Pilot Nation finds hip-hop’s common ground

From left: Nick Gray, Jeff Replay, and Stizzy joined together to form Pilot Nation. The three perform at the Brighton Music Hall on April 18.
From left: Nick Gray, Jeff Replay, and Stizzy joined together to form Pilot Nation. The three perform at the Brighton Music Hall on April 18.Tim Larew

In some ways, the story of Pilot Nation is about a purposeful disregard for the boundaries that have often helped rappers define their musical identities. Rigid oaths of loyalty to locales or specific styles are largely absent from their debut, "Expensive Heat," and with good reason. If that weren't the case, the group wouldn't exist.

"For me, the fact that someone from my side of town was going to be on his side of town was unheard of," explains Roxbury native Jeff Replay about his initial meeting with bandmate Stizzy in Dorchester. "I just so happened to be around his home base due to basketball where he was chilling, and that's how we met. Sometimes you meet people in the right places at the right times, and we connected just like that."


Stizzy and Replay had already been rapping for more than a year before the former realized one of his new co-workers, Nick Gray, a college student who arrived in Dorchester from Mattapoisett to pursue music opportunities in the city, also shared his rap ambitions. An unlikely trio suddenly found common ground for collaboration: an open-mindedness of spirit and musical taste.

"I didn't come to Boston for a certain scene, I came to see what I could do with music," says Gray. "I didn't have anything like this or know anybody. I came with the intention of trying to find this: like-minded music people who were trying to do what I was trying to do, and so far we've made it to right here."

The "we" he's referring to isn't just his bandmates: He's speaking while perched on a couch arm in the packed living room of a friend's South End apartment, joined by a host of friends and collaborators including Michael Christmas and OG [Expletive], with whom they'll share the bill as openers for Cam Meekins, also present, at Brighton Music Hall on April 18. Their generation has seen hip-hop's once strictly observed aesthetic and regional boundaries fade, opening the door for a sound freed from preconceived notions of what Boston rap "should" sound like.


The results can be heard on "Expensive Heat," a sharply produced package of songs that reflect their versatility. Stizzy's smoke-tinged musings over the smooth, hazy-eyed funk of "Fantasy" could fit seamlessly into a guest spot on the next Curren$y album, while the guttural rumble and war chants of "GTFU" has hints of New York's ASAP Rocky-fueled rap renaissance. (For full effect, watch as the Nation raps from inside an abandoned, graffiti-stained MBTA subway car in the video.) Meanwhile the pop-friendly "Cruisin' " and Replay's melodic flow on "Know Love" have potential mass appeal.

Collaborating with eight producers over the album's 10 tracks was important not only in establishing a varied sound, but in fitting in with the group's inclusive attitude.

"We had people come out and actually want to work with us," says Stizzy of the album's producers, who include rising stars like A-Rayz, Goodwin, and Obeatz, whose punchy horns herald the Nation's grand entrance on "The Come Up." "It's not just 'Send me a beat and I'll rap to it.' We reached out to them, chill with them, they make a beat, and we rap to it. It's like, 'Come over, let's get to know each other.' We met a lot of like-minded people. Those people want to make the beat that much better because they know what kind of people they're doing it for."


"It's not like we're here just for us. These guys," Replays adds, acknowledging the friends and fellow artists who've packed into the living room, "are with us. It's about finding those great minds who will spread it and see what you're trying to do."

And it's much easier to have people see you when you're always around. The low-budget, high-quality videos for "GTFU" and "Know Love" have racked up more than 10,000 YouTube views in just over two weeks, and the group has scheduled an informal weekly local college tour for the next several weeks with Christmas, OG [Expletive], and Meekins. Those stops will be nothing more than the artists parking their truck in an outdoor space, hooking up the sound system, and performing for free for anyone who happens to be there. And if those people are anything like the group themselves, they'll take a minute to listen.

"Here and everywhere else, people find reasons not to talk to a stranger or find something in common with them and would rather pick out the negative," says Replay. "It's ill when I find other people who are down to be open, so those guys are exactly like me. Why not? We're still here today, working and grinding towards being better people. Together, let's go, let's keep spreading it. As long as we here, that's what we will do."



Those who (like us) have greatly enjoyed DJ producer EvillDewer's spaced-out instrumental albums over the past year will be happy to hear he's found a voice worthy of his beats: SPNDA, one-third of Retrospek and his collaborator for the new album "The Jeffrey." UGHH hosts the pair for a listening party and live performance of the forthcoming LP on April 19. . . . Legendary EPMD mix master DJ Scratch is the guest of resident DJs Knife and Tommee at this month's Fresh Produce night at Good Life (28 Kingston St.) on April 27.

Martín Caballero can be reached at caballero
. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.