“I may step out here and do some wild shit, but that backbone is very important to me.”
For some creatives, the silver living of a massive horror show like the current pandemic is that isolation can foster prolific activity.
For others, albeit a rare few, their acts were COVID-ready in some way or another. Like the author that we interviewed last week who presciently spent 2019 writing a book about baseball and the Spanish flu a century ago.
Esh, formerly Esh the Monolith, pisses in both of the aforementioned buckets.
“This record was basically me separating from my previous music life.” As Esh talks about his new release, Idiot Fingerz, I’m wondering how it is actually possible that he started calling himself—and then his band—the freaking ī-sə-ˈlā-SH(ə)ns—before everybody actually had to hibernate in isolation. As it turns out, following more than a decade of messing with various rap crews and solo adventures, last year Esh started to consider his monolithic moniker as burdensome—metaphorically, logistically, and even potentially legally.
“[The Isolations name] was kind of a joke, because I had been sitting in a room for the past year dealing with the grief of the loss of my father, feeling weird about the world, and all this other shit, and ironically I started working with a bunch of musicians, and that fake band became a real band.”
“We had already started playing as Esh and the Isolations before the pandemic hit.”
I hate to fact-check musicians, especially ones who I have known and respected for years, but I did in this case, and his story checks out: the Isolations handle predates COVID-19.
“I was also having a lot of problems with the name Esh because it’s basically impossible to search,” he says. “There’s some fucking German DJ with that name, so I had to switch it up again, and I made up the fake band name Esh & the Isolations.”
Anyone who has paid close attention to Esh over the past several years could have forecast such a stride on the horizon. A lyrically sellar MC with roots in the Rhode Island rap scene and fruit-bearing projects with various top Hub collaborators (Arcitype, Grey Sky Appeal), he started off young and exhibited flashes of singularity along his path. Born and raised on the east side of Providence, Esh followed the lead of his older brother, who brought the burgeoning MC along for “all of the bad shit you’re not supposed to be doing when you’re 12 years old.”
“I started DJing first of all,” Esh recalls. “And then I got into rap culture through that and started making beats. MCing seemed out of my reach. When you’re indoctrinated into the culture in any way, you understand the implications of being a white dude rapping.”
In time, Esh found his way in, at moments in demonstrably avant-garde fashions. In the past few years, he has done tour dates with the family from Fake Four, the Connecticut-based imprint that’s home to Ceschi Ramos and several others bending boom bap boundaries. At the same time, Esh’s music has an unmistakable, unbreakable spine.
“I have a genuine reverence for hip-hop culture,” he says. For those who like to play the hip-hop name game, his voice and cadence ring around a range of attitude-toting enunciators, from Wiki and Edan to Viro the Virus.
“I may step out here and do some wild shit, but that backbone is very important to me,” he says.
In non-COVID times, road gigs have allowed him to experiment and test his comfort zone.
“When I’ve toured as a solo act, it’s been important to set myself apart from rappers who just walk around on stage,” he says. “I’ve incorporated a lot of thrift store synthesizers; there’s a drum that I would beat at one point. I would just do a bunch of different shit that would keep it interesting. It gets boring to just rap on stage in front of people.”
These days, he’s less bored. Even in isolation, Esh has the Isolations, which at its core also includes Amelia Gormley on bass and Jesse Russell on drums. Their debut, Idiot Fingerz, is an iconoclastic orgy with both stranger bangers, as well as a couple of hot pieces of ass fit for everyone (I’m loving “Chef Kiss,” “Rich Parents,” and “Costanza Wallet”).
“I wanted it to sound like someone was making it in a room, in his own head, feeling distorted,” Esh says. Asked about the standout gorgeous wrenching ballad “I Am Nothing,” he adds: “That song talks about the crazy period in my life that sent me into that room—my father dying, my wife’s mother dying, getting married, her friend getting murdered, and me losing a job, all within eight months.”
And then, of course, after the album was finally finished and a national tour plus UK dates were booked, the pandemic hit.
But at least by that point, Esh had the Isolations.
As he puts it, “There’s gotta be some sort of positivity.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.