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Neko Suave Brings Ohio Talkbox Funk To Chicago

Written by on February 13, 2023

Neko Suave is bringing the talkbox back into style — and taking it to another level.

 “The scene here is so alive, and to be in an environment where you can see, hear and feel musicians pushing the envelope in front of you… it shows you what’s true and it feels like watching history unfold.”

Neko Suave

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Neko Suave recently moved to Chicago — and brought some of his hometown’s funk sound with him. Coming of age listening to funk artists on the radio, Neko grew up deeply immersed in the funk sound reflected in his music today. A key part of Neko’s signature sound is the talkbox, which he found a love for through listening to fellow Ohio artist Roger Troutman. Though the instrument is not as commonly heard today, Neko hopes to bring talkbox into modern music settings as his form of self-expression.

“The sounds I can create with the talkbox became so deeply integral to me expressing myself that I began to bring the talkbox into spaces where it is not normally found — because I was part of those spaces and playing the talkbox is part of me,” he explained.

Photo by Uncle Brother, courtesy of the artist.

Noting legendary artists who have passed through Chicago and left their mark on the city, Neko hopes to take notes from their legacies and elevate his own artistry. Though he hasn’t been in Chicago for long, he plans on being part of the city’s rich musical history.

“I felt in the depths of my heart that, if I could come to Chicago and internalize one grain, one drop, one lesson from that great music history, that whatever time I spent here would be time well spent,” he said.

Neko Suave recently released his debut single “Waterfalls,” featured on Vocalo’s January “In Rotation” playlist, introducing listeners to his sound and his skill with the talkbox. He also broke down artists he’s currently working with and what audiences can expect in 2023…

You’re originally from Dayton, Ohio! What made you decide to move from Dayton to Chicago?

Yes, I have lived the great majority of my life up to this point in Dayton. Coming to Chicago was not necessarily something I had always foreseen on my path, but when the possibility presented itself it felt so right and I knew I had to follow something here. 

Before I moved to Chicago I was based in Dayton, but I was traveling around a lot to places on the east coast — NY, Philly, D.C. — and the west coast — L.A., San Diego. I was in the midst of planning a move to the west coast to pursue an opportunity I had secured out there, and then the pandemic hit and everything fell through. I was grounded in Dayton for over a year, and it was a very difficult time for myself and almost all artists. When restrictions were starting to lift a bit, I reconnected with a friend I had went to the same performing arts high school with, and she was out here in Chicago studying musical theater at Columbia. 

She invited me to come out and check out the scene, and meet some of the artists out here. After that first time, I kept coming back… and coming back. Any chance I got. From my travels, I knew Chicago cats were bad. Some of the coldest cats you can see anywhere in the world are from Chicago. I was running into y’all everywhere! The scene here is so alive, and to be in an environment where you can see, hear and feel musicians pushing the envelope in front of you… it shows you what’s true and it feels like watching history unfold. There are artists performing out here in Chicago right now that will truly go down in history as some of the best to ever do it and will become part of the tradition — and how lucky we are to get to see them so intimately! 

There is so much history here, as you all know, but a few things that stood out to me as a brass player was Louis Armstrong’s development in Chicago, how the Count Basie Big Band spent time here, and the legacy of Arnold Jacobs and the Chicago Symphony Brass. I felt in the depths of my heart that, if I could come to Chicago and internalize one grain, one drop, one lesson from that great music history, that whatever time I spent here would be time well spent. Eventually, the feeling was so strong I knew I had to jump. It is my mission to heal others through music, and I knew that if I came to Chicago, it would elevate me to be closer to accomplishing that goal. So one day I packed my instruments into the car and knew I wasn’t coming back to Dayton. I didn’t have an exact plan, but I could feel so deeply my path calling to me here in Chicago, so I listened.

How does being from Dayton, which is considered the home of funk, influence your sound, if at all? 

