Cultured & Empowered: An Interview With Culture Power45’s Thaione Davis

During the turn of the century, discovering new music became a bit more accessible. As the years progressed, CDs & downloads became much more prevalent. Unsolicited material would make its way to critics across the country with much of it piling up with a growing number of unlistened to material. This happened – happens – often.

Years ago I received a recording entitled Situation Renaissance by Chicago’s Thaione Davis. The cover featured Davis in a cloud of cigarette smoke, in black & white imagery with colored letterings. With little to no information received with the music, I didn’t know what to expect. What I found were eight tracks that almost defied classification, filled with Davis’ urging delivery on top of a variety of beats that fused jazz, funk, and thick deep bass lines.

Since that time, following Thaione Davis’ progression has been worth the listen, with a growth that extends farther than his own music, as he later established Culture Power45, a label and community effort along with Infinito 2017, whose reach continues to stretch farther. That’s not to say Davis, as rested on his laurels, releasing album after album of like The Joys Of Life And Pain, Seventeen, Donald Mayhem – SKYWRITTERS, many others, and a wide array of singles.

This isn’t just about Thaione Davis though because his focus isn’t only self, instead literally building with those around him. With Culture Power45, Davis is about taking Chicago’s underground Hip-Hop to the next level, but allowing others from across the country, expanding on a sound and style that’s unclassifiable.

Ghettoblaster: Thaione Davis!

Thaione: What up tho’? Shit, it’s been a minute, how do you feel?

Ghettoblaster: It’s been good, busy at work but same ol’, same ol’.

Thaione: Gotta get the paper, gotta grind.

Ghettoblaster: How’s your mental?

Thaione: My headspace is great man! Like I feel better than ever to be honest. I mean I know that we’re in some trying times and not to discredit what’s going on but my headspace is actually good. Because I choose to be good, you know what I’m sayin’? I can’t even entertain no negativity, no goofy shit so I’m at peace. Straight up.

We talked briefly before about how the past year was crazy for many, no one could avoid it. Unless you’re David Geffen who posted about quarantining on his yacht. It’s been a minute. Personally, how have you maneuvered through the past year?

I’ve stayed busy, I’ve been really active but a lot of activity was more so behind the scenes, doing a lot of stuff behind the curtain, to keep cats moving and creating new enterprises. This year… especially with Culture Power, at the height of the pandemic and throughout the whole thing, we still were able to manage to release premium quality products in the midst of it all. People gravitated towards it so that was huge right there. That keeps your momentum and your spirit high for one (thing).

I had gone to the site and checked out some Culture Power gear. Everything was sold out!

Yeah it moves fast. It’s like the name “Culture Power” is synonymous with “you better get it now or it’s going to be gone!”

You launched Culture Power 45 back in 2017.

2017? Yeah, I guess so. December right?

I believe so.

It’s been such a run – honestly. I’ve been ripping and running, me and Infinito I couldn’t even tell you the start date but I remember it was cold.

I remember you hitting me up and letting me know you were starting something.

Ok, there it is.

But the past year you killed it, there was a lot of hot music released. 2020 there didn’t seem to be a slow down regardless of what was going on around us. Was that the goal?

Well the goal, first and foremost, was to be consistent and just progressive. Things were put in place even before the pandemic began, and as it progressed. Since those wheels were already in motion, it was kind of like volleyball; it was a setup and we had to keep spiking it down. That’s what we tried to do every single time, especially with releases. We tried to keep them pressed up way in advance before we even mention anything online, do any pre-orders, or flat out say, “here it is.” There are four records right now ready to go that we just haven’t even mentioned. So we definitely try to stay punctual and consistent. That helped keep everything moving fluidly.

How have, or rather, did you have to adapt to change the past year?

Well right now you’re starting to see – for us personally – we’re starting to see some of the effects. Because when you deal with pressing plants… I remember, I think last year you had some mastering plating places close, pressing plants close, and now you’re starting to see delays in the manufacturing of vinyl across the board. We’re experiencing it, a handful of my peers are also. That’s definitely been an adjustment to what we’ve been used to. Even though we try to keep ourselves ahead of our own schedule, us being on time is still kind of late for us, the way we approach it. We like to be early.

Now with some of your artists on Culture Power45, who’s been blowing your mind, or the standout as of late?

