Iceberg Theory talks "Philokalia", his Minnesota Retreat and the Power of Spoken Word (Interview)
Iceberg Theory is an emcee out New Jersey who tackles hip-hop a bit differently than most. After his journey to Minnesota for a retreat it refined his views and contributed to his art. Below you can stream his loaded album "Philokalia" as you read this interview. There's a lot going here so pay attention and as always keep it locked at Dead End Hip Hop for more interviews and features.
DEHH: For those who don't know, who is Iceberg Theory?
Iceberg Theory: Iceberg Theory is an emcee and writer, and for the time being, my main outlet of creative expression. For as long as I can remember, I've been writing poetry and rhymes. The name comes from a writing technique created by Ernest Hemingway. The idea is that in dialogue, most of what is really happening is going on beneath the surface. I think that the same applies to songwriting, and I try to always give people a lot more than what they might get on first listen. I want listeners to be able to play my album a year later and catch something that they might have missed.
DEHH: Now you aren't new to this you've been in the game for a while, tell us a bit about your career up to this point?
Iceberg Theory: I've been making music for the past ten years. I've gone by a few different monikers as a solo artist and worked with a couple of groups, but I'm excited to finally be at the stage where I feel that my work really represents what I am capable of making, and I am always trying to get closer to fully realizing that potential. My life has also gone in a far different direction than I would have pictured when I started making music and I think that plays a big role in how my sound has evolved. In the past few years I've been wrestling with trying to live out a monastic vocation in our society and when you listen to the music, the subject matter revolves around that.
DEHH: You just recently released your album "Philokalia" and the meaning is a lot deeper than I think most will realize, what is "Philokalia"?
Iceberg Theory: The "Philokalia" is a book of spiritual writings from the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church...I read about it in a book called "The Way of a Pilgrim," another classic which tells the story of a wandering mendicant in Russia. He visits these elder monks and tells them that he wants to learn to pray constantly and they give him the "Philokalia" as a key to understanding the nature of the Jesus Prayer...The elder monks tell him to constantly repeat the prayer as he travels and the "Philokalia" helps him learn how to achieve the ideal of constant prayer.
That is basically the idea behind my album. It was structured to represent the seven prayer times in the liturgy of the hours. In a monastery, when the bells ring, the monks have to put down whatever they are doing so they can gather in the chapel and pray. So when you see the "B-Sides" of the album, that's the idea behind it. There are the songs on the album that are me just rhyming, but the "B-Sides" take the listener out of that and into a more contemplative atmosphere.
DEHH: Exactly how did "Philokalia" come to pass? How did you link up with Tokyo Cigar?
Iceberg Theory: About two years ago I left New Jersey to live in Minnesota at a spiritual retreat center as a live in chef. The retreat center had a community of workers who lived in a monastic fashion, mediating at specific times, eating as a group, ect...I had the idea for this album before I left Jersey and wanted to work on it at the retreat center. So Tokyo Cigar crafted the soundscape and sent it to me before I drove to MN. Then when I was there, I was able to work on the album. A lot of it was written and recorded in a one room hermitage on the retreat center's property. It was in the middle of pine forest and surrounded by marshes...I learned so much during that time at the retreat center. I was reading a ton, but also just the experience of living in community and then having those solo retreats. The whole thing gave me a very clear picture of how I want to live in this world and what I can do to serve people, so I am thankful for that experience. Now that I'm back in the world, I'm dreaming of creating a hermitage of my own and having a place where people can get away and reconnect with what's important in their lives. Whether that means they need the space to work on a creative pursuit or to take a week to fast and live in silence, I want to create a space that is conducive to both.
As far as linking with Tokyo Cigar, we've been working for ages...We made our first album almost 10 years ago as The Plexiglass Fountain and have been making music ever since. The crazy thing is that all of The Plexiglass Fountain albums were made sending shit back and forth online. I think it was when we were making our second album "Midnight Hindsight" we actually got to link in person. Shit's been cool though. I'm thankful for the history we have because when I approached him with the idea for the album, he knew exactly how to craft the sound I was looking for, even though I didn't know exactly what it was. Tokyo is one of the most versatile and creative producers I've heard in my life. Dude always is expanding his sound...every album he does has its own style. "Philokalia" is no different.
DEHH: Who are some of your influences?
Iceberg Theory: Man, so many to name...GZA is one of my favorite emcees ever. I always appreciated how thought out his shit was and I remember reading about how it would take him the longest to write out of everyone in the Wu-Tang Clan. I've always connected with that. Ka is another emcee that's another master of that style. No matter how many times you listen to his shit, I guarantee that some line will catch you that you didn't notice...I also love billy woods and Elucid. They're two of my favorite emcees right now as well and by the grace of God, they're actually in a group (Armand Hammer). Brother Ali was a huge influence for me. He was the first artist I saw that combined his spiritual life with his music so seamlessly. Like when I first heard "Picket Fence" it touched me at my core...songs like that show how much music can do.
Beyond Hip Hop, my biggest influence is without a doubt Thomas Merton (who is all over "Philokalia"). He was a Trappist monk and a writer. It was when I first read his spiritual autobiography "The Seven Storey Mountain" I began to contemplate a monastic vocation. It's really hard to over emphasize how much his work shifted the course of my life. I find Merton really interesting because of how much his writing evolved over the years...like when he first became a monk, his stuff was way more traditional and what you would expect a monk to write, but as he got older and experienced everything that was going on in the 60's, his entire perspective shifted and he began covering way more in his writing. He began to talk more explicitly about politics, race, other religions, the peace movement, etc. It was also during this time that he became a hermit at his monastery, Gethsamani, which I find fascinating considering that as he became more solitary, the scope of his writing expanded.
