WORDS BY SHANNON HAZLITT
VIDEO BY KATHRYN ISAAC
From the moment the alternative rap trio DEF-Bananas stepped into the room, they projected an upbeat vibe and a strong connection. The group spoke to 20 Watts about its humble beginning in the suburb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and the challenges as one of the few rap and hip-hop groups to stay true to positive messages and honest stories. Each member of the ‘three-headed monster,’ consisting of producer Kam Dela Coopsta VII and lyricists GQ and Mr. Lugo, shared what they bring to the group. They even discussed experiences that have shaped their music and dreams to make a lasting impact around the globe. They capped off the afternoon with an a cappella performance, showing that their confidence and high expectations are backed by rhythmic skills and passionate lyrics. Here’s the scoop on what inspires DEF-Banana’s beats.
1. When did your band first form and how did you guys get together?
KAM: We always made beats in our basement. Junior year we started to make real songs. After that we had this whole group of people that liked making music and we went under this umbrella: DEF-Bananas productions. We all just really vibed out together. We performed at Drexel for the first time in 2010.
2. Is Cherry Hill, New Jersey where all of you are originally from? Or is there anywhere else you’ve lived that’s inspired your music?
MR. LUGO: I was born in New York, but I moved to Jersey by the age of five. Both places have influenced my childhood, though.
3. How has being from Cherry Hill, New Jersey in particular shaped your music?
GQ: Kam and me went to high school together and were always involved with a cappella and choir groups. What really shaped our music and helped us out was our high school choir teacher. She really opened us up to a lot of stuff. We sang in Italian, Russian, and German. We really learned so much and that helped spark our interest in other genres and worldly music.
4. What about your music do you think makes you stand out most?
MR. LUGO: Kam likes to stand out. He doesn’t like just use the typical “clap clap.” He’ll go deep into the archives and look for something completely different. A lot of people where we are from don’t sing, but [Kam and GQ] both sing very well, so they bring that into the group. We all listen to different music, so that influences how we rap in our songs as well. We also don’t lie in our songs like people who rap about owning a Lamborghini and don’t even have their license or their permit. We just keep it honest.
KAM: I think what really shapes our music, and what really shapes my sound for our group, is basically not doing what everyone else is doing. I feel like we try harder to stand out and do our own thing from what is already out there instead of trying to be the best in music that sounds the same.
5. What about your lyricism in particular separates it from other rap music?
GQ: Wordplay. Incessant wordplay. I often use it to throw in like a thousand sports references in my raps. I like to use wordplay and metaphors to try and make people think.
MR. LUGO: We don’t just do the basics like rhyming words – we use a lot of literary devices. Alliteration is one of my favorites. We don’t just do the basics – we paint pictures, tell stories, and show our true emotions.
6. What are some other styles of music that inspired your unique sound?
KAM: I grab a lot influence from jazzier songs with hard base piano chords. I like piano – whenever I make the melodic portion of the music, I like to base it off of a lot of intricate chords. I also like the emotion in German music. I like to draw on a lot of that intense emotion from artists like Mendelssohn. I think it makes our message sent through music rather than sent through words.
7. What are some of the main messages you hope your music conveys?
GQ: I feel like we want people to know the truth about whatever it is we are talking about. I feel like if what we’re getting across can make you happy, dance, know the truth, then I know we have something.
MR. LUGO: With my music, I just like to push my positivity into other people’s brains. I like to flood people’s brains with positive thoughts – I don’t like to be negative.
KAM: My message is more or less, do whatever you want to do. I feel like I have a weird way of rapping – kind of scattered and all over the place. But I like that. I think it pushes our originality and message to do whatever you want to do.
8. What and who are some other inspirations for your music?
GQ: I have so many…Chris Martin from Coldplay is just an absolute genius. Wale is defiantly my inspiration rapping-wise. AC/DC is my favorite band. I also have a lot of influences outside of music. The greatness of athletes like [Lionel] Messi, Dennis Rodman, and LeBron really motivates me. I look at it like if he can be great, then there is no excuse for me not to be great, too.
MR. LUGO: My main influences are Big E, Kid Cudi, and Big Sean. All of them have a flow. Flow is very important to me. If you are going to convey a message, at least make the message stick with flow.
KAM: Pharrell is my main influence. He is a pioneer who opens doors nobody else has opened by transcending genres. That’s what I want to do. I want to make music and I don’t like feeling stuck in a box, or is just labeled rap or hip-hop. He also inspires my work ethic outside of music because his music affects everything – clothes, fashion, people, technology. My goal is to have my music as something that stands out and affects culture, not just music.
