Playground Legends: The Palmer Squares Help Elevate the Game

The Palmer Squares
The Palmer Squares Photo by Paul Elliott, courtesy of Palmer Squares

The best athletes in any sport have a common desire to take their sport to the next level. Ask Acumental and Terminal Knowledge, the rap duo known as The Palmer Squares, and they’ll tell you that’s how Tony Hawk became identifiable to folks who don’t know a regular from a goofy foot. It’s how Michael Jordan became a basketball legend beyond the friendly confines of Chicago, the city from which the Palmer Squares hail.

“We’re skateboarding fans. I skated a lot, Term still skates, and I like watching it. Skaters now do stuff that wasn’t really possible, that nobody did yet 20 years ago. I think lyrically there’s a similar evolution where we heard what’s been done and we got to try to upgrade it with our stylings,” said Matt Brands, a.k.a. Acumental or just “Ac” for short. “Steph Curry shooting three-pointers is not the same as Toni Kukoc 20 years ago. No disrespect, but the game has evolved.”

That’s what you need to know most about the Palmer Squares, who bring their Square Dance Tour to Belle Station Thursday, July 15. They’re interested in the ongoing development of the music genre they’ve chosen and their role in it. They believe their front foot impossible or their swish from beyond the arc is related to words, phrases and rhyming. They’re taking the building blocks of rap music and stacking them in ornate, inventive ways to construct an impressive place in the game. Their exchanges are seamless, not just in a practiced way from rehearsals and shows, but also as a by-product of knowing each other since elementary school.

Brands and Seth Zamost, better known as Terminal Knowledge, Term K or the abbreviated familiar “Term,” might not have MJ status (yet). But, their commitment to writing jaw-dropping, tongue-twisting, mind-bending rhymes drawn from a myriad of cultural influences - coupled with DIY efforts to grow their name - make them playground legends. They’re eager to perform songs live from With or Without It, their latest full-length. When they bring those raps and others from a career that stretches back to 2008 to Houston this month, it’ll be for the first time.

“The more we traveled, we started checking off cities that we’ve been to or wanted to go to and Houston was always one that we wanted to play and never booked until now,” Brands said. “This is our first time there and this event is a free show, so even if people read this and don’t know about us or don’t really care what we’ve been up to, it’s like, yeah, it’s a free show and something to do on a Thursday night in Houston. We’ll be there.”

“In terms of playing live again, we put out a new album last year and the pandemic hit just after we put it out so we never got to tour those songs, we never really got to play them in front of an audience,” Zamost said. “So yeah, we’re beyond excited to get out there and play these songs that we were meant to play for our fans over a year ago.”

“We hope the rest of the country starts sacking up like Texas so we can bring this all around,” Zamost added.

We observed that Chicago and Houston are similar in some ways. We alternate positions for most populous U.S. city behind New York and L.A., the cities we also sometimes toil in the shadows of when it comes to rap music. Politically, we’re now both blue. Zamost adds that we each have a Six Flags park (we can’t bring ourselves to tell him AstroWorld shuttered in 2005). Each city has a version of “The Bean.” And, when it comes to hip hop, we’re both evolving, too. Houston’s sound isn’t as associated anymore with the screw music that put it on the map.

“I don’t really know what Chicago’s sound would be – maybe that could be a good thing that it’s not pigeon-holed into these beats that sound like old Death Row, west coast stuff. But, yeah, sometimes you do hear stuff that sounds like it’s southern or western or eastern. Chicago is this middle point in all of that, so we get to draw from all those areas, too,” Brands noted.

“Definitely the other artists that we’ve played shows with, performed with, even if we don’t sound like them, it definitely kind of influenced and crept into our style,” he continued. “We’ve played lots of shows with artists who have since been established or signed in a lot of cases, folks like Mick Jenkins and Saba, Superboy. There’s definitely a huge Chicago scene and we share the stage with a lot of those guys. I feel like we’re all different as artists, but we became fans of a lot of those guys and saw what they were doing.”

click to enlarge
(L-R) Brands, a.k.a. Acumental, and Zamost, better known as Term K
Photo by Paul Elliott, courtesy of Palmer Squares

“I think every artist is kind of shaped by their surroundings,” Zamost offered. “Even if we can’t pinpoint it exactly, being Chicagoans has definitely shaped our music to some degree.”

“For the folks that don’t know us I think some of the best direction of what to expect is it’s lyrically-based. No matter what the sound was, we’ve always been largely fascinated with words and lyrics and hip hop lyrics, hip hop verses. Just rhymes ultimately, word puzzles,” Brands said. “We’ve always been very lyrically focused on multi-syllabic rhyme schemes and stuff. That’s kind of the starting point or the focal point or both with most of our music.”

