The Lawrence, Kansas music scene was different before Vivid Zebra came around. In the collective’s early days, a request to throw a show at the now-closed Jackpot Music Hall was met with the venue asking for a $500 fee and an owner mentioning how they “don’t like booking hip-hop acts.” Even at the relatively progressive Replay Lounge — despite having patched things up since — Vivid Zebra rapper Tione (Antione Jackson) was once temporarily banned for performing his anti-police track, “Fuck 12.”
I met up with six of the collective’s nine members at Alccalh’s (Alex Calhoun) humble ranch house on a quiet block of North Lawrence. It’s tough wrangling nine people into the same room no matter what you’re doing, but despite being at the top of their game creatively, the crew’s members have been collaborating in person less over the last couple years. “It’s just growing up shit,” Calhoun said.
The dip in productivity is only relative, however, since nearly all of the members lived in the same apartment building at the time of its inception, in the summer of 2014.
The members of Vivid Zebra were constantly crossing paths with each other at that time. Some had grown up together in Topeka. Rapper Ricky Roosevelt (Jarred Morris) met Alex Chanay in a hip-hop class at the University of Kansas. Others were simply connected by mutual friends. Tione first met Calhoun after knocking on his door after hearing that he made beats. These early days were full of late-night beatmaking sessions and hours of creative freestyling.
By 2015, the usual lineup began to solidify — producers Kemper (Robertson), Jonah P. (Baltsuka), and Aphat (Alex Williamson) had entered the fold — and a near-constant churn of singles and projects was being posted on their SoundCloud and Bandcamp pages. Dig deep and you’ll find tracks like “Lancaster,” a cloudy, nocturnal instrumental collab from Aphat and Alccalh, or “Moe Than Me,” an emotive, Taco Bell-referencing Tione rap over a wavy, synth-driven Kemper beat.
As surreal as it seems now, their de facto coming-out party was an opening set at Post Malone’s 2016 show at the Granada. The group laughed talking about it — “That was the worst show we ever played!”, shouted the crew’s R&B crooner (Spencer) Raymond, remembering their common inexperience (as well as one jokester in the crowd shouting that he looked like a member of Mumford & Sons). Calhoun noted that it’s still the largest crowd anyone in the collective has played to at once, but they all seem to rest assured knowing the work they’ve done since has been more impactful than that ill-fated performance. “That was definitely a huge growing experience,” Calhoun said.
The rest of 2016 was filled with early Vivid Zebra milestones, too. Raymond made the semifinals of KJHK’s Farmers’ Ball that April, beginning the ongoing streak of a member of the collective performing in it every year since (Tione is in this year’s show). That July marked the release of “Gucci Jefferson,” the first collaborative EP from Tione and Alccalh. The EP featured such Vivid Zebra classics as “Holupyah,” an irresistible piece of lo-fi bubblegum trap, and “Losing You” — a curiously upbeat song about heartbreak that’s also pleasantly reminiscent of Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam.”
The same day that “Holupyah” was recorded in Calhoun’s old living room, Ricky Roosevelt tracked “Cameras” there, which appeared on their first “Legacy" project. Set to a bouncy electronic track, Morris laid down critique of the performative aspects of Instagram and Snapchat posting. These songs represent two of Vivid Zebra’s many sides, some of which I’d wager the general public hasn’t even seen yet. This led me to ask the members if they felt any one quality made a piece of music uniquely Vivid Zebra.
“If you in Vivid Zebra,” Tione said slyly, the music you make is Vivid Zebra music, slicing my question with Occam’s razor. As I spent nearly two hours learning about the collective, it became clear how scattered many of their influences and motivations are (although they do share a mutual passion for Lil Uzi Vert and the Atlanta rap oddballs birthed by Awful Records). This might lead some to wonder what makes them want to share a name. Anyone familiar with their catalog knows their open-minded approach to making art is a shared value, but the real reason they team up is the strength they find in community.
Together, wielding their delightfully weird, fun and thoughtful multi-genre music, Vivid Zebra aims to break up the homogeneity they’d perceived in Lawrence’s music scene before they became a part of it.
“I feel like Lawrence embraced us a lot more than I expected it to,” Robertson said. “I remember when I moved here, everyone was doing that indie rock type of thing.”
Despite the “growing up shit,” the members of Vivid Zebra, with some of their young peers and Lawrence transplants, are still fighting to smash the scene’s barriers and bring the college town closer together. Whether you’re partying in the Eighth Street Taproom basement during a Kemper DJ set, grooving on the Replay’s dance floor during a tender new ballad from Raymond or Sunflower (Tori Searles), or even just jamming Ricky Roosevelt and Alccalh’s “Legacy, Vol. 2” in your car as you drive around campus, it’s not hard to tell that Vivid Zebra is slowly but surely changing the landscape of Lawrence music for the better.
You can find Vivid Zebra’s music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, and find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Tione will be at the KJHK Farmers’ Ball Semifinals at The Bottleneck on April 12; Ricky Roosevelt and Alccalh play at the Fuklyfe House Party (5823 Forest Ave, Kansas City) on April 13; and Raymond releases “Future Holds” at Replay Lounge on May 2.
—Aaron Rhodes is a music journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the editor-in-chief of Shuttlecock Music Magazine and a frequent contributor to 90.9 The Bridge and The Pitch.