“What does it take / What are the stakes,” a group of middle-school kids harmonizes on the second floor of an unassuming building in Butchertown near Main Street, as Jecorey Arthur (aka 1200) plays keyboard behind them. It’s a few weeks before Forecastle, and Arthur — who kicks off the festival Friday with a 3 p.m. time slot — is hosting a rehearsal at his headquarters.
The song is “Rambo,” a cutting hip-hop track with a big chorus and sharp verses. It’s been a part of his set list for a while now, but, as anyone who has seen 1200 knows, breathing fresh life into old songs, and finding new ways to present them, is something Arthur always seems to pursue relentlessly. The youth choir sweeps into the song with an ethereal bridge, and punctuates lyrics with quick, rhythmic hits that separate lines.
Throughout the two-hour practice, director Tyler Dippold is up front and conducting the kids, selected from area schools. Arthur only sporadically chimes in with slight adjustments, or a request to run something back, with quick, charismatic comments that make it unsurprising that he has a vast music education, or that he also teaches at Hite Elementary School.
“Let’s take a vote,” Arthur says after about an hour, possibly trying to keep motivation from trailing off. “Do you want to do ‘1992’ or ‘Louisville City Football Club?’ Close your eyes, so you can’t see what everyone else is voting for.”
“Who wants to do ‘Louisville City Football Club?’”
No one raises a hand.
“Who wants to do ‘1992?’”
All nine of the kids raise their hands.
As they dive into the song, the choir, which has sung together for only a total of three hours at this point, picks up on it quickly, but Arthur stops them, signaling that something is off.
“When you guys sing this, keep in mind that this is a sample from Janet Jackson, so don’t make it sound like you’re standing on stage at the opera house.”
On the next run, the choir lets loose a little, and a more soulful version emerges.
This latest installment in the ever-changing world of 1200 adds to a long resume of innovative ideas that bridge the gap between art and activism, which has included work with the Louisville Orchestra and the urban pop-up park, ReSurfaced.
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It was a movie that initially inspired Arthur, now 24, to become a performer.
After seeing the film “Drumline,” he joined band in the sixth grade, and picked up snare drum, but, along the way, he was asked to learn a wider range of percussion parts, which, he says, taught him to not be one-dimensional. But something else happened almost simultaneously that also had an impact on his versatility as a musician — around the same time, he was also introduced to the recording studio.
“My father’s side of the family bought their own equipment, their own instruments,” he says. “And they had a studio in my father’s basement, so I would record with them, and then eventually that inspired me to save up my own money and purchase my own equipment.”
The first thing he bought was a Korg D-1200, which is where the name 1200 comes from. He produced his cousins, his friends and his own music. Between producing, making instrumentals and rapping, and, then, at school, being involved in marching band, concert band, pep band and drum-line, he started diversifying the way he made music at an early age. After more than a half decade of honing his skills through those outlets, Arthur knew that he wanted to pursue music as a career: He was just unsure how.
After high school, he thought about studying to become a recording engineer, but he was inspired to go a different direction. “My band director told me I might be a good teacher, so I took that and stuck with it,” Arthur says.
He was accepted to Moorehead State University, but a couple weeks after that he auditioned at the University of Louisville with music professor and director of percussion studies, Greg Byrne. He ended up completing the Master of Arts in Teaching program at UofL and in five years, Arthur earned two degrees, gaining a bachelor’s in music education to go with the MAT.
When he first started his undergraduate degree, writing and recording music was put on hold: “I was just practicing being a musician, in an analog sense, literally just sitting down, learning piano, learning everything that I could about percussion, music theory, all of that,” Arthur says. “I was focused on that so much that I left recording alone.”
But toward the end of completing that first degree, he circled back to his own music, applying everything that he absorbed during that strictly-education period to his hip-hop. That’s when he started working on his first album, Symphony I.
“It was really just a collection of old songs that I visited throughout college, but I never really completed,” Arthur says. “I never felt comfortable releasing them.”
He ended up releasing the record in August 2014, the same month that he started graduate school.
“From the start of grad school to when I finished is the time that I think that I progressed the most as a hip-hop artist, even more so than when I was 12 years old, recording in that studio, because just in that one year that I was in grad school, I played that show at Headliners, with JaLin and Dr. Dundiff, where I brought out the choir and the strings. That was the product of me studying classical music for those years, and building those relationships as a musician. I did those shows, I did small festivals, and I think that year alone, I feel like that put me where I am today.”
