Few people are as qualified to wax philosophical on the concept of freedom as Julio Francisco Ramos, the musician and independent record label operator known as Ceschi. His adult life has pendulumed between having many personal freedoms stripped away by the state (unfairly so, he adds) to having an abundance that demands complete discipline, focus and responsibility.
When Ceschi talks freedom, you should listen.
"The concept of freedom is so malleable and subjective. One of the major things I learned is that, as long as we live within this society, there will be layers of imprisonment. For instance, in prison, we are grateful for being allowed time to step outside and walk around in a yard. That is a privilege for prisoners, not an expected right. Outside of prison bars, we can walk in backyards whenever we want, we can run on beaches and through forests and take flights around the world; but, what keeps us from ever attaining total freedom? What are the theoretical prison bars surrounding us at all times?" he posits, then lists some possibilities, like money and laws.
"A lot of people do not agree with laws imposed onto us by our state powers. When there’s nobody around for miles in the middle of the night, why do we still stop at red stop signs? Nobody has ever felt threatened by the effects of marijuana flower on a person, yet that flower has lead to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people," he notes. "Do we all agree on what the state deems 'moral' or is that just another theoretical imposition? Beyond that, there are laws that are outside of human control, the laws of nature. Icaruses may attempt to fly to the sun, but the sun will melt those puny man-made wings each and every time."
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Woke notions like those are the core of the Ceschi's most recent album, Broken Bone Ballads. He's visiting Houston tonight to perform songs from it and a catalog that stretches back to the early 2000s at Houston Undrgrnd. The New Haven, Connecticut artist is nearing the end of a tour that began in Olympia, Washington and features his production partner, Factor Chandelier, on beats, as well as Philadelphia rapper/Don Giovanni recording artist Sammus. San Antonio rap duo Chisme is also on the bill. They're the hip-hop elements of a night which will also feature local punk and folk acts. For Ceschi, who describes his output as "experimental folk rap," these mixed genre shows are comfortable and familiar.
"When multiple scenes unite over common ways of looking at the world, it strengthens community even more. The shows tend to be more interesting and successful since they are attracting a larger pool of fans. I’m a big supporter of building with like-minded people of any scene."
As a veteran performer, he's played world-over. Weirdest tour stop?
"That would have to be Laos," he says. "I was invited to play a festival along with two other hip-hop artist friends of mine. We played a bizarre anti-drug outdoor fest called Street Jamz - with a Z - on the banks of the Mekong River. The local Laotian acts were mostly boy and girl bands in the style of Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. After a bunch of choreographed routines they finally threw me on stage with a guitar. It was surreal. People seemed to like it."
"I’ve played Houston a few times but, admittedly, it’s a city that I’ve mostly neglected. The last two shows I did were opening for friends at Warehouse Live. They were some of the smallest shows of our tours. I’m not sure how to read Houston," he adds. "We have some strong supporters but it seems spread out and huge. A bit overwhelming. Extremely excited to actually be playing with strong local acts this time. It’ll be a completely different experience and I think it’ll be great."
Locals on tonight's show include El Jumbotron, Denton ska punkers Noogy and Days N Daze (disclosure: the author's son is that band's front man). As for Houston rappers, not on the bill but at the top of Ceschi's list is PersephOne (“She is extremely experimental, technical and just a strange, beautiful force of her own, “ he says). Anyone familiar with her work or the stylings of Sage Francis, whom Ceschi's worked with, or songs by troubadour Pat (The Bunny) Schneeweis or any of the acts on the Fake Four, Inc. label Ceschi and his brother, David, run should know what to expect from his set.
For the uninitiated, Ceschi’s songs – particularly those on Broken Bone Ballads – feature guitar, beats and rhymes, all in a melodic jumble. Consider if Magical Mystery Tour was an especially literary rap album. There's a splash of Kerouac here and a dash of Anthony Burgess there. The tracks are replete with evocative, demanding lyrics about the human condition. Ceschi said many of the songs reflect on a time he was incarcerated in Connecticut. He gave us the thumbnail version of the events, which began in late 2010.
"I had a history as a middle man in the marijuana business through acquaintances and childhood friends who grew in California. A mule from California who had met me once was arrested in Illinois and pinned an entire large shipment on me. After surprising me with 20 phone calls and asking to use the bathroom after his long journey, I noticed he had wrapped boxes like Christmas presents in his trunk. I knew what it was but didn’t know how much he had. Next thing I knew, 10 to 12 drug task force cops in undercover gear had guns to my head as I was pushed face first into snow and refused to allow me to speak to an attorney," he recalled.
Ceschi said his family has always supported his artistic endeavors. He and his brother have a strong bond because of music. His parents nurtured a love of music by introducing them to Fania Records salsa and The Beatles, who strongly influence Ceschi’s songwriting. He and David were caretakers for their grandparents.
“During the raid on our family’s house, my mother, brother and grandfather were threatened with arrest and worse by the police. I broke one of my golden rules and gave a forced confession to police only after their threats seemed real,” he said. “Today I realize that these threats were mostly bullshit and that cops will literally say anything to get the arrest. It was a mistake but I did it to protect my family.”
He ultimately took a plea deal for 18 months in a Connecticut prison. Because he was a non-violent offender with a short sentence he spent only one-third of that time behind bars, but the legal ordeal lasted more than three years and could have cost him his livelihood.
“A large majority of my fans and fellow musicians were pretty incredible. To maintain the label, we started an indiegogo campaign and raised over $50,000 dollars to save Fake Four. They supported me throughout it all,” he said. “My brother was deeply involved in letting people know my situation while remaining hyper-critical of the classist, racist, ‘justice’ system in this country that tears apart families and profits wildly from victimless crimes."
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“Being locked up made me sit with myself and overanalyze things that we simply assume are common sense or natural - such as the idea of prisons in the first place, hegemonic ideas that have been imposed onto us since the dawn of civilization,” he continues. “All of these ideas and more really inspired lyrics on my last album, Broken Bone Ballads - questions through the lens of a depressed person caught within the American justice system.”
Since then, Ceschi's made up for time lost to those events. Fake Four is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and has released more than 70 albums by successful acts such as Open Mike Eagle, Sister Crayon, Astronautalis and Blue Sky Black Death. And Ceschi's back on tour, testing the limits of the idea of freedom and meeting fans of the label and his work.
"I love touring because it is the most complete way to realize that our music has reached people all over. It can be uncomfortable and exhausting at times, but I’m built for it."
Ceschi featuring Factor Chandelier, with Sammus, Chisme, El Jumbotron, Noogy and Days N Daze, 6 p.m. tonight at Houston Undrgrnd, 850 McKee. All ages, $7-$10.