LeftJones Embodies The Chicago Sound
Written by Vocalo Radio on July 26, 2021
LeftJones is, at their core, a “group of musicians from Chicago doing what they love.”
Strongly Chicagoan and bursting with passion, LeftJones breathes new life into the city’s music scene with an electric blend of jazz, hip-hop and soul. Tender horns and a free-flowing rhythm section form the perfect canvas for lead vocalist M.E.R.C.’s versatile rhymes. The group’s latest single “Who Flyer,” was featured on Vocalo’s June In Rotation playlist.
We caught up with M.E.R.C. and band leader, head producer and saxophonist Kenneth Leftridge, Jr. about the history of LeftJones, their biggest inspirations and what’s to come.
Could you outline a quick history of this group? How did you all meet one another?
Kenneth Leftridge Jr.: LeftJones went by the name Free Lunch back in 2013. That group was formed by myself and my homies — trumpeter Brady Lewis from East St. Louis and rapper Isaiah King at our College Northern Illinois University in Dekalb. We did a few shows around campus with Matt Muse, Legend Mane and Sydney Jay. Last show we did as a group I reached out to a couple cats from Chicago, bassist Jeremy Jones and drummer Alfonzo Jones. I’ve known Alfonzo my whole musical career. He used to teach the drumline and work with my high school’s jazz band out in the South Suburbs. Jeremy recently went to NIU, I played with him in Northern’s Black Choir and in the jazz program at the school my freshman year. The last show we played under the name Free Lunch was called “Legendary Lunch.” We backed this rap group called Legendary Circle, featuring Mic We$t, A.C. Noel, Legend Mane and Legend in the Making. We sold that joint out, I remember it being packed and we had everyone in the House Cafe moving.
Post graduation, I moved back home. Kinda wanted a change of pace from college. I started a jazz quartet called Leftridge and the Jones’ with Jeremy, Alfonzo and Drew Fridge. Played a few shows around the city. Got back in tune with my cousin M.E.R.C. My pops would always stick his head in my room and say, “You know your little cousin DJ is a rapper, right?” then show me his Soundcloud. I always thought his stuff was hella dope. Eventually, I would invite M.E.R.C to our shows and just have him rap over whatever we play. Me and M.E.R.C got to writing songs together. He sent me a voice memo of “Make Your Way,” I produced around it and brought it to the band. We played it live for a show we did hosted by NEAK and Tandaleria at Emporium Wicker. That bill was crazy. We had Mon’Aerie, Attack the Sound and Bianca Shaw. I think someone that night abbreviated our group name from Leftridge and The Jones’ to LeftJones and we just rocked with it.
What does Chicago mean to you, and how has Chicago contributed to who you are — both as people and as artists?
M.E.R.C: Chicago, to me, means originality, community and truth in the creative realm; all components that help to build a strong artist and following within the city. Chicago’s contributions stemming from Southern roots, musical and cinematic influence and unapologetic representation made all the difference in who we are, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to be from.
KL: Individually, we have been blessed to be apart of all sides — with the exception of heavy metal — of the music community within Chicago. It’s a whole lot of “real recognizes real” out here. Working out here has taught me to be yourself to the fullest and the right people will rock with you. Honestly, a lesson I’m still learning every day.
When you were growing up, which musicians or groups made you want to pursue music?
M: I grew up being exposed to a lot of gospel and oldies as a kid, from what I remember. Some Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, Commodores and EWF sprinkled everywhere. But man, once I heard Tha Carter 3 from Wayne at like 14 it was over! I can also add Lupe, Kendrick, Cole, Ab-Soul, Busta Rhymes, Ye, Big K.R.I.T. and Outkast for sure, but there’s way too many to name off-hand. I’m a student and a product of a variety of so many great creatives that graced this planet.
KL: When I was a kid, my Pops used to play Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunter, EWF and Johnny Guitar Watson on car rides when it was just me, him and my little brother. I used to love all the tones and sounds from those records. I think that’s when my love for music started. What grew it was, when I was in high school in the south suburbs, one of my mentors, saxophonist Chris McBride, used to be the assistant band director at my school. He used to sneak me out to late night jam sessions to jazz clubs like Andy’s, Norman’s Bistro and The Velvet Lounge. I got to see a lot of amazing musicians who just played for a living. That’s what made me want to pursue music as a career. Also Charlie Parker, João Gilberto, Marquis Hill, Sonny Rollins, Common, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kayne West, Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar. Honorable mention: Cartoon and video game music.
Who, musical or otherwise, inspires you the most today?
M: Lemme put you on to some shows real quick! Southside, A Black Lady Sketch Show, Lovecraft Country, Attack on Titan, Invincible and I’m still waiting on that new season of Atlanta. Outside of that, I’ve been inspired by hooping with the guys, biking every now and then and literally just being able to step outside freely after the past year of being locked in. The pandemic put a lot into perspective with my creative process, which resulted in the necessary habit to flow and not force situations. I also have to add the shows we’ve been able to pull off during and post-pandemic as inspiration and the people who’ve continued to support us day in and out. It’s been nothing but a blessing. They’ve really been the fuel to the fire for me.
KL: I’d definitely say that my creativity has always stemmed from my environment, the people I’m around and the media I take in. I’ve been getting into photography recently as a hobby. It’s been dope, I feel like it encompasses all of that. Also I’ve been reading Bell Hooks‘ All About Love, checking out anime and going for bike rides. Pretty sure I’ve produced something about all of that by now.
Who are the artists you can’t stop listening to right now?
KL: Dinner Party, Emmavie’s album Honey Moon, Melvin Knight’s EP Vibe-Tape, Keifer’s latest project, MNDSGN‘s latest album, Silk Sonic, Allen Stone, Anderson Paak. and Blended Babies, Wiz Kid and Sydney Jay’s new single “Identity.”
You have three singles out now, is there an album in the works?
KL: We are currently working on a EP titled Who Flyer, named after the single we just released. After that, we will follow it up with a studio album.
Are there any artists you’ve had dreams of collaborating with?
Is there anything exciting on the horizon you would like to share with us?
KL: Dropping another single at the end of July. We currently have a residency at The Promontory for the Corner Series every last Monday of the month. Show in the works with Human Bloom in August Backing Manny Torres at Navy Pier July 31st at 2:00pm.
Edited for length and clarity by Erik Anderson
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