Last year in March I found myself stumbling out of a car on the corner of a street in Detroit. It was about 11 p.m., and I was standing in front of The Baltimore Gallery, a building hidden away from the tall buildings that decorate the city, but just as barren — that is, on the outside. Having been led there by my sister and her friends, I paid my $5 upon entrance and continued toward where the music was. In an open room with walls decorated in strange, eccentric art, individuals were scattered across the room, some dancing and some standing, but all listening.
It was a send-off party for the multi-art collective Video7. They had earned a spot in the Austin-based music festival South by Southwest and needed to pay for expenses, whether that be for gas or whatever else. It would end up being the first official gig they played as the Detroit-based Video7. But the name had existed and its members collaborating and creating long before this send-off party. The 18-member group that made its way to SXSW was four college students at the University of Michigan only two years before.
“It was the furthest channel from the main cable station on my old TV in Michigan,” said Brendan Asante, a founding member of the collective, in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily. “I had a big-ass 60-inch flat screen, but it was an old one so it had the big booty in the back. I would connect an aux cord to the back … and whenever we were working on music I would be able to plug that aux cord into my phone or my laptop. But in order to do that the channel would have to be Video7.”
A graduate of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance having majored in jazz vocal performance, Asante, along with Ian Finkelstein, Spencer Christovale and Atu began making music while at the University. But it wasn’t until January of 2014 when the four were asked to play the EnspiRED fashion show that they needed a name for what they were doing. And so, Video7 was born, and they quickly went from backing fashion shows to doing sets at Study Lounge to opening for 2 Chainz and Vic Mensa at Hill Auditorium a couple months later. It was Music Matters’s first ever Springfest, and they showed up with the 60-inch TV in hand.
“When we got the gig to open for 2 Chainz, I brought the TV to the Hill Auditorium because I wanted to bring it on stage with us and put images on it,” Asante said. “But because we were openers, the sound dudes wouldn’t bother. It just sat in the back, and then we had to bring it home.”
Despite having sold off the TV months ago, the mentality — what that TV and its channel came to represent — remains in Video7’s essence. Asante graduated in 2014 and his move to Detroit meant Video7’s move as well. The four-piece group slowly grew to be a collective as they met more artists willing to collaborate, and as more artists stuck around to do more. For a year and a half, Asante and Finkelstein lived together in Ferndale, and each Sunday would play with artists across Detroit. From there, from those Sunday sessions, a collective was born.
“We had Sunday Sessions when we were living at the Ferndale place,” Asante said. “Every Sunday people would come back and jam. Over time it was the same people who would come back looking forward to it and eventually, those were the people that ended up staying in the group.”
Much of the finding and locating of artists to collaborate with was done secondhand through referrals. There were no auditions or try-outs; simply linking with other Detroit artists, hearing their music and seeing what they could do. As they met a couple more artists through the Detroit producer Sterling Toles, Video7 transformed.
“When Video7 started doing the Detroit aspect we did it as a band, but then as it evolved the people in the group started creating their own songs,” he continued. “Now everyone’s in this solo/EP work still working with the same people but developing their own products to get out. And it’s all on the strength of it being created with people in Video7.”
But “multi-art collective” is still a little too vague and bureaucratic to accurately describe what Video7 is. “Oh, you should listen to this new multi-art collective” doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as “singer” or “band.” But when confronted with their music and their set-up, it seems to be one of the few words capable of describing it. Who cares if it’s vague? For Asante, that’s a part of the brand.
“It’s a band; it’s a collective; it’s a unit; it’s an enigma at the end of the day because the components that make it what it is are things that me and my homies didn’t foresee at all,” Asante said. “We didn’t realize that once we started planting our feet in the Detroit area that there were going to be these people that we would naturally gravitate to and share ideals or ideas with and this outlook towards music and creation.”
Over the past two years, Video7 has developed and changed. The Webslinger, Spencer Cristobal, currently resides in L.A. and Stephon Dorsey, another founding member and graphic designer, set up in Seattle. They’ve played SXSW and opened for Common and Antwaun Stanley, while simultaneously playing across Detroit.
“It’s a force, and kind of a hidden force,” he continued. And the hidden aspect of the collective is what enables them, in Asante’s opinion, to remain freeform and do the unexpected. “As a personal artist and solo artist that’s what I’m in favor of instead of giving them what they’re expecting. That way when they come back for more they’ll be blown away each time by something that they haven’t experienced.”
It is the malleable and amorphous nature of the group that enables creation. Listening to their Soundcloud, there are three playlists: LOOPLANDS VOL. 1, LOOPLANDS VOL 2 and their most recent channel 7: seasons. And the variety between these collections demonstrates the multifarious talent they have as a collective in terms of singers and rappers and especially in production.
“Looplands are our way of putting EPs together of little snippets, and the mixes, like channel7, are to showcase the producers. Looplands showcase vocalists, singers and a couple rappers. Mixes show off the different production we do,” he said.
A playlist of four songs, each 25 minutes, channel7 is oriented toward showcasing production techniques. It is innovative in concept, and in its entirety, the perfect display of the collective’s enduring mind-set: “forward.”
“The whole thing of the channel Video7 being the farthest away from cable, the mainstream or what you expect — that kind of ideology really stayed put in everything that we did,” Asante continued. “You hear the mixes we have online like the channel7 seasonal mixes. All these kind of conceptual things are birthed from the mindset of trying to pave your own path and pave your own sonic path.”
Their sound and their music — it’s not derivative in any way. Take Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans and put it on Soundcloud. Keep the psychedelic but remove the rock and the Squire. Add funk, R&B, house and trap. Throw in some radio static and beautifully constructed, soulful choruses and you almost, almost have what Video7 has managed to create.
When I asked Asante what music has inspired their sound, he didn’t look to artists of olden days but rather to the people with whom he currently creates. And that, if anything, says more about their collective and their sound than anything else.
“I think the more tangible inspiration is seeing the people just like you and in the same places as you out here really grinding to make something happen,” he said. “I would say that’s the biggest inspiration. To see how all of us are balancing all these things and still coming back to the music because we love it so much.”
“It’s like if you’re travelling as a unit and someone’s straggling there’s always someone to pick them up and drag them along so everyone keeps going at the same pace — that’s a really inspiring thing for me,” he continued.
In its essence, Video7 is innovative because they don’t look to the past but the present. Genre-wise, yes, there are always artists to look back on and admire and attribute to some degree. But to look to those you create with on a daily basis and think, “They’re the reason I keep creating and testing and experimenting” — that’s some heavy stuff.
Thursday night, Video7 is launching the first of their Cable Nites at the Marble Bar in Detroit. If you’re still confused about what “multi-arts collective” means, now’s the time to find out. It will feature good times, good music, Asante himself, members Rella, CJay Hill, Asya Izme and many, many more.