Swollen Members has been around long enough to have both witnessed — and influenced — the evolution of hip hop.
When the Vancouver group was formed in 1992, rap music was still largely perceived as being counter-culture and dangerous.
“Twenty-five years ago, I never would have thunk that rap would be used in a soundtrack for a Toyota commercial!” said chuckling group member Prevail, who performs with the Swollen Members on Wednesday at Wild Bill’s Sports Bar in Red Deer.
Now it’s part of mainstream culture, and his duo had something to do with that.
Prevail (also known as Regina-born Kiley Henriks) believes he and partner Madchild helped “desegregate” rap by “decoding its secret language” for the general public. He believes they helped lift some of the genre’s more negative associations, turning it into “a more accessible street-based art form.”
The four-time Juno Award-winning hip-hop group, mostly made up of Madchild (Shane Bunting) and Prevail, came on strong in the mid 1990s, making inroads in places like Japan and the West Coast of the U.S. before winning over domestic crowds.
Through 10 studio albums, frequently made in collaboration with Moka Only and Rob the Viking (and with appearances by hip-hop heavyweights, such as Saigon, Tech N9ne and Everlast, and pop artist Nelly Furtado), Swollen Members was praised for crossing barriers both within the hip-hop genre and outside it.
“I’d like to think, with our discography, that people think: here’s a Canadian band that’s pushed beyond the boundaries, beyond success in the rap music arena,” said Prevail.
He noted wider audiences were also reached when the group toured with such eclectic acts as Biff Naked and The Black Eyed Peas.
Swollen Members’ music is now played on TV commercials, video-game soundtracks, snowboarding and skateboarding videos, and TV serials, including America’s Next Top Model. (For some reason, this last one tickles Prevail’s funnybone.)
At the same time, Madchild and Prevail have become public personalities in their own right, making cameo appearances in films, such as 2004’s MuchMusic movie Going the Distance and the Canadian TV comedy Robson Arms.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster ride, with peaks and valleys, great expressiveness, some successes” — and perils, admitted Prevail, The whole thing nearly derailed with Madchild’s widely reported oxycontin addiction in 2008 (which was more or less documented in the 2009 album Armed to the Teeth), but the group is solid again, and is putting out an 11th album this month, called Brand New Day.
As the title suggests, there are positive songs on the release, which includes beats by Rob the Viking and production by C-Lance and DJ Muggs. But Prevail cautions it’s still a Swollen Members CD, so it’s “pretty heavy.”
The title track can be viewed as being optimistic: “It speaks of where we are now, that we’re pushing forward . . . . It’s like we’ve gone through the breach, the cusp of the struggle, and now we’ve turned a corner,” said Prevail. But it’s also “cryptic, dark, powerful . . . it’s not a homogenous song.”
The other single, Power, is about the dangers of comparing yourself to others, in terms of material possessions or anything else. In Prevail’s opinion, “It just leads to spinning your wheels. It isn’t going to make you happy.”
He believes Power could only be delivered by a group that’s paid its dues and attained a certain level of success — and insight.
Although he and Madchild have had a lot of triumphs together and as solo artists, Prevail maintains nobody is getting complacent. “There are always challenging things to grapple with,” he said, and Swollen Members are looking to leave “some kind of lasting legacy that’s uniquely ours. … It would be nice to be an inspiration.”
Tickets to the 10 p.m. show (doors open at 9 p.m.) are $25 in advance, from Wild Bill’s at the Quality Inn North Hill or The Soundhouse in Red Deer, or $30 at the door. A limited number of VIP meet-and-greet passes are available for $45.