“We always say that ¡MAYDAY! has become like Fight Club,” Bernz says, smiling behind his sunglasses and bushy beard. “Like, only the real ones know about it, and someone has to put you on to us for you to get it. DJBooth was one of the first members of ¡MAYDAY!, so thanks for being there since the beginning.”
Now I’m the one smiling and blushing.
I've only been writing for DJBooth since the beginning of this year, but I’ve been listening to ¡MAYDAY! since I was in high school. Sitting across the table from me in The Catalyst Club green room at their Search Party Tour stop in my college town of Santa Cruz, California, ¡MAYDAY! emcees Bernz and Wrekonize have no idea how much this feels like a defining moment.
I first fell in love with the Miami-based hip-hop act as an 18-year-old band student in search of organic material I could play on my saxophone. Between then and now, I sold my sax for rent money and became a full-time hip-hop-a-holic, but across all of my rap-saturated playlists, the funky, world music-inspired, uncategorizable eclecticism of ¡MAYDAY! has continued to revitalize me with a sentimental splash of something truly different.
During their tenure with Strange Music, ¡MAYDAY! has released three group albums, a collaborative project with Murs, an EP, and a mixtape, as well as solo albums from both Bernz and Wrek. Through several personnel changes and years of artistic growth, what ties ¡MAYDAY!’s discography together is the group’s masterful understanding of a wide variety of music, as well as their ability to seamlessly draw from many diverse influences to create a uniquely groovy take on instrumental hip-hop.
On their latest album, Search Party, due out this Friday, September 8, that genre-bending experimentation is as apparent as ever, but the songwriting is generally more mellow and introspective than what fans have grown accustomed to from the group. There are tracks that’ll make you want to move your hips (“Pretender,” “Tempted”), but many of them don’t sound quite like the ¡MAYDAY! of yesteryear. Which is to be expected; the group has always grown and transformed with each release.
“I think it’s a cool new chapter in the ¡MAYDAY! book,” Bernz asserts with palpable excitement in his voice. “Some new sounds, new approaches.”
You guys are known for constantly being in the studio. When did you start working on Search Party?
Bernz: Yeah we work every day, that’s what we do. This one, we started in mid-April?
Wrekonize: The first couple weeks, I was just kinda there for moral support, [Bernz] was running the show. I was burnt from my own shit. Last time, with War Within and Believers, I didn’t experience that, but this time coming off Into The Further, I was super burnt out, and I had to catch up.
After so many years of non-stop creation, how do you stop the well from running dry?
Bernz: I just work through it. Sometimes I make shitty songs, sometimes I make good songs, you know? Some people I know are totally okay with not making a song for a month or two if the inspiration isn’t there. I just get bored. To me, it’s constant work.
Wrek: I think variety is key for us. We don’t always notice it when it’s happening, but our schedule over the past four or five years has always been constantly injecting a type of variety. We go on the road for two months, talk to people, really soak in the world, and then we’re like damn, we’re dying to make music. Come home, make a project, and then as soon as we start to get cabin fever in the studio, bam, it’s time to go back out on another tour.
With multiple people inserting their creative input, how do you keep the music cohesive?
Bernz: You need a whiteboard man, we use a very big dry-erase board. A lot of talking things through, and you really gotta trust your gut. Everybody talks about what the mission statement is for what we’re working on, and then we kinda weave our way through. And ¡MAYDAY! has always had a set of rules sonically. Even though it’s undefined in terms of genre, it encompasses a lot of different genres, that’s part of its charm. We’ve always known that, it’s part of the fabric of everything we do. On each album, we stray away, but we know when we’ve gone too far from ¡MAYDAY!’s sound.
Wrek: We don’t really say it, 'cause we’re not those type of dudes, but I don’t think we don’t get enough credit for how cohesive we’ve been able to keep the sound. We’ve always been able to keep the ¡MAYDAY! boat steady, even when it’s getting rocked internally.
Which artists have consciously influenced your music the most?
Wrek: Steely Dan, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, [Led] Zeppelin... I listen to a gang of Seal, Bernz always makes fun of me for that but I fuck with Seal. And when we talk to fans at meet-and-greets, a lot of fans are like, “Fuck mainstream.” A lot of these kids are like, “Yeah I don’t fuck with Lil Wayne, fuck Future,” but at this point, we don’t think that way, we try not to be negative about any kind of music. No music is for everyone. ¡MAYDAY! isn’t gonna relate to some people that live in certain neighborhoods, just like Lil Wayne won’t.
Bernz: I’m that kid that was in love with all of the music that my mom played while I was in the backseat. I love big records, pop music, Madonna, Michael Jackson, anything that was great and big and amazing music. And I wanna be part of that lexicon, I want people to say, “Earth, Wind & Fire, ¡MAYDAY!, Kool & the Gang.” I want to be in that conversation. Rapping is dope, but it’s not my main thing. Wrek helps to balance me cause he’s like this super emcee, and he’s always helping keep me grounded in hip-hop.
You can both deliver “bars,” but what makes ¡MAYDAY! special is your take on melodies. How do you strike that balance?
Wrek: You have to expend so much energy to rap. Sometimes when we’re singing or doing some melodic shit, it kind of feels like a “fuck you,” like yeah we could go and dance all over the walls for you rap-wise but “fuck you.” Sometimes it’s more of an attitude for me. That’s just me being facetious with it of course, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s best for the song. We just follow wherever the track leads us.
Bernz: Yeah, sometimes we write a song and it’s like, “Okay, this is an all-singing song,” the rapping will be a second thought. Sometimes you gotta sing just because you can, most of these motherfuckers just can’t.
Speaking of singing chops, what’s your secret to crafting a perfect hook?
Bernz: I have certain techniques but I don’t wanna give 'em all away. I got one move that’s foolproof, but I’ll tell you “off the record.” [Profuse laughter] I always wanted to say that.
Wrek: Mannn, hip-hop is so lazy with hooks sometimes. [Laughs] It’s just trial and error. A lot of rappers we’ve worked with or seen in general, they’re just used to throwing a hook down and then moving on. Never breaking anything down, never revisiting anything. “Shortcuts and Dead Ends” is a song that’s really big in our catalog. And that hook, we threw down 10 melodies for that, and we kept working on that hook until we decided [on] the final one. We don’t just throw something down and then run with it, and it shows, that hook is a smash.
Your path to prosperity in the music industry has been atypical. What advice can you pass on to artists who are having trouble finding their way?
Wrek: Don’t let the throes of social media and instant gratification suck you in. You can post up a song and it might get likes and retweets right away, but really, in this industry dues have to be paid.
Bernz: Consistency is key. And get you a crew, nobody’s gonna make it by themselves. Even if you’re a solo artist, get you a crew of people that believe in you, that are willing to take this journey with you. People that you really trust, who are really about this shit. That can be hard to find. Also decide what you want to sound like, and what you want to be defined as, as early as possible. The industry wants to put you in a box, don’t let them. Define yourself. Be defined in what you want to do.