Producer L’Orange and rapper Solemn Brigham aren’t afraid to argue with each other. The North Carolina-bred duo—who records under the name Marlowe—push each other creatively, using their friendship to hold one another accountable.
“We can be candid with each other in ways we can’t be with other artists,” L’Orange explains over the phone.
L’Orange and Solemn first met at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2008, two rap lovers sculpting their identities. Eventually, a mutual acquaintance connected them when one of Solemn’s freestyles found its way into L’Orange’s hands.
“It was that moment, for the first time in my life, someone said I could rap, and I’d be able to do something with that,” Solemn elaborates. “Until then, I’d never entertained it.”
First recording under the name Lost Arts and eventually rechristening themselves as Marlowe, the group forged their identities through a hard-earned brotherhood. Their new group name brings to mind the types of radio teleplay protagonists L’Orange consistently samples in his music. In execution, however, the duo scans as a boom-bap rejoinder to Luke Cage and Iron Fist, two heroes for hire moving in sync. Their music is both zany and grounded, Solemn nimbly traversing the crevices in L’Orange’s psychedelic beats.
Marlowe 2, their sophomore album released August 7 via Mello Music Group, showcases the pair at their most potent. Across the project, Solemn fully opens himself up to listeners, breathlessly rapping about creative frustrations (“Sawdust Underground”) and personal strife (“Future Power Sources,” “Lamilton Taeshawn”) while finding power in himself in spite of it all. L’Orange keeps pace with crisp and challenging beats, moving and shifting on a dime.
Marlowe is a collaborative effort 12 years in the making. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you decide you wanted to make music together?
L’Orange: From what I remember, the first time we linked up was in the car. I was excited because I’d heard some dope shit from him. I played him some beats, and he rocked to them. I was blown away because he was leagues above the MCs who were giving me the time of day at that point.
Solemn: I will say it was that moment, for the first time in my life, someone said I could rap, and I’d be able to do something with that. Until then, I’d never entertained it. I’d written poetry and kicked some freestyles with friends, but I never thought to build a single damn thing with it until then.
L’Orange: One thing that’s always funny about us talking about this is that one of Solemn’s first memories of coming over to my crib and seeing the studio was him seeing me as someone living the producer life. When I remember those times, I remember banging my head against the wall, thinking about how I wanted to sample, or even what I wanted my style to be like or how to be as good as the local guys. I remember that as an infantile stage in my musical journey, so it’s funny to hear that Solemn thought it was this fully formed musical thing going on.
Solemn: Perspectives are what they are. You can never see how someone else sees your work. When I first met L’Orange, I had already heard he was making music. I went over to this big ass trap house, and it’s a ton of people in different rooms. It’s a gang of clothes and drugs and shit all over the fucking place. I’m like, “Where’s L’Orange at?” I climb up these stairs and open the door, and it’s a studio full of people, and I assume L’Orange is the guy telling everybody what to do. It looked like a [drug] empire.
L’Orange: It was a sketchy place. That’s why it’s interesting to hear that told through your perspective, Solemn. It sheds light on the fact that it was a pretty fucking weird time. I was living around a lot of drugs and shady shit, and I was in my little corner making beats and coming down and showing them the joints and them telling me I needed to make dubstep.
Solemn: I loved it, man. When I was there, it felt like this was supposed to be what hip-hop was about. It was supposed to be people in the corner doing suspect things. It’s supposed to be a dope producer upstairs who kinda knows what’s going on but is doing his own thing. It was a whirlwind.
L’Orange, you mentioned a falling out on Twitter. What exactly happened?
L’Orange: To be clear, the falling out we had was strictly musical. There was a period we decided to take a musical break, and I’m sure when we left, we both thought, “Yea, I’m not gonna fuck with that dude anymore.” Within a short amount of time, we circled back to being friends, smoking, and talking about music. Not necessarily working on it together, but sharing what we were up to.
Solemn: What he said was exactly right. We had more of a musical falling out, and when we rekindled our friendship, we were just chopping it up. [Music] was such a big part of our lives we couldn’t help but talk about it and be about it.
L’Orange: About a year and a half later, I wound up moving to Nashville in 2011. That would’ve been like February, and the fallout happened in early 2010. Then we hung out for another six to nine months, and then we didn’t talk for a little bit until my appendix burst because I was living in a fucking trap house. I had a stomachache where I was showing violent symptoms of something worse, and everyone around me was on heroin. It wasn’t the environment for me to get to the hospital. But I did get to the hospital, and I was there for probably seven days. Shit almost killed me.
Solemn: Man, it was devastating. I thought he was gone. I went to the [house], and one of his friends [answered the door], and I knew it was weird. Normally, [L’Orange] opens the door. So I asked, “Where L at?” His friend said, “You haven’t heard?” I said, “No, I haven’t heard.” He said, “He’s not here.” I thought it was finna be sad and him telling me when the funeral is and shit. He said his appendix had burst, and he’d been in the hospital for a minute.
