Versatile Baltimore MC and Real News Network reporter Eze Jackson stands in the local nonprofit news organization’s recording studio looking over some lyrics he’s penned in a spiral notebook.
As studio manager Dwayne Gladden and audio engineer Stephen Frank go over a few things in the control booth, Jackson nods his head along as he mentally reads through his lines, jotting down a few notes in the process. I’ve dropped by to chat with Jackson about his fourth annual Dirty Christmas party taking place at the Metro Gallery Dec. 29, but first he needs to hop into the booth to record a short experiment, an attempt to bring Jackson’s considerable hip-hop gifts to the kinds of news stories the Real News covers: economic inequality, climate change, political corruption.
Gladden and Frank chat back and forth in the studio a bit before Frank says, “OK, let’s try this.” A keyboard chord and casual beat swells up on the speakers in the studio and the booth, and after a few seconds Jackson jumps right in:
Nice rhetoric on equality just ain’t enough
Powerless are those living who never own stuff
Home’s rough when it ain’t on land of opportunity
Rich men don’t get sick of laws they get immunity
“This is the first draft of, potentially, a series of rhymes on different topics that we cover,” Jackson says after the recording session. Interview enough musicians in your life and you learn that a few of them have many personalities: one for onstage, one for interviews, one for friends and family, etc. But spend some time listening to and chatting with Jackson, and you get the impression you’re always getting the same dude. He’s as calmly smart and sneakily witty in conversation as he is on record, able to move from sharp social observation to disarming emotional vulnerability in a line.
“I’m probably going to do one [of these raps] on climate change,” he continues, adding that a producer wants him to write one about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and what’s going on with Palestine and Israel. And he’s feeling it. “I’m excited about that because it’s a good challenge to try to write something that’s not corny but still informative.”
Jackson’s got a solid track record at this sort of heady rhyming. Whether it be the nuanced storytelling he packs into the lines he writes with Soul Cannon, the band he’s fronted since 2006, or the verse he added to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” when he shows up on metal power trio Black Lung’s ass-flattening cover in 2016, he’s got a gift for being as brainy as he is dope.
Dirty Christmas taps the playful side Jackson displays in his “Just a Lor Bit” solo song and video. It’s a party intended to let off steam from holiday headaches, those stresses that, study after study note, can be hard on mental and physical health. Dirty Christmas is an invitation to chill and, Jackson adds, “just have a good time with Baltimore music, which is what I live and breathe.”
The event debuted in 2015 at the Metro Gallery, with Jackson performing along with Al Rogers Jr., Lonnie Moore, Josh Stokes, Bobbi Rush, Ducky Dynamo, Shawn Smallwood and a young MC named IMP Beats, better known today as Locus. Flying Dog Brewery sponsored the event and, with Jackson, they accepted donations for Toys for Tots. He wrote and recorded an entertaining, seven-song “Dirty Christmas“ album to help plug the event.
He was aiming to start a new tradition—he missed the annual Baltimore Bass Connection’s Xmas Party that Spank Rock and event producer/promoter Emily “Rabbit” McDonough put together, and wanted to do something like his annual Artscape after-party.
“The idea was I want to do Dirty Christmas for 10 years,” he says. “That way, if I should move somewhere else then that’s a big reason to come home. With my Artscape after-party, Dirty Christmas, you know, I commit myself to coming home at least twice a year.”
That first year, he was feeling it. “We had a great turnout and it was a good time,” Jackson says. “Then my brother died that night and I found out the next day. And that kind of fucked me up.”
Jackson runs through his Real News piece twice, making subtle edits each time through–changing a single word here or there, emphasizing a different syllable in the line–as Gladden and Frank make adjustments in the studio. Gladden is watching video feed from three cameras in the booth, figuring out on the fly which angle might be the best for certain stretches of Jackson’s rhyme.
Frank makes sure both the beat and Jackson’s vocals are reaching Gladden’s computer, just to ensure they don’t have to sync the audio track to the video during editing. A few mouse clicks and switches switched later, Frank says, “Let’s try this,” and the beat and synth wash returns. Jackson runs through his verse again.