The biggest influence Dayton funk has had on my sound honestly stems from how I grew up hearing that music. Growing up, I saw the Ohio Players and Slave live. They play that music on the local radio stations in Dayton. I played with Sugarfoot as a teenager, and he tore me up! I had a band with my friends in high school and we would play some of those tunes as well, so definitely some early influences there. 

As far as specific musical properties [or] ideas that have been passed to me, the number one would be the groove and feeling of the music. The music has got to feel right. No matter what anyone knows about music, they can tell if it makes them feel good. It’s got to sit right. My sense of how a groove feels good comes from hearing those Dayton musicians, and dancing to their music. I’ve heard a musician visiting Dayton say, “There’s something in the water!” There’s just something about Dayton that makes us funky, and we use it to make you dance. 

Do you have a favorite artist or two you’ve worked with since you’ve been in Chicago?

There’s so many! I’ve definitely enjoyed working with Carache Da God. I did a feature on his recent track “Ain’t Nothing You Can Tell Me,” and we have some more music coming out together you can look forward to. I have to give thanks to my artist friends Alysha Monique and Bobby Wonderful. They inspire me every time I see them perform, and they have helped me grow so much as a person both within and outside of music. I also have to give a big shout out to Tamarie T. and the Elektra Kumpany. Check them out — they are creating their own movement called Exotik Funk.

Photo by Jovan Landry, courtesy of the artist.

How many instruments can you play, and when did you start playing?

I play trombone, talkbox and piano at a performance level. But I can also get around on bass, guitar, drums and two Filipino instruments called the Kulintang and Gandingan. So I can play eight instruments, but I would say currently I am actively performing on three of them. 

I got into playing music at a young age, because my dad is a bass player. He would take me with him to rehearsals and shows and, when his band was taking a break, I would climb up on the drum set and start playing. My parents got me a drum set when I was 4; I started picking up the guitar a bit when I was 7 or 8 years old because it was around the house. I started playing trombone in the school band when I was 9, and that was the one that really started to stick. My dad started taking me out with my trombone to play open mics together, and he would encourage me to ask to sit in with bands, and those early formative experiences helped me realize, “Oh I love this. This is the greatest feeling.” 

In middle school I started dabbling with piano and I started playing synths with a band as well. This laid the foundation for my eventual talkbox playing. I started to play the talkbox when I was 18 years old. I began to study Kulintang and Gandingan in 2019, when I was awarded two grants to travel to the Philippines and study at the Conservatory at UP Diliman with Kanapiya Kalanduyan.

With you clearly being a fan of talkbox and hailing from Ohio, are you a fan of Roger Troutman?

I am a huge fan of Roger, he is the GOAT. A fantastic musician and writer. I conceptualize the timbre of how the talkbox should sound from Roger. I want to pick up what he started and take the talkbox to the next level!

When did you first learn what a talkbox was? Was there a specific song or artist you loved that used one? What inspired you to start integrating talkbox sounds into your music?

I had been hearing talkbox for a long time before I knew what it was exactly. My dad grew up in LA and he is a 2Pac fan, so I heard Roger [Troutman] on “California Love” and “Keep Ya Head Up” before I really knew what I was hearing. I finally absolutely had to learn how to talkbox when I heard Roger on “I Want To Be Your Man.” I thought to myself, “That is the smoothest, coldest thing ever! I have to do that!” From there, I listened to all of Roger and [his funk band] Zapp’s records, watched every video of Roger on the internet, and that led to me trying to build my own talkbox. I learned about other artists that used the talkbox, like Teddy Riley, DJ Battlecat and Mr.Talkbox, and that just fueled my fire. The sounds I can create with the talkbox became so deeply integral to me expressing myself that I began to bring the talkbox into spaces where it is not normally found — because I was part of those spaces and playing the talkbox is part of me. 

That connection of expression on the instrument, coupled with the history and legacy of it being a regional instrument with connections to my home, I know it is a voice I am meant to be speaking with. The music I create is a reflection of my life, and I feel that using the talkbox is in line with that.

