Pick Up the Pieces

A life of crime and one stolen album later, Grayskul's JFK (finally) releases his long-simmering solo debut.

In 2008, local lyricist JFK–half of the dark, gloomy hip-hop duo Grayskul–stopped by Forevergreen Studios to record some tracks for his upcoming solo debut, Building Wings on the Way Down. Studio engineer Aaron Angus manned the controls while JFK, sealed in the vocals booth, rapped in his inimitable rapid-fire nasal twang: “He left in ’96/Some violent shit that shouldn’t have happened…”

Like much of the album he’d recorded to that point—the album which, two years later, will finally see the light of day on Tuesday, June 1—this song, “12 Years,” deals with JFK’s misspent days in Virginia, where the young and dumb Jeffrey Bautista ran the streets until his luck ran out and the cops came looking for him on an armed-robbery beef.

Rather than watch her son go to jail, JFK’s mother sent him to live with his aunt in Seattle. Here he thrived. Instead of running the streets, he was now pursuing his GED while working two jobs. But the cops eventually came calling.

“It took [the police] forever,” JFK, now 32, says over beers at Capitol Hill’s Elysian Brewery. “I got comfortable.”

Fortunately, the judge in Virginia showed mercy, not only letting him off on probation but allowing him to move back to Seattle. This let him continue a pursuit his arrest had interrupted, rapping, and he adopted his current MC moniker. “I started really reflecting on my actions. I was compiling data—I was writing songs to get shit off my chest,” JFK says. “It was therapeutic.”

While he continued writing and occasionally recording these more personal songs, they took a backseat to JFK’s increasingly time-consuming work with a Seattle-based producer and MC named Onry Ozzborn. The two had met through mutual friends, and together formed Grayskul, practicing a darker, edgier form of hip-hop that often includes whacked-out characters and blood-splattered hyperbole.

Over the course of eight albums—including their 2007 breakout disc, Bloody Radio, released via indie powerhouse Rhymesayers—the duo established a firm place in the underground. Having tasted a little success and, more important, snagged some free time, JFK was finally ready to revisit the solo album he’d started working on after his legal troubles got cleared up.

Its title evolved into Building Wings on the Way Down, inspired by a conversation JFK overheard, during which a woman advised a distraught friend that “if you fall down, you gotta get up. You gotta build your wings on the way down.” In short, don’t quit.

Besides mirroring his life’s trajectory, the title also hints at the kind of adult, down-to-earth attitude that permeates the music here. It’s a brutally honest, often comical, and surprisingly commercial disc that shows a new side of an MC those familiar with Grayskul probably think they already know.

Having made multiple albums under multiple aliases without JFK, Ozzborn understands his partner’s need to go in a different direction for his solo LP. “[Grayskul has] always been kind of our escape from reality. We wanted to do more real stuff and get more personal [as we got older],” he says during a phone interview.

Added JFK: “I just wanted to tell stories about my past, basically. I’m using my voice to actually share stories of my life and experiences.”

Judging by his looks and attitude, you’d never guess one of those experiences was a jail stint. Of Filipino heritage, JFK has a wide, inviting face and an easy manner that says “It’s all good.” Indeed, his genial approach to the world helped him deal with a potentially catastrophic situation: losing many of the songs he’d recorded for the album when the studio he was working at got robbed.

“At the time, it sucked ass for all of us,” says Seattle MC Candidt, who also lost songs in the heist and who appears on two tracks on JFK’s album. “Sure, you can do it over. But can Picasso paint that masterpiece twice? Probably not.”

In hindsight, Candidt adds, “It’s probably a blessing in disguise” for both him and JFK. Why? Because it was an opportunity to inject new life into old tracks and an excuse to create new ones. So after collecting raw copies of the beats from their various producers, JFK hunkered down in Lake City’s Blue Lagoon studio and eventually emerged with 17 fresh cuts.

The opener “12 Years” is a good example of the changes the disc, released by Portland’s Taxidermy Records, went through. JFK initially recorded this compelling rehash of his arrest and lifesaving move to Seattle over a different beat. But after the studio break-in, he tapped Seattle producer Bean One, who furnished him with a banger, dominated by angry horns, that perfectly complements the seriousness of the tale.

Bean One also made an appropriately accessible, blurry-eyed beat for a comedy of errors about getting high called “Passing It.” With XP singing the hook, JFK flits between super-fast (sober) and slow-rolling (stoned) deliveries about packing bongs and burning blunts. On a similarly commercial tip is the Jake One–produced “High School Sweetheart.” The album’s first single, it finds JFK in full-on girl-crush mode, reciting a well-told if familiar tale of a teenage boy pining for an attractive heartbreaker.

But that’s bubblegum compared to the disturbing title track. On “Building Wings On the Way Down,” JFK’s voice is slowed to a ghoulish rumble as he raps about American intervention in the Philippines, the struggle to tamp down his devilish impulses, and his rebirth via music. Aside from the padded-room ranting of “Paranoid” with Candidt and DJ Rise, it’s the closest Building Wings on the Way Down comes to Grayskul.

Indeed, by its very existence, the album hints at the kind of happy ending you’d never find on a Grayskul disc like Bloody Radio. “It could be worse,” said JFK. “I could’ve been locked up for seven years. I could be in prison right now. But I’m not.”