Pay to play, pay to play, ain’t a way to save up for a rainy day
Healthiest are those who can afford to pay the pain away
Climate change deniers put the fire into lobbyists
Keep the politicians’ pockets thick, ignoring common sense
Jackson says his brother, Elijah, lived with PTSD, and medications contributed to his passing. Elijah was supposed to be at that first Dirty Christmas. “That was the last conversation I had with him, ‘Put my name on the list, I’ll see you there,’” Jackson says. “I had put all this energy into that first Dirty Christmas and then I didn’t get to spend time with him like I wanted to.”
Even before his brother passed during the holiday season, Jackson didn’t like Christmastime. He saw his mom struggle during the holiday season growing up, and he helped her out on Christmas Eve getting everything ready for his siblings.
“My brothers and sisters would go to sleep at night and there’s nothing and then wake up and there’s the tree and lights and gifts and all this stuff, and I had to pretend that I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Jackson says, laughing at the memory. “I’m going to sleep at, like, 5 in the morning and then they come and wake me up at 6, you know, ‘Santa brought presents and put a tree up,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, cool.’”
“But I also saw my mother really stress through that stuff growing up,” he continues. “She would do anything in her power to make sure that we had Christmas. And for a lot of it, I just didn’t like seeing her stress over it because it wasn’t that serious to me. But I understood what it meant to my brothers and sisters.”
Enter Dirty Christmas, the philosophy of which Jackson lays down in the “Dirty Santa” song included on the album he recorded for the event’s first year.
“It’s about a 12-year-old boy who decides to rob Santa Claus because he’s coming from poverty,” he says. “Because, growing up, the Christmas you see on TV is one thing, but it’s not like that for most people. The chimney and the lights all over, many people may get to experience that kind of Christmas once or twice in their lifetime, but it’s not the reality. There’s other Christmases, too—like, if your father didn’t get you Christmas gifts until after Christmas because you know he’s working so hard or poor, you had a Dirty Christmas. If you are cheating on your spouse or you’re dealing with a married person and you don’t spend Christmas with them but y’all hang out the next night, that’s a Dirty Christmas. The idea is to poke fun at Christmas, let your hair down from all of the stress that you endure during the holiday season.”
Jackson found it hard to summon that kind of energy the year after his brother passed. “I was about to give up on it the second year,” he says. “But everybody I knew who had been at the first one [asked], Are you doing Dirty Christmas again? Yo, you got to do it again. Please tell me you’re going to do Dirty Christmas again. So the second year, I pushed through and did it. And it was a lot of fun.”
The third installment, in 2017, was even better, Jackson says. It was the first time he was joined by the Backwudz Band—a crew of local music heavyweights such as Black Lung’s Dave Cavalier on drums, trombonist Rufus Roundtree, guitarist Quinton Randall and keyboardist Salem Kamalu—which returns for this fourth installment. Also on the bill: Locus and vocalist Omnia Azar. Flying Dog is again sponsoring the event, and if you donate a coat, you get a free Flying Dog Blood Line.
“I think people need that release to get your mind off the holidays,” Jackson says. “I’m lucky to have such a diverse crowd, too. Every year the artists I put on Dirty Christmas are artists that I really enjoyed that year that my audience may not know. So people come and they know that they don’t have to be a certain way or be a certain thing. They don’t have to look or dress a certain way. They can just be. It’s no pressure.”
The 16-bar rhyme Jackson’s recording finishes:
How is it we help to build a system that oppresses us
Prosecute neglect the just, just to keep the war bucks level up
The poor must settle up for more unsettled stuff
Capitalism packing the prisons with black and brown
You can see solutions where the facts are found
Moving in delusions from illusions that are passed around
You might not get it, still we live it
Time on a pivot, but what time is it?
He says he doesn’t know how, or even if, the Real News is going to use it, but even before hearing a finished edit of it, at roughly 30 seconds in length, it works awfully well as an ephemeral kind of hybrid op-ed. Radio station IDs are much less interesting or distinctive.
Jackson asks for the beat to be turned up a bit before running through it again.
When he’s done, he looks through the recording booth at Grant, silently asking, What do you think? “Yeah,” Grant replies, smiling. “Let’s roll with that one.”
Eze Jackson’s 4th Annual Dirty Christmas is 7 p.m. on Dec. 29 at Metro Gallery, 1700 N. Charles St., (410) 244-0899, themetrogallery.net. $10 in advance, $15 at the door.