“We identify as rappers, sure, but definitely as writers, too,” he continued. “We hope that you’ll hear something at one of our shows or listening to our music that you just haven’t heard other artists verbalize. That’s the goal, anyway.”

Another way to learn more about Palmer Squares is its podcast, TPS Reports. If this interview feels composed or journalistic in any way, the podcast is anything but – it’s a wild, comedic journey through subjects of interest to the P Squares made specifically for their fans. A sample of recent topics includes “tanning your butthole,” “things to do while high,” breakfast from McDonald’s and “sucking your own dick - it is a topic on the podcast,” Brands said with a sigh.

“We get drunk halfway through those shows,” he added. “I just finished uploading our 200th episode for tomorrow’s release. Listening to us, by the end it’s like, alright, champagne is fucking ADD juice for me.”

The podcast might be outrageous, but it also offers some insight into the duo’s influences, which, they admit, are often not rappers. You might hear an academic breakdown of a George Carlin bit or their weird takes on movies, a popular recurring subject for a pair of film buffs.

“I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we have as many if not more influences who aren’t even rappers, who are like comedians or philosophers or whatever. We don’t draw strictly from the well of other rappers. I would go as far as to say our rap’s been influenced by more people that aren’t even rappers, when it comes to writing and lyricism,” Zamost said. “Anyone who listens to the show shouldn’t be a stranger to the fact that I don’t listen to hip hop often recreationally. We’ve introduced a segment where I recommend an album every week and they’re primarily albums that are out of that realm. I try to find things that I assume that our listener base isn’t aware of or is out of their wheelhouse. But, yeah, our podcast does stray quite a bit from music even though it’s categorized as music commentary.”

Regarding music commentary, we wonder if they can forecast what’s next for hip hop?

“I feel like our instincts are terrible with things like that,” Brands confessed.

“We’ve never been the crystal ball types,” admitted Zamost.

“I would have probably assumed there would have been more of a rise in female rappers, but I wouldn’t have predicted that the hottest thing would be Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B in cosplay outfits rubbing their vaginas together at the Grammys. Alright. I didn’t see this coming,” Brands said.

“All these years doing this so far has assured me that my finger is nowhere near the pulse,” Zamost concluded.

One thing Brands does recognize is the idea that today’s hip hop doesn’t value words anymore, that trap and mumble rap have pushed wordplay out of the genre. He said this is a long-running misconception.

click to enlarge
The duo makes its Houston debut at Belle Station in Midtown
Photo by Paul Elliott, courtesy of Palmer Squares

“I think that notion, even when we were younger what we heard on the radio – and we were kind of being hipsters back then – it was like ‘Yeah, hip hop has completely lost its lyricism.’ You just had to know what to listen to I guess,” he said and Zamost cut in to add, “Even the shit we were bitching about back then, when I look back at it now it’s like, ‘Damn, he’s using patterns and multis, this is actually kind of dope.’”

“I think there is an evolution to everything really, but especially to lyrics in hip hop music,” Brands said. “Listen to rap music from the ‘80s and the rhymes are not as complex and I think it’s because everybody (then) is paving the way.”

Which circled us back to sports. We briefly lamented our respective losing basketball teams before Brands returned to the evolution of hip hop and the Palmer Squares’ obligation to it.

“Even a better example is Steve Kerr, another Bull who ends up coaching. What he learned got to somehow influence and trickle down to the next generation and they’re getting better. It happens in sports and music and everything,” Brands said. “So, hopefully we’ve done that, too. Like, there would be no lyrical evolution, there would be no Palmer Squares lyrics, without hearing what people already did and said in the ‘80s and ‘90s to kick those doors open. Alright, now let’s go through those doors, too.”

Whatever’s next for hip hop is probably going to be even better, Zamost said, sort of peering into the crystal ball.

“I think Steph Curry is a good analogy in that he and his brother are an example of two guys – their father was in the NBA – who grew up on the court. They were exposed to it forever,” Zamost noted. “For our generation, for the most part, listening to this kind of music was not something that our parents engaged in. It was usually an act of rebellion against our parents and now there’s a generation coming up whose parents have been playing them Jay-Z and rap music since they were crawling. This constant exposure makes for advancements we didn’t even realize we were capable of.”

The Palmer Squares make their debut performance in Houston Thursday, July 15 at Belle Station, 207 Gray. With Austin-based beatboxer and producer Ben Buck. Free.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.