Flipsyde: Old Sounds for a New Era
Fusing mainstream hip-hop with a unique brand of social commentary in their lyrics, the musical group Flipsyde debuted their first album, We The People, in 2005. Since then, Flipsyde has racked up a number of hits and have toured across the world, most extensively in Germany. Originally comprised of three members, the group added a fourth singer in 2008. Guitarist and lead singer Steve Knight, guitarist Dave Lopez, and rapper Jinho Ferreira formed the group in Northern California. Chantelle Paige, an up and coming female solo artist, jumped on board later.
The group’s work has earned them rave reviews and a worldwide fan base. The members’ own personal struggles are plainly seen throughout their music as most of their songs touch on a big picture societal issue. Combining different styles of music on the same track, Flipsyde has appealed to a broad cross section of listeners. Though never reaching the top of the American music scene, Flipsyde worked with many high-profile US stars like Akon and Black Eyed Peas. Unfortunately for their fans, the group received the bad news that their label, Interscope records, was considering dropping them from their label in late 2009. As a result, Ferreira decided to go his own way, ultimately resulting in a hiatus that continues today and may end up being permanent.
I was first introduced to Flipsyde by a high school friend who one day played a track he knew I would enjoy. We’re both history buffs and the song featured both a fantastic beat and biting lyrics that chronicled most of American history. The song, US History, features Jinho Ferreira, usually known as “Piper,” rapping several complex and witty versus about the founding of the nation, the civil war, and much of 20th century US history. Piper’s rapping style immediately hooked me, not just because of the sound and the impressive arrangement of instruments and drums, but mostly because of the all-around thoughtfulness and intelligence that shines through in the lyrics. Obviously, Piper was a guy with something to say, with a point of view, and with the ability to convey his views with eloquence.
Born and raised in Oakland, California, Piper was and still is an athlete who trains regularly. He earned a football scholarship to Eastern Illinois University, ultimately graduating from San Francisco State University with a decree in Black Studies. Though not talented enough to play football at the next level, Piper continued to train in mixed martial arts. In fact, once he found some success through music, he founded a program for disadvantaged youth in Berkeley, California at the Berkeley Technology Academy. The program, called A.R.M.E.D. (Always Ready, Mentally Equipped and Disciplined) teaches young kids how to stay disciplined, set goals for themselves and be responsible.
His career has taken several turns, from his street corner days in Oakland to his powerful rhymes with Flipsyde. Piper is perhaps most well-known for his song Happy Birthday. The emotional track artfully tackles abortion, though deliberately avoids any direct reference to the word. He tells the story of how he aborted his first child. Full of regret, Piper says he made a mistake and tells how anguished he became over his decision. He wonders what his son would be like had he been allowed to live:
And you never got a chance to even open your eyes…
Would you have been a little genius in love with math?
Would you have played in your school clothes and made me mad?
Would you have been a little rapper like your papa da Piper? …
I wonder about your skintone and shape of your nose?
And the way you would have laughed and talked fast or slow?
Then he challenges his own actions, chastising himself for being young, foolish and naive:
I’ve got a millon excuses to why you died
Other other people got their own reasons for homicide
Who’s to say it would’ve worked, and who’s to say it wouldn’t have?
I was young and strugglin’ but old enough to be a dad
My vision of a family was artificial and fake
So when it came time to create I made a mistake
But, his ultimate message is about learning from his mistakes and becoming a better person and “doing the right thing now.”
More recently, Piper has transitioned to become an accomplished screenwriter. His ability to confront tough issues artfully worked well in music and also gave him the ability to do the same thing in film. In 2009, Piper was rewarded by earning “Best Screenplay” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. He won the award for his screenplay, “Walter’s Boys,” which he said was inspired by his cousin’s suicide after serving in the military.
When Interscope records announced that Flipsyde was on its list of potential groups to drop, Piper decided it was not worth it to keep waiting for the label to make up its mind. Instead, he left the group in order to focus on his screenwriting, though he remains close with the other members and still updates his blog on the group’s website.
Steve Knight is the other main vocalist in Flipsyde. With a raspy singing style and an upbeat flow, Knight adds a sound that cannot be found in any other band. With roots in Alabama, Knight took an unusual path to the music business. He served in the US coast guard when he was a young adult, but ran into trouble afterwards. Delving into an underworld of drugs and addiction, Knight battled though his tribulations and became much more spiritual and determined than ever.
He knew he wanted to sing and earn his living through music so he traveled to San Francisco, California. It was there that he happened to run into Piper while they were both working on separate projects for the same indie label. During this period the two developed a friendship and often helped each other with their work, exchanging ideas and supporting each other.
