“Something was tugging on him to put together an artistic piece of work to speak to the heaviness that’s going on with the protesting and the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial inequalities among us,” recalls Coats.
The two artists had collaborated on some of A Meazy’s previous projects. But Coats wasn’t immediately sure how to approach this one — particularly because he had been hiding away, too traumatized by the violence to focus. “I was kind of shielding myself from a lot of the mainstream media about it,” he explains.
While the forty-year-old Coats has a long history with The Foodchain hip-hop collective, his more recent music has been a sort of diary. He names his songs with dates, and documents what’s going on in his life. Responding to direct political issues was something that the Foodchain did, but it hasn’t been central to his work alone or with artists like Kayla Rae, Trev Rich and Danae Simone.
“I prayed about it a little bit,” says Coats. “I tried to indulge myself in some of the media for the first time. It was so heavy, seeing the fact that our young people and people older than us are just fed up with the status quo. There’s this heavy thing, seeing so many people from different backgrounds and races and ethnicities coming together to fight back against this hateful shit that is going on. Most of us are tired of us sweeping this shit under the rug as if things never happened. Long story short, I spent the better part of that night trying to toggle with some specific ideas.”
He sampled an old Foodchain track that had never come out called “Black Is Me," and toyed with various versions of the beat. By 5 a.m., he had settled on a sound that expressed his emotions about the violence, and he sent the track to A Meazy, who was moved by what he heard.
A Meazy recruited Chy Reco, Ramond and Wil Guice to come to Side 3 Studios in Lincoln Park and write and record tracks for five hours one day. Guice, a Grammy-nominated songwriter with an angelic voice, had packed his truck before the session and was ready to move to Atlanta. Coming in to record was the last thing he did in Denver.
“He wrote everything while he was in the booth, and he built an entire song,” says Coats. “The backups of the hook were done first, [then] he took a break and came back in. He wrote the hook on the spot and went from front to back. ... He’s a soulful dude. He gave me everything he could possibly give me in that session. It was so powerful to see him release that way. I think we all struggled with how to mourn with all these things going on. I get a little choked up thinking about it.”
“It’s hard to be non-violent. I swear to God I tried it,” sang Guice. “I tried to speak and not fight. But I can’t breathe. No, I can’t breathe.”
The rest of the tracks, laid down by Reco, Ramond and A Meazy, were just as profound. The recording session became a space for them to wrangle with grief, confusion and anger.
“The heaviness people of color are having to bear and these triggers that we experience through this shit that’s happened...it’s hard to understand how to release it,” says Coats. “I think all the artists that night were having a hard time imagining how to bottle up all that fucking pain into a sixteen-bar verse. But it was special to see everybody go through their process of doing it, and we wrote it there on the spot. As you can hear in my voice, it was a life-changing experience.”
The result of that collaboration was “I Can’t Breathe (Again),” a powerful song about the death of black people at the hands of murderous cops, the blunt fact that cops make people feel threatened, not safe, and the internal struggles between non-violence and revolt.
During the second week in June, while the artists were putting their finishing touches on the song, the protests began to slow down as reforms were announced. Coats hopes that "I Can't Breathe (Again)" helps the movement refuel; after all, police have been murdering and brutalizing people for decades, and the struggle to stop that institutional violence and racism is a long one.
“I think people are starting to get a little worn out, and they need a little pick-me-up,” says Coats. “Hopefully something like this will help spark the movement forward a little more.”
Hear "I Can't Breathe (Again)" online.