Brite Winter 2015 Artist Spotlight: Muamin Collective

By Jacqueline Bon

Muamin Collective bends genres and hangs metaphors out to dry on cassette tapes. They sound like the future while exploring their past.

Josiah “Zion” Quarles and Aaron “aLIVE” Snorton are longtime collaborators and even longer friends. Quarles, MC and poet, and Snorton, producer and MC, have been making music together as Muamin Collective for more than a decade.

They self-released their fourth album, So Blue It’s Black, before re-releasing it through Austin-based (iN)Sect Records, in March last year. The album is so fine-tuned that blasting to it over stereo headphones truly emphasizes its soulfulness, artistry and masterful details.

“The album represents us growing up, getting older — not just sitting around drinking brews, making beats,” said Snorton.

A big portion of Snorton’s inspiration is connected to watching his 7-year-old daughter grow up. Muamin’s previous album, World B. Free celebrated his daughter’s birth and he views it as a metaphorical bridge toward the direct dense lyricism featured on So Blue It’s Black.

So Blue It’s Black is more focused,” said Quarles. “I think in the early albums we were much more in the moment of creation and sometimes things would make no sense and it wouldn’t matter, but in this process it was a little bit more objective because we had gained perspective.” 

Quarles and Snorton refused to listen to anybody else’s expectations about record. They fine-tuned it and let it marinate for nearly four years. “It’s a concise album without any wasted parts,” said Quarles. And it’s true, the songs don’t overstay their welcome. Their succinctness leaves you feeling fulfilled — yet yearning for more.

They engineered the album in the home studio of Revolution Brass Band’s trumpet player, Jake Wynne who taught them valuable lessons in the mastering process. “Josiah has one of those million dollar voices that need a good microphone to get all the tones out of his voice, he’s a solid baritone,” Snorton said.

For Muamin, piecing the song together and making beats is a collaborative process. Quarles grew up in Shaker Heights and was 13-years old when he met Snorton, from South Euclid, at a church camp retreat. “We just wanted it to sound organic and real. We have a lot of comfortability toward each other’s thoughts because we’ve known each other since we were kids,” Quarles said.

Quarles has roots in poetry and spoken word and you can hear his skillfulness in the conciseness and turns in a lyric that create different perspectives within one song. “I didn’t start from free styling first, I started from poetry and writing in English class way early on,” he said.

It was a beautiful day, ugly part of town. / Time stands still, merry go round.

Jerseys on the field, siblings on the playground. / Everybody scatter when the gunshots sound.

These are lyrics from the second verse of “Inna City.” Quarles, who is a soccer coach in Cleveland’s Slavic Village, says the song’s inspiration happened on a sunny day when everyone at a game heard three gunshots. He says everyone froze and then fell to the ground. Quarles finds that his writing is directly inspired by formative experiences in Cleveland both good, bad and the grey area in between.

Through the poetry world, Quarles met Cleveland writer, DIY artist and Guide to Kulcher co-owner, RA “Rafiq” Washington who became a founding member of Muamin. They played their first DIY show at Inside Out, Washington’s old bookstore and gallery. Gradually, he changed direction musically and formed formed experimental rock/ spoken word band, Black Tiger before Maumin’s first full album. He remains a big influence on the group.

Muamin hopes that they age gracefully, like a fine wine — gaining perspective, deepening their flavor and perhaps even resonating with different generations.

“My mother listened to our record and she hit me with ‘I love you baby and I support everything you do but I didn’t think I would be able to listen to your album. But man…I listened to this from beginning to end!’” said Snorton. “When you do an album and somebody in a whole different generation that knows what rap is but doesn’t necessarily like it says it’s cool, when it’s crossing generations, that’s when you know you’ve made a classic.”

In the future, Snorton plans to launch a cassette label called Physical Recordings focused on producing his favorite DIY artists. Maumin’s next big move is producing a live album. Their unique show at Brite Winter will include a live band trio with Neil Chastain (drums, percussion) Mike McNamara (guitar) and Eli Henley (piano, bass, keyboard).