New Brunswick-originated Cook Thugless chat up their roots, their dope blend of hip-hop, jazz, funk, rock and hysterical stage antics, their many side projects, their hand in the upcoming launch of the Makin Waves Summer Concert Series at Asbury Park Brewery, and the next fillings in their eclectic catalog.
Ah, Cook Thugless, one of my favorite Jersey bands. So weird, so fun, so funny, so talented. They can hit you in so many ways, like a TIE fighter helmed by James Brown.
With the funkadelic guitar of co-producer Jace Limb as he switches from jazz to rock with the ease of a summer breeze.
With the equally eclectic and hot horns of trombonist Keith Lalley and saxophonist Brian Clines.
With dope rhymes from co-fronting rapper Jack Blerry and a trilingual assault from his partner in crime, JeanLouis, who also raps in Spanish and French (he was born in Venezuela, a third-generation descendant of France).
With the tight, mighty, meaty rhythms of bassist Riley Byrne and drummer Jahmar “J. Titty” Beaubrun, who also raps on occasion.
All were trained at Mason Gross — acting for Blerry and Jay L., music for the rest — except for Titty, who went to Rider. But he joined their funky fray soon after forming in dorms on the Cook/Douglass campus of Rutgers University — hence, their name.
Now spread across a Cook Thugless diaspora from Brooklyn to Trenton, as well as Jersey City and still New Brunswick, the bandmates remain tied to each other and awesome music scenes, which helps expand their following well beyond their Hub City origins.
Extremely productive despite being busy with several outside music, filmmaking and acting projects, Cook Thugless have released three brilliant albums, 2013’s Space, 2015’s Time and Money, the 2017 Makin Waves Album of the Year. In between, they’ve dropped a bunch of singles, EPs and an amazing number of exceptional fan-building videos, the latest of which is “DAT MOFK,” featuring rapper Shyrley, a friend from their Mason Gross days. That city-spirited clip soon will be followed by a vid for a tune called “Lockjaw” that may or may not appear on the band’s fourth album, currently in the works.
If you’ve seen Cook Thugless live, you know they are not to be missed. And if you haven’t, well, you’re in for a treat when they play the “Best of Makin Waves” opening show of the Makin Waves Summer Concert Series at Asbury Park Brewery on June 23 with The Brixton Riot, Mr. Payday, Disposable and The Successful Failures. It will be one of their few shows while they work on their next album (see the Makin Waves Scene Report for more about the Summer Concert Series).
I recently chatted with half the band via email and hope you enjoy the resulting interview.
Q: So what are all your real names, aliases and instruments?
A: Cook Thugless does not have any real names, nor do we play any real instruments.
Q: Members of the band live in New Brunswick, Jersey City, Brooklyn and Trenton, all of which have good music scenes. One of you has to move to Asbury Park and Philadelphia, and you’ll be all set. Given how spread out you are, do you consider one of those cities your home base or are NY/NJ-based at this point?
A: Ya hit the nail on the head, Bob! We’re definitely vaguely NY/NJ-based right now. We’d love to expand our reach to places like Philly, which we’ve heard have a dope hip-hop scene.
Q: New Brunswick, of course, is the band’s city of origin. How many of you went to Rutgers together, and how did that, especially jazz studies and theater at Mason Gross, lead to the formation of the band, as well as your name, Cook Thugless?
A: All of us went to Rutgers, with the exception of Jahmar, who went to Rider. Mason Gross played a part, in that as freshmen, we were all cooped up together in the New Gibbons dorms. That was the housing for Mason Gross kids, basically, so that’s where a bunch of us fell in together. Then three of us went on to live in the Starkey apartments, which is also Rutgers housing. That apartment was where the initial Thugless lineup started putting SPACE together and rehearsing. All this activity went down on Cook/Douglass campus. Get it? Haha.
Q: Is the name of the band a reference to non-gangster rap?
A: Nah, it was literally a stupid off-the-cuff pun. Gangsta rap is dope. Everyone needs to listen to more gangsta rap.
Q: How did you hook up with bandmates who didn’t go to Rutgers?
A: Riley and Jahmar have been playing in bands for, like, 10 years or something crazy like that. So, when all the people who were drumming for us got too busy, Riley brought in Jahmar and he’s been holding it down ever since.
Q: Another of your Mason Gross friends, Shyrley, appears on “DAT MOFK.” What else had members of Cook Thugless done with her artistically and/or academically?