Louisville hip-hop staple James Lindsay, who formerly went by JaLin Roze, and has played multiple shows with 1200, says that it’s the vortex of all Arthur’s combined skills that has defined his progression as an artist.
“It’s a whole a performance piece,” says Lindsay, who has also recorded music with Arthur under the name 1200 Rozes. “I think that’s really dope. It really attaches his knowledge of music theory, and that’s also a big thing, too — to be able to go to school for some of these things, to teach some of these things and then to be able to put them into action.”
Although he’s now done a diverse series of shows, Arthur’s initial entry point into the music scene was through a local rock band called Jack Holiday & The Westerners.
“One of my best friends played drums for them. The frontman — his name’s Scott Whitehouse — he’s like, ‘There’s a 25-percent chance that this will happen.’ And I rapped for him, and he was like ‘Man, you got to do it.’ And then he kept asking me to come back. I would hop on stage and rap randomly with them during their shows. How they operated as a band in rehearsal setting taught me a lot. So, from being with a rock band, and performing — and it was just one little verse that I would do — but from that, it kind of opened up the door for me to say, ‘Let me try something with my own group.’”
His first show billed as his own project was at The Rudyard Kipling, which he landed through knowing some UofL grad students studying jazz.
“I labeled it as Jecorey Arthur, because no one knew me as 1200 at that day and age,” he says. “So, we did a bunch of jazz tunes and remixed some of the parts to sound more ‘hippy-hoppy’ which is what the Brazilians called it.”
That resulted in a year booked with shows, from a big electric set at GonzoFest to a subtle strings-oriented one at the Seven Sense Festival to a Fourth of July performance on the Great Lawn with the Louisville Orchestra.
“From that to this point, I would say, it’s always been a constant change, experimenting with the musicians around me,” Arthur says. “I honestly don’t feel that I have a very clear, definitive 1200 sound. That’s important, because I don’t want people to get bored with what I do, with the music, with the activism, with any of that.”
“So, yeah, I started with a rock band, with that one verse,” he continues. “It was the Velvet Underground, ‘Sweet Jane.’ They did a cover of that, and I put a 16 on it.”
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Arthur is currently working on a double album called Seance/Unbridled Spirit, which is about half-way finished, although the entirety of it is already written. The concept of the album is split: One side will focus on the darker aspects of life, and the other will reflect the brighter side.
“The whole dark side — it’s weird — because a lot of it resembles track after track after track, then it kind of transitions into the lighter side of the album,” he says. “I have some really interesting collaborations on there, really left field stuff. Then, the lighter, happier side — it’s a little complex for me, because I used to not ever write in major keys. The lighter side is about progression. That’s been a struggle, but it’s also been fun to experiment, to force myself to be inspired by happiness and brightness. There are certain albums that I refuse to listen to when it’s warm outside. I’m trying to make this where it can be out in any point in time, so there’s a lot of different sonic colors that I’m trying to make sure it’s timeless — that is doesn’t have a season attached to it.”
Nick Burke, longtime collaborator and sometimes-producer of 1200 — who has been heavily involved in the sessions so far — says the new material will move the music in a new direction.
“It’s going to be a lot different than what people are probably expecting,” says Burke, who met Arthur during their freshman year of college, bonding over making beats and rapping over them with a Korg and a laptop. “I know a lot of the stuff that he originally came in with was a lot different than what I expected, but I’m all for it. I think a lot of people are expecting a rap-heavy project. I think, at this point, he wants to explore being a little bit more musical, beyond just rap, so there are instances where there is not really any rapping. Some of it’s just instrumental-type stuff, and not necessarily hip-hop instrumentals.”
From the time that he started making music to now, Arthur sees his music as changing in two major ways.
“Identity is the first change,” he says. “When I first started rapping, when I was first in the studio with my uncles and my father’s family, they grew up in one specific place, they had one specific outlook on life. They talked about their upbringing, whether it was selling drugs or getting arrested or whatever it was happening in their community. They wrote lyrics about it. That’s what the content was. So, I, being a product of my environment, I absorbed that, and I talked about the same thing. I talked about my upbringing and the hardships that I had to face. And that’s a lot of what hip-hop is: the knowledge element. Where you are talking about those things, and the oppression that you face. And I think oppression is a huge part of hip-hop. But, as I grew up and I got to travel outside of the hood and I got outside of Louisville and I got outside of Kentucky and I got outside of the country, I saw so many different things that started to influence me in a different way. And, from there, I realized you don’t just have to identify with your upbringing in the lyrics.”
And, for him, it’s not about deleting life’s hardships from his music, but he has started to think differently in terms of how he presents those elements.
