Earlier this year, I got a job selling home Internet connections in a call center. I’ll be honest; I took it mostly out of desperation. The place was a shithole—we got paid starvation wages and were expected to cheat and lie to everyone that called in. All the computers there were on their last leg, the headsets were held together with scotch tape, and I had to come in and fight for a desk every day like it was Lord of The Flies except, instead of an island of boys, it was salesmen hopped up on energy drinks—on second thought, maybe it was exactly like Lord of The Flies.
In any case, it was there in that cookie-cutter office building that I met one third of Swell Merchants, a promising young MC who calls himself Young A$$ Nico. The two of us were in the same training class where we bonded over Travis $cott and Young Thug in between bouts of learning how to slyly throw a home phone or tech support onto an Internet order without spooking the customer. It was a nice respite from the grind. Nico has an easy disposition: He’s quick with a joke and laughs at pretty much everything, but not because he’s insincere. He just finds the humor in stuff—and it draws people to him. The job didn’t seem to bother him, either—I get the feeling he’s seen much worse.
When Nico told me he was a rapper, I asked him for some music. Honestly, I didn’t expect a whole lot—you never know—but the moment I threw Swell Merchants into my car stereo, I knew it was something special. Their beats are scrappy but adventurous, reminiscent of the way Odd Future and DJ Mustard sounded when they were just getting started. Their rhymes are clever and they don’t ever fall into repetitive or tired flows. Best of all, you’ll never catch them rapping about how much money they have or how they’re fucking your girlfriend. In other words, it was refreshing, and I liked it a lot.
I met up with the Merchants on an unseasonably warm afternoon. Nico met me outside of an old 1970s-style apartment complex on John Stockton Boulevard. “Watch out: This is the trap house,” he said, laughing as we walked up to the apartment. “It’s where all the magic happens.”
Sitting inside, leaning over his workstation was Josh Cash, the man behind the group’s beats. He was blasting a video of Kanye West performing “Wolves.” As I walked in, he bounced up to meet me, smiling, and introduced himself. When the beat dropped, he did a little jig and said something to the effect of, “This song, boys, is the shit!”
I laughed, because it was, in fact, “the shit.”
Also posted up in the corner was Ethan the Barber, who handles the other half of the rapping duties in the Merchants. He was kicking back, flipping through something on his phone. He slapped me five and gave me a nod. At first, he struck me as the most reserved of the bunch, but after spending some time with him and his rhymes, I know now that he just plays his cards close to his chest. In any case, he passed me a lot of kindness that day, so he’s alright in my book.
The apartment itself, which doubled as their studio, was decorated with various paintings. Some of the most interesting to my eye were made by Cash’s family members, but there was also loving replica of a Rothko painting hung prominently in the kitchen. Cash’s sweetheart, Alee Holbrook, had painted it, and it was dead on. Cash would tell me later that the Merchants find inspiration in the Rothko when they make music. “You have to think … it doesn’t think for you,” he says. “It’s empty.”
We also chatted about what music inspired them. Kanye West’s upcoming album was a big topic of conversation as was how amazing the year 2015 is shaping up to be for hip-hop. I was surprised by some of the artists that inspired them. Some obvious influences like Metro Boomin and DJ Mustard came up more than once, but so, too, did a lot of local artists. Cig Burna and Briskoner in particular seemed to be on their mind.
I mistakenly thought I’d never heard of Cig Burna. (Full disclosure: As it turns out, I once waited in line for a beer while he played.) But when I told the Merchants that I’d never heard him, Cash almost jumped out of his seat—“You gotta hear this shit,” he said, already Googling the video. I’m glad he showed it to me, too. Cig Burna is truly amazing.
Swell Merchants have been at it for a little over a year now. Nico and Cash both moved to SLC from St. George (where they went to high school together), and Ethan joined the group later after some epic freestyles with Nico. “We’d just sit and bump beats for like six hours,” says Ethan. “We’d smoke like a quarter and freestyle for days.” The trio has been positively prolific in that time, recording upwards of 50 songs, most of which they feel are good enough to release.
As we chatted, Holbrook came home and joined the conversation. She had been at the dog park with her and Cash’s adorable pitbull—and official band manager—Atlas. I got the feeling Holbrook was an important force behind the music, too. She certainly offered a lot of moral support. I even half-joked at the end of the interview that she should start rapping on the hooks—though I’m not sure my suggestion went over very well. “What separates (Swell Merchants) from a lot of the other rappers (in SLC),” says Holbrook, “is that they don’t sound like the other people here.”
I couldn’t agree more. Watching them work, it’s obvious that they’ve put in the time to create their own sound. To that point, I was struck by something Cash said when I asked about how people have reacted to the music they’ve released: “It’s not like people hear it and are like, ‘I don’t fuck with you guys,’” says Cash. “They’ve just never heard it.”
Despite the hurdles of getting their name out there, the Merchants have a passion for their craft. You can see Swell Merchants at April’s Localized (04.18) with Dine Crew and Better Taste Bureau.