From the moment NJ rap/hip-hop collective Cook Thugless landed in Los Angeles, shit was weird.
“We flew across the country and landed at this insane mansion,” says Keith Lalley (aka mistakeboi), a producer, trombonist and vocalist in the group.
Five members of the collective—Lalley, Jim Merkens (aka Jace Limb), Jerry Sánchez (99pines), AJ Seferlis (Koi Cola) and Jean-Louis Droulers (Apstrakt, JL Drip, JD Junkie, Fatty Puss and Loafer King)—moved into a mansion rented by a “prominent YouTuber” who’d landed on tough times.
“This individual had financial issues related to their lack of content creation. Because they didn’t have content, they couldn’t make money,” Lalley says.
The deal was Cook Thugless would be the influencer’s production team in exchange for free rent. For a while, it worked—there was a honeymoon phase, Lalley says, with the band recording several tracks a day, living in close quarters, enjoying the attention, acclaim and proximity to celebrity that comes with being a group of working musicians thrust into the LA music scene.
Then: “At some point the mansion got cut in half. We weren’t the only people living there. There were 20 people there. Video gamers all from the Smash community. Kind of imagine the weirdest, worst frat house in this nice mansion,” Lalley says.
The influencer behind on rent, Lalley asserts, our NJ heroes were shifted around the house—“I was sleeping on a bean bag, then I got moved to a garage, then I got moved to not a kitchen, but sort of technically it was the kitchen.”
It was still fun, still an experience for young Cook Thugless, but omens of bad fortune started to appear. Lalley says some members of the band began to feel pressure to sign a distribution deal, but being so green, they didn’t know if it made sense to do it. They were recording several tracks a day until “3, 4, 5, 6 in the morning,” and then coming back to the mansion, where everyone was still awake. Sometimes there’d be musicians, sometimes parties. Drinking. Yelling.
“Just kind of chaos the whole time,” Lalley says. “The mansion was shrinking before our eyes. It all culminated when the power got shut off.”
So now, faced with a career-upturning decision to enter a distribution deal or leave it—and the 80 or so tracks the band mixed while there—the members of Cook Thugless found themselves working for hours at Krispy Kreme and Taco Bell, trying to handle their burgeoning business, and finish an album of their own.
“It was so fucking surreal thinking back about it. We would sit there for as long as we could, and then we would go back to a dark mansion where everyone is still wake, still partying like the power wasn’t off.”
Ultimately, the deal didn’t feel right, Lalley says, so they passed. Then, as the year turned to 2020, well… the world stopped. Most of Cook Thugless returned to NJ and there, and then, they had time to reflect on what the hell just happened.
“If nothing else I learned a lot about production and the music business,” Lalley says.
The LA experience brought Cook Thugless to terminal velocity. Odd for the band that formed out of proximity, slowly, with members rotating in and out.
Members (and early contributors) all circled in and around Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts (located near the Cook Douglas campus, thus the name). Everyone—musicians, actors, designers—lives in the same dorms for a time, so after technically intensive classes, Lalley and others made beats and welcomed collaborators to flesh out those tracks into songs. There were “weird ass woodwinds,” on early tracks, sometimes narration. Whoever was around the amorphous core of Cook Thugless could contribute.
“We were always creating for those first couple years, always making beats, always writing, always recording,” Lalley says. “Whoever was around kind of got in on the action. By the time Time [the band’s 2015 album] came around, it was a house, and we had a lot more people going through.”
Somehow, the band with its fluid roster, produced a unified sound. Spotify would classify it as “chill,” but the musicianship—from the vocals to the instrumentation to the production—is unique. So was Cook Thugless’ ability to have multiplicitous voices in tracks; though, let’s say, four people sing on a track, it often feels like there’s eight or nine distinct voices, each providing the right tempo, tenor and character for the moment.
Lalley says the cohesion in the recordings is likely because the band kept the songwriting process the same, even as members could pick and choose where and when they wanted to offer something—a hook, a chorus, a verse, whatever.
“We would have beats, we would email them out,” Lalley says. “Anyone who wanted to write was encouraged, you don’t have to ask. In my case it was like, ‘It’s 4 in the morning, here’s a beat and, two days later, 5 in the morning, ‘Here’s another beat.’ … always bombarding the most creative people with more material to work with.”
The band gets a break when “Lockjaw” a track on 2019’s LUXE garnered 700,000 streams in its first month. It’s too simplistic to say that one track afforded them the opportunity to go to LA and work with producers and artists, and get a distribution deal offered; “Lockjaw” was just one of several Cook Thugless tracks that could’ve taken off. It’s more realistic to say, the band has some wild talent inside it and from that foundation came the hit and the acclaim and the opportunities.
“2020 was fucked up for everyone,” Lalley says. “For us, 2019 was more fucked up.”
After most of the members returned to NJ, and with live shows at a standstill, Cook Thugless worked to find its footing.
“Now that we’ve gotten this perspective of who fast it can go. now it feel incredibly slow,” Lalley says. The question is: “How do we get back int he same space of manning a fuck-ton of music.”
Well, they’re figuring it out. Thugless dropped a 5-track EP in last week, Homegrown. And as the band wrote on social media for its song Plainfield Ave.: “You can change your look, change where you live, change as a person. But you can never change where you’re from.”