“You can use the music to reflect that,” Arthur says. “You think of Tchaikovsky: He might have had a rough upbringing, but he wasn’t writing raps about it. He might have had a really sad, droopy melody in the cello section, or something like that. So, I started thinking: How can I communicate darkness without using it in lyrics? How can I do that musically, literally just with the sounds of instruments?”
It is a mindset he has tried to spread, especially during shows that he presents — Arthur schedules the programing of ReSurfaced, which takes a vacant space and turns it into a community hangout about twice a year, is involved in other capacities with City Collaborative and helps with other events around town. But that mindset also can cause tension. He definitely thinks there’s a time and a place for gloves-off, unhinged lyrics, but recognizing when to steer away from it, he says, is the challenge.
“I get backlash for this as someone who curates events and shows: I talk to artists often about understanding the audience, and making sure you’re playing to that and catering to that,” Arthur says. “And I definitely don’t think it’s a matter of taking away from your art and censorship, but, you know, if you’re on stage, and there’s a 6 year old in the crowd, would you really want to implement your way of thinking? Or even if you’re just singing a narrative of something you experienced growing up: Would you really want to expose that 6 year old to that without explanation, without proper communication of that? It just seems like a lot of people are very narrow-minded when it comes to censorship. And a lot of people don’t realize the impact they have on kids. We don’t realize a lot of times as rappers.”
“For example, in my classroom, I can talk about Beethoven and Haydn, and all those dudes all day long, but the kids aren’t going to relate to that: They’re not going to resonate with them as much as if I would say, ‘Let’s look at this hip-hop artist and their music and break it down in a certain way,’” he says. “That’s the day and age that they live in. They grew up with that music. They listen to that music. A lot of popular musicians don’t understand their influence.”
The second way he sees his own evolution is through collaboration.
“I have a song called ‘Oz.’ I’ve performed that with a jazz quartet, a string quartet, my homie, Nick B., who I produced it with, where it has this huge hip-hop sound, and I’ve performed it with the choir. I think it’s all about experimenting, and trying new things.”
The more you’re around 1200, the more you realize that everything he does orbits around progress — personally and through community building. His creative wheels seem to never stop turning, and he never seems quite satisfied with his work, whether that’s an idea that sparked a live performance, or a parking lot that he helped turn into a weekend of live music. For him, it seems, there’s always room for more.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who met Arthur a few years back through the local music scene, says that Arthur successfully combines art and activism because of his infectious leadership ability.
“First off, you have to have an approach that is welcoming and inquisitive of where other people are coming from, and he has a really big abundance mentality, as I would call it, where there’s plenty of room for everybody to participate and make our city a better place, or make a music performance a better performance, and he invites all kinds of people into that experience — young people, old people, black, white, Muslim, Christian, whomever,” says Fischer. “When you walk with confidence and humility and creativity like he does, other people want to be a part of his team or around him.”
“How he’s progressed, to me, personally, as a man, as a human being — what he’s done outside of music,” Lindsay says. “When I first met him, I didn’t know he was doing that much stuff outside of music. He’s always doing some sort of charity-type work. Some of the stuff that he’s done with ReSurfaced. He’s just all about changing the city.”
And that ambition mixed with an effort to give back definitely carried over into this forthcoming Forecastle set, something Burke says turned a sure and safe thing into something risky, but it ended up paying off.
“I really feel like, in those rehearsals that it just felt really easy and natural, at least on the end of the core three of us,” Burke says. “I feel like this is the most solid and comfortable we’ve felt with these songs, that it kind of all led up to this point. I guess when we get this project done, it will be a way to retire some of these songs. As far as an ensemble, we’ve done everything from strings to an adult choir. With his position at [Jefferson County Public Schools], I know he wanted to do something involving students, but, at the same time, have that fusion of classical and hip-hop. But, when he first brought up that idea of putting kids on stage, me and Drew the DJ, we were kind of like, ‘I don’t know, this might be a lot of work.’ But, I think it came together really nicely and the kids are doing a great job.”
So, why did 1200 take the time to put together a choir of kids and spend hours and hours of rehearsal time teaching them his songs for one of the biggest concerts of his career?
“I think the human voice, second to the piano, is just such a versatile instrument,” Arthur says. “You have the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. And I definitely wanted to take every statement that I make in music and just put it into that instrumentation. I just wanted to have that layered into the music. And, everything that I do is dedicated to the youth, our future. So, giving them the opportunity to perform meant a lot to me, and I think once they’re actually at the festival, on that stage, and in that atmosphere, they’ll understand the value of that experience.”