For most up-and-coming Canadian bands, a slot at the famed Austin, Texas, music festival South by Southwest is nothing to be embarrassed about. When the electro-hip-hop duo Thunderheist scored shows at the fest after a two-year wave of blog hype, success seemed all but guaranteed. But for the duo's DJ Grahm Zilla, the set began on an awkward note.
"We were performing at, like, one in the afternoon," says Grahm, on the phone from Edmonton. "Before we started, I got on the mic and was like, 'Who's still drunk from last night?' I expected a bunch of people to cheer..."
"And nobody said anything!" vocalist Isis Salaam chimes in gleefully.
"And then it was just me going, 'Wooooo...,'" Grahm concurs. "And then I had to start the music. I was like, 'OK then! This is starting off really...well.'"
This little anecdote seems to be the exception rather than the rule for a duo who've been deemed the new arbiters of cool by the Canadian media. Things just keep getting better for Thunderheist. They've been gushed over by Perez Hilton, while a contest for fan-made videos resulted in a winning entry, declared one of the best videos of 2007 by Pitchfork and Spin. There were tours in Europe and Japan, a massive street party outside a swanky London nightclub, some hobnobbing with MGMT and Richard Branson, and a song---"Jerk It"--- in one of last year's most talked-about films, The Wrestler. And all of this happened before their first album dropped.
Thunderheist finally came out on the UK-based hip-hop label Big Dada on March 31. Halifax marks the last stop on the pair's 16-show promotional tour across the country. The word-of-mouth buzz and cover stories in Exclaim! and the Montreal Mirror seem to have worked; most of the shows have been sellouts.
This explosion of interest has actually been a long time coming for the pair, who both spent years DJing and performing before getting together. A few years ago, Montrealer Grahm was introduced to the Nigerian-born, Toronto-bred Isis through a friend. Later, the DJ accidentally sent Isis a song file of a beat he had made; Isis assumed it was for her, recorded herself rapping over it and sent it back. Grahm was impressed and the pair began to collaborate. Isis had already quit school to pursue music and Grahm left his job as a computer software programmer to make the union work.
"When I quit, I lied to my mom for about two months while I was putting (the band) together," Grahm says. "I totally got busted when I answered my home phone one day. I told her I was doing music full time, I had to take this chance, and she was like, 'Well, what about your dental insurance?' I was like, 'My benefits will not stave off the depression like what I was feeling at that job.'"
Thunderheist's first year-and-a-half consisted of being broke, DIY touring and sleeping on couches. Grahm says that there were some "intense moments" between himself and Isis in those early days and as the pair discuss their history, their dynamic begins to reveal itself: the bratty, rapid-fire rapport of two kids who revel in poking at each other.
"Yeah, Isis toured on her own for awhile," Grahm says. "It is nothing like the tours we are doing now."
"Thanks for shitting on my parade, Grahm!" says Isis.
"Grahm finagled a lot of our early gigs," she continues, "before we had a booking agent, who's amazing. Nothing like what Grahm was doing."
"Thanks for that vote of confidence, thanks," Grahm says.
Nowadays, Thunderheist go between cities by plane and stay in hotels. They have a rider that includes Skittles they can throw at each other backstage. And they've noticed the increasing numbers---and ardour---of their fan base.
"I had never even signed an autograph before this month," says Grahm. "Now people are coming up and I'm signing body parts. I have to keep telling my girlfriend, 'It's just business.'"
Isis has also received her fair share of attention from female fans---a fact that Grahm is all too delighted to bring up, referencing "a big-boned Dutch girl," who after one show attempted to proposition the MC for a threesome.
"I prefer men. I want to make that clear," Isis says. "But the thing is, the guys are always really timid (after shows). Meanwhile, the girls are the ones giving you six shots of whiskey and suddenly you're in the backseat of a car and don't now where you're going. The men are soft. They're little punks. With the ladies---they'll date rape you. They'll fucking do it.
"And then you wake up in a hotel room with no idea what happened the night before. Crazy!" she says wryly. "Life's a roller coaster."
So what is it about Thunderheist that drives bloggers crazy and pushes their fans to behaviour that borders on the criminal? Quite simply, they produce lusty, drunken, unapologetic party music. On their best songs, Isis spits lyrics about dancing, money and fucking in a throaty Bahamadia-esque delivery over Grahm Zilla's beats, which range from pumped-up electro ("Little Booty Girl") to jailbait disco ("Sweet 16"). Early club favourite "Jerk It" is a slick, slow-building paean to booty-rocking, show-stopping and possibly masturbation. The reputation of a fierce live show probably doesn't hurt them, either---on any given night, knee-socked dancers, crowd-surfing and Isis' exuberant, alcohol-fuelled performances are par for the course.
"By definition, I wouldn't believe that a DJ and a rapper could have as good of a show as they do without pyrotechnics and crazy lighting," says Vice's Toronto production manager Tim McCready. (Thunderheist has headlined three Vice tours in Europe and the US.)
"Isis has so much natural happy energy that she doesn't look like she's putting any effort into it. It's just flowing right through her and it makes the entire room dance."
Booze is often flowing through Thunderheist shows as well, with Isis frequently tipping her bottle of Jack into the mouths of lucky audience members. Has the onstage drinking ever been a liability? "Yeah, at an all-ages show!" Isis quips. "But no, seriously---we don't always drink that much. Sometimes we don't even drink at all. You just wouldn't know we're sober."
"Uh, I don't remember any of those sober shows," Grahm says.
"I've done a sober show."
"Maybe in that dream you had." Grahm gets serious for a moment. "I guess we're promoting a stereotype of the band," he says, referring to his poorly received "Who's still drunk?" intro at SXSW. "We do it for the people that expect it, right?"
Live presence aside, the real question of Thunderheist's longevity will most likely hit once the pair return home from a flurry of shows in Europe and Toronto in August. Thunderheist's album has so far faced a lukewarm reception from many of the same music media outlets that once lauded them. An NME writer felt Isis' rhymes weren't "clever, surreal, skewed, or disgraceful enough" to truly move the average listener, while a Prefix Magazine reviewer wrote that the album lulled him into "a bass-riddled fog of sameness." To their credit, Thunderheist are keen to evolve their sound and take things in a completely different direction.
"The album is two-and-a-half years old," Grahm says. "We're on that tip. We want to write songs. We don't want to be a rap derivative. [Rap] is something we've both been doing for a long time. I appreciate all kinds of music. I want to try and do different things."
Some of those things include the incorporation of more live musicians, stepping up the stage show in a festival setting and, as hinted on a few of the songs on the album, getting Isis to sing.
"I used to sing around friends, do karaoke, the way closeted singers do it in the shower," she says. "I wouldn't hold myself up to any of the greats. But I think singing is kind of apples and oranges with rapping. I want to write songs, write lyrics and tell stories. How I choose to do it could be in any way, shape or form. I could fucking paint a picture if I wanted to. I just don't want to feel like I'm expected to express myself in a rap format and all hippity-hoppity and shit. I've been doing this since I was 13. It's not to say I don't love it. But sometimes (with singing) it's like, 'Dude, give me a chance. I know I could be really good at it.'"
In a 2008 article about the rise and fall of the internet buzz band, journalist Bill Wasik wrote, "How can we resist the new story, the one everyone else is listening to, linking to and cueing up at parties?" It's clear that Thunderheist still have some stories to tell. But their ability to continue will depend on us, and how willing we are to accept them once the party's over.