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Central Standard

Kansas City's Eems On Inventing Ukulele Hip-Hop: 'I Don't Think I Have A Genre'

Suzanne Hogan
Eems spoke on KCUR's Central Standard in early July. He'll be the featured performer at Stockyard Sounds on July 30 at the Stockyard Brewing Company.

Phillip Jackson — better known by his stage name, Eems — grew up in what he reluctantly calls "the hood."

"I mean, single-parent household, went to Kansas City, Missouri, public schools, and just living in, I don't want to call it the hood, but, the hood," he said on Central Standard on July 6.

Now, he's a touring musician with fans all over the country, a new EP and a unique sound that defies genre: a mix of hip-hop, R&B and lots of ukulele. That's right: ukulele. 

As he was getting his hip-hop career off the ground, he wanted to change things up, so he started playing around with different instruments — "different toys" as he calls them — to see what he could do. He was always hanging around the music store. One day, he saw a ukulele on the shelf. For reasons he said still can't explain, he needed to have it.

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy," he recalled. "I'm walking around in my white tee and baggy jeans with the ukelele and even my mom is like, 'What are you doing?' And I'm like, 'Just trust me on this.'"

He stuck with it despite a lot of skepticism and debuted his new act at open mic nights. It took off.

Picking up the ukelele wasn't his first unexpected move: It was becoming a musician at all. 

"My mom was the youth choir director at church and I hated singing. I mean, I hated it," he said. "My older sister, Ashley, was actually the singer in the family."

He didn't just hate singing, he hated music, and didn't even start listening to albums on his own until he was 13. But something clicked when he was introduced to the piano. He liked especially classical piano, but couldn't read sheet music, so he joined band at school. 

At 16, he got interested in hip-hop, messing around with beats and lyrics with a friend from school. Pretty  soon, he said he was rapping in venues he was technically too young to set foot in. 

Even then, he found the late-night club scene exhausting and learned some hard lessons about promotion. 

"I was real big on promotion and whatnot. That's always been my thing. So I'm walking around school after school, hanging up pictures of myself," he remembered with a laugh. "The next day the principal calls me down to the office and she's like, 'You know we all like your music. I love what you're doing, but you can't be hanging up your pictures all over my school.'"

Then came a moment that might have ended his musical aspirations, but instead accelerated them: Eems became a father at 18.

"I remember when the word got out that I was going to have a kid as a senior in high school and one of my friends inboxed me on Facebook, it was like, 'Man, I guess your music career is over. That's it.' And that was crazy to me, that was more of a reason to work harder. I don't have a give-up bone in my body," he said.

He's toured with other musicans as a videographer, he's joined drill teams (including a stint as a drumming instructor for the Marching Cobras) and even started his own drill team. Plus, he's built a live act that's meant to entertain.

"When you come to a show, you're going to get the smoke machines, the confetti, the lights, the drum line, outfit changes," he said. "I want to set my ukulele on fire."

The logistics are still being worked out on that, but he isn't trying to fit in any more.

"I hate to say this because I think this is terrible marketing, but I don't think I have a genre. I don't set out to be a genre I don't set out to make folk or be a singer-songwriter, or I'm not a rapper but I rapped on my last EP," he said.

"I just make music."

Eems performs at Stockyard Sounds on July 30.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard and Midwesternish. You can reach her on Twitter: @GinaKCUR

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.