July 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Grieves busts rap cliches

Grieves distinguishes himself from many other rappers by including more instrumentation and singing. (Jenavieve Belair)

Rapper Benjamin Laub says he doesn’t care about “the whole cliché rap, money-drugs-guns-women kind of thing.”

“Winter and the Wolves” is his fourth full-length under the stage name Grieves, and it’s an intensely personal record revealing existential angst and relationship woes.

Laub, who will play the Magic Stick on Wednesday, says he’s not an outwardly angsty guy. But music provides an outlet for issues he’d be unlikely to sit down and have a conversation about.

“It’s been my therapy,” he says. “I haven’t been able to really write songs that don’t pertain to me. I can’t sit down and write a 2 Chainz-style song. Sometimes I really wish that I could, because it makes the writing process quite hard when I have to confront something every time.”

Laub’s writing process hews closer to a singer-songwriter model than a typical rap approach. He usually starts fleshing out a new cut on either piano or guitar (and has played both instruments on all his records). Further distinguishing his style from many contemporary rappers, Laub does a lot of melodic singing as well as rapping.

“It’s hard for me sometimes just to be like rap-rap-rap-rap-rap all the time,” he says. “I like to have myself be another instrument and maybe make something a little less, you know, repetitive.”

Laub’s path to the rap world is itself somewhat unconventional. Born in Chicago, he spent much of his childhood in northern Colorado and decided to move to Seattle at age 19 to pursue a teaching degree. He dropped out of college, but he also made some connections on Seattle’s rap scene — including one Ben Haggerty, better known as Macklemore.

In the early 2000s, Macklemore was a key figure on the Seattle rap scene, but far from international stardom. The Seattle scene had yet to rise to national prominence, and Laub says the Internet was only beginning to have a substantial effect on the music industry.

“It was right on the verge of ‘everyone’s a rapper’ time, when the Internet was like, ‘Hey, check out my rap songs,’ and there’s a million rappers in every city you go to,” he says.

Laub describes his early recordings as “just rapping in a closet,” but he slowly built a following through underground shows he organized with friends and fellow rappers.

Since Macklemore’s breakout success, the Seattle scene has garnered considerable national attention. As a result, Laub says many contemporary Seattle rappers have developed a greater sense of entitlement than he had in his early days.

“You’re not going to be a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning artist,” he says. “I am all about you trying for it, but there’s other steps you need to do and you need to recognize that Macklemore took before that kind of stuff happened.”

Laub himself has remained more of an underground success, and he seems happy to keep it that way. “Winter and the Wolves” peaked at No. 57 on the Billboard 200. Laub still keeps in touch with Haggerty, and he says he couldn’t handle the lack of privacy that comes with being a superstar.

“I don’t think that I have the mental strength to handle what (Haggerty) deals with every day, and I give him the utmost amount of credit,” Laub says. “That’s a lot.”


with SonReal and Fearce Vill

8 p.m. Wednesday

Magic Stick, 4140 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $12/$14

(313) 833-9700


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.