When it comes to Birmingham and its music scene, people are always apologizing. This is how unfortunate rhetoric like “Birmingham’s Best Kept Secret” gets tossed around, only contributing to a mindset about the city already decades out of date.
No one needs a history lesson on Birmingham’s checkered past, least of all Andy Stewart. As one of the leading minds behind Birmingham-based hip-hop and electronic label Step Pepper, this 32-year-old techno-savvy musician isn’t letting that past lay heavy on the heart of the innovation he’s actively bringing to the local music scene.
A resident of Birmingham for two decades, Stewart has embraced the internet and the power of social media as a means of bringing his own DIY approach to the label, making Step Pepper a platform from which to launch local musicians into the ongoing explosion of electronic music in our culture.
“The internet changed the world for the better,” Stewart says at ease in his home, his back to a desk dominated by the various devices of his trade, including a Mac and a sampler. “It superimposed a new worldliness about this community, artistically.”
Not that all these changes happened over night. The story of Step Pepper is a gradual and organic one, with its beginnings as far back as Stewart’s student years at the Atlanta College of Art. It’s there — in the city that has brought us such acts as OutKast, T.I. and Danger Mouse — that he first fell in love with hip-hop.
Up until that point Stewart had been primarily a singer/songwriter, but he soon found himself at home, producing his own music in the comfort of his bedroom; at the time, however, he was only sharing the results with close friends. This interest soon led him to form an online hip-hop radio program off of Myspace called Urbandy Radio.
“I had at least 50 artists on there. They were from all over the world. Some of them didn’t even speak English,” he says, laughing. “I had to communicate with them through broken English over email and Skype.”
Even though the site went defunct along with Myspace, the experience would lay the groundwork for Step Pepper’s creation.
“The radio was clearly a stepping stone for the label. Running a radio and running a label have a very similar premise.”
Another key factor in this story is the involvement of Colin Blanton, a fellow musician on the label, under the moniker Ant’lrd. Already a prolific artist himself, Blanton would be the one to light the fire under Stewart and Anthony Mack’s (stage name MackONE) toes by convincing them to start releasing the music they had already created and performing it live. In 2010, Step Pepper released their debut 7”, a record split between Blanton and Stewart, who creates his own music for the label as Urbandy.
Nowadays, Step Pepper is going strong with its 27th release earlier this month, an album by 24 year-old musician Chris Suda, performing on the label as Loveislight. Stewart is particularly pleased with Gim, not only in terms of the haunting, experimental soundscapes and beats found within the album, but also in the quality of its physical presentation. The album, released in the form of a cassette tape with a redemption code for a digital download, features a cover design by Stewart’s girlfriend, local artist Jamie Lynne. All in all, it is another milestone for Step Pepper as they continue to create a better and better finished product.
Needless to say, Chris Suda is just as happy with the album.
“[Step Pepper] allows me to absolutely control my sound and still obtain positive feedback from the other members,” Suda says. “Step Pepper is really the only thing I can think of that allows me complete creative control in terms of what I have done with music.”
Suda is no slouch himself when it comes to actively creating music. Originally from Brighton, Michigan, he has been a resident in Birmingham for 12 years now, and is currently also involved with four-piece instrumental post-rock band In Snow, as well as his own singer/songwriter act Philos Moore.
Suda entered the Step Pepper fold when Blanton approached him about creating some original work for the label. Always wanting to push the boundaries of what music can do, he was more than willing to deliver.
“There would be songs that wouldn’t have occurred in any other side project of mine if Loveislight wasn’t there,” Suda says. “It opened my mind up in a different direction I didn’t even know was there.”
Suda readily admits that one of the key factors in the development of his music as Loveislight is the interaction and support of the other artists on the label. This is because Stewart prides his label for being a family affair — literally, in some instances. Andy’s brother Christopher Stewart produces material for the label under the name Vawter, and Andy goes out of his way to form friendships with all nine of the acts currently signed to the label.
“It’s a very therapeutic, helpful setting,” agrees Suda.
While striving to juggle with his managerial and creative roles with Step Pepper on a day-by-day basis, Stewart is also excited about not only the future of the label, but also the open-ended nature of electronic music in general.
“Kids are growing up nowadays with bombarding disparate information,” he says. “The tendency for kids to make weird electronic music is higher and higher every minute. They aren’t waving a flag for a particular subgenre like punk or rock.”
Not unlike electronic music itself, Step Pepper’s influence and ambitions are spreading. Colin Blanton is currently at work in Chicago performing as Ant’lrd as well as his other project, Arborist. At least two other musicians will be going out of state for college, while still producing material for Step Pepper.
“It’s better that they move away and not keep thing centralized,” Andy Stewart says. “They become these ambassadors.”
Anthony Vacca is a writer living in Birmingham. He can be contacted at email@example.com.