“I like to make music that’s honest” — rising hip-hop duo Ribcage sheds light on new EP and musical influences

It’s always an interesting treat to avid concertgoers to discover a local act that sets themselves apart from other groups in the area. Lansing, Michign-based hip-hop duo Ribcage fit the description of different, having two primary songwriters and bringing on three additional members to create a live band during performances.

Substream Magazine had the privilege of sitting down with the two masterminds of Ribcage, Roy Kirby and Kyle Nabbefeld, to discuss musical influences, lyrical content and their experience performing at Common Ground—an annual music festival that drew nearly 50,000 people to the Lansing area in its 16th year of operation.

What originally brought you and Kyle together to start writing music?
ROY KIRBY: Me and Kyle actually started Ribcage in high school with me playing acoustic and him singing, and it wasn’t even a rap group at all. We wrote one song and didn’t even really do anything after that.

Where did the name Ribcage come from?
KYLE NABBEFELD: I think it was whatever day in high school that it was we started doing acoustic side projects of some other bands we were doing and we just decided on a random word.
KIRBY: I don’t know, it was a long time ago.
NABBEFELD: I think it was 2010 that we started the hip-hop version where [Kirby] just showed up at my house and was like, “Let’s do Ribcage again and do hip-hop.”

Is it primarily just you and Roy who writes, and then you bring other members to perform with you live?
NABBEFELD: Yes, Roy and I write it, we produce a majority of the beats ourselves. And then when it came to live stuff, it started with live drums, and then we got a bass player, and then we got a guitar player, and we’re like whatever, we’ll just do it like this.

So do the beats on the computer come first, and then the live instruments?
 We play instruments too. Kyle will make some beats and I’ll be sitting on my guitar just fucking around and trying to figure out something and we’ll get something going with a piano or whatever, and we just go from there. We start simple and then kind of complicate things from there. [Laughs.] With our new EP [The Revolve] especially we were more conscious about song structure and having changes and different parts as opposed to just having the same parts over and over again like in our first mixtape [Midwest Sound]. We would go into a chorus but you would still hear the same instrumentals, so we tried to be a little more dynamic this time around and as we go forward.

I know you have some hip-hop influences. What are some of your other influences that either inspire you or the music you write with Ribcage?
 A lot, it’s really hard to narrow it down. I mean, you’ll hear a lot of blues in the music because I grew up with blues music; BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, you’ll hear a lot of that in the instrumentals. Melody-wise, I’m a big fan of pop music, so I could name the gauntlet of every band that’s ever been on pop radio. Hip-hop wise, a lot of classic ’90s stuff; Tupac, Wu-Tang Clan, shit that stays verbal.
NABBEFELD: I would add for live obviously a Rage Against The Machine-meets-Beastie Boys type, not that we’re saying we’re like them…
KIRBY: … but we try to have that energy and a little angst here and there.
NABBEFELD: For the record, we used to tell people that we we’re a G-Funk Rage Against The Machine-type thing. I don’t know if we were serious or kidding with that. I’m not sure if you listened to records if it came through like that.
KIRBY: We like to be thoughtful but also keep an upbeat funk sound.

What inspired some of your lyrics, are they politically driven?
NABBEFELD: Absolutely.
KIRBY: Absolutely, politically, socially, personally. It’s hard not to have all of those things step into each other because as a person I think politically, I like to be aware of what’s going on around me, I like to be involved. It’s hard to not ingrain your own personal life into your music. I like to make music that’s honest, and reflects me as a person as opposed to just the general “this is a song about hanging out.” I want to make a song like what it’s like to hang out if you’re me.
NABBEFELD: One of the songs on our current EP, we tried to make into a club jam, and it didn’t work. [Laughs.]
KIRBY: And it just turned into another one of our songs.
NABBEFELD: The song sounded great, I think.
KIRBY: Even when we tried to not be ourselves, it usually doesn’t work out for us. [Laughs.] Which is a good thing.

Given your vast musical influence, what ultimately inspired you to take the hip-hop route?
KIRBY: I wanted to be able to say something. Pop songs are great, and I love playing guitar, but at the same time…
NABBEFELD: We’re more verbose than a pop song.
KIRBY: Yeah, exactly. I’ve got a lot to say, and it’s very hard to fit all that in the context of a standard pop song. Hip-hop was the only way for me to express what I was feeling.
NABBEFELD: There’s more of a play on words too that I just find fun.
KIRBY: The poetry, the lyricism, the rhythm of it all, the way that you say things. There’s a lot to it, we bring a lot of pop elements to it. You’ll hear us rapping and it might not sound like we’re singing and we’re doing pitches. We’re singing, but it doesn’t sound like we’re singing. We’re familiar with the concept and how to use our voices in that manner. It brings something a little different to the table.

I know you touched on this a little bit before; it’s mainly you two who produce and everything.
KIRBY: Yup, I mean we’re the main songwriters. It’s not like a dictatorship or anything, we allow everyone to be themselves and do their thing.
NABBEFELD: We give them the key and the rhythm and about the change-ups.
KIRBY: We like it to be different. We don’t want you to hear the same thing necessarily. Every time we give you something a little different.
NABBEFELD: I’ve been bored more than once at a hip-hop show, and I think it’s just because they play the songs.
KIRBY: You’ll see a lot of guys who just rap along to the tape itself. I remember the first time I saw that it was so off-putting to me. That’s why I really wanted to do something different.
NABBEFELD: The live drum sounds cannot be matched.
KIRBY: You can’t match the energy of a live drumset.

How would you describe your style of music to someone who has never heard it?
KIRBY: The thing I notice is that we’ll mention that it’s hip-hop music, and then we’ll mention that it’s a live band. People will always discredit your musicianship when you mention that it’s hip-hop, which is unfortunate because it’s kind of a complicated genre. It just gets a bad rap.
NABBEFELD: And then there’s kind of the opposite of that where we’ll show up with a live band and people will be like, “Oh, you’re a rock ’n’ roll band.” And we’re like, “no, we’re hip-hop, we just brought a live band.”
KIRBY: I just want to tell people it’s thoughtful, melody-driven hip-hop.

What are some of your favorite tracks off of your releases?
NABBEFELD: I already know what Roy’s going to say. His favorite is “Clock In.”
KIRBY: Yeah, “Clock In,” and I also like “Shoelaces” a lot. “Clock In” is definitely my favorite. It was a subject that’s personal to me because of workers’ rights and proper compensation. The disparagement of poor people for no reason.
NABBEFELD: Production-wise, I really like that track too, because that was one of the first beats we made this year. And I remember that being a turning point for our production style where I just said, “Whoa, this is different.” Roy plays guitar on that song, but I cut his guitar up and sampled him. We started sampling ourselves in some weird way this year.
KIRBY: Before we would cut samples from other records and stuff. We had a bassline and I think I played some piano and stuff, and we put guitar over that, and Kyle sampled some of my blues solos and he pulled some of the stabs and cut it together. The guitars you hear are my guitars sampled and restructured, it’s kind of cool.
NABBEFELD: My favorite on the EP is probably “Right Now.” That one sounds really good live too, we found out.

What type of program do you use for producing and mixing?
KIRBY: FL Studio. It’s simple, straightforward; I don’t like to over-complicate it. They’re a little bit more my pay rate. [Laughs.] We’re musicians, we’re not engineers, a lot of those programs are meant for engineers. FL Studio is very much an old-school style of format of just plug in and play and do your thing. It’s the next step over just having a mixer board and the old-school style. It’s just that on a computer. That, for simplicity’s sake, because like I said we’re musicians, we’re trying to make music. I’m open to different sounds and experimenting, but at the same time I’d like it to always sound like something I can actually perform and play. FL Studio you can do some of that mini programming, it’s got some better sounding stuff. But the main thing I like about it is that you can record instruments.
NABBEFELD: I fell in love with FL Studio and personally I’m just too stubborn to learn anything new.
KIRBY: The next thing I actually want to get is a mixer board.

Do you have any future plans in regards to continuing writing or do you have any big shows coming up?
KIRBY: Nothing but records, all the time. [Laughs.]
NABBEFELD: We actually just spoke about this two days ago of the next CD we’re going to put out, probably another EP within the next couple months. We’ve already got a majority of the songs figured out for that, demoed and everything, we just need to professionally get those done.
KIRBY: We have a lot of songs and we always tend to crank out a lot more whenever we give ourselves the chance, so we definitely can’t keep up. [Laughs.] We definitely always try to get in and record more and just get more stuff out there. We’re going to spend this fall getting our name around East Lansing doing some local stuff and then prime ourselves for the Loft hopefully after that and do a big show there. We’re really just trying to put a solid name out there really, build our rep up and keep putting out music.