The first time I heard Stephen "The Apple Juice Kid" Levitin commune with the drums was circa 1997 in an underground venue on Chapel Hill's UNC campus. Levitin, who would've been a junior then, had decided to set up studio in a narrow hallway, where, squat-down on djembe drums, he commenced to summoning ancestors and students and passersby alike, with his hammering pat-ta-pat-pat-pat-ta ... pat-ta-pat-pat-pat-ta ... tats. Some six years later, Apple Juice is still making music--loud music, a great deal of music--via the numerous local bands he performs with, including Sankofa, Apple Juice Orchestra and The Remix Project.
Add to this ever-expanding musical resume, "producer," to encompass his latest project (and solo debut) Plus+ (that's "Plus," not "Plus, Plus,") which features a remarkable assortment of guest appearances by local artists. "It's real important to me for people to know it's not just me sittin' in my room playin' the guitar, singin' songs by myself," says Juice of the album title. "It's me plus a lot of people. 'Plus' is supposed to give an explanation of what this record is about."
Juice, who says the album began as a "mix tape for myself," wears the producer hat well on the 12 rhythmical tracks which give + a flipped out, funky-hip-hop-neo-soul-garage-pop typa vibe. Plus, the company he keeps is, to say the least, stellar. On "Paint a Smile,"--with Rob Chaseman (formerly of Doxy's Kitchen) on sax and keys--a number which national natives might identify as house music, Apple, the Juice, introduces a genre called two-step, which is indigenous to the UK, and was first popularized stateside by the likes of the So Solid Crew and Craig David. "First came house, then drum and bass and now two-step, or UK garage," he explains. "Two-step is the next phase--as far as faster dance music [is concerned]."
The deuce makes a reemergence on "Soul,"--a track which Juice calls one of his favorites--where he unites Sankofa frontman Cream De La with spoken word performer Taalib and rock musician Tain Collins. "I really like 'Soul' a lot because I really like two-step--I think it's a genre that needs to get more exposure," he says of the unlikely amalgamation. "I think I took that genre to an interesting place. I basically mixed Tain Collins, a traditional rock guitarist, Taalib, a poet/singer and Stefan, a hip-hop dude together and swirled it around. These are three people from different areas; I don't think they've ever interacted [with each other], but they're all good friends of mine."
And the lyrics aren't bad either.
"Do you serve god or do you serve self?/are you working for the world or is promise of wealth?" asks Cream De La. "Someone asked me 'how does it feel, to kick shit niggahs don't feel?/and I told him, I don't give a fuck what no niggahs feel/I make music for my people so black people can build/I make music for the music so the music stays real/tryna please some self-named niggah enemy is a waste of my skills/the platinum we rock is reflections of just where we've been/it was once gold sometimes when we were A-fri-cans/now our tribes' lost to closed minds and diluted veins/afrocentricity is more, than pickin baby names."
Another of his favorites is "The Window," with poet and musician, shirlette ammons. Juice says after building a recording studio in his house, he'd often call ammons to come over and record lyrics over tracks he'd created for fun. "The music came first. Then the vocalist came. None of the music stayed the same; the basics were there, but everything changed when the vocalist came on," he says. "Ultimately, it was a collaboration between me and whoever was on the track."
That in mind, it's impressive how well the vocalists' voices merge with their respective tracks. On "Window," It's almost as if ammons' voice is cultivated from the compositions which score the song. And in the refrain, you hear what makes this relationship so symbiotic, as ammons repeats: "he who watches makes music/she who listens kicks rhymes/she who knows rocks the body [be]for[e] the party begins, what's that in the window?"
Another collaboration, "Take it Slow," a groovy rock and roll number with musician Mark Wells, draws its inspiration from the innovative music of The White Stripes and The Strokes. "I had a vision to put a hip-hop feel and a break beat with 70s-type drums, with a hip-hop bump to the rock and roll aesthetic," says Juice. "I don't know how to describe it, the rock guitars mix so well with Mark's voice, Mark kinda teeters the line between being soulful and rock."
A statement of fact: It is unlikely that if, up to this point, you had no idea who The Apple Juice Kid is, that you will be ignorant for much longer. Well respected in the local music community--from musicians and spectators alike--Apple Juice will continue making music, be it as part of a collective--or, as a frontman, bringing his musical visions to aural reality. It's the juice in him ...
Check out The Apple Juice Orchestra at Kings Barcade on Friday, Nov. 7. Or visit www.theapplejuicekid.com for more information.