Austin’s Riders Against the Storm create progressive hip-hop, release positive messages

“Everybody Wannabe,” the lead single from the new Riders Against the Storm EP, blasts into your consciousness with a driving thump, an ominous undercurrent of electro fuzz and a reverb-laced hook. Twenty seconds into the track it snaps into focus as vocalist Ghislaine Jean-Mahone, aka Tiger Lily, uses her lead verse to skewer false aspirations, beauty myths and haters alike. One irresistible chorus later, her husband and partner-in-rhyme Jonathan Mahone, aka Chaka, takes the helm and with equal precision demolishes everything from hip-hop’s flagrant disrespect of women to the persistence of racism in the Jim Crow South.

The track is a revelation, equal parts exorcism and call to action brilliantly cloaked in dance floor banging beats and catchy hooks. Radically intelligent lyricism is propelled by a radio-ready groove laid by local party rocker DJ Big Face, enhanced by producer CJ Eiriksson.

The rest of the self-titled EP is equally impressive, smart hip-hop with danceable grooves and broad commercial appeal. As a female hip-hop fan, listening to Jean-Mahone — equally effective as a rugged rhyme-slinger and a soul-stirring vocalist — evokes a giddy excitement. It feels like a game-changer, the magnitude of which has been unmatched in the decade-and-a-half since Lauryn Hill released “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” But this is different. While the fury that fueled Ms. Hill’s classic album included a hefty dose of outrage at her former male collaborators, Riders Against the Storm represent a perfect synthesis of male and female energy. Mahone and Jean-Mahone exist in a different universe than the mainstream hip-hop culture in which the marginalization of women is so rampant it’s almost unremarkable.

“I respect women, I respect my mom, I respect their power,” Mahone says.

The couple sit on the back porch of bassist Elliot Morgan’s East Austin home, an older structure midway through its transition from ramshackle abode to craftsman special with a living room cluttered with musical gear. We face out on a sprawling yard scattered with sculptures. It’s 9 p.m. They are on a rehearsal break. Ten feet away a half-dozen ducks doze tranquilly on the grass, heads tucked beneath wings. There’s one beer left in the six-pack. They share it.

“I just feel like it’s really important, especially for men, to show appreciation and show equality,” Mahone continues.

“When we get off stage, people always say it’s really refreshing what we do. In general, I think it’s important for this type of music to be made. You can focus on whatever you want, but you should look at the sun and appreciate it. You should appreciate women and their beauty and their power. There’s so much to focus on besides having sex and getting high and whatever.”

The couple have been making music together since 2004, but with broad fine arts backgrounds their first tracks were predated by collaborations in theater, poetry and visual arts. These influences are all apparent in their work, as is a steadfast ethical principal. The band’s name is an interpretation of a Sweet Honey and the Rock lyric from “Ella’s Song.” The song was built around a quote from civil rights activist Ella Baker: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” It’s clear Riders Against the Storm strive to embody this ideal.

Six years ago the couple married, three years later, in December 2009, they decided to leave their home base of Providence, R.I., to relocate to Austin. In what Jean-Mahone describes as an act of “divine intervention,” they came for the music, beckoned by their one friend in town, Martin Perna of Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds.

In Austin, the duo rapidly built a fan base, performing at community centers, reaching out to like-minded artists for collaborations and hosting a monthly dance party, Body Rock with DJ Chorizo Funk. Soon they were landing prime opening spots for touring artists. One day they bumped into L.A. ex-pat and respected Project Blowed veteran Ridd Lore at Mr. Natural. He quickly became a core part of their team, producing some tracks and backing the duo on Ableton when they perform live.

By summer 2012 they were ready to make the next step. The group launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album. In the past their approach to music was strictly underground. This time they’re aiming higher. They recorded at Willie Nelson’s Arlyn Studios working with producer Eiriksson, who has blessed the tracks of everyone from Blue October to U2. But don’t get it twisted. While the radio readiness of the album is no accident, the music and the message have not been watered down. Observing the success of artists like Seattle rapper Macklemore they sense a shift in the industry, an opening for broader ideas, sounds that break the template.

“There used to be wonderful artists on the radio,” Jean-Mahone says. “I want to be a Stevie Wonder.”

But it’s not about the money. These are artists on a Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey. The video for “Everybody Wannabe,” directed by Jason Harter and filmed in a field near the F1 track south of town, depicts a ceremony. The filming was deliberately scheduled for the night of a blue moon. War-painted dancers execute tribal moves around a bonfire. The idea of ceremony is important to this crew. They called on the collaborating artists to bring things they wanted to let go of to burn in the fire that night.

This idea carries over to their live performances, too.

“A big mission for us is to revitalize the idea people have about ceremony,” Jean-Mahone says.

“The phrase we’ve been coining lately is that partying is the bastard child of ceremony. When people go to party, they drink and they do all these different things because they’re trying to have an out-of-body experience; they’re trying to lose themselves. Ceremony is about not needing any of those things any kind of outside stimulants to know how to access different parts of yourself.”

Mahone picks up where she left off.

“You are part of a ceremony when you come to one of our events. We take that seriously. We really take it seriously. We know what it does. People come up to us crying. People have come up to us and told us stories about losing loved ones and how this helped them heal. All types of things. That aspect of what we do is really at the core of our music.”

“In essence our music is about making sure people are walking away with something that’s going to propel them even if it’s just the vibration,” Jean-Mahone says.

“That vibration is created so that we can make sure that folks are propelled in whatever they’re going into in the next phase of their lives.”

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