Fall performances at a regional Grammy showcase in Memphis and the high-profile, music-industry-oriented CMJ Festival in New York have capped an eventful year for 22-year-old local hip-hop artist Cities Aviv, who began the year an obscure figure on the local music scene and ends it as arguably the most original and most celebrated new musician to emerge out of Memphis this year.
Cities Aviv — aka Gavin Mays — is a Memphis native and Overton High School graduate whose eccentric, individualistic take on hip-hop — captured this year on the debut album Digital Lows, the seven-inch single “Coastin’,” and in a series of sharp live performances — is not only totally without local precedent, but is novel, and increasingly noticed as such, on the wider rap/hip-hop scene.
Mays’ path to the mic was also quite different from other local rappers. “I had Three 6 [Mafia] albums growing up, like When the Smoke Clears, and my cousins had the more underground stuff. I thought it was cool, but I was never obsessed with it,” Mays says.
Instead, Mays seems to have spent his time listening to metal, punk, and alternative rock — he namechecks the alt-metal band the Deftones in one song — and the artier indie-rap of the late-’90s emanating from labels such as New York’s Def Jux. In the transition from high school to college — he spent a year pursuing journalism at the University of Memphis before deciding to focus fully on his music — Mays served as lead singer for the hardcore/metal band Copwatch.
“I had been rapping on the side, just for fun, but after [Copwatch] failed I decided to really pursue it,” Mays says. “And I decided if I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way and just throw it off a cliff. Rearrange it and make it what I want it to be.”
Mays’ experience may unite punk/metal and hip-hop, but his music doesn’t really sound much like either — or at least what most people expect from those genres.
“Sometimes I don’t even like to think of it as hip-hop or rap,” Mays says. “Just because the vocal stylings are rap, that doesn’t make it rap music, just like someone yelling doesn’t make it a punk song. When I started, I did know that I wanted to have the snap of punk and the introspection of hip-hop, but also the depth and huge sound of noise music or whatever. But I wanted to feed all of that into my own little down-tempo, soulful way.”
He’s also a better live performer than you’ll almost ever see from rap artists at his level of experience, a product, perhaps, of his rock-band background, where live-performance expectations are generally higher. Onstage, Mays is more patient and coherent than most young rappers, but manages to slow down without sacrificing intensity. And his recent partnership with veteran local DJ Luke “Redeye Jedi” Sexton — who knows how to augment backing tracks in real time — has only added to Mays’ live presence.
Along the way, this unusual artist is forging connections — bringing together punk and hip-hop fans — that, while not new generally, are relatively novel for Memphis.
“I feel like it’s a convergence of people that come out to the shows,” Mays says. “I don’t try to cater to anybody, I just make whatever I’m digging or feeling, but it’s cool to see who picks it up. It’s been a pretty diverse crowd at shows. “
“I had to hit ’em with that modern-man sound,” Mays raps on “Float On,” which uses a slowed-down, spaced-out instrumental cover version of the indie-rock band Modest Mouse’s same-named song, crafted by San Francisco act Blackbird Blackbird.
Mays may reference classic hip-hop acts such as LL Cool J and Pete Rock, but his “modern-man sound” incorporates electrobeats and jazz piano loops, video-game loops and bird noises, vocal snatches of classic rockers Steely Dan and a booming beat lifted from synth-pop act Depeche Mode. (Memphis singer Marcella Rene Simien, of Fille Catatonique, provides crucial assistance on two tracks on Digital Lows.)
Some of these tracks are produced by Mays himself or other young, local collaborators, and some come from unknown producers Mays has met online, but the sound and feel is a uniform expression of Mays’ personal aesthetic. One standout, the lovelorn “Meet Me on Montrose (Ex-Lovers Only),” is built around the unlikeliest of sources, a sample of mid-Seventies soft-rock single “Oh Lori” from the Alessi Brothers. Proof, once again, that absolutely anything can be converted into hip-hop.
The musicality on Cities Aviv records strikes you even before the vocals do, but Mays surfs atop these tracks with a sure, declarative flow revealing a tricky, thoughtful persona. He occasionally lapses into the forced transgression of the roughly similar but more celebrated Odd Future collective, but the implied nihilism of a title such as “Die Young” is a little misleading. The song features the chorus exhortation of “C’mon and let’s die young,” but the verses have a more positive generational bent, responding to seemingly limited options with a plan that posits “dying young” as slang for being reborn: “Choose to make it your own/Vacate your home/Pack up a bag and take to the road.”
On “Black Box,” Mays expresses ambivalence about his hometown and gets political on his own terms, pulling back to acknowledge — charmingly — “I’m 21, this is the realest shit I ever wrote.” At all times, he’s his own man.