Hezekiah Davis has two very different sides to his musical personality.
There’s the West Philly-based, Delaware-and-West Chester-raised guy who made strange, conscious hip-hop under his own name. Hezekiah’s albums Hurry Up and Wait and I Predict a Riot were the toast of indie hip-hop, a sound Davis knew intimately from his time toying with Bahamadia, Grand Agent and The Roots before their major-label days.
And then there is Johnny Popcorn, the abrasively soulful new-wave-avant-funk ensemble in which Davis shows off his loud and lyrically caustic side.
In sound and vision, the project reveals Davis’ deep roots, going back to his family’s origins in Kentucky and North Carolina. “My dad and uncles were real sarcastic assholes,” says Davis, laughing. “I’m probably a bigger asshole than they.” He calls his mom and pop the family’s true weirdos, “punk-funk heads” that raised him with a flair for the dramatic — “I was doing black theater in the ’80s before doing black theater was cool” — and a feel for the funk. “I can recite Grace Jones and Gil Scott-Heron songs back to front, but couldn’t sing a Marvin Gaye song to save my life.”
Add Tone Whitfield, best known as Bilal’s musical director, to the mix, and Johnny Popcorn’s debut album, The Crow, is a tasty, cackling mess along the lines of Janelle Monae or N.E.R.D.
Davis has been a part of the scene since before Meek Mill was born. We laugh about lounges and events gone by — Wilhelmina’s, Footwork parties with DJ Rich Medina — and how Davis promoted rap-and-dance jams under his Beat Society moniker. “Remember that, remember that,” he says as we run down a murderers’ row of names, places and introductions. “Chuck Treece led me to Tone, who introduced me to Bilal with Musiq Soulchild in the room,” says Davis. The nu-soul community was tight back then. “Talk with one person, then somebody else co-signs for your credibility.”
Davis never needed anybody to prove his mettle. Recalling the indie labels he was on — like Rawkus, then home to Mos Def and Talib Kweli — and the conscious rappers he’s known, Davis questions how truly independent they have been since then. He always wanted a manager but couldn’t find one who had as many connections in the biz as he did, so Davis managed himself. He learned to book his own gigs, figure out his flight and hotel plans and make deals with promoters.
“I might’ve sold more units [by working with a manager], but I wouldn’t have had that say-so, that self-control,” he says. True independence also meant he didn’t want to rely on someone else to make his name or guide his way. “I didn’t want to glom onto anyone,” he says, taking his diplomatic time and measuring his words. “Then and now, I can either be Hezekiah or I can be amongst a list of people under someone’s roof. I didn’t ever want to depend on someone else for making my next move.”
What guides Davis’ next move is his songwriting. If a song is slower, thoughtful and hip-hoppity, it becomes a solo jam. If it’s “riff-heavy, rolls off the tongue and is more filling, then it’s Johnny Popcorn,” he says.
Hez is the head and the heart. Johnny Popcorn is all stomach and groin.
For all of his cocksure swagger and sardonic rhapsody on The Crow, once he hits the stage, Davis’ Popcorn persona is quick to let you know that he’s more of a vocalist (a la Dylan) than a singer (like Bowie). For the record, Davis shows off a lovely, loose warble on songs like “Hush” and “Next Episode.”
“When you grow up in church with church singers, you can’t help but get insecure about your voice unless you’re wailing like Whitney Houston or Luther Vandross,” says Davis. “Blame the Baptist church for that insecurity.”
There is no insecurity to Davis/Popcorn’s lyrical stance. On The Crow, he rants about wearing rubbers, pot, politics and masturbation. His dry sarcasm is, as he says, way more Chris Rock than Cornel West.
“I can tell that when I’m doing the Johnny Popcorn thing that I’m confusing the audience,” says Davis about songs like “Hello to the Bad Guy.” “But I thrive on that. I have assholes in my family. My pal Bilal is a total sarcastic asshole. Pagan Babies, System of a Down — I love them. I know it could turn people off, but there are certain harsh realities that you can say — social things, political things, relationship things — that go better when they’re funnier.”
Johnny Popcorn plays Thu., March 14, 8:30 p.m., $8-$10, with Zuzi Anablogue, The Divine Lorraines, Rage Da Messenga and Poin Dexter, Balcony at the Trocadero, 1003 Arch St., 215-922-6888, thetroc.com.