Oh man, every release is always interesting. I’m personally attached; I’ve got blood sweat & equity in every project. One record, as far as audio wise, which to me is a full-bodied glass of wine is probably one of the most recent records and that’s Prime Diesel. It’s Primeridian and Rashid Hadee. You turn that on and it just flows. I resequenced that record for vinyl because the digital version that they did, the sequence is a little different, so I flipped it up for the flow to balance out  both sides of the record. That record to me, it just sits really well. You can soak that one in real good. All of them are great because I think the artwork kind of pulls at your heartstrings before you even press play. To me it was always important to make an emotional connection before you even hear the music. It’s just as important on the art side as it is equally important on the audio side. I like all of them (he laughs) but that Prime Diesel is really refreshing starting the year off to ride out to that.

Now I’ve told you before that your album Still Here, to me, that’s a future classic. So it doesn’t surprise me that you say that the Rashid Hadee, Prime Diesel joint – his collaboration with Primeridian – hits differently for you considering he produced your album when that came out as well.

Cats are sitting on a nest egg of music. It’s just packaging it right, crossing T’s, dotting I’s, it’s just taking that quality control comb through it before we present things publicly. I’m probably sitting on a good 6 or 7 projects with my name or under aliases that I just haven’t pushed out. Infinito, he stays consistent with it but I’m here in Chicago so a lot of the artists, the fellowship, I’m dealing with guys directly. I haven’t put myself in the forefront quite yet.

That was the next thing I wanted to talk to you about. You and I first talked around 2004 I think, circulating around Situation Renaissance when I first discovered your music.

The Renaissance record, yeah that was a good time.

Can’t believe it was that long ago. You’ve built a healthy catalog yourself with a number of albums and E.P.s. Your last album, Donald Mayhem Skywriters dropped back in 2015.

Yeah, that was the last public record I would say. That was the record when I said “I’m not doing anymore digital, fuck it I’m taking a break.” It stems from doing a lot of touring and then understanding, from the artist standpoint…let’s say for now, you get .0058 cents per stream under the Spotify act. Those are fractions of fractions, decimals of decimals. You can sell one record at $20 all year and you might make more on that one sale than you might make in streams that entire year. After that Skywriters record, the stuff that I’m doing now, I want to make it more discoverable, make it an interesting journey for cats. I’ve done a couple of projects since Skywriters but they weren’t public. If you caught me at a show you might’ve got it. Skywriters was the last public one but like I said, this year you should see another full length with my name on it. I’ve got a 45 actually coming, I believe next month, if not May at the latest. It’s under my name, not under any alias or anything.

But last year in December you released “M.I.A.,” a Kenny Keys produced joint.

Aaaaah right. Kenny is in Texas, he’s not in Chicago anymore. I was just going though a batch of Kenny beats and it’s always an inside running joke with Kenny or Fifth Element. Sometimes the beats will circulate. For instance, me and Racebannon might both have the same beat, not know it and knock out joints. We’re sharing with each other saying, “Check this out,” and next thing you know is we’re, “Yo man, I just ripped over that!” So that’s why when I kicked it off I was like “I was digging through a box of Kenny beats” and I was like, “I don’t care if anyone rhymes over it.” But Kenny, that’s my man. Anything I’m doing I always try to make sure certain key people are involved just to keep giving them momentum like Kenny Keys, Rashid Hadee, my man Cosmo Galactus. (Cosmo) went from emceeing, and then I taught him how to do photography when we were on tour in Europe. I taught him how to take pictures in France and a couple of years later he’s a published author. He has a photography book and he’s doing his thing. He’s doing videos and we still record. I’m just trying to keep positive energy around cats, trying to serve as a vessel for those who don’t get a chance to express themselves. This is a tough life on top of a regular life as a man. I think we move the needle every time we do something. Or I would hope we do because it’s genuine, it’s pure. It means something, it’s not contrived.

Even with Culture Power, one of the premises behind it… for the most part people, in general, don’t know a lot about Africa for the most part. I’m just going to throw that out there. They might not think it’s cool, so how do you fix that notion? We purposefully put hints, subliminals, little nuggets, little easter eggs here referencing back to Africa just so they can open up the box and go down the rabbit hole by themselves. and discover places like Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ebequita, Obuja instead of just Legos and Nigeria. It’s just vocabulary and when cats start seeing it, there’s more to the preconceived notion to have, then it might start becoming cool. We’re having fun doing that, it’s like an educational thing, one big art project to be honest. Alive, organic, curated gallery. that’s pretty much what Culture Power is. It’s not just the music. I don’t think people look to us as having a definitive sound, more so as a definitive nugget of art. You can’t say “Culture Power45 sounds like this” because the releases are all over the place. From Philmore Greene to Nacrobats to L.I.F.E Long out in NY. It’s broad but it’s still raw.