What inspired your new single “Waterfalls,” which was featured on Vocalo’s “In Rotation” playlist for January 2023? Can you tell us a little bit about the creative process behind it? 

My single “Waterfalls” is about a relationship I went through that was very painful for me. My producer Malik Worthy and I were jamming in my bedroom, and he came up with the chord progression on guitar. We looped it and came up with the hook: “Set aside, you said you wouldn’t leave me by that waterfall.” Those words reminded me of a poem I had written over the past summer when I was in a really low place. I put melody to the words, and that became the verse. I really like how the form of the song breaks away from a typical form. It simmers and builds the entire song until it finally bursts. I feel that reflects the toxic explosiveness of that relationship. I wanted to be vulnerable about that experience I went through so that if someone else is going through it they can hear that song and know they are not alone. Transforming my pain into something beautiful allowed me to release it in a way that is healing for myself and others.

It seems like you’ve been making music for a while now. Is “Waterfalls” your first single? If so, why did you wait so long to drop your first single? If not, what can you tell us about the music you’ve released in the past in comparison to the new single? 

I have been making music for awhile and “Waterfalls” is the first single that I have put out. I have worked on a lot of other people’s music over the years, and I do love to do that, but I also started to feel like I had some things to say, too. I have always loved to perform, but it is more recently I have delved much deeper into writing and composition, and this body of work you’re hearing from Neko Suave is connected to that. I started to feel that the honesty of my journey is put into my music, and that I can connect to others through that and bring healing to the things they are going through. I found myself in a situation with the right musicians, mentorship and resources to put this song out, so I knew I had to see it through for something greater than myself.

Why the gold suit on the single’s cover art?

The cape is an homage to James Brown, and the gold suit is an homage to the gold outfit Roger Troutman wore during his interview on Video Soul in 1987.

We saw a clip of one of the “Waterfalls” studio sessions and saw there were a few people in the studio. How many people worked with you on that single? 

I had four legends working with me on that single. Malik Worthy — who has produced many excellent artists, worked for Sony Canada for a decade and was signed to Prince’s label — produced and played guitar on the track. Ron Prince, a Chicago legend who has played guitar all over the world, executive produced the track and it was recorded at his studio. Chuckaluk, who played with The Commodores and The Emotions, laid the bass. On the drums, we have Just B., one of the young cats in the Chicago scene like myself doing great things. 

What’s it like working with LA on your upcoming single “Lights On”? 

Working with LA on my upcoming single “Lights On” has been so much fun. It really felt like a missing piece was dropped into place when she came into the studio. She is extremely versatile, and we knew she was going to bring what the song needed to take it to the next level. She is extremely sharp with her pen and she knows how to flow. When my energy meets hers in the song, she acts as a foil to me and it highlights both of our best qualities. I have been looking for an emcee that I can have that type of energy exchange with for a long time, so I am very excited to have found that in working with LA.

 What can you give away about your upcoming album?

I can give away that it’ll make you dance, and that you haven’t heard anything exactly like it because it is a reflection of myself, and there isn’t anyone in the world that has had the journey and experiences I have had. You will hear some of everything that has made me the artist I am today. Nothing was forced into a box, and it seeks to celebrate all these different sounds rather than dissect or judge them. This project is really pushing boundaries, and it drops in April of this year.

What are your artistic goals for 2023? Can we expect a lot more music from you this year? 

My artistic goals for 2023 are to put out this EP in April and to take this band out on tour to perform the music from this project live. I believe we can do a lot of good and connect to a lot of people and create a healing space for them. You can definitely expect a lot more music from me this year — I have my single “Lights On,” featuring LA, releasing on February 14, another single releasing in March and an EP dropping April 20. You can catch me live out here in Chicago frequently performing with my band and other ensembles as well.

Photo courtesy of Neko Suave,

Follow Neko Suave on Instagram.

Interview by Omi Salisbury

Edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Introduction written by Omi Salisbury and Morgan Ciocca

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