As I drive down a familiar street in my hometown, I can hear the bass of a heavy-hitting trap song outside my window. Whether it’s from a house or a nearby car I can’t tell, but the thought quickly slips my mind as I run over questions in my head.
I park in a cul-de-sac and walk across the street to my destination. Upon climbing under the half open garage door, I walk into a room decked out in sound equipment, a few chairs, a sofa and too many instruments to count on first glance. The four guys in the room are quietly sitting around, each seemingly locked into either their phone or computer, headphones on and unphased by my entrance.
It’s another day in the life inside the home office of Soul Shake Down Studios, the main recording location for producer and multi-instrumentalist Jakob Robinson, rapper Cam Wager, and producers Noelan Allen and Jasheen “JD” Jackson. Together, they form the core of Soul Shake Down, a San Diego-based hip-hop label who have made the jump from relative acquaintances to tight-knit crew in the matter of just a few months.
Though each member is relatively young (none older than early 20s), they work at a prolific rate. In their short time together, Soul Shake Down has already recorded and released two mixtapes, Unexplainable and Trapped Out, and is gearing up to drop multiple projects in 2019. “Everyday, we’re in here for seven, eight, sometimes 13 hours. Until 4 a.m. in the morning even. We’ll make a beat from scratch, record vocals, mix, master and release it that night. That’s happened multiple times,” says Robinson, whose home garage is the group’s hangout spot and creative suite.
Driven by a non-stop desire to create, the four labelmates have been producing music at a tireless pace since aligning tastes and first discovering their artistic chemistry. “We just work,” says JD when I ask him where he thinks the energy stems from. “These guys motivate me all the time. It’s just a work ethic, especially when I put myself in that environment.”
There’s times where I’ll make 10 beats in a day. It feels like I just have stuff I need to get out half the time. When I don’t make music, I feel like I’m not doing anything the whole day.
The environment he is referring to is literally the space from which Soul Shake Down operates. From the crates of dusty vinyl to the bunches of mics and audio gear spread out over the countertop, the room is tailor-made for locking in and letting the creativity juices flow – the perfect set up for a group of young and hungry music junkies. “There’s times where I’ll make 10 beats in a day,” says Robinson. “It feels like I just have stuff I need to get out half the time. When I don’t make music, I feel like I’m not doing anything the whole day,” he adds.
Soul Shake Down’s affiliation dates back to high school, where Wager and Jackson first formed a friendship and bonded over a shared love for hip-hop. “JD started to make beats at the same time I started getting into music. He’d be beatboxing on the way to basketball practice or in chemistry class actin’ a fool on the table with pens. That’s basically how it started to come together,” says Wager.
Similarly down the line, Allen and Wager wound up connecting through an interest in creating music. They began swapping ideas and eventually collaborated on material of their own. It wasn’t until earlier this year that their musical ventures would cross paths with Robinson, but the Soul Shake Down concept had long been in the works by the time all four members linked up.
Robinson first picked up a guitar at the age of 6, but didn’t begin to pursue playing music seriously until he was a teenager. In high school he cofounded The Bleeskiez, a reggae-rock outfit heavily influenced by the blues, jazz and hard rock, for which he played bass. Amidst steady gigs at dive bars and small local venues, Robinson’s musical interests always maintained an unwavering affinity for hip-hop. Gradually, he started dipping his toes in rap production, slowly piecing together a studio for friends and other local MCs to drop in and collaborate. “Soul Shake Down was a project I had been working on for a while, maybe since about a year-and-a-half ago. I wanted to take it more seriously, so I kind of took my time with it and started reaching out to different people I was interested in working with,” he says.
This summer, one of those artists was Cam Wager, who happened to be tagging along with a mutual friend to feature on a particular song. Robinson and Wager swiftly formed a strong chemistry and the decision to work together some more was unquestionable. “I think he ended up leaving with five beats that night,” Robinson recalls.
The two quickly began sifting through Robinson’s archive of beats when Wager suggested he introduce a couple of his comrades and see if there was any creative spark. Within days, Allen and Jackson were both inside Robinson’s garage, chopping it up over music, production and creative aspirations. Immediately, the group started working on what would eventually become their first two mixtapes and the first official releases from Soul Shake Down Studios.
The first of the two projects, Unexplainable, was recorded and mastered in less than two months. Officially released in September by Wager, who creates under the alias ‘C. Wager,’ the tape is a raw and rugged display of rap, with the MC’s commanding voice at the center of attention. His gruff and melodic style nods to a wide range of Southern hip-hop, from the slick, laid back trillness of Bun B and UGK, to the charismatic deliveries of rising contemporary artists like Lil Baby.