9. I have to ask: Where did the name DEF-Bananas come from?
KAM: The word Def is just an abbreviation of the word Definitely. Bananas just means crazy. I like to put our music in the category, or genre, of DEF-Bananas. It was a friend who originally described a song I put on Myspace as DEF-Bananas and the term just stuck. I think it’s catchy and you don’t forget it.
10. How old are all of you?
KAM: We are all a flat 20 years old.
11. What do you do outside of your music career?
GQ: I go to community college – Camden Country College. I’m a music major there.
MR. LUGO: I’m a proud father.
KAM: I study at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
12. What have been some of the challenges of being a rising alternative rap group?
GQ: You don’t make what everyone wants to listen to. You don’t make what’s on the radio and you don’t what major labels want to push to people because they love pushing ignorance and it’s not exactly ignorance that we send out. Our songs may seem ignorant, but they are more made for people’s enjoyment and don’t promote what a lot of mainstream media promotes…
MR. LUGO: …guns, sex, violence, Molly, and expensive cars.
KAM: Coming from our area, like all of us are from five to seven minutes from Camden, we’re kind of in this environment where everyone like loves to promote violence and negativity. That’s not what we are about, but that’s like the norm often in hip-hop culture. We reach people who have the capacity to open their minds and broaden their horizons. That’s our target audience – that’s just the trouble involved – being able to reach that audience. But we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.
13. What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
GQ: I’m not satisfied yet – I won’t be satisfied until I can perform around the world. Until that moment, I don’t like to brag or talk too much about the things I’ve done.
MR. LUGO: I say the same thing. But I won’t be satisfied until I can buy my mom a house.
KAM: We’re had our pinnacles of small successes. I feel like gaining a certain kind of status around our area and certain places where it’s like people know our music. I’m just glad if you bring us up in our area, people know who we are. It’s just really cool knowing people are interested in what we do.
MR. LUGO: It’s not even just in our area, though. We were eating breakfast at the [Schine] Student Center and somebody recognized us a couple tables away.
14. What brings you to Cuse, anyway?
MR. LUGO: We just came from a meeting about a music video. We also have been doing a couple interviews and shooting promotional videos for our upcoming album… And definitely to party.
15. Can you describe some of your ideas for this video?
KAM: The whole idea was presented to us by Anthony Mormile. He’s like this amazing director and videographer. He heard one of our songs and instantly came up with a whole storyline and script and everything. Basically it’s going be like a movie almost about us addressing these people who really don’t like our music and are antagonistic. It’s going to be a fun video.
16. Where are some of the places that the video is going to be shot in Cuse?
KAM: Westcott Theater, a graffiti wall…
MR. LUGO: …a bar and the rooftop of a parking garage.
17. What message do you hope this video will convey?
GQ: Honestly, I hope it displays and shows how we like to have fun and just get enjoyment out of life.
18. Where has been your favorite place to perform?
KAM: Love Park in Philly. It was at a concert basically about empowerment and keeping art education in public schools. It showed popular artists doing their thing and how public schools’ art education programs can support diverse cultures, keep kids interested and give them substance to take away from school. We had a whole dance battle during one of our songs while we were performing. When we got off the stage, CBS news radio was there and they wanted me and Angelo to talk about how our public school art education had inspired us. I spoke heavily about how me and G were involved in high school choir and what I said was apparently so powerful, it ended up on the CBS website. The feedback from that performance was just awesome, which is why it is my favorite.
MR. LUGO: My favorite was when we were at a club called Drom in New York, and were able to get a shout out to New Jersey!
19. Can you describe a story that’s inspired a song or lyrics in a song?
MR. LUGO: A huge part of [the song “Truth or Dare”] for me was about how when I was born in New York, the doctor asked if my mother wouldn’t mind letting a class watching her giving birth. I was always happy that I had like an audience come and witness my birth. Then [in the rap] I fast forward to when we were living in New York. We used to visit Jersey on weekends. One time when we went New Jersey and when we came back, we found we had been robbed. They had come in by kicking in the AC in my room. While breaking in they ruined the Battleship board game and the PlayStation I used to always play with my brother everyday. I remember they also stole our cable and emptied all of my mom’s drawers. They took everything and just left pennies. I incorporate these events into the song by just starting out with a line saying major things have happened in my life, then rapping out the stories.
20. What are your aspirations for the future?
GQ: Hopefully make a living off of rap, tour the world, and hopefully become a sex symbol.
MR. LUGO: One major thing is I want to change music for the better. I think that we can do that.
KAM: My biggest aspiration is just to be in G’s sex symbol shadow. But seriously, it’s for students in the future to have to take a test on what we did in the early 2000s in a social studies class. I want to change music so much, the upcoming generation thinks that they should know about us.
Special thanks to DEF-Bananas and Jon Wigfall