It’s pretty diverse with the selection of emcees on the roster.

I guess it’s like a natural evolution, ’cause I’ve gone through the ranks of working at the record store, to being the buyer at the store, working for the distribution company, to being the distribution manager; I’ve worn all the hats. The first people that gave me a spot on stage is Prime Meridian. We were in college at U of I. I’m showing my age now.

We can say it was a while ago.

Yeah, that’s what we say, it was a while ago. So Primeridian was already out and I had their joint in high school. I get to college and they’re cracking! They’re just tearing it up! I’m on the side of the stage, we’re going up next; I wasn’t nervous but my adrenaline was up on 400 and ready. My man Tree (Tha Scarecrow) from Primeridian was like, “You wrote your rhymes? Just get up there and spit them.” That simple piece of acknowledgement & motivation has taken me from the south side of Chicago to the outskirts of Russia and back. Tenfold. In 2021 I’m actually releasing their record so it’s all full-circle. It’s a blessing, I’m fully enjoying the ride. No doubt.

I can appreciate that. Now you have four albums dropping this year, is that one for every quarter?

See, some projects involve other people. I’ve always had a studio but no one can come to the studio. My crib is quarantined (we laughs). I’ve seen people because I’ve shot some video for folk but no one’s been to the lab in over a year. That’s a first but me and Cosmo have a project, Geonoa Rock, we put out a 45 last Spring just to kind of test the waters and we were probably 90% done with the recording and mixing – still some kinks we wanted to work out – but he hasn’t been able to come to the lab so we can do it in person. Coronavirus stopped a lot of my collaborative projects because I like to be in person. I always say that if you stay within 3 to 5 hours (from me), I’m not sending anymore verses through the internet, let’s link up, that’s a road trip. Let me come to your spot or come to mine; let’s have fellowship like we used to.

So now what are you planning on doing the rest of the year to close it out with the label?

Man, keep hitting them. Smacking them with those limited edition “go find them joints.” (laughter) We’ve got a bunch of things cracking, there’s some delays at the pressing plants but we’re still on target for a lot of releases. We have four in the pocket right now and that’s not even half the year over. 45s, vinyl, expanding our overseas market even more. That’s always the goal. Overseas to me has always been important because they’ve always shown me love out the gate. When I first went over there it felt like 1984, and this was in 2000. It’s reaffirming when you go somewhere and are judged based strictly on off the merit of your music; no politics, no sugarcoating. They mess with it, they support the culture.

They support the Culture Power.

Culture Power indeed! The year looks fruitful and I think I could say by the end of the year we might have amassed damn near 50 releases since we started. I’m in the lab right now looking at one of the wall and looking at about 20. Those are the 12″ records, not even looking at the 45s. We’ve been busy, we’ve been steady but we’re trying to keep growing and not necessarily give a voice of the underground but just the pulse of the culture. We’re always looking for up and coming cats, dudes, females, groups, whatever; just to kick back some of the knowledge we’ve gotten over the years. That’s honestly how I feel I’ve grown, by sharing my experiences and kicking back some knowledge to help cats avoid some of the pitfalls here and there, and understand the business of it and the true power of independence. Like you said, still here.

Still Here.

We just did the 10 year anniversary and I never put it out on vinyl on purpose. I didn’t want to shoot a video for the title track for 10 years, I said that out the gate. We finally shot it, had it subtitled in French; just something clever and witty. Just the fact that I can still release Still Here and it has a little spark, shows the power of independence. This is your art, who says you can’t work your record for 10 years? It’s yours. Someone that was 15 when the record came out might not have had his own chance to discover that album. 10 years later he’s 25. He should be discovering Still Here and the likes of others. You can’t discredit yourself when it comes to your art because it’s perpetual and I think cats don’t really understand that sometimes. They make that record and move on to the next one. The previous record dies because they make something new. I’d rather push a whole life’s work at the same time which shows an evolution of the character or personality.

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