The sound pallet on Unexplainable offers a diverse mix of rhythmic bangers (“Blast Off” and “From Here”), fragmented yet hypnotic loops (“Dopeboy”), and smooth, bass-heavy cuts for cruising around (“Real Love”). One moment, you hear the heart of the bling era in 2002. The next, you’re in modern day, trap-infused Atlanta. The variety in production, which was split evenly by Allen and Robinson, speaks to the tandem’s distinct approach to crafting a beat. “I’ve always been heavily influenced by ‘90s rap and the use of live instrumentation. I was already playing a lot of instruments at the time I was getting into that stuff; keyboard, bass, guitar. Hearing those on different beats, I was thinking ‘hey, I could do that,'” Robinson says with a grin.
A majority of the songs on Unexplainable feature some form of live instrumentation – often times with live bass, guitar or keys leading the rhythm. This organic formula gives the music a genuinely fresh vibe that flows throughout the entire project. “The inspiration comes from however I’m feeling right now and just channeling that emotion into the keyboard or the drum machine,” adds Allen. “You just want to put whatever feeling you got out to the people you’re sending it to.”
The stripped back and lively feel of the production is the ideal backdrop for Wager’s motivational bars and emotional narratives. His songwriting is blunt, occasionally bragadocious and effortlessly thought provoking. “It’s never a step-by-step thing. Both tapes were really just getting a lot of stuff off my chest. I’ve gone through a lot, had a lot of good and bad experiences, and that was me figuring out the best way to share my story while also being as creative as possible,” he says in regards to his writing process. “I might hear a beat and write the song in 10 minutes. I’ll hear another beat and go ‘that one’s gotta be crazy, let me go back to that.'”
Wager’s youth was one of immense adversity and challenges. Originally from the south, he wound up in California following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and has since turned to music as not only a form of escape, but also as a means of opportunity. “Still today, the situations I’m in drive me to find a way to get out of these circumstances. I want to just focus on the music so we can motivate other people to help lift them up out of their own situations, that really fuels me.” That very mindset permeates its way into each song on Unexplainable. Whether delivered in a lax, reflective demeanor or with an intense and uplifting edge, Wager’s message is consistently compelling.
In comparison, Wager’s second tape Trapped Out is a forthright, hard-hitting, no bullshit collection of songs that lives up to the project’s name in every sense: triple-time flows, hot drum sequences, and catchy hooks with mad replay value. Produced entirely by Jackson, the eight-track EP is a brief but impactful artistic statement, filled cover to cover with a blend of hyphy, addictive bangers – an intentional choice by Jackson. “With Trapped Out, because it was my first whole project, I was really trying to go for a hard sound. Now, I’m working on being versatile with it,” he says.
Both Unexplainable and Trapped Out carry their distinct sounds and influences, but in tracing the tastes and musical preferences of each Soul Shake Down member, one will find themself in a melting pot of various eras and genres of music. “Shit, I’ll vibe to country,” says Jackson with a laugh.
When I ask who they are currently listening to, they quickly get excited, referencing Anderson .Paak and a number of other contemporary rappers, but it only takes moments for Robinson to start walking me through his record collection. “Frank Sinatra, old classical music, albums on albums on albums,” he begins. “Bobby Darin, ‘Beyond the Sea,’ all that stuff. I try to tie it all together.”
Once the comotion dies down, they happily admit the artists they listen to the most are in fact themselves. “I be bumpin’ my own beats,” Allen chimes in – the true mark of a producer immersed in his craft. “If we got a little break here or there we might play a couple songs, but usually if we got some time, we’re listening to one of their beats,” Wager says pointing towards the rest of the group.
Spend a few minutes inside Soul Shake Down Studios and you’ll see this is true. Upon having some technical difficulties and taking a short break from our conversation, Robinson wastes hardly a second in showing me their brand new music video. The track, a collaboration between C. Wager and female R&B singer June (also the label’s newest affiliate) called “I Just Wanna Ball,” is a bouncy, get-on-your-grind anthem laid over a classy piano loop. They gaze on proudly at the video, which they produced entirely, Wager enthusiastically rapping along to his verses.
This notion alone sums up Soul Shake Down and their dedication to their art and its progression. It represents how invested each member is in developing their skills and sound. In a San Diego music scene where countless artists are hoping to breakthrough and eliminate the gap between being a local commodity and a legitimate independent entity, these guys are going the extra mile to separate themselves from the average. Above all, they are excited about the music. There is a belief in each other and a true sense of friendship, largely because they all know they are pursuing their passion to the fullest. That alone is a song in itself.
As for more music, next up on the label’s agenda is a full length collab album from Wager and June, their second single “Fruition” hitting streaming platforms back on November 27. In addition to new projects, the plan is to line up some more shows as well, although perhaps not by way of your typical local gigs. “Might be heading out of the states beginning of next year,” says Robinson, though he notes logistics are still being worked out. Either way, there are moves on the horizon for Soul Shake Down Studios. I ask directly: “What keeps you guys going?”
“Each other. Seeing how much he’s [Cam] writing, seeing what they’re working on. When I hear what they’re working on it makes me want to create something new. I’m more influenced by our group than I am anything else.”
For now, it’s back to the studio.