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L’Orange: After Nashville, we didn’t talk for a year or two. We weren’t mad at each other; we just didn’t talk. The next time I heard from you was when you were in jail.
Solemn: Living the lives we live, you don’t keep too many acquaintances.
What are the benefits of being a rapper-producer duo in 2020?
Solemn: What was attractive to me was making dope music with somebody I know. It makes it more fun. If you can do something you love, you’re never working a job. Music still feels like work sometimes, but I had the opportunity to work with someone who I knew what they brought to the table.
We challenge each other to do better. When he hits me with a dope ass beat, I know I gotta hit him with some fire. And if I don’t hit him with fire, he’s gonna let me know. A lot of our conversations outside of the music can have effects on the music we make. It’s way more than just getting a beat from somebody who lives wherever that you’re not even gonna interact with.
L’Orange: It goes back to what I was saying before. I’ve worked with a lot of rappers, and it’s been an honor to work with them, but a lot of it has been: “You do your thing, I’ll do my thing, and we’ll collab on a couple things.” Getting into a duo with Solemn, someone I have a close relationship with, we can be candid with each other in ways we can’t be with other artists.
Walk me through the process of creating the first Marlowe record.
L’Orange: It was something I’d been trying to make happen for a minute. At the time I was pitching the record, the only thing you could find from Solemn Brigham was the song he and I did for The Ordinary Man. It was important to me to be able to sell this concept to the label and show people what we were capable of without having to use sales numbers. In reality, nothing like that is promised. Getting people to invest in an idea and trust me was important, and I made sure [Mello Music Group] knew that. They were very supportive.
Solemn: I never stopped, until we were finished putting together the first Marlowe, to evaluate everything we’d done together. We got this opportunity; I already knew how to make music with [L’Orange], I got these beats, let’s go!
I always go back to be being [in] the rookie season where everything’s a whirlwind, but you still put up numbers. It’s crazy because we were worried about the same thing: I hope they get it. But it was [L’Orange] taking the risk with nobody knowing me and our relationship and me more so with the matter of people knowing where we’re from and what we’re trying to represent.
L’Orange, the last time we talked, you told me you were wary of doing sequel projects. What inspired you to pull the trigger on Marlowe 2?
L’Orange: I was always gonna make another one of these. Repeating myself creatively is a concern, but being able to make a record with someone I love was different entirely. It wasn’t even about seeing success. I would hope people would want another one, but I was going to push for it, regardless.
Solemn: That’s dope to hear because after the rollout and seeing the response the first Marlowe got, I knew the second one was a possibility. We knew we were gonna do this thing and do it together, but to see it and know it was happening, that was different.
Solemn, you give more of yourself on Marlowe 2 than you did on the first project. Did you come to the recording sessions with anything specific in mind, or did it all just fall out in the booth?
Solemn: That’s the goal to having that rapper-producer connection. On the first album, we’d have great songs, but L would come to me and say it’d be great if I spoke more personally. It’s one thing to have a dope ass line, but to have a dope ass line about you, nobody else can spit that. You’re painting yourself. I practiced that and put that to my writing on Marlowe 2. It’s dope you picked up on that.
L’Orange: That means a lot to me, too. I was proud of what he did on this album. Not only do I think he’s rapping his ass off in a way people didn’t even know he was going to, but that personal connection comes through. I’m happy you hear that, too.
Having written and recorded most of this before the world fell apart, how does it feel to have your album be more relevant now than it might have been otherwise?
Solemn: It’s scary, man. On top of the mirroring of our lyrics with life, I’ve had some personal things going on. I went through a bad breakup, and I’ve had some deaths in the family that made me stop and think about some things I already wrote like I have some powers or something. The whole point of writing like that isn’t so the world shapes itself into that; it’s so the world realizes and changes. And that’s not what’s happening right now.
L’Orange: For me, one of the biggest concerns was releasing this album at a time when music is struggling. There’s almost a part of me that wishes we could’ve seen the landscape before we made the album. While standing behind everything we made—I’m extremely proud of this album—that doesn’t change the fact that the social landscape has changed so dramatically. As much as I’m grateful that Solemn’s lyrics touch on something so human and societal, I wish we could’ve seen how powerful these changes would’ve been so we could’ve acknowledged and emboldened our position even more clearly.
Solemn: I like that you expressed the album is fun earlier, though. Being a conscious rapper and making underground music the way we do, it’s hard to [have] fun. That’s what the listeners want to do first: have fun. After that, you can tell the listener what you have to say.
L’Orange: That’s one of the rare times in my career I made [fun] a priority. Normally, fun isn’t something I’m thinking of when making a record. On [Marlowe 2], it plays a role. I want this shit to be fun.