A: JL and Jack Blerry went to acting school with Shyrley. So, they’ve done plays together. She was a part of the early SPACE stuff as well. You can hear her on “Battlin’ Love” and “Candyland.” We’ve been hanging with her more in the studio in general, so keep your ears open …
Q: You are about to drop another video. What is that song, what inspired it, what’s it sound like, when will the video be released, and will that song and “DAT MOFK” be released on album? If so, when, and will that album continue the Space, Time, Money continuum?
A: Our new video is called “Lockjaw”’ We’ll be releasing it before the end of the month. We’ve yet to say anything about our next big release, so our lips are sealed …
Q: Cook Thugless make more good videos than any other unsigned Jersey band. What do you like most about making videos and how have they helped grow your audience?
A: Every video shoot is suuuch a hang. We get everyone we know together and put weird makeup on and turn our houses into weird movie sets. Every video has such a good story behind it. Even the instances where it wasn’t super fun at the time (like getting rained out for our “House Cat” music video), everyone powered through and made something awesome in the end. Every detail of every video is the idea of someone in the band or our friends. It’s a big collage of brains.
People hear what they see. And see what they hear. So if they have something to look at while they’re listening to our music, they’ll remember it. I’ve heard a good quality to have in your audience is remembering your music.
Q: Do JeanLouis and anyone else in the band make videos for other music artists or any other filmmaking projects?
A: Yeah! JeanLouis has missed a bunch of important Thugless stuff lately because he’s doing film projects with other people. No fair! We want JL allllll to ourselves. How dare he be so talented and well-connected!!!
Q: Both JeanLouis and Blerry also are actors. What’s coming up with both of you with that?
A: JeanLouis is constantly appearing on fellow artists’ music videos, as well as acting shorts. He’s worked with a number of artists in general, whether directing or editing or making music, so it’s only natural he makes appearances on their projects as well. Blerry is working on a project with classmates from his acting class, and it’s top secret for now.
Q: What impact have JeanLouis’ trilingual vocals/lyrics had on the band and your audience?
A: We were at our album release show for Money, performing “Net Worthless.” When we hit the part where JL starts rapping really fast in English and Spanish, I saw this one girl in the audience who I know speaks Spanish. Her jaw just straight-like dropped.
I think it’s awesome when JL mixes languages because it has this huge impact on people who speak both or all three. It’s like, a deeper level of appreciation for a select group of our audience.
Q: Jace produces a few other music acts. What projects of his recently were released and will be released?
A: Recently, he put a track out with our homies, DAZED, and another acoustic joint with AJ from DAZED (“Southbound” by JACELIMB x W0LF). He’s currently working hard with Murdock and Danny Delavie on their upcoming albums as well, which will both be coming out this summer. He also always has a bunch of other projects under construction too. You can keep posted on his musical journey at jamesmehrkens.com.
Q: Anybody else in the band have any other artistic projects going on?
A: Riley’s playing with some other groups, like Rubber BandGun. Keith has some production colabs in the works … so, the usual.
Q: After five years, what has kept the Cook Thugless lineup intact and why?
A: Well, Thugless formed pretty early in our Rutgers career. We had three years where a bunch of us were all living together and making music was just what we wanted to do in our spare time. There were plenty of venues to play live, and there were always new beats being pumped out for our hungry rappers. Since graduating, we live in different areas, but we all have had so much fun and fulfillment putting together albums and playing shows that there was never any doubt that we were gonna find a way to make the process work. Thanks to the wonders of The Internet, we’re still constantly in a state of collaboration.
Q: What do you think of the “Best of Makin Waves” show on June 23 at Asbury Park Brewery with The Brixton Riot, Disposable, Mr. Payday and The Successful Failures?
A: We’re pretty excited because we’ve never played with any of these bands before! It’s always fun to check out other local acts.
Q: What other shows and doings do Cook Thugless have going on that you want to plug?
A: We don’t have too many shows coming up in the near term. We’ve been focusing on writing and recording new music, as well as wrapping up our upcoming music video, “Lockjaw!”
Q: Some of you went to high school with Deal Casino, with whom you played in January at The Asbury. When and where had you played with them before, and any definite plans to play with them again?
A: Yeah, Jim and Brian both went to Sparta High School with the Deal Casino guys (back when they were Something About January). This past January at The Asbury Hotel was actually the only time we’ve all played on the same bill. We hope to play some future shows with them, though we don’t have anything lined up for the short term.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.