semester, because, like, it's difficult to find, like, a full, like, venue to play at. So, we were doing, like, kind of do-it-yourself shows, and kind of with that Tiny Desk sound. So, we were like -- I mean, we already do this. This is already our bread and butter. So, why not just put it on tape?
NNAMDIBut we talked about the difficulty in finding spaces to practice, especially for a band as big as yours, and getting kicked out of the Clarice Smith Center. (laugh) To what extent do you still have problems finding spaces to play, and how do you find them?
SMALLEYWe play in a closet. (laugh) Yeah, so, I mean, now we play -- we have rehearsals in the WMUC studio on campus.
NNAMDIThat's the campus radio station.
SMALLEYYes, sir. Yes, sir. We play in there. That poses its own separate issues, but we make it work.
ASIFOWe literally, like, rehearse in, like, the recording booth. So, we're all just, like, next to each other like this, just, like, jamming. And it's, like, 100 degrees. I'll reach over, and I can literally just high-five Josh.
NNAMDIJoshua, what shaped your musical tastes?
SMALLEYLike, so I grew up in church, and a lot of the church musicians -- we listen to a lot of traditional jazz. From that jazz, I started listening to, like, a lot of Neo-Soul and D'Angelo. I studied D'Angelo, just listening to D'Angelo for like a solid three or four years, just listening to him, just because I was just infatuated with his style of music and how he put songs together and the melodies and things like that. And, of course, I write my own music and sing, too, so I guess a combination of all that just shaped my perspective on music.
NNAMDIAlex, what shaped your musical tastes?
ASIFOIt's interesting, because my mother is, you know, Black American, and my father is from Ghana, West Africa. So, I grew up and, like, listened to, like a lot of Highlife music and a lot of, like, Afrobeat, a lot of African music. And I have, like, a lot of family in England, so I listen to, like, grind music. But, like, also just being from the DMV area, I great up with, like, a lot of go-go and, you know, listening to, you know, WHUR, and you just hear, sounds like Washington. (laugh) And you just hear all the oldies and, like, you know, old R&B music. So, just having, like, an appreciation, not for, like, genres, but just, like, good music.
BAKER(overlapping) Good music in general, yeah.
ASIFORight. That's the best genre.
NNAMDIDid you kind of inherit listening to WHUR from your parents?
ASIFOOh, I still listen to it. The quiet storm.
NNAMDIYes. Because a lot of younger people in DC, WHUR is like radio that passes on from one generation to another.
ASIFOIt's the theme song. It just sticks with you. It just makes you want to listen. Continuing on to make great music, I know a couple of us are -- well, not me, in particular, but I know a couple people in the group are kind of, you know, going out of town and stuff pretty soon. But, I mean, we still planning on doing good music. We're making great music together and continuing on 10issues.
NNAMDIAnd as we began by saying you're a collective, there are at least 10 of you. Does anyone know exactly how many of you there are?
ASIFOThere's 10, I think.
BAKERYeah, I think there's 10.
SMALLEYYeah, I don't know if we have one more on the way, but...
ASIFOYeah, it's ten. It's 10. It's 10.
NNAMDIAnd you look forward to the collective staying together and making more music?
ASIFOOh, of course. I feel like no matter what, like, we're all tied to each other. There's just no, like, all right. semester's over. I'm over here. I'm over here. See y'all later. I don't think it happens that way. I think that there's a bond between all of us, no matter what. So, even if you are, like, a thousand miles away, you just send a beat over, and it's the internet.
SMALLEYThank goodness for technology.
NNAMDIAnd maybe that's the difference between a band and a collective. Bands break up all the time. Collectives stay together. That was Tim Baker, Joshua Smalley and Alex Asifo, members of 10issues. They're a Maryland band who entered NPR Music's Tiny Desk contest. The winners of that contest will be announced next week. To hear more of 10issues' set at WAMU, visit KojoShow.org. And be sure to check out the rest of the artists we featured this week while you're there.
NNAMDIThis segment was produced by Mark Gunnery and Cydney Grannan. Today's segment on opioid addiction treatment was produced by Ruth Tam. I'd like to thank all the engineers who helped with recording the NPR Music's Tiny Desk contest bands this week: Josephine Neony (sounds like) , Ben Privett (sounds like) and Alex Drovincus. (sounds like) Join us tomorrow for the Politics Hour, when we talk to the new speaker of Maryland's House of Delegates, Adrienne Jones, as well as DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, and Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hooker. On our way out of here, we're hearing "Everything I Need" by 10issues. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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