DEHH: Tell me a bit more about the impact the retreat had not just on the project at hand, but also your life.
Iceberg Theory: The impact was really immense...it was eye opening in a lot of ways. One thing that really stuck out to me was the aspect of living in community. The group that was working at the retreat center shifted a lot while I was there, but there were anywhere from 3 to around 7 people living and working at any one point, and I was by far the youngest. So that put me in contact with a lot of people at varying stages of their lives and spiritual paths and it was cool to see how every one really had their own unique way of looking at things. Like one woman I lived with was a Methodist pastor, another was a Buddhist who spent years of her life wandering...like one day when we were sitting down for dinner she told me that after her kids grew up and left the house, she was working as a produce manager at a co-op...when she was on break, this hawk landed on the fence outside and then immediately took off north. She told me when she saw that, she immediately quit her job and started traveling.
So just living with all these different people and having conversations about the spiritual life really was cool. And then there were the people who actually stayed at the retreat center. We would eat as a big group with the people on retreat so I ended up having conversation with a lot of different people throughout the year that I was there. Seeing how much being on retreat effected them made me want to continue in that vocation somehow, even if it wouldn't be at that particular place. People are so wound up, and with technology how it is, it's like you need to be available 24/7...when you go on retreat and you're in the woods and you wake up in the middle of nature, it just gives you an entirely different perspective. I feel like in the city, every single thing that is there is made somehow to serve some type of utilitarian function for humans. In the woods, you're in the middle of this organism that exists outside of its use to humans, and no matter how stressful my job got, when I would step outside and see all of the life around me it helped me understand that our day to day lives are not as important as we make them out to be.
DEHH: You mix spoken word with hip-hop, so you aren't just dropping bars but you're taking time to craft a more focused and in my opinions sometimes meditative piece. Why the juxtaposition?
Iceberg Theory:I think the spoken word pieces help break up the album a bit and give people the chance to get a little context to see where I am coming from beyond just hearing the rhymes. I knew from the outset that they would not be for everyone and was a little nervous dropping the whole thing because some of the content is very personal, but I think it just adds another layer that listeners can take in...in a sense it's all just a part of building the world that the album exists in. A lot of people might be unfamiliar with monastic life and the poetry sections of the album cover some of the same content that I am talking about throughout the project, but it's offered in a way that might resonate differently.
DEHH: I get a mix of answers when I ask this but I'm really interested to hear your answer. What do you want the listeners, the fans to take away from this album?
Iceberg Theory:I don't think there's really one particular message I'm trying to get across. I would hope that if someone took the time to listen to my album that they would get the same sort of experience that I got reading Thomas Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain" or Saint Augustine's "Confessions." The way they were able to describe their lives so vividly and show God's providence, I wanted to do that, but on a Hip Hop album because that's my medium. And then some of it is just rhyming for its own sake...shit like "Leather bound books in the scriptorium / portrait of Dorian..." I wasn't trying to get anything in particular across with that. It's just one frame from the movie.
DEHH: You're light on the collabs on this one. Why is that? And walk me through the two collaborations on the record in "Michael Jackson Socks" "Scienta Sacra" & "Gethsemani".
Iceberg Theory: One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about this artform was when I met Ka when he was selling "The Night's Gambit" in front of the old Fat Beats store...he said that it doesn't matter who you get on your album...when you come into your own as an artist, that is who people are going to listen for. After that I started to look at features a lot differently and one rule of thumb I go by is that if I'm getting someone on my song, there's gotta be a chance that 9 times out of 10 they're gonna outshine me. Tokyo's gonna be on damn near everything I drop just since we have that history and his rhymes speak for themselves. I mean, he produced the whole project so it was only right that he rap on it. As far as the other features, Alaska, Defcee and Paranom are three of my favorite emcees currently making music. I feel like if I don't feel that way about an emcee, what's the point of working? At that point it's just the laziness of not wanting to write another verse.
DEHH: What's coming next for Iceberg Theory, when will we be getting a follow-up to this? Will we be seeing you on tour?
Iceberg Theory: I have a few things in the works that I'm really excited about. I have a new website coming that's going to be a home base for all my creative work...I'm gonna have photography up there, my beat tapes playing, and some essays I'm working on as well. I think it will let people see my vision from a few different angles. As far as other rap projects, I have an EP coming with my dude Ohini Jonez. Was just listening to some of the first mixes for that and I think people are gonna fuck with it. I'm also working on a full length album with August Fanon...get familiar with his work if you aren't already...that project is going to be something really special. And before too long, I'll also be dropping an EP of some "Philokalia" remixes and songs recorded in this same era, most produced by August Fanon...there's some gems on that one too.
As far as touring, I don't really see that happening...performing is one aspect of the art that I'm not really that interested in. I feel like my particular sound doesn't really lend itself to what people want to hear when they are at a show...like if you want to have some drinks, dance, and generally have a good time it's probably better I stay off the stage...I think it would be cool if there was a venue where I could perform the whole project from front to back. Nothing is in the plans for that now, but I think if people went into the show with that sort of mindset, it could work alright.
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