His work on Angel is captivating. One of my all-time favorite songs, Angel features Knight’s raspy voice in a perfect combination with Piper’s lyricism. The powerful refrain is perhaps the group’s most recognizable and catchy:
She’s an angel, working on God’s train
She’s an angel, working on me.
Flipsyde wasn’t born, however, until Piper and Knight found their missing component: Dave Lopez. An excellent guitarist, Lopez adds a Latin twinge to Flipsyde’s music that emanates from his youth growing up in Chile. Raised to appreciate his native musical traditions, Lopez maintained his passion for Latin beats and rhythm when he immigrated to the United States in his teens. After settling in the Bay Area, Lopez began working for Oakland’s Soundwave Rehearsal Studios.
Then, in 2003, Lopez ran into Piper and Knight while the two were at Soundwave Studios and the rest, as they say, is history. As Lopez recalled, “Steve [Knight] barged into me, and it really irked me. But then he started to play ‘Someday’ and I was in awe. I thought right away that I might have something to contribute to it and we’ve been jamming ever since that day.” Well, sort of. In late 2009, Lopez took advantage of Flipsyde’s hiatus by joining the emerging Latin/Rock group Bang Data, which remains unsigned.
The three musicians each brought their own influences to the group. Piper’s hip-hop background and outspoken political views, Knight’s Southern roots and alternative-rock style of singing might not immediately seem like a good match for a Latin guitarist like Lopez. But taking a risk, the three formed Flipsyde and recorded their debut album in 2005. Though they hail from wildly different parts of the globe each with their own rich tradition of music, Piper, Knight and Lopez share have much more in common than one might expect. All three have a strong desire to share a sense of purpose and a clear message in their work. Defying traditional notions of what should be popular, they deliberately wrote provocative songs meant to challenge their audiences to rise above their own differences.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, how rich or poor you are or what your religion is,” says Knight. “You can break down the walls and communicate. You can gain strength from these things and come together.” We The People, achieved modest success around the globe, with the single Happy Birthday reaching #3 in Germany. In fact, the Washington Post even proclaimed the album the best hip-hop album of the year, a major accomplishment for a group like Flipsyde.
However, the group was not finished evolving; in 2008 the group invited singer Chantelle Paige to join Flipsyde. Not coincidentally, Paige also lived in the Bay Area, having been born in Los Gatos, California, which is very close to Oakland.
A natural entertainer , Paige was thrust into the world of modeling and fashion before she was even in kindergarten. Dancing since she was two, modeling since she was three and singing since age five, Paige grew up knowing how to be successful. Paige was seen by a modeling agent in a clothing store when she was three and quickly started an impressive modeling career, following in the footsteps of her mother, who was also a model. The upscale children’s catalog, Storybook Heirlooms, created an entire line of dolls and a book series based on her eight-year-old image. Then, when she was only nine, Paige was “discovered” at an art and wine festival and was asked to audition for a musical theater production near her home (she got the part). She says she immediately found her calling and that she “got lead parts easily.”
Though she had a head start with a parent in the business and natural good looks, Paige took it a step further when she was a senior in high school by putting up her first song on MySpace. Only 17, her song was an overnight sensation, reaching the top 10 on MySpace and gaining her the attention of multiple labels and producers. Ultimately, her vocal talent got her opening gigs for the Pussycat Dolls, Robin Thicke and others. These performances did not go unnoticed either: hip-hop star Akon recognized her talent and began mentoring the budding singer. In fact, Paige claims that it was Akon who bought her her first drink, on her 21st birthday.
Then Akon introduced her to Flipsyde, who loved what they saw and took her on tour with them through Europe. A self-described chocoholic, Paige is a hard worker who regularly trains in Pilates, yoga, weight-lifting and, of course, various dance styles. After the tour and Piper’s decision to go another direction, Paige realized that Flipsyde could not go on. She returned to focusing on her modeling, acting and solo careers. At just 21, she is bound to find even more success as she matures and forms new collaborations.
Currently, Flipsyde’s future is very much in doubt. Though their websites and blogs are all still active and updated (some more than others), the group had to abort plans for another tour in late 2009. All members say they remain close friends and a reunion cannot be ruled out. A truly fresh face in the often-formulaic hip-hop genre, Flipsyde found a way to mesh seemingly disparate musical styles into a fun, powerful and thought-provoking sound. Already established as a favorite of fans throughout the world, Flipsyde will not disappear anytime soon. Their music is likely a look at the future of alternative/indie/hip-hop music as new decade begins.
Note: this essay by Cliff Satell on Flipsyde was originally written for “Art of Popular Song” a Duke course taught by Prof. Leary in Spring 2010. It has been updated slightly.
Flipsyde – Biography. LetsSingIt. 2006.
Music Reviews. The Washington Post, Weekend